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September 17, 2001

Incurable hate v. the modern world
We are targeted not because of what we do but because of what we are

By Clifford Orwin
National Post


In the cold, hard light of day following last week's unspeakable atrocities, the first necessity is to know our enemy. Just what kind of enemy is Islamic terrorism -- and of what is it the enemy? In the last six days, we have heard four common diagnoses that are less than helpful.

1. Islamic terrorists are "criminal madmen." Criminals they certainly are; would they were no more than madmen. When that's what we call them, however, we establish not their incomprehensibility but merely our incomprehension.

Islamic terrorists are willing to die in order to kill those they regard as enemies of God. Both their courage and their cowardice are boundless: They will make any sacrifice themselves, and inflict any horror on innocent civilians. (To them there are no "innocent civilians.")

While a horrible anachronism from our point of view, they are not psychotic. Given their belief in a certain strain of Islam, their behavior makes perfect sense. True, this all rests on an interpretation of the Koran repudiated by modern Muslims, but these Muslims are not modern.

The madness diagnosis may also lead us to underestimate our foes and the seriousness of the challenge they pose. Madmen self-destruct, but fanatics possess virtues we moderns will be hard put to match: commitment, endurance and an unwavering refusal to retreat.

2. We must attack the "root causes" of the problem. Islamic terrorism results from an unequal distribution of the world's goods; if we were nicer, so would they be. As I will argue below, this view demonstrates a grave misunderstanding of the enemy. It is much too late in the day for social work.

3. Islamic terrorism represents an attack on freedom or democracy or capitalism. These views are wrong and too narrow.

4. Islamic terrorism represents an attack on civilization itself. This view is wrong and too broad.

No Islamic terrorist understands himself to be attacking freedom, democracy or capitalism, none of which matter to him anyway. These may be why we cherish our societies; they are not why he attacks them. Nor, however, is he attacking civilization itself. He is attacking our civilization. It is modernity he fears and hates.

What the Islamic terrorist attacks is what he sees in us, not what we see in ourselves. Where we see a secular commercial state, with its freedom, equality, tolerance, prosperity, he sees Godlessness, plutocracy and boundless licence, self-indulgence and vice. In a word, the Great Satan. America is at its head, but all modern countries are its limbs, and by targeting the World Trade Center, the terrorists assured that no modern country would be spared the loss of its citizens. That, too, was crucial to the symbolism of their vile slaughter.

And that is why being nicer will not help. It is not because of what we do but of what we are that radical Islam see us as its deadly enemy. The error of the "root causes" school is to suppose that what dissatisfies radical Muslims is that we have not given them a big enough piece of modernity. In fact, what animates them is revulsion against modernity.

Inner city youths are poor, which helps explain their delinquency. Islam, however, is fabulously rich, or should be. We have already shared vast sums of our wealth with it. For decades now, billions of our dollars have flowed into its coffers, just because it sits atop the world's largest oil deposits. True, that vast wealth has been misdistributed, and many millions of Muslims live in poverty. And such inequities do play into the hands of the fundamentalists.

But these inequities are not our fault, and there is nothing we can do to address them. We do not govern those countries. And since right now any redistribution would benefit the classes most loyal to the radical Islamists, it would not help our situation in the least. True, if all the Middle East were to become wealthy, it would hatch fewer fundamentalists. But for the same reasons it nourishes so many fundamentalists, it will not become wealthy. And even if it could become more wealthy some day, that is up to the Muslims, not us, and it would be the work of generations or centuries. The terrorists are a present and urgent danger.

There is only one really nice thing we moderns could do for radical Islam, only one bone we could throw it large enough to matter to it at all -- but it has nothing to do with global redistribution. We could abandon Israel. That would delight the fundamentalists, and not just by stoking their feverish hopes for Israel's destruction. They would rejoice at our betrayal of the one state in the Middle East that is our state, which they hate every bit as much because it is modern as because it is Jewish. Encouraged by this sign of our weakness, they would press their attack on us with more confidence than ever.

Throughout the far-flung realms of Islam, fundamentalism confronts accommodation with modernity. This is an inter-Islamic struggle. The ultimate issue for Osama bin Laden and his ilk is the seductive appeal of modernity to Muslims, and it is this against which they fight their powerful rear-guard action. They seek to wrest the Middle East not only from outsiders, but from all within Islam whom they deem disloyal. Israel is the spearhead of modernity in the Middle East, but even had it never come into being, the inter-Islamic struggle would be raging and fundamentalism would target the West as the source of the modern disease. To bin Laden, after all, even the Saudi rulers, who regard themselves as strict fundamentalists, are hopelessly corrupt and compromised due to their qualified co-operation with modernity. So, of course, are all tolerant and peace-loving Muslims, whether they dwell in the East or the West. The years to come will be delicate ones, as we in North America balance the requirements of combating a well entrenched terrorist conspiracy with those of respecting the civil liberties of our innocent Muslim populations.

Make no mistake about it. The stakes here are the highest. Never before has modernity itself staggered under the blows of anti-modern forces. Since the triumph of the Enlightenment, only modernity had enjoyed the power to imperil modernity, and its deepest wounds were self-inflicted: the world wars, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the environmental crisis. True, as modernity extended its sway in the world, initially in the form of imperialism, it encountered much spirited resistance. The Sepoy Rebellion convulsed India, and the revolt of the Mahdi temporarily expelled Britain from the Sudan. The Boxers sought to drive all Western powers from China. But these places were far away: Life at home ran in its normal course. The Vandals had sacked Rome, but that was when its empire was tottering, and an ever expanding modernity was more powerful even than Rome had been. Surely the enraged Sepoys were not a threat to sack London, slaughtering men, women and children as had befallen the British captives at Cawnpore. Well, this week they did just that. Terror struck the heartland of modernity from its periphery, confounding all confidence in the security of daily life. That's why haters of the