Our Two-Front Struggle

Pre-modern plus postmodern equals riots in Afghanistan.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

One recent Newsweek story alleged — or fabricated — that a single Koran was desecrated by an American soldier in Guantanamo Bay.

The unsubstantiated rumor led to rioting and death in Afghanistan and general turmoil and rage across the Islamic world. Mullahs issued fatwas and the more lunatic even declared a “holy war.” What explains the unsubstantiated story and why the hysterical reaction?

The superficial answer is that we now live in a globalized village — united by the marriage of satellite communications with cheap consumer goods. Someone sneezes in Texas and a few minutes later a villager in upper Russia can say “bless you.” What an “in-the-know” Beltway insider conjures up as buzz in the “Periscope” section of the magazine for his American readers can cause death and mayhem hours later 7,000 a miles away in the Hindu Kush.

Yet there is something far more to these bizarre events than mere “interconnectedness,” or even media-savvy fundamentalists who have got the hang of Western telecommunications and know how to use them to stir up the mob.

There is not a necessary connection in the Middle East — or anywhere else — between the occasional appearance of technological sophistication and what we might call humanism, or the commitment to explain phenomena through reason and empiricism. We forget that far too often as we kow-tow to extremists and seek to apologize or fathom the holy protocols surrounding a religious text.

In the West, the wonder of a cell phone in some sense is the ultimate expression of a long struggle for the primacy of scientific reason, tolerance, critical consciousness, and free expression. That intellectual journey goes back to Galileo, Newton, and Socrates.

Everything from CDs to Starbucks that we take for granted is a representation of millions of past Western lives. These forgotten scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs, along with other reformers in politics, journalism, economics, and religion, created our present liberal environment. Only its institutions led to our prosperous modernity.

Without them, thinkers cannot discuss ideas freely. They will not find legal protection for their accomplishments, status for their contributions, and profit for their benefactions — and thus would end up hopeless and adrift in a society such as present-day Syria, Iran, or Egypt.

That long odyssey is not so in the world of bin Laden or an Iranian theocrat — or the ignorant who stream out of the madrassas and Friday fundamentalist harangues along the Afghan-Pakistani border. These fist-shaking, flag-burning Islamic fascists all came late to the Western tradition and now cherry-pick its technology. As classic parasites, a Zawahiri or al-Zarqawi wants Western sophisticated weapons and playthings — without the bothersome foundations that made them all possible.

An Afghan who riots because he learns of a rumor in a Western magazine, and those like him who explode and behead in Iraq, are emblematic of this hypocrisy. Nothing they have accomplished in their lives, either materially or philosophically, would result in a free opinion magazine, much less the technology to send out the story instantaneously — or, in the case of al-Zarqawi, to have his murdering transmitted globally on the Internet.

Instead, our Afghan rioters, and the Islamist organizations that have endorsed them, live in the eighth century of rumor, sexual and religious intolerance, tribal chauvinism, and gratuitous violence — but now electrified by the veneer of the 21st-century civilization that is not their own, but sometimes fools the naïve who it is.

Yet all the illumination in the modern world — neon, fluorescent, or incandescent — cannot light up the illiberal Dark Age mind if it is not willing (or forced) to begin the long ordeal of democracy, tolerance, legality, and individual rights.

Despite cheap, accessible, and easy-to-operate consumer goods imported from the Westernized world, the thinking of a bin Laden or Muslim Brotherhood still leads back to swords, horses, and jihad, not ahead to iPods and Microsoft.

They want such things to use to destroy, but not along with them the institutions like democracy and freedom that would allow such progress in their own countries — and shortly make al Qaeda and the fundamentalists not merely irrelevant, but ridiculous as well. Thus, we can understand the increasing hatred of the United States and its policy of democratic idealism abroad that threatens to put them out of business.

As we learned on September 11, they try to kill us now with our own appurtenances before they are buried themselves under modernism, liberality, and freedom. That really is what this war is about: a last-ditch effort by primordial fascists to prevent the liberalization of the Muslim world and the union of Islamic society with the protocols found in the rest of the globe and which many in the Middle East prefer if given a chance.

Only democracy and freedom, not Western money or cheap guilt, will remedy the deep sickness of radical Islam that now so tires and sickens the rest of the world that daily has to watch and endure it.

For a suicide bomber like Mohammed Atta, the more he bumped into the West and used its bounties, the more he despised us for his own hypocrisy of enjoying what his culture could not make or allow. There was no law forcing Mr. Atta to go study in Germany or visit the United States or to wear Western clothes and use our technology; he did so on his own free volition — and later despised himself for doing so.

The Saudi insurgents who now volunteer to blow themselves up in northern Iraq, like their spiritual kindred suicide bombers on the West Bank, are not poor villagers content to plow ancestral fields and follow the tribal and religious rhythms of a timeless Middle East.

No, they are usually upscale and spoiled, or at least middle class, educated, and with some disposable income — the prerequisites to allow them contact with the West and almost immediately to incite their sense of envy, self-loathing, exaggerated entitlement, and ultimately nihilism at trying to destroy what they hate and lust for and cannot destroy.

Second, there is a certain mental disease here at home — long chronicled in Western literature — that encourages the Afghan rioter’s love/hate relationship with things Western. After all, we have developed a culture in which a Newsweekwriter grasps that if he scoops a story that the United States military is insensitive to the “other” and, better yet, religiously intolerant, he finds a certain resonance within our own elite. If that slur turns out to be wrong, well, his intentions were at least “noble” and there are likely to follow little consequences in his own circle that is far away from those soldiers who pay for his lapse on the ground in Afghanistan.

Note also after the riots how few Americans announced their immediate scorn for silly rumors about our own POW center in a time of war — especially when it is housing Afghan terrorists who helped kill 3,000 of our own innocents. Can one imagine fundamentalists in the Bible Belt rioting and shooting should they hear an unfounded rumor that an American prisoner in Riyadh, charged with complicity in killing thousands of Arabs, found his Old Testament trashed by a Saudi guard — or a Saudi official promising to apologize to the Western world should a miscreant guard be culpable?

Was the Church of the Nativity carefully treated by its Islamic intruders — or did the desecration cause rioting and holy-war warnings across Christendom? It is just this imbalance that our elites do not talk openly about, but that outrages the populace who tires of it.

So we do not dare remind the world that we have nothing to apologize for, given that we have expended lives and treasure in Afghanistan to improve a country that once helped to butcher us. Most of those rioting and killing idolize bin Laden. The problem is not that they are confused, but that they express exactly what they feel — and that is a deep hatred for Western liberalism, manifested on their now sacred day of September 11. We don’t say such rude things, not only because it would be stupid politics, but because we don’t quite believe them ourselves anymore.

In that sense, we can be as warped as the Afghan rioter. Westerners have their own delusions. We seem to think that our neat gadgets also equate with an ability to refashion human nature or that a fascist abroad needs to know how much we care about his hurt.

There is a sort of arrogance in the liberal West — the handmaiden to our own guilt and self-loathing — that strangely believes we are both to blame for the ills abroad and alone can solve them through handing out money. Almost all of the pathetic rhetoric of al Qaeda — “colonial exploitation,” “American hegemony,” or “blood for oil” — was as imported from the West as were the terrorists’ bombs and communications.

Some Western intellectuals, I think, need a bin Laden to illustrate and confirm their nihilistic ideas about their own postmodern society, just as he needs them to explain why his culture’s failure is not its own fault. So just as al Qaeda will always find an enabling Westerner to say, “You lashed out at us in frustration for your unfair treatment,” so too a guilty Westerner will always find a compliant terrorist to boast, “Yes, we kill you for your sins.” America was once a country that demolished Hitler and Tojo combined in less than four years and broke the nuclear Soviet Union — and now frets and whines that a few thousand deranged fascists want an apology.

Abroad, we battle Islamic fascists who hate us for our success and want to kill us with the tools of the modern world they despise. But at home, we are also at odds with our own privileged guilt-ridden aristocracy, whose very munificence has made them misunderstand why they are hated.

The Islamists insist, “We kill you for being soft.” Westerners in response feel, “We are killed because we are not being soft enough.”

And so they riot and kill in Afghanistan over a stupid rumor, and we seek to apologize that it somehow spread.

How truly sad.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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