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Reformation or Civil War?
The jihadists cannot be reasoned with, only defeated.


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Victor Davis Hanson

Remember how shortly after September 11 Mohammed Atta’s lawyer father sounded worried in his cozy apartment? He stammered that his son did not help engineer the deaths of 3,000 Americans. According to him, the videos of the falling towers were doctored. Or maybe the wily Jews did it. Why, in fact, he had only talked to dear Mohammed Junior that very day, September 11. Surely someone other than his son was the killer taped boarding his death plane.

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Apparently Mohammed el-Amir was worried of American retaliation–as if a cruise missile might shatter the very window of his upper-middle class Giza apartment on the premise that the father’s hatred had been passed on to the son.

He sings a rather different tune now. Mohammed el-Amir recently boasts that he would like to see more attacks like the July 7 bombings of the London subway.

Indeed, he promised to use any future fees from his interviews to fund more of such terrorist killings of the type that his now admittedly deceased son mastered. Apparently in the years since 9/11, el-Amir has lost his worry about an angry America taking out its wrath on the former Muslim Brotherhood member who sired such a monster like Atta.

Yet one wonders at what he is saying now, after the worst terrorist attack in Egyptian history at the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Egypt finally is suffering from the same terror and mayhem that its radical sons like the pampered Atta and Dr. Zawahiri unleashed on so many poorer others. The Mubaracracy may not take kindly to Atta’s father endorsing such carnage from his pleasant apartment that is incinerating those other than Jews and Westerners–and threatens to ruin the nation’s entire tourist industry.

The father of Mohammed Atta is emblematic of this crazy war, and we can learn various lessons from his sad saga.

First, for all their braggadocio, the Islamists are cowardly, fickle, and attuned to the current political pulse.

When the West is angry and liable to expel Middle Eastern zealots from its shores, strike dictators and terrorists abroad, and seems unfathomable in its intentions, the Islamists retreat. Thus a shaky al-Amir once assured us after 9/11 that his son was not capable of such mass murder.

But when we seem complacent, they brag of more killing to come. Imagine an American father giving interviews from his apartment in New York, after his son had just blown up a shrine in Mecca, with impunity promising to subsidize further such terrorist attacks. If our government allowed him to rant and rave like that in such advocacy of mass murder, then we would be no better than he.

The other lesson is that the war the Arab autocracies thought was waged against the West by their own zealots has now turned on them. The old calculus of deflecting their failures onto us by entering in an unspoken unholy agreement with the Islamists is coming to an end. George Bush’s “You are either with us or against us” is belatedly arriving to the Middle East’s illegitimate regimes.

And the governments of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other autocracies are in worse shape than we are. At least we are promoting democratic alternatives to their dictatorships, in the hopes that when such strongmen fall, there is another choice besides the jihadists. But the autocrats themselves have nowhere to go. Since they never allowed a loyal democratic opposition, there is only the unsavory choice of either liberalizing while they are in the middle of a bombing war with extremists–or the fate of the shah.

Quite simply, Islam is not in need of a reformation, but of a civil war in the Middle East, since the jihadists cannot be reasoned with, only defeated. Only with their humiliation, will come a climate of tolerance and reform, when berated and beaten-down moderates can come out of the shadows.

The challenge for the Middle East is analogous to our own prior war with Hitler who sought to redefine Western culture along some racial notion of a pure Volk long ago unspoiled by Romanizing civilization. Proving the West was not about race or some notion of an ubermenschen ruling class did not require an “internal dialogue,” much less another religious reformation, but the complete annihilation of Nazism.

So it must be with the latest fad of radical Islamicism. Contrary to popular opinion, there has not been a single standard doctrine of hatred in the Middle East. Radical Islam is just the most recent brand of many successive pathologies, not necessarily any more embraced by a billion people than Hitler’s Nazism was characteristic of the entire West.

In the 1940s the raging -ism in the Middle East was anti-Semitic secular fascism, copycatting Hitler and Mussolini–who seemed by 1942 ascendant and victorious.

