What are the jihadists rebelling against? To paraphrase Marlon Brando in The Wild One, “Whadda you got”?
In Raymond Ibrahim’s edited The Al Qaeda Reader, which collates the various writings and recordings of the late Osama bin Laden and his henchman Dr. al-Zawahiri, over 20 purported pretexts are offered for the Islamists’ assault on the West that culminated in the September 11, 2001 attacks. They run the gamut from the failures to sign the Kyoto accords to the absence of campaign financing reform.
The point is that the details shift and change according to the political moment—often predicated from cutting and pasting together the global media’s reporting of current protest and dissent within the West.
Yet the impulse remains the same: a deep-seated anger, driven by envy and a sense of inferiority, that the so-called West enjoys inordinate power, disproportionate wealth, and undeserved influence, at least to a greater degree than a far more deserving Islamic world. How can this be, given the once great Caliphate at Baghdad, the glories of al-Andalus, and the heroic expulsion of the Crusaders from Muslim lands?
Again, the guilty suspects are legion. Sometimes the Jews caused The Fall. Sometimes the culprit is the modernist age of creeping secularism, of women with scanty clothes and boys with long hair. And, of course, the Americans and Europeans did it.
And why not a “they did it”?
Otherwise, the true causes of Islamic disparity require too much introspection that might suggest that there is too much of bin Ladenism rather than too little in the Islamic world. The reason that a similarly once poor South Korea is not now Egypt, or that a once impoverished Chile is not Syria is not difficult to fathom, but apparently toxic to contemplate. In short, greater liberality between the sexes, freer markets, increasing transparency, consensual government, the rule of law and property rights, meritocracy over tribalism, and religious tolerance tend to promote prosperity and security in the same manner that their antitheses retard it.
A final thought: apparently not everyone is so culpable. One could argue that a Russia or China is not exactly tolerant of Islamic religious expression or Muslim immigrants, at least in the Western liberal fashion of the United States. But both dictatorships are unpredictable, not too concerned about global public opinion, and have some record of brutal suppression. That fact suggests that another argument for jihadism is simply that Islamists believed that at one time they could get away with anti-Western terrorism in a way not so true elsewhere of more repressive regimes, or perhaps even now of the West.
We all accept the antidotes for reform: more open markets and prosperity in the Middle East, greater constitutional government in Islamic nations, a free press, and reform among fundamentalist Islamists. But until an indigenous, successful Arab Spring, or Persian Awakening, or Cedar Revolution is established, the West seems more or less relieved that the Islamic world is turning its wrath on itself rather than on others.