It has become fashionable these days to emphasize that the post-Sept. 11 war against terrorism is not directed against the Islamic world, and that Osama bin Laden represents a radical fringe, while grudgingly accepting the premise that much of the fault for the attacks may lie in global frustration over American arrogance and foreign policy myopia, particularly as it relates to the Palestinian problem. That is, at least, the starting point of the argument against any intervention in Iraq and of charges that President Bush is overreacting badly to the current sorry state of international affairs.
But the issues are even more complex than that analysis would imply. For example, it took no less than Yasser Arafat himself to remind us that Arab and Muslim are far from the same thing. Arafat recently told the Sunday Times of London: "Bin Laden . . . never helped us. He was working in another, completely different area and against our interests. . . . I'm telling him directly not to hide behind the Palestinian cause." The Palestinian cause does not generally regard itself as a religious one, but rather a geopolitical one, hence Arafat's reference to bin Laden's "completely different area."
The al Qaeda leader, in the "Letter to the American People" published in November and attributed to him, spoke from that "different area," spelling out our nation's faults, from alcohol consumption to sexual permissiveness (even mentioning President Bill Clinton's peccadilloes) to our disregard for the world environment. The letter makes very clear that bin Laden's ultimate goal is to undermine Western civilization in its totality, which strongly implies that even if Israel didn't exist, he would still be pursuing what is really, as reluctant as we are to say it, a religious crusade in the true historical sense.
Throughout history, disruption of the social and political order of the day has been a regular occurrence. But this is a different kind of fight, one with long roots in the past and one that will last long into the future. In the letter, bin Laden purportedly said, "it is to this religion that we call you," implying the need for a global theological upheaval.
Islam arose in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century. Like Christianity, Islam officially condemned forced conversions. But unlike Christianity, Islam instructed its followers to ensure that the world was under the political control of the Faithful. Hence Islam's political domination could be, and was, spread by the sword. Islamic cavalries burst out of Arabia and quickly took control of the Middle East, Byzantium and Persia. The Middle Eastern armies of the Christian Byzantine Empire were defeated and annihilated in 636, and Jerusalem fell in 638. By the early 8th century, Arab Islamic forces had reached the Straits of Gibraltar and crossed into European Spain. By 712 they had reached the center of the Iberian Peninsula, and by the 730s they were raiding deep into the heart of France.
In the spring of 1095, Pope Urban II allowed Byzantine delegates to address the Council of Clermont in France, and in his speech there he called for the first crusade to aid Byzantium and take back Jerusalem. Crusades and counter-crusades between Muslims and Christians followed for centuries.
What is striking is how much bin Laden today sounds like Pope Urban in 1095. The pope said: "I beseech you as Christ's heralds to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends." And, "All who die along the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins."
Meanwhile, hear bin Laden in recent years: "It is our duty to make Jihad so that God's word is the one exalted to the heights and so that we drive the Americans away from all Muslim countries." And: "In our religion, it is not permissible for any non-Muslim to stay in our country. If the Americans refuse to listen to our advice and the goodness, guidance and righteousness that we call them to, then be aware that you will lose this Crusade, just like the other previous Crusades in which you were humiliated." And, not incidentally, he, too, guarantees immediate salvation to all those who die in the effort.
Lest there be any doubt that what is going on now is a real crusade, and not just a protest against American hegemony, it is important to note that al Qaeda and other Muslim forces are now or have been engaged in conflicts not just against the West proper, but against Hindus in Kashmir and increasingly in other parts of India, as well as against Orthodox Russians in Chechnya. Moreover, the Muslim Uighurs are fighting the mostly Buddhist Chinese; and Muslims are doing battle in Indonesia and the Philippines. Hundreds were recently killed in Muslim-Christian violence in Nigeria over a beauty pageant (ironically won by a Turk, after it was moved to London). Muslim extremist cells are operating in scores of countries, and their cross-border cooperation in training and financing gives credence to the assumption that the driving force is not strictly localized grievances (witness Kenya, Bali) as much as a clarion call to a worldwide transnational Islamic revival.
All of this brings us to a number of hard political realities.
First, the discontent in the Islamic world is largely the result of inept and corrupt leaderships that have squandered vast fortunes in oil revenues. Despite its petro-windfall, the Arab world largely ignored and almost completely missed out on the economic boom and technological advances of the last 20 years. That isn't universally true of the Islamic world (witness Malaysia) but it does raise a serious question. Can Islam and democracy coexist at all? (Witness Iran and watch Turkey's efforts in that regard closely.) The alternative has been the emergence of demigods with 99.9 percent of the vote in rigged elections, such as Saddam Hussein, who heads a nominally secular Baath Party but seeks legitimacy in a dictatorship wrapped in Islamic trappings, or Moammar Gaddafi, who coined the phrase "Islamic Bomb" in urging development of an atomic one.
Absent a true reformation within Islam itself (which seems increasingly unlikely), the frustration over the present and the dreams of past glory of the 7th century are manifested by a destructive effort to bring the rest of the world down to Islam's current level. It is worth noting that the vanguard of these warriors for yesteryear is not averse to using American-developed technology to build and trigger its bombs, or the Internet, originally created by the Pentagon, to coordinate its attacks on the "Great Satan."
If Saddam Hussein poses a major threat to the world by backing this emerging Muslim militancy, he becomes every bit as dispensable, as part of the unavoidable collateral damage of war, as were the people in the World Trade Center. America's transgressions and Palestine's future aside, bin Laden speaks for a growing militancy that stems largely from the failure of Islamic leadership to adapt to a changing world. It is not likely to subside any time soon, and to face that reality and be prepared for it is not a sign of reverse bigotry or racial profiling, and certainly not an overreaction in light of the continuing aggressive attacks by Islamic groups against a vast array of national and theological targets.
A British journalist recently said, "The Americans were late in getting into the last two world wars and are determined to be first in this one." When softer targets in Europe and elsewhere come into focus for al Qaeda and others, and prove easier to attack than American ones, he may find the United States -- by acting alone against the new threat -- is doing the right thing. That is, of course, unless this time the Europeans are willing to convert. Because for many of the suicide bombers we face today, and will face tomorrow, that is the only way the latest crusade can end and religious peace again prevail.