Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

The Muslim Masses Know Otherwise

Why Islamic “moderates” and Western apologists create a costly smokescreen.

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

The brutal slaughter of children in Russia is yet another wake-up call we are not heeding. We keep hearing that we are at war, but no one wants to identify the real enemy – an Islamic civilization that sanctions such murder as the justified means for establishing the religious and political dominance of Islam in fulfillment of the will of God.

Nor are those actively killing in the service of this vision some sort of neurotic deformers of Islam created by conditions peculiar to the 20th century. From its birth in the seventh century, Islam spread by fire and sword, creating converts as a by-product of conquest. Remember how much of the modern Middle East had for centuries been Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian, that is, Western, before the rise of Islam: Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, western Syria, northern Egypt, northern Africa, western Iraq – all were transformed into the “House of Allah” by violent conquest.

Remember too that Muslims occupied half of Spain for seven centuries and that as late as the 17th century the Turks were at the gates of Vienna. The current propaganda about Islam as the “religion of peace” belies fourteen centuries of aggressive war against those considered “infidels” to be brought under submission to Islam.

The difference today is that the political and cultural dysfunctions of Islam, laid bare by modernity, mean that this traditional imperative to dominate the infidel cannot be realized by military means. The cultural dynamism of the West – created by science, free-market capitalism, individual rights and freedom, and the separation of religion and state – shifted the advantage to the West and ultimately led to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the imposition of Europe’s political will on a civilization that for centuries had looked down on Europeans as barbarian infidels. This dismemberment of the Islamic empire after WWI – not the creation of Israel – is the true “catastrophe” bin Laden has referred to and that his terrorism seeks to reverse.

Now that military conquest of the West is out of the question – as tiny Israel has proven on three occasions – terrorism has emerged as the tactic that will exploit what the Islamists see as the West’s weaknesses: its addiction to material comfort and pleasure as the highest goods, and its lack of passionate belief in any values worth dying and killing for. And for decades we in the West seemed bent on proving this estimation correct: the response of Europe and at times America as well to first Palestinian terrorism and then other terrorist attacks on our citizens was marked by appeasement and indifference. The smokescreen of Palestinian nationalism and postcolonial grievances was eagerly accepted by those in the West who either needed an excuse for avoiding unpleasant, costly action, or were indifferent to the spectacle of Jews dying – the latter phenomenon, after all, one that Europe was all too familiar with anyway.

This interpretation is vehemently rejected by many, including some of the strongest supporters of the administration’s policies. They respond that the foregoing analysis is true only of a minority who are misinterpreting Islam and attempting to undo history because they have been shut out of the boons of modernity – economic development or political freedom. Evidence suggests, however, that it is not just a minority but a critical mass, perhaps even a majority, of Muslims who, even if they would never themselves kill, sanction and rationalize terrorism and thus give it moral and frequently material support. The popularity of bin Laden throughout the Muslim world, the frequent public celebrations of terrorist attacks, Iran’s continuing support of terrorism, the lack of unequivocal condemnations of terrorist murder from Islamic governments, the Nazi-style anti-Semitic drivel published in the state-run presses of many Middle East nations, all suggest that Islamism is not so much of a fringe movement as we are led to believe.

And who are we to say that an interpretation of Islam endorsed by millions is a deformation of its true nature? I’m inclined to believe that those millions cheering on bin Laden are better judges of the true character of Islam than are Western apologists. As well as being patronizing, this dismissal of many Muslims’ understanding of their own religion is ethnocentric to boot, reducing all motives to the material causes the West has privileged, and brushing away spiritual motives as evidence of mere psychological dysfunction. We seem incapable of believing that people will murder others to serve a vision of ultimate reality rather than to acquire material prosperity or political freedom or to vent their neuroses.

Accepting that we are indeed engaged in a struggle of competing fundamental values rather than a battle against a fringe minority means recognizing a grim, sad reality. For history shows that all such struggles are resolved through violence. Deeply held principles and visions of spiritual reality and ultimate value are not bargained or negotiated away. They are given up only when the price of maintaining them is shown to be horrific. In fact, to the true believer his opponent’s willingness to negotiate, bargain, or show respectful tolerance is deemed a sign of weak belief in core principles, and so is an encouragement to press on with the fight.

Does anyone really believe, for example, that America’s “respect” for the Shrine of Ali in Najaf – a presumed holy space that the Mahdi Army desecrated by using it as an arms depot and launch pad for mortars – cut any ice with those opposed to the Iraqis and Americans who are trying to create a functioning modern society? Or is this “restraint” interpreted as a sign of weakness, an indication that we will not pay the price to do what we know is right? Yes, the shrine was evacuated, but who knows how many insurgents escaped with their weapons, and who knows how many Iraqis and American soldiers will die later because those insurgents are still around. No wonder Sadr is trumpeting the evacuation as a victory.

Recognizing the true nature of the struggle against Islamism has several consequences. First, we can drop the propaganda that asserts there is some widespread “moderate” Muslim constituency eager to usher their societies into the modern world and accept the core cargo of successful modernity – liberal democracy and free-market economies. We can tell those presumed moderates to put up or shut up: we will no longer credit their crocodile tears after a terrorist attack but demand concrete action against the terrorists in their midst. For example, Syria can be put on notice that the offices of Hamas and Hezbollah in Damascus will be shut down, either by the Syrian government or American cruise missiles. Enough with wrist-slapping sanctions and blustering orations before a corrupt and indifferent U.N.

Wouldn’t this mean civil war in Islamic nations? Exactly. If those nations truly want to become modern and lift their societies out of the backwardness, illiteracy, and poverty in which they stagnate, then they must solve the problem of Islamist extremism, and that means civil wars. We must stop our enabling the inaction of so-called moderates, which we do by crediting their excuses about Israel or globalization or post-colonial grievances. We must make it clear that the old smokescreens – nationalist aspirations, for example – no longer will fly. After all, the battle cry of the bearded and veiled terrorists who murdered Russian schoolchildren was not “Long live Chechnya” but “Allahu akhbar.”

No, all such issues are off the table until terrorism stops. No more of our Western therapeutic excuses and two-bit psychologizing, as though we were dealing with wayward teenagers “acting out” because of low self-esteem. Give our enemies credit for having their own values and motives that cause them to act, rather than reducing all their behavior to mere reactions to what we do. We don’t create terrorists, they and their beliefs create themselves no matter what we do. It doesn’t matter in the least that we rescued Kuwaitis and Bosnians and Iraqis from genocidal maniacs and so kept hundreds of thousands of Muslims alive who otherwise would’ve been killed. The only action of ours that can make a difference in their behavior is overwhelming destructive force.

The starkest way we could signal our new resolve would be to change our approach to the Israeli-Palestinian war. This would require sweeping from the table all the camouflaging grievances of checkpoints and walls and “Palestinian homeland” and “right of return.” We would indicate that we now know the War on Terror began not on 9/11 but when the first Jew returning to Israel was murdered simply because he was a Jew returning to his ancestral homeland. That is, Israel is what Virginia was in the Civil War – the “cockpit of war,” the space where the centuries-old clash is being fought most intensely and brutally.

This change in approach would make it clear that we know now Israel’s fight has always been our fight. It is a damning indictment of Western moral corruption that so many in the West ignored or rationalized or even abetted what has been an assault on the West and its values. For that is Israel’s greatest sin – being free and dynamic and materially prosperous – that is, Western – while its Arab neighbors, flush with oil wealth, are mired in backwardness and poverty and political oppression. Israel is a stark reminder of just how superior the West now is, and only Israel’s destruction can prove otherwise, just as the destruction of the medieval Crusader kingdoms reasserted Islamic superiority.

For those who think such an approach is “simplistic” or incites more violence, remember that we have already tried for decades the road of “nuance,” moral equivalency, appeasement and negotiation, and it has gotten us nowhere. Israeli children are still being blown up, and Palestinians are farther from a state than ever. It’s time to recognize that based on their actions rather than their words, a significant number of Palestinians don’t want a Palestinian state as much as they want Israel to disappear. If this were not so, Arafat would’ve been kicked out of office when he turned down the best chance at a state the Palestinians are likely to get. Instead there was the Second Intifada. Once more, we must be blunt: get rid of the terrorists who hide among and so endanger your women and children in order to kill Jews. Make up your minds about which way you want your society to go: the road to political freedom and economic prosperity, or the road to some fantasy of Islamic dominance that leads in the end only to further suffering and stagnation.

If we fail to see accurately the nature of this struggle, we won’t collapse overnight or be overrun. The stakes are not as immediately grim as they were for the Viennese who met the Turks or for the Franks at Poitiers. Rather, the destruction will be slow and insidious, fueled as much by demography as violence. But violence there will be, as terrorists eventually acquire weapons of mass destruction, leading perhaps to a catastrophe that makes 9/11 look like a bad traffic accident. We will evolve into a garrison state, with consequences for our civil liberties and way of life we can only imagine. And there will be backlashes, fueled by xenophobia and nationalism, which may very well return the West to the savagery of fascism, especially in Europe.

But these effects will take place over decades, while the cost of preventing them must be borne today. That’s why it’s seductive to pretend the struggle is otherwise, to put the cost off for future generations, to make the mistake Europe made in the 1930s. But whether now or later, the bill will have to be paid.

© 2004 Bruce Thornton

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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