By David Pryce-Jones, September 29, 2001
The conflict that has now erupted has been gathering for a long time. Its roots
lie deep in history. To be brief and blunt, the Muslim world has never known
exactly how to respond to the West, whether to adopt its values or to reject
A logic arises: The West is powerful; power is arrogant; we are proud people;
therefore we must overpower and humble the West. False as the logic is, it
locks in high emotion. It also raises for Muslims an existential question of
identity: What sort of people do we think we are?
And this is the heart of the issue: The Muslim world is a political and social
disaster. With the arguable exception of Turkey, it consists of a series of
despotisms, each with an absolute ruler. A family or a clique gathers around the
ruler under the protection of the state apparatus of secret police and military
To the powerful, the spoils; to the weak, submission. No rights, no
freedom of expression, no loyal opposition, no rule of law, no redress except
through violence, conspiracy, a coup, and ultimately civil war.
Muhammad Haikal was once the spokesman of Gamal Abdul Nasser, the ruler
who set Egypt back for decades. Haikal was no friend of the West either, but
he could write:
“The Arab and Muslim world is completely naked. [None of us] can claim
any more that he is independent. We have proved we are not modern. We have
proved that we are not religious in the real sense of the word. We have proved
that we cannot afford democracy.”
Today Ahmad Bishara, a prominent Kuwaiti, says that Arabs and Muslims
“should engage in deep soul-searching” about their institutions and
culture. To write like that requires protection at the highest level, as well as
personal courage. There are such men, and women too. They are the equivalent
of Soviet dissidents in the old days, and if there is hope for the Muslim and
Arab world, it lies in their example. Like Soviet dissidents, they are only saying
what almost everyone knows to be the truth.
For most Muslims have answered the existential question for themselves
the way the populations under Soviet rule did: They want what those in the
Free World have.
In the first months of 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran. He was a
Muslim equivalent of Lenin. He gave a quite different answer to the existential
question of Muslim identity. Muslim society was a failure, he concurred with
secular critics like Haikal, and one cause of this was the people’s abandonment
of their faith. Islam had made its believers great and powerful in centuries past,
and it would do so again.
But there was another overriding cause of the general backsliding. Over
the long term, Khomeini held, the West had had the cunning and deliberate
intention of destroying Islam. Why the West would have such a wanton and
malign ambition he did not explain. But he crystallized a mindset with
revolutionary implications: Muslims were not responsible for their plight, it was
all the fault of the West, to be rectified by war.
A fantasy is loose in the world, the fantasy of an Islamic supremacy destined
deservedly to triumph everywhere. Like communism before it, this Islamic
fantasy aims to impose its vision on others – and call it peace. In an unexpected
form, here is another totalitarian movement with the usual murderous belief that
the ends justify the means.
Latching on to local or regional issues everywhere, Islamic supremacy has been
developing its cause: condemning Salman Rushdie to death for supposed
apostasy; holding Americans hostage in Teheran; killing Marines in Beirut;
sponsoring suicide bombers; threatening pro-Western rulers in Muslim countries
with assassination and civil war; preparing for the genocide of Jews in Israel.
The false syllogisms of the Islamist mindset have hardened into axioms
supporting one outrage after another.
[And] the Left throughout the West picks it up and fans it. Demonstrations
against President Bush have occurred in most major cities of Europe. [Even in
the U.S. media] people have jumped forward to blame the suicide attacks on
America and its policies.
The Taliban exemplify the Islamist fantasy. They are tribalists of a medieval
brutality. They forbid women to have an education or a job, and bury a woman
suspected of adultery up to her shoulders before stoning her to death. They kill
suspected homosexuals. They have driven millions of desperate fellow Afghans
into exile, and leave the remainder to face destitution and starvation.
Their honored accomplice is Osama bin Laden, who for the last ten years
or so has been telling everyone who can listen that the United States is the
source of all wickedness and he intends to destroy it.
The Left blamed the U.S. for the Cold War and the division of Europe, and for
unrest in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. [Now] they are happy to leave
millions at the mercy of Islamist terror.
In the event of liberation from the general Islamist fantasy and the suicide
bombers in particular, most of the Muslim world will feel a grateful relief that
can only surprise and shock the Left as much as the joy of those liberated from
Should America fail to rescue them for whatever reason, though,
Muslims will know that the Islamist fantasy is coming true.