What 9/11 proves is the resentment that a sizable proportion of the Muslim world feels against the West. No doubt this resentment is a complex compound of hate and love, envy and rejection, shame and pride, and outsiders can probably never quite get the measure of it. Nevertheless the resentment drives Muslims in quite significant numbers to kill Westerners even if that means laying down their own lives.
Millions more Muslims evidently consider these Islamist extremists to be heroes and martyrs, even if they would not themselves kill and be killed. Far from taking the lead in condemning such killing as crime that has nothing to do with religious faith, Muslim clerics and preachers tend to justify or excuse it, solidifying resentment. The mindset therefore spreads throughout the Muslim world that the West has a deliberate policy to wipe out Islam. In the five years since 9/11, Islamists everywhere have made great progress in establishing another of the great simplistic, indeed absolutely false, Us-and-Them divides.
In the 1990s I used to be invited to lecture on the Arabs and Muslims, their societies and politics. On one such occasion, someone in the audience asked me if Islamism was about to replace Communism, and we would have to fight it accordingly, perhaps in open warfare. I answered that no, this was improbable, as the Islamist vision of the world did not correspond to reality, and was therefore unpersuasive, in the last resort a fantasy. The world could never again be ordered as it had been in the seventh century, and even Muslims beyond the reach of formal education must know it in their hearts. Besides, why would anyone in the West want to do anything so wanton and sterile as to wipe out Islam, even if that were possible? Rationality is common to all mankind, and it seemed obvious that reason must conclude that this particular Us-and-Them was as meaningless as Capitalists versus Communists, or Aryans versus sub-humans. 9/11 marked the moment when irrationality on the part of Islamists became the guiding force. Resentment turned into policy.
With hindsight, the resentment probably was bound to have vitality along lines of the kind. Listen to Winston Churchill, a far-sighted observer, writing in 1899 about Islam, or Mohammedanism as it was then called. “No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step, and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science…the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.” Leading Muslim thinkers at that time had already reached this conclusion. Science, they held, was something that the West had up its sleeve, like some sort of trick, to give it quite unfair power and glory.
Throughout the 20th century, Arab and Muslim countries could have utilized science to build nation-states with education and health systems that would have made them the equals of the West, and also made resentment redundant. Instead, the search for the missing power and glory brought wars and civil wars, generating failure, and with it much more of that overpowering sense of resentment. There is nothing any non-Muslim can do about it. Liberation of the spirit, rationality, has to come from within.
On 9/11 Islamists exploited the aeronautical products of science against the West which had manufactured what they themselves could not. Not that they lacked creativity, needless to say, only that their society had been too irrationally organized to allow for its expression. The irrationality is as prevalent as ever, and managing to occupy the driving seat of the emerging Us-and-Them universe. Pakistan has the nuclear bomb. At regular intervals, Iran announces the test of yet more and varied missiles, and nobody doubts that it is in the process of surreptitiously making its nuclear bomb. To pursue Churchill’s image, Islam is now sheltering in the strong arms of science. Resentment plus bomb equals danger to the whole world. 9/11 wrote that equation, and apparently nobody knows if or how it can be resolved.
– David Pryce-Jones is an NR senior editor and blogs on NRO’s “David Calling .”