The war being waged against the West also is a war against modernity. For nearly a thousand years, Islam reigned supreme in much of the world. However, with the coming of the modern era — generally seen as beginning in the 18th century -0 Christendom outpaced the Muslim world by almost every measure. Islamists believe the destruction of modernity is necessary if Islam is to regain the power to which it is entitled.
“Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war,” the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini wrote back in 1942. “Those [who say this] are witless.
“Those who study jihad will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world,” the ayatollah wrote.
More than three decades later, Ayatollah Khomeini would put theory into practice, leading a revolution not just against the shah of Iran, but also against America and other modern liberal democracies.
Modernity went hand in hand with the Industrial Revolution - the development of a vast array of mechanical, technological and scientific inventions. Islamic societies did not demonstrate great aptitude in this area. That was among the reasons they were left behind economically, with the notable exception of those regimes that had oil underfoot. The Industrial Revolution made oil valuable. Westerners have found it, pumped it, refined it and used it to fuel Western-produced machines ever since.
An important component of the Industrial Revolution was mechanized weaponry. Initially, this also was to the West’s advantage. Recent acts of terrorism - a passenger plane manufactured in America becomes an Islamist missile, a cell phone made in Europe detonates an explosive device - have turned the technological tables, to what extent it’s too soon to assess.
Throughout most of history, war was seen as glorious - at least by those who wielded power. No one expressed this view more eloquently than Genghis Khan, who rhapsodized: “Man’s highest joy is victory: to conquer his enemies; to pursue them; to deprive them of their possessions; to make their beloved weep; to ride on their horses; and to embrace their wives and daughters.”
To modern people, such sentiments sound absurd. The terrible conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries caused most Westerners to treasure peace and regard war as hellish and a last resort. However, it is mirror-imaging to assume all cultures have come to see war the same way.
The Ayatollah Khomeini explained what he interpreted to be the proper Muslim perspective: “Islam says: Kill [the non-Muslims], put them to the sword and scatter [their armies]. … People cannot be made obedient except with the sword! The sword is the key to paradise, which can be opened only for the holy warriors!”
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are committed Khomeinists. If you understand this, you understand it is senseless to attempt to engage them by holding out the prospect of peace. As the scholar Fouad Ajami recently wrote, for militant Islamists, truces and negotiated agreements are “at best a breathing spell before the fight for their utopia is taken up again.”
It is unserious to say - as former National Security Council staff members Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett did in recent New York Times Op-Ed column - that America’s problems with Iran derive from Tehran’s “legitimate concern about American intentions.”
Only willful self-delusion can explain their insistence that President Obama must be “willing to work with Tehran to integrate [Hamas and Hezbollah] into lasting settlements of the Middle East’s core political conflicts.” Settlements based on compromises rather than conquest and victory are not what militant jihadists want.
It is wishful to think Iran and other Islamist regimes seek cordial relations with what they view as the “satanic West.” Nevertheless, one American administration after another has acted as though the truth were otherwise.
On his final European tour as president a year ago, George W. Bush said Tehran’s rulers must change their ways if they want closer ties with the United States and Europe. “They can either face isolation, or they can have better relations with all of us,” he said.
One can imagine Iran’s rulers shaking their heads in bewildered amusement. What they seek is not our friendship. It is our submission. We confuse the two at our peril.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.