Between the 1950s and 1970s Soviet-style atheistic Baathism and tribal Pan-Arabism were deemed the waves of the future and unstoppable.

By the 1980s Islamism was the new antidote for the old bacillus of failure and inadequacy.

Each time an -ism was defeated, it was only to be followed by another–as it always is in the absence of free markets and constitutional government.

Saddam started out as a pro-Soviet Communist puppet, then fancied himself a fascistic dictator and pan-Arabist nationalist, and ended up building mosques, always in search of the most resonant strain of hatred. Arafat was once a left-wing atheistic thug. When the Soviet Union waned, he dropped the boutique socialism, and became a South-American-style caudillo. At the end of his days, he too got religion as the Arab Street turned to fundamentalism and Hamas threatened to eat away his support.

The common theme is not the Koran, but the constant pathology of the Middle East–gender apartheid, polygamy, religious intolerance, tribalism, no freedom, a censored press, an educational system of brainwashing rather than free inquiry–that lends itself to the next cult to explain away failure and blame the West, which always looms as both whore and Madonna to the Arab Street.

Iraq has inadvertently become the battleground of a long overdue reckoning, a bellwether of the future of the Middle East. If the constitutionalists win, then the jihadists will be in retreat and there will be at last a third way between radical Islam and dictatorship.

We must now step up our efforts. At home we should no more tolerate the expression of Islamic fascism on the shores of the West than Churchill would have allowed Hitler Youth to teach Aryan global racial superiority in London while it was under the Blitz.

When the extremists are repatriated to the Middle East, and understand they are never again welcome in Europe and America, millions of others will know the reason why–and decide by their own attitudes to the killers in their midst whether they themselves wish ever again to visit, work, or be educated in the West.

If the terrorists are not isolated and ostracized at home, then any Western government would have to be suicidal to admit any more young males from the Islamic Middle East. Indeed, if the Iranian public or the Saudis, or Egyptian citizenry do not begin creating a climate hostile to radical Islam, then they de facto can only become the enemies of the United States in a war that they can only lose.

To fathom our success abroad, read what the Islamic websites–or Mohammed Atta’s own father–now say about the evil Americans and George Bush, who, they lament, have set Muslim against Muslim in Lebanon, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine. The foreign contagion of democracy and reform, despite the best efforts of both the mullah and the strongman, now infects the Arab Street and it seems to be driving bin Laden and Bashar Assad alike crazy.

Iraqi guardsmen are fighting al Qaedists as Afghans die in firefights with Taliban remnants. Note well that at the loci of American democratizing presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are few local Iraqis and Afghans–as there are few Turkish or Indian Muslims–who are eager for global jihad against the West. The killers instead flock from elsewhere to those new nations to stop the experiment before it spreads. Give dictatorial Pakistan or Egypt billions, and we get ever more terrorists; give the Iraqis and Afghans their freedom and their citizens are unlikely to show up in London and Madrid blowing up civilians, but rather busy at home killing jihadists.

In this Mexican standoff, the Islamists, dictators, and democratic reformers are waging a struggle for the hearts and minds of the Middle East. We have had our own similar three-way shootout in the West between fascists, Communists, and liberal republics. Backing Communists to stop fascists or helping autocrats fight Communists were stop-gap, wartime exigencies–never solutions in themselves.

The Middle East does not need a reformation in Islam as much as a war to eradicate a minority of religious fanatics who are empowered through their blackmail of dictatorships–and to do so in a way that leads to constitutional government rather than buttressing a police state. So far governments have chosen appeasement and bribery–if at times some torture when demands for investigations rise–and so time is running out for the entire region.

There are a million Muslims in Israel–the mother of all evils in the radical Islamic mind. Yet very few have turned themselves into global jihadists, and hundreds are not blowing themselves up daily in Tel Aviv, much less in London or New York. Why? Perhaps the twofold knowledge that they have rights in Israel not found in the Arab world that they don’t wish to forfeit, and they are surrounded by people who would not tolerate their terrorism.

For the first time, Afghans and Iraqis have a stake in their own future–and know the United States is at last on the right side of history and intends to stay and win by their side.

So we press on.

Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.



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