The Glacier of September

The attacks in the United States not only demarcated the line between Islam's central stream and its dark corners.

It is easy, too easy, to find fault with the U.S. administration for its adventures in the Middle East after 9/11. Its map of failures is teeming with the bodies of thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis and now Pakistanis, too. Al-Qaida has not been eliminated, and in recent years, like an amoeba, it has split into poisonous subcells in most Islamic states. The Bush administration used bin Laden as an excuse to take on Iraq, and the web of lies that has accompanied that war only continues to be exposed. Saddam Hussein's regime was brought down, but in its stead is a state that appears to have been assembled out of disparate spare parts. The fantasy that the war in Iraq would set off political changes in other parts of the Middle East, such as a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, has remained just that.

In Afghanistan, too, the final result of a war whose direct pretext was the September 11 attacks has been far from satisfactory. It has not brought about democracy and the Taliban are thriving like mushrooms in manure. But the worst, most paradoxical consequence is the deep erosion in the United States' standing in this part of the world. The victim is perceived as a victimizer, a wounded elephant on the rampage.

An analysis with a longer view, however, could reveal some of the important developments resulting from 9/11 and both the Americans' wars. The first is the thorough stocktaking carried out by Muslim societies and their leaders in light of the horror perpetrated by bin Laden and his organization. The public debate in these societies has not stopped since September 2001, focusing on the new question: What is the true Islam? What have zealotry and extremism wrought? Even the significant number of voices saying that Muslims did not carry out the attacks stems mainly from the perspective that Islam cannot create such evil.

Ranged against hundreds of Web sites of organizations, cells or individuals supporting bin Laden's teachings are new, powerful sites whose writers do not hesitate to denounce the zealous preachings and authorities' impotence to change the education system. Millions of participants in Internet forums, freed from the bonds of political or religious censorship, criticize daily not only the preachers or their teachings but also the way they were educated by their regimes. They do not support U.S. President George W. Bush's policies and they see the United States as a new colonial power that sends out its Zionist emissaries against the Arabs and Muslims. But they distinguish between Bush's policies and the domestic failings of their own regimes that are responsible for their problems.

The attacks in the United States not only demarcated the line between Islam's central stream and its dark corners. A few of the most radical organizations crossed the lines and made a U-turn. In Algeria, the state with the largest number of victims in the war with extremist organizations, a national reconciliation was achieved and most Islamic movements laid down their weapons. In Egypt, the Islamic group that produced the murderer of Anwar Sadat expressed remorse and its members wrote a "new book of principles" that eschews violence. In Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of bin Laden and most of the 9/11 perpetrators, a new dialogue is taking place on religious education, and preachers who once taught bin Laden's creed changed their positions.

For the first time, too, a distinction has been made between Islamic terror, which must be fought because it undermines the state's foundations, and legitimate struggle against occupation. True, this is no great comfort for Israel or the United States; we are talking about glacially slow movement, but measurable nonetheless.

It was Bush and his cronies who defined the 9/11 attacks as a culture clash, not a political struggle, a battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. This definition also contains the measuring stick for understanding change in Islamic countries. These states, their schools and their clerics are not graded according to their degree of support for the settlements or U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, but according to their abilities to create an economic and cultural horizon for their citizens. That is the dialogue that millions of young people in the Middle East are conducting with their governments. It is an incisive and demanding dialogue: Get America off our backs, but give us Westernism.