Reversing the Tide of Radical Islam

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

“The world has changed,” Westerners often say, commenting on the events of September 11, but few Muslims echo that view. In dueling statements issued on October 7, the day the war in Afghanistan began, President George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden exemplified this contrast. Whereas Bush referred to the “sudden terror” that had descended on the United States just 27 days earlier, bin Laden reported that the Muslim world had experienced more than 80 years of “humiliation and disgrace” at American hands, during which its sons were killed and its sanctities defiled. Twenty-seven days versus 80 years sums up the difference between a stunned American sense of ruptured innocence and the brooding militant Islamic feeling of epochal betrayal and trauma. The Muslim world was not nearly so jolted by the death of more than 3,000 Americans as was the West.

9/11 vs. 11/9

The events of the brief three-month period following September 11 send a powerful and unambiguous message about the fortunes of militant Islam and the exercise of power.

If militant Islam achieved the acme of its achievement on 9/11, then 11/9 could be when the movement began its descent. The first date marked the peak of militant Islam, its day of greatest success in humiliating the West, causing death and panic. The second date, when the Taliban lost their first major city, marked an apparent turning point, with the West finding its resolve and its strength to deal with its new main enemy.

The marked contrast between these two dates has several implications for understanding the Muslim world. First, public opinion in the Muslim world is volatile, responding to developing events in an emotional, superficial, and changeable way. Second, as the Los Angeles Times notes, “popular support for militant Islam is not nearly so broad as was once believed.” The movement is loud and it is vociferous, but it does not command more than a small minority of the Muslim world’s active support. Third, militant Islam is a bit of a paper tiger—ferocious when unopposed but quite easily intimidated. Fourth, the so-called “street” has little bearing on developments. It rises up with much noise but without much consequence, unable to force governments to take its preferred actions. It dies down when its favorite causes fare poorly.

This is not to deny that much anger continues to be directed against the United States or that in some circles bin Laden retains his appeal. It is only to say that American strength and resolve make these sentiments less likely to become operational.

U.S. Policy Implications

For two decades—from the time Ayatollah Khomeini reached power in Iran in 1979 with “Death to America” as his slogan—U.S. embassies, planes, ships, and barracks have been assaulted, leading to hundreds of American deaths. These attacks took place around the world, especially in the Middle East and Europe, but also in the United States itself. In the face of this persistent assault, Washington barely responded. The policy through those years was to view the attacks as no more than a sequence of discrete criminal incidents, not as part of a sustained military assault on the country. This approach had several consequences, including

• Focusing on the arrest and trial of the dispensable characters who actually carried out violent acts, leaving the funders, planners, organizers, and commanders of terrorism to continue their work unscathed, prepared to carry out more attacks

• Relying primarily on such defensive measures as metal detectors, security guards, bunkers, police arrests, and prosecutorial eloquence—rather than on such offensive tools as soldiers, aircraft, and ships

• Seeing the terrorists’ motivations as criminal, ignoring the extremist ideologues involved

• Ignoring the fact that terrorist groups (and the states that support them) have declared war on the United States (sometimes publicly)

• Requiring that the U.S. government have levels of proof that can stand up in a U.S. court of justice before deploying military force, ensuring that in the vast majority of cases there would be a subdued response to the killing of Americans

As Muslims watched militant Islam hammer away at Americans and American interests, they could not but conclude that the United States, for all its resources, was tired and soft. Not knowing the nature of democracy—slow to be aroused but relentless when angered—they marveled at the audacity of militant Islam and its ability to get away with its attacks. This awe culminated in the aftermath of September 11, when Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leaders called openly for nothing less than the “extinction of America.” At that time, this did not seem beyond reach.

These ambitious claims shed light on the goals of the September 11 attacks. Although one cannot be sure of their purpose, it makes sense that they were intended to severely weaken the United States. Judging from militant Islam’s previous successes, Al Qaeda must have thought that it would get away with this attack with no more than the usual criminal probe. Further, having seen both the American unwillingness to absorb casualties and the damage the Afghanistan-based Islamists did to the Soviet Union a decade and more earlier, Al Qaeda probably thought that its hits would demoralize the American population and lead to civil unrest, perhaps even beginning a sequence of events that would eventually lead to the U.S. government’s collapse. If this was its thinking, it probably counted on the American police protecting government buildings, not tracking down Al Qaeda operatives.

How could bin Laden and his colleagues know that their acts would lead to a rousing call to arms? Why should 240 deaths in a Beirut barracks lead to no retaliation and just over 3,000 deaths on the East Coast mobilize the country in a way not seen since Pearl Harbor? One can hardly fault them for not having foreseen this shift. It has something to do with the mysterious forces of democracy and public opinion, about which they are highly ignorant.

Even less could they have understood that a paradigm shift took place on September 11, whereby terrorism left the domain of criminality and entered that of warfare. This change had many implications. It meant no longer targeting just the foot soldiers who actually carry out the violence but the organizations and governments standing behind them. It meant relying on the armed forces, not the police. It meant defense overseas rather than in American courtrooms. It meant dispensing with the unrealistically high expectations of proof so that when reasonable evidence points to a regime or organization having harmed Americans, U.S. military force can be deployed. It meant using force so that the punishment is disproportionately greater than the attack. It also meant that, as in conventional war, America’s military need not know the names and specific actions of enemy soldiers before fighting them. There is no need to know the precise identity of a perpetrator; in war, there are times when one strikes first and asks questions later.

It might seem mysterious that the military model was not adopted earlier, it being so obviously more appropriate than the criminal one. But the fact is, it is also much more demanding of Americans, requiring a readiness to spend money and lose lives over a long period. Force works only if it is part of a sustained policy, not a onetime event. Throwing a few bombs (such as was done against the Libyan regime in 1986 and against sites in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998) does not amount to a serious policy. Going the military route requires a long-term commitment that demands much from Americans over many years.

The pattern is clear: As long as Americans submitted passively to murderous attacks by militant Islam, this movement gained support among Muslims. When Americans finally took up arms to fight militant Islam, its forces were overwhelmed and its appeal quickly diminished. Victory on the battlefield, in other words, has not only the obvious advantage of protecting the United States but also the important side effect of lancing the anti-American boil that spawned those attacks in the first place.

The implication is clear: There is no substitute for victory. If the U.S. government wishes to weaken its strategic enemy, militant Islam, it must take two steps. First, continue the war on terror globally, using appropriate means, wherever militant Islam poses a threat: in Muslim-majority countries (such as Saudi Arabia), in Muslim-minority countries (such as the Philippines), and even in the United States itself. Secondly, as this effort brings success, Washington should promote moderate Muslims. Not only will they represent a wholesome change from the totalitarianism of militant Islam but they, and they alone, can address the trauma of Islam and propose ideas that will ease the way for one-sixth of humanity fully to modernize.

Ironically, although Muslims did not feel the impact of September 11 as intensely as did Westerners, it is they in the long run who might well be far more profoundly affected by it.