Twenty-one years have passed since the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil, and our foreign policy establishment and ruling elite still have not learned the lessons of that horrendous carnage. The Romans thought even fools could learn from experience, but our credentialed mavens can’t break free of their institutional orthodoxy and narratives. As a consequence, our foreign policy and international relations continue to put our national security at risk.
This misinterpretation of modern Islam’s traditional resistance to infidel hegemony began with the Iranian Revolution, the first of subsequent jihadist attacks on the U.S. that culminated on 9/11. The West filtered that religious revolution through the old ideas of anticolonialism and national self-determination encoded in the Versailles settlement. Barack Obama, in his cringing flattery of Islam during his 2009 Cairo speech, recycled this stale received wisdom, blaming “tensions” between Islam and the West on “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.”
This ahistorical orthodoxy had been explicitly rejected 30 years earlier by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who proclaimed the traditional Islamic universalist goals of the Iranian Revolution: “We shall export our revolution to the world. Until the cry ‘There is no god but Allah’ resounds throughout the world, there will be jihad.” Nor was Khomeini an outlier among Muslims. Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, similarly said that his designs for transforming Egypt into an Islamic state ruled by sharia law would be a “springboard for universal expansion ‘until the entire world will chant the name of the Prophet.’”
This sacred ambition was also the purpose of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, whose terrorism was a front in the cosmic battle, as he put it, between “two separate camps––one of faith, where is no hypocrisy, and one of infidelity.” The struggle, he added later, could never be resolved short of absolute victory, for “it is one of creed.” His declaration of war against the U.S likewise was traditional Islamic practice, as historian Efraim Karsh points out: “Declaring a holy war against the infidel has been a standard practice of countless imperial rulers and aspirants since the rise of Islam. Nor does bin Laden’s perception of jihad as a predominantly military effort to facilitate the creation of the worldwide Islamic umma differ in any way from traditional Islamic thinking.”
For example, the late-14th century writer Ibn Khaldun, one of the greatest Islamic historians and philosophers, wrote in the Muqaddimah, “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.” Despite this long tradition codified in the Koran, Hadith, and writers like Khaldun, our State Department continues to follow the “nothing to do with Islam” canard in their thinking about jihadist terror.
Oblivious to this traditional religious imperative, during the Nineties the Clinton administration didn’t take seriously enough the string of al Qaeda’s anti-American rhetoric he backed up with violent attacks on our military and diplomatic personnel. Instead, the Clinton team treated them as criminal matters, or heretical distortions of Islam by renegade Muslims, rather than as salvos in a jihad that climaxed in 9/11.
On the other hand, the George Bush administration, after its swift punishment of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, changed the goals of those conflicts into a misguided, naïve effort to democratize peoples whose creed and its supreme law, Koranic-based sharia, are incompatible with liberal democracy and its cargo of religious tolerance, sex equality, unalienable rights, and separation of church and state. The latter was particularly myopic, given that, as Karsh writes, Islam “was inextricably linked with the creation of a world empire and its universalism was inherently imperialist. It did not distinguish between temporal and religious powers.” Muhammad could thus “cloak his political ambitions with a religious aura.”
This mistake by Bush’s foreign policy team was in part the fruit of the wrong lessons taken from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which arrogantly encouraged the primacy of the Western liberal “rules-based internal order” as the master political paradigm for the whole world. And this hubristic mentality persisted all the way to Joe Biden’s skedaddle from Afghanistan last year, where the U.S. had sponsored seminars on women’s liberation for Afghan males.
The next lesson still unlearned is the Western penchant for prizing materialist causes, including our own original sins of imperialism and colonialism, for the dysfunctions of other countries. This habit is often a sort of implied ethnocentrism that reinforces Western superiority by denying other cultures any agency for pursuing their own goals and distinct motivations. Hence after 9/11 all sorts of excuses for jihadist violence were proposed: from the lack of democratic freedoms and economic development, to young males’ lack of access to women and, of course, the colonialist depredations of the West against the Muslim world.
Yet this ethnocentric condescending dismissal of a civilization that for a 1000 years dominated the West––and still occupies half the old Roman Empire––is ahistorical and insulting to Muslim. In fact, Efraim Karsh observes, “Twentieth-Century Middle Eastern history is essentially the culmination of long-standing indigenous trends, passions, and patterns of behavior rather than an externally imposed dictate. Great-power influences, however potent, have played a secondary role, constituting neither the primary force behind the region’s political development nor the main cause of its notorious volatility. Even at the weakest point in their modern history, during the First World War and in its immediate wake, Middle Eastern actors were not hapless victims of predatory imperial powers but active participants in the restructuring of their region.”
And how absurd is it for the West to parade its guilt over colonialism and imperialism before a civilization that created one of history’s greatest colonial empires, and whose descendants to this day still occupy large tracts of territory once part of the Christian West? As Karsh reminds us, from the beginning Muslim armies “acted in a typically imperialist fashion . . . subjugating indigenous populations, colonizing their lands, and expropriating their wealth and labor.”
Moreover, whereas the Western colonial powers abandoned colonialism and continue to provide aid to their ex-colonies, Muslims still inhabit and rule most of the territories they conquered centuries ago: all of North Africa, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey had been Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian, i.e. proto-Western, for as long as nearly 3000 years before Islam even existed.
Nor is this ancient history: Muslim Turkey still occupies Northern Cyprus, which it invaded and has illegally occupied and colonized since 1974, ethnically cleansing Greek Cypriots; destroying, looting, and vandalizing more than 550 churches; and refusing to this day to inform the Greeks about the fate of over 2000 of their compatriots who disappeared during the invasion. Bullying Israel over its “occupation” of the lands their ancestors inhabited 3000 years ago reveals the West’s shameful sacrifice of history and justice in order to pursue its own economic and ideological interests.
Finally, our ignorance of history and self-loathing global virtue-signaling have done nothing but communicate our weakness and civilizational failure of nerve. And this is another ignored lesson of 9/11. The attack was the consequence of our serial appeasement of jihadism, and our sorry history of retreats from Saigon, Beirut, and Mogadishu, that damaged our prestige and convinced Osama bin Laden that we are a “weak horse”––just as our shameful abandonment of Afghanistan last year and groveling negotiations with Iran’s theocrats have paved the way for a jihadist regime to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
And when they do, the dangerous world that threatens us will be the most important unlearned lesson of 9/11.