Some years before the September 11 attacks, I was invited to talk to a private group about Muslim fundamentalism.Such a way of thinking, I said and I believed, might last for a time but in the end must die away because it is irrational, and reason in the end comes to compel human behavior everywhere. In the audience was Frank Johnson, one of the clearest-minded journalists of the day, and he asked, “But are we going to have to fight them?” He had put his finger on it.
An effort of imagination is required to accept that people will kill you for no better reason than that you are who you are, and not because of anything you might have done. Of course Hitler and Stalin ordered the killing of millions on just these grounds, and many lives were lost in order to remedy the consequent breakdown in civilization. September 11 heralds another such breakdown, and it too will be hard to remedy.
In the manner of a Hitler or a Stalin, Arab and Muslim leaders day in and day out are calling for the murder of those they think are in their way, or whose deaths will somehow bring political advantage. President Ahmedinejad, for instance, Sheikh Qaradawi, or Saudi clerics and Palestinian imams are in the habit of promising genocide as though this were normal and not just a primitive response. Besides, they aren’t primitive, but educated, yet still condemning their subjects to injustice and a dangerous fate.
So the question becomes: Are the masses really convinced that they must do as they are told and become murderers of Westerners, or is the apparent hatred part of a strategy to protect themselves by pretending to hatreds they don’t feel? There is a paradox: Muslims who have come to have some experience of the West are the likeliest to hate it and resort to war against it. The majority who remain in their own countries are getting on with life like everyone else.
Intellectual and emotional separation has occurred, it seems to me, between Arab and Muslim leaders and those they claim to be leading (and this seems to be a factor in the uprisings of the Arab Spring). The leaders well understand that hatred of the West serves several expedient purposes, notably relieving the inferiority complex arising from comparisons between civilizations and also deflecting attention away from their own deficiencies. Islamists in general, the September 11 attackers, al-Qaeda itself, figures like Anwar al-Awlaki or the Fort Hood killer, are ideologues, brainwashed as the S.S. and the KGB once were to obey what is dictated to them from above.
In the last ten years there have been a number of Islamist outrages causing death and injury and many more that have been thwarted by good intelligence. Powerful voices in Washington and London argue that Islamist terrorists should be considered ordinary criminals, and therefore dealt with exclusively by the law. The numbers of such men, and their education, tell against a comforting interpretation of this kind. Islamists are never going to accept that they are mere wrongdoers unless they suddenly start conducting themselves as Westerners would like. September 11 was a declaration of war, and it will have to be fought to the finish.