London. — America had its September 11th, Madrid its March 11th. On July 7th, terror reminiscent of Germany’s World War II Blitz revisited London. Four suicide bombers hit three subway trains in the Underground and a London bus. Nearly 60 people were killed and hundreds were injured.
The shocking fact was that three of the bombers were British-born Muslim citizens of Pakistani descent. Indeed, one of the bombers was highly proficient in the most English of games — cricket. Each had been seduced by the siren’s song of radical Islam and the cult of jihadist martyrdom that, in this case, leapt borders as readily as Superman soared over tall buildings. That this suicidal conversion occurs is something that most people cannot comprehend.
To a point, we have been there before. Between the world wars, Communism and Nazism attracted their share of acolytes. Many of today’s fiercest American neo-conservativesseriously flirted with socialism and Communism. And celebrities such as Charles Lindberg and the Duke of Windsor found much to admire in Hitler’s Germany. Fortunately, that appeal had limits. Jihadism may not.
Why this conversion to suicide bombing happens raises a chilling possibility. Is the West at war with Islam? For the moment, “with” means alongside, not “against.” Western leaders — particularly President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair — have rightly and publicly maintained that we are not at war against Islam. They also properly regard Islam as a great religion and the vast majority of its practitioners as peaceful, law-abiding people. However, the same leaders remain silent on the powerful tensions and turmoil within Islam and to a large degree inside the Arab world and what danger that augurs for the West.
Tectonic change — fired in part by globalization, political, social and economic disenfranchisement and injustice, the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American, British and Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan (and U.S. support for Israel) and other powerful forces — is engulfing the region and religion. One result could be Islam’s first reformation in centuries. Or darker consequences could follow.
As Islam struggles to define relationships among religion, clergy and state; fundamentalism and how much is acceptable or mandatory; the place of women; and how to deal with, embrace or reject radicalism, these challenges spill over and hold powerful sway on huge chunks of geography and people. Islam is vast, stretching from the western tip of Africa to the eastern end of Indonesia, an area containing about 1.3 billion souls. That scope alone complicates and confuses how and where these tectonic changes will play out.
Against this context, Osama bin Laden and others like him seek to steal political power along with control of Saudi oil and Pakistani nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, autocratic regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and elsewhere struggle to retain power by repressing, usurping or exiling many who are or could become warriors in this jihad. And from Baghdad to Tel Aviv to London, suicide bombers have become foot soldiers in this jihad, with scores of madrassas and radical mosques to relay and amplify the message.
At home, tough questions loom. How many “sleepers” are lurking in the West where millions of Muslims reside? How do we identify potential Jihadists to prevent future attacks without resorting to infringements on civil liberties, such as during World War II when Japanese Americans were incarcerated in detention centers? Where next might they strike? Will they obtain weapons of mass destruction? These questions must be answered and soon.
The more serious challenge rests within Islam. This ongoing war means that we are in this conflict alongside mainstream Muslims. Their success or failure is ours. A jihadist republic armed with nuclear weapons, a chronic condition of possibly ubiquitous disruptive terrorist attacks and the fear and anxiety arising from these threats are all prospects to be avoided or prevented. Hence, as Islam and the Arab world find themselves in this cauldron of change, it is essential that the West understands this reality and engages to prevail. It is in our vital interest to win this colossal fight for the heart, soul and mind of both a religion and a crucially important region.
But how do we win? Can people who are sufficiently desperate or disgruntled to heed the jihadist message and turn to suicide and terror be contained? Can the jihadist message be invalidated and eliminated? The only answer is to mitigate the causes of jihadism.
This column has proposed means and ways to deal with jihadism’s causal elements. So far the strategy has been to address the symptoms by eliminating the terrorists rather than reasons for the terror. A different intellectual and political strategy is sorely needed. The risk of failing to make this strategic transition is to find ourselves not at war with but at war against Islam. That would be a disaster.
Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.