Islam v. America

The still incomprehensible terror attack in the U.S. has added a new phrase to the world's lexicon, something called "the war of civilizations," thus creating a kind of hierarchy of terrorism.

The still incomprehensible terror attack in the U.S. has added a new phrase to the world's lexicon, something called "the war of civilizations," thus creating a kind of hierarchy of terrorism. Some attacks can be catalogued as "only" political-national, like the Chechen terrorists in Russia, the Palestinians in Israel, the Basques in Spain, or the Iraqis in Iran.

But religious terror attacks like those of extremist Muslims against their countries - extremist Islamic groups in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Morocco - who act in the name of God and for God, and to a certain degree conduct anti-American attacks like the Dahran bombing or the attack in Lebanon against the Marines, aren't "wars of civilizations" because of their local nature. So when does an attack become "a war of civilizations"? Does it depend on the number of casualties or perpetrators? Or maybe it depends on the motives of the attackers?

These are wonderful questions for those who are hasty to deal in major theories that provide a broad and simple - indeed, sometimes simplistic - answer to the experiences of the globe. During Ronald Reagan's administration in the White House, a cartoon published in America showed a map dubbed "The World according to Reagan." The world was divided into five parts. Eastern Europe and Russia were "Communists"; Latin America was "Contras and Freedom fighters against communists and revolutionaries"; the eastern seaboard of the U.S. was "Liberals, Homosexuals and other Scum"; Western America, of course, was "The Real America" - and the Middle East, except Israel, was called "Fundamentalists and other Scum."

It was a simple, easy map with which to navigate the world. Its simplicity earned it an intellectual foundation. After the Cold War something had to replace the traditional enemy so the U.S. wasn't left bereft of rivals. Prof. Samuel Huntington wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs on the clash of civilizations. His theory was about a future war that would not be ideological or between nations, but rather between the West and other cultures, especially Islam. It was the new world against the Third World, democracy against fanaticism. With the ease of a theoretician, Huntington included Morocco with Indonesia, Japan with Korea, Iran with Egypt, and created a world appropriate to his theory. What's easier than looking at the world with binoculars that distance the details, making them fuzzy?

But fanatic Islamic terror regards reactionary Arab states as prisoners of the West, heretic to the true faith, and therefore to be eliminated. So, before one calls for a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West, it should be regarded as a war of national regimes geographically catalogued by the West into the Middle East department, against suicidal messianic true believers carrying green flags that threaten those regimes.

"Will we have to revert from our definition as Muslim nation states to the old perception of us as a single Arab-Islamic entity in conflict with the West?" asked an Arab commentator this week. "And what good will come of a war against terrorism in which we are all regarded as participants? Because this Middle East is not a monolithic entity. There are tribal leaders in robes at the head of wealthy nations, kings who speak French and English, generals who grabbed power by force or inheritance, all managing the usual conflicts: unsettled borders, control over water, civilian movement, natural resources, and occasional local conflicts that sometimes break out into open war.

These states all have web pages, telecommunications, modern, sophisticated computers, Western military equipment, and markets. Foreign experts, privatization and a proliferation of choices about how to make a living are all part of these countries and none of them can any longer allow muftis, imams and other experts in religious law to turn them into enemies of the West. Arab states aren't ready to participate in Huntington's theory and for their own sake are doing what they can to block his theory of civilizations at war. No good will come of wrapping them into one "terrorist culture" when in fact they have to be enlisted in the fight against terror itself.