Monday, July 11, 2005

Thoughts after London

We're all running off down the wrong paths. We've gotten so focused on one another, here in the secular/techological West, that we pick apart the big picture to pull out the shards that suit our pet arguments.

Every Saturday, on our way to Market, we walk past a group of anti-war protesters on the Courthouse steps. On nice days there might be a dozen. On rainy days, one or none. They drive downtown from the suburbs (yes, some of them in SUVs with "No Blood for Oil" stickers) and inform us what they think we need to know. One guy just carries a big white sign with black letters that read "NO WAR." Before the war, during the fighting, after the surrender. No, no, no, no. Either complete denial or the petulance of a 4-year-old having a foot-stomping temper tantrum.

No. 10 Downing Street is a seive these days. Here's yet another leaked dossier, this one on the root causes of militancy among British Muslims. Among the supporters of the Iraq War, the notable detail was that "A network of 'extremist recruiters' is circulating on campuses targeting people with 'technical and professional qualifications,' particularly engineering and IT degrees." And that “Extremists are known to target schools and colleges where young people may be very inquisitive but less challenging and more susceptible to extremist reasoning/ arguments.”

War opponents, meanwhile, are certain to latch on to the report that "The Iraq war is identified by the dossier as a key cause of young Britons turning to terrorism. The analysis says: 'It seems that a particularly strong cause of disillusionment among Muslims, including young Muslims, is a perceived "double standard" in the foreign policy of western governments, in particular Britain and the US.' "

I am sure they say so and feel so. But wait, weren't we told not too long ago it was all about Israel? And that they were all on fire over the defiling presence of U.S. military boots way on the other side of the Land of the Two Holy Mosques?

Face it: there's a simmering stew of resentment among a vast pool of Muslims over a broad swath of the earth. Many sticks can stir the pot. If a more potent one comes along, the stirrers will use it till they find an even better. Islamism has a thousand lies and dreams it tells itself -- and even if they all fail, they have the rock: the Jews ultimately are to blame for all the Ummah's wrongs, and are secretly responsible for all the crimes imputed to Muslims. They control America and America controls the world.

The Quran itself and the very this-worldly Islamic religion assure their followers of their superiority, the favor of God, and ultimate victory on earth over their enemies. They can draw on a well of revanchism that stretches back to the eleventh century. If the appeal to vengeance does not arouse one heart, the appeal to social justice on behalf of suffering brethren will. And if neither of those stikes a spark, there's always the thirst for punishing traitors by driving a van-load of artillery shells into an Iraqi police station beside a market or machine-gunning a Shi'ite family as it sleeps. All of it fulfilling God's will.

Such monsters can carry on and thrive in a wider world obsessed with magifying the few crimes and even the bad behavior of one nation -- the United States -- and on finding splendidly elaborate ways to blame the Americans for any violence anywhere by anyone. Muslim-on-Muslim holocausts consume literally millions of lives in a decade, but get less attention in al Jazeera than one rumor of a mangled book.
As the Sept. 11 Commission report put it:

Usama Bin Ladin and other Islamist terrorist leaders draw on a long tradition of extreme intolerance within one stream of Islam (a minority tradition), from at least Ibn Taimiyyah, through the founders of Wahhabism, through the Muslim Brotherhood, to Sayyid Qutb.

That stream is motivated by religion and does not distinguish politics from religion, thus distorting both. It is further fed by grievances stressed by Bin Ladin and widely felt throughout the Muslim world—against the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, policies perceived as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim, and support of Israel. Bin Ladin and Islamist terrorists mean exactly what they say: to them America is the font of all evil, the “head of the snake,” and it must be converted or destroyed.

It is not a position with which Americans can bargain or negotiate. With it there is no common ground—not even respect for life—on which to begin a dialogue. It can only be destroyed or utterly isolated.

But what I most thought about after the London attacks was how "war on terror" or even "war on Islamist terror" is a misleading phrase for what's happening now. It presumes a military problem with a military solution. In our minds it casts the conflict in the mold of other wars and creates similar expectations of battlefield ethics and standards for victory.

The problem, as many have pointed out, is that "terror" or "Islamist terrorism" is not something you can go to war against, like you can go to war against "Germany" or "Italy." It is not something you can defeat on the battlefield and force to sign articles of surrender.

I do not think this template of "war" was forced on us by a militaristic government aligned with corporate media, as some people believe. Rather, we immediately embraced it in the wake of an attack on America that many of us saw as the modern-day Pearl Harbor. The majority of Americans demanded at least a Doolittle's Raid in response, and more. But at some point we'll realize we're not fighting World War II again, or even the Cold War. Certainly not Vietnam.

In that light, Iraq arguably was not the most creative next step after driving the Taliban out of Afghanistan. Which is not to call it a mistake, and I don't call it a mistake. In that light, too the obsession of some people with the idea of "catch bin Laden and then declare victory" also falsely presumes a military situation -- an old medieval style of chessboard warfare against kings.

If this is a war, it is so in the partially metaphoric use of "war" in phrases like "the war on drugs" (now there's a pointless and unwinnable quagmire, if you ask me). Yes, there's a military component to that, too, but there's also much more. Or Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, which had a policing component but much more. Or even the "war" that health organizations wage on diseases like malaria.

Or the struggle against racism in America. In 1865, the United States had militarily defeated and ruined an enemy nation dedicated to the codified inequality of the races. The ironic price of that was that, to achieve that victory, the United States jettisoned its own codified inequality, a common legacy with the defeated power.

Yet the racial attitude that was a "root cause" of African slavery continued, North and South, stronger than ever, for generations. Finally, it was put down. And the pressure to defeat it came from within white Amnerica as well as without. Yes, the war on racism has been won, in spite of the insistence of the NAACP and groups like it that things are as bad as ever, or always in danger of instantly reverting to the 19th century.

The evidence that this is not the case is in the majority shifts, not in the radical fringes. In 1940, more than two-thirds of whites believed blacks were less intelligent. Today, less than 6 percent think so. Before World War II, in the North as well as the South, fewer than 40 percent supported any kind of desegregation. Today, between 95 and 100 percent of Americans support the idea of integration. That percentage among whites is actually higher than among blacks.

The Ku Klux Klan yet exists. Men still march in white robes. Does that mean we failed? It is minuscule in numbers, politically powerless. Black still die at the hands of white thugs, as in Howard Beach recently. But there are no more large-scale race riots or massacres of whole communities.

Why should Islamist terror be any less persistent? We can scrupulously reform ourselves at home. We can win smashing victories abroad. And still it will rise again. But weaker, more isolated, rejected by the pool of people who formerly gave it silent support.

And that, too, took me back to the 9/11 Commission report. Which, improving on Huntigton's title, wrote that "The United States finds itself caught up in a clash within a civilization."

Tolerance, the rule of law, political and economic openness, the extension of greater opportunities to women—these cures must come from within Muslim societies themselves. The United States must support such developments. But this process is likely to be measured in decades, not years. It is a process that will be violently opposed by Islamist terrorist organizations, both inside Muslim countries and in attacks on the United States and other Western nations.

This can be done. It will take more than wars and arguments about wars. This will be longer and harder than anything we as a nation have done. It would be better to do it with allies, but most of the likely ones seem to have lost their minds in some degree, or to have concluded their self-interest is better served by fence-sitting.