What are the causes and origins of terrorism?

The Al Qaeda terror network is at war with us. These terrorists, quite clearly, hate us and seek to do us harm. Osama bin Laden has called it a holy duty binding on every Moslem to kill every American within reach. In other words, he believes genocide against us is justified. Such hate is difficult for Americans to fathom, for we know ourselves to be a peaceable people. What, then, is the cause of such hatred? What are the grievances of the followers of Osama bin Laden which prompt them to commit mass murder of American civilians? Are they such that they could be appeased?

At a macro-historical level, the terrorists of Al Qaeda see themselves as holy warriors in the long history of conflict between Islam and the unbelievers—in particular, the unbelievers of the West, or Christendom. While we are now taught that the medieval Crusades were in their very nature a crime of intolerance (and it is surely true that the Crusaders committed innumerable shameful atrocities), we would do well also to recall that the Crusades were a belated act of strategic defense. For Mohammed was an "armed prophet," as Machiavelli put it. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Arab armies swept across the Christian lands of North Africa, converting peoples at the point of the sword. Crossing over into Europe at the Straits of Gibraltar, they conquered nearly the whole of Spain, and their advance into Western Europe was stopped only at the Battle of Tours (in central France) in 732. Spanish Christians fought for centuries to reclaim their country and to defend against successive Muslim invasions, succeeding finally only in the fifteenth century, after hundreds of years. This Spanish victory, the final liberation of Christian Spain from what were, in effect, Muslim imperialists or colonialists, is referred to by Osama bin Laden in his videotaped response to the September 11 bombings as the "tragedy of Andalusia."

Likewise in Eastern Europe, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the nations of Christendom were threatened in the Balkans by successive Muslim invasions. In 1683, the Turks penetrated as far as the gates of Vienna, where they were defeated by the heavy cavalry of the Polish king, Jan Sobieski. Centuries of war and popular uprisings in the Balkans eventually liberated Christian peoples from the "Turkish yoke." By the end of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was the "sick man of Europe," while Europe reached its imperialist zenith.

These are hardly "current events," but it is necessary to revisit such history in order to understand the background to the grievances which animate Al Qaeda. Their deepest grievance is the worldly success of the West, or Christendom, and the relative decline in the power and prestige, the splendor and dynamism of Islamic civilization over the past four centuries. By the end of the First World War, nearly the whole of the Muslim world had fallen under one form or another of colonial administration by Western powers. Since the mid-twentieth century, the Islamic lands have recovered their sovereignty, but there has been little evidence of an Islamic civilizational renaissance. Instead, Islamic (and especially, Arab) societies remain backward, their economies stagnant even when artificially inflated with a glut of oil wealth, their political systems corrupt. The seedbed of terror is a profound frustration with this state of affairs. While only a very few respond to this frustration with terrorism, the underlying frustration is widely shared in the Muslim world.

Some academic commentators shift the burden of argument, as it were. They alter the question about the origin and cause of terrorism to ask: What have we Americans done to bring this hatred upon ourselves? They say that we can never eliminate the terrorist threat until we eliminate the "root causes" of terrorism, and it is suggested that America is complicit in these "root causes." In this way, the terrorists are relieved of their responsibility for their actions while we are "held responsible" for an imputed complicity in the conditions which generate terrorism. In the early 1990s, similar academic experts said similar things about urban crime in America. They said then that crime rates could not be reduced until "root causes" —such as poverty and racial injustice—were addressed. Mayor Giuliani in New York did not listen to such advice. Perceived grievances are endless, and whatever grievances one might have cannot justify the resort to crime, he reasoned. Civilized life required a forceful effort to restore public order. Consequently, the mayor reformed policing practices and aggressively confronted even low-level crimes; in a few short years he succeeded in drastically reducing crime in that city. New York was once again a livable place. So, too, with the current terrorist attacks on the United States. Whatever may be the grievances of the terrorists, they cannot justify this horrible crime.

Those who speak of the need to address the "root causes" of terrorism do not propose, of course, to hand Spain over to a Muslim emirate. Rather, trained in various forms of Marxist analysis, such academics tend to see religion as a "superstructure," with economic relations as the underlying causal factor. Thus, they insist we must do something to ameliorate unjust systems of economic distribution in Arab lands.

There is a major problem with such analysis. Osama bin Laden is himself a multi-millionaire, and his closest lieutenants are educated members of the professional classes. Those who fill the rosters of the Al Qaeda terrorist network appear to be drawn not from the "wretched of the earth" in Muslim lands, but rather from the privileged sons of the middle class. In many cases, they have benefited from international travel and Western education. Often, their family backgrounds are relatively secular, even modern. A wholesale redistribution of wealth to the poor of Arab lands would not appreciably affect the life prospects of those who are now drawn into a life of terror. Therefore, it is simply mistaken to view economics as the root cause which has mobilized these terrorists against us.

It is, however, fair to say that the political structures of the Arab world leave much to be desired when judged by our Western standards. Middle Eastern regimes are divided in the main between party dictatorships such as the Baathist regimes of Iraq and Syria; theocratic oligarchies such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Sudan; military regimes such as Egypt and Pakistan; and hereditary monarchies such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. While the monarchical regimes have made modest experiments in democracy by instituting "consultative councils" rather than parliaments, there is a general—and justified—anxiety among Arab elites about democracy getting "out of hand."

Perhaps a good analogy is Germany in the 1930s. In that case, hopes for stable political, economic, and social development were threatened by the rise of revolutionary parties of the left and right, parties which found popular appeal under conditions of economic dislocation, the delegitimization of traditional authorities, and historical grievance. Ultimately, the Nazi Party seized control of German society after winning an electoral plurality. Totalitarianism, world war, and genocide ensued. The popular American television program The West Wing advanced an analogy that Islamic extremists are to Islam as the Ku Klux Klan is to Christianity. A far better analogy would be that Al Qaeda is to Arab society what the Nazis were to German society. Thus, progressive American academics who argue for more democracy in the Middle East must pause to consider exactly what sort of policies might be instituted by "democratic" regimes in the Arab world. The Taliban in Afghanistan, like the Nazis, also rode to power on popular support—and they at once proceeded to oppress minorities at home and harbor ruthless terrorists intent on murdering Americans abroad. Can America, can humanity, have any interest in seeing such a "democratic" outcome?

But moreover, there is a deep hypocrisy evident when left-leaning academics insist that the crime of September 11 is some kind of just recompense for American support for non-democratic regimes in the Middle East. Such progressives routinely denounce American imperialism—but here they evidently propose a kind of wholesale imperialism which would be breathtaking in its scope. They appear to believe that we have the responsibility, and the power, to utterly remake societies half a world away, societies about which we obviously know very little. But America has never succeeded in "nation-building." We were twice successful at what might be called "state-rebuilding"—in the cases of post-war Germany and Japan, but in both cases, unconditional surrender following American victory in total war was the enabling condition for our success. No such conditions now exist or are likely to exist in our dealings with Muslim states, including even Afghanistan. All political action confronts the fact of human free will, and America is not omnipotent; our political leaders know that, but some commentators appear unacquainted with this elementary reality.

Prudence is the first law of international relations, and prudence now dictates that we eliminate the immediate threat to American lives hiding in Afghanistan and in covert cells around the world. It may later prove necessary to widen our war to "end" other regimes that similarly support the terrorist war against us. We are fortunate to have in the White House today a leadership which understands these realities and which has the courage to act in response to them.