Do These Two Have Anything in Common?
In a series of recent speeches to the American people, President Bush has sought to equate the current terrorist threat with the 20th-century menace of communist totalitarianism. His case is that the terrorist challenge is global in scope, "evil" in nature, ruthless toward its foes, and eager to control every aspect of life and thought. Thus, he argues, the battle against terrorism demands nothing "less than a complete victory."
In making this case, the president has repeatedly invoked the adjective "Islamic" when referring to terrorism and he has compared the "murderous ideology of Islamic radicalism" to the ideology of communism.
Is the president historically right in his diagnosis of the allegedly similar dangers posed by Islamic extremism and by totalitarian communism? The differences between the two may be more telling than their similarities. And is he wise to be expounding such a thesis?
By asserting that Islamic extremism, "like the ideology of communism . . . is the great challenge of our new century," Bush is implicitly elevating Osama bin Laden's stature and historic significance to the level of figures such as Lenin, Stalin or Mao. And that suggests, in turn, that the fugitive Saudi dissident hiding in some cave (or perhaps even deceased) has been articulating a doctrine of universal significance. Underlying the president's analogy is the proposition that bin Laden's "jihad" has the potential for dominating the minds and hearts of hundreds of millions of people across national and even religious boundaries. That is quite a compliment to bin Laden, but it isn't justified. The "Islamic" jihad is, at best, a fragmented and limited movement that hardly resonates in most of the world.
Communism, by comparison, undeniably had worldwide appeal. By the 1950s, there was hardly a country in the world without an active communist movement or conspiracy, irrespective of whether the country was predominantly Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist or Confucian. In some countries, such as Russia and China, the communist movement was the largest political formation, dominating intellectual discourse; in democratic countries, such as Italy and France, it vied for political power in open elections.
In response to the dislocations and injustices precipitated by the Industrial Revolution, communism offered a vision of a perfectly just society. To be sure, that vision was false and was used to justify violence that eventually led directly to the Soviet gulag, Chinese labor and "reeducation" camps, and other human rights abuses. Nonetheless, for a while, communism's definition of the future bolstered its cross-cultural appeal.
In addition, the intellectual and political challenge of the communist ideology was backed by enormous military power. The Soviet Union possessed a huge nuclear arsenal, capable of launching in the course of a few minutes a massive atomic attack on America. Within a few hours, upwards of 120 million Americans and Soviets could have been dead in an apocalyptic mutual cross-fire. That was the horrible reality.
Contemporary terrorism -- though nasty and criminal, whether Islamic or otherwise -- has no such political reach and no such physical capability. Its appeal is limited; it offers no answers to the novel dilemmas of modernization and globalization. To the extent that it can be said to possess an "ideology," it is a strange blend of fatalism and nihilism. In al Qaeda's case, it is actively supported by relatively isolated groupings, and its actions have been condemned without exception by all major religious figures, from the pope to the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia.
Its power is circumscribed, too. It still relies largely on familiar tools of violence. Unlike communist totalitarian regimes, al Qaeda does not use terror as an organizing tool but rather, because of its own organizational weakness, as a disruptive tactic. Its members are bound together by this tactic, not by an ideology. Ultimately, al Qaeda or some related terrorist group may acquire truly destructive power, but one should not confuse potentiality with actuality.
But in the meantime, is Bush smart to be making this comparison?
The analogy to communism may have some short-term political benefit, for it can rekindle the fears of the past while casting the president in the mold of the historic victors of the Cold War, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. But the propagation of fear also has a major downside: It can produce a nation driven by fear, lacking in self-confidence and thus less likely to inspire trust among America's allies, including Muslim ones, whose support is needed for an effective and intelligent response to the terrorist phenomenon.
It is particularly troubling that Bush has also relied heavily in his recent speeches on what to many Muslims is bound to sound like Islamophobic language. His speeches, though occasionally containing disclaimers that he is not speaking of Islam as a whole, have been replete with references to "the murderous ideology of the Islamic radicals," "Islamic radicalism," "militant jihadism," "Islamofascism" or "Islamic Caliphate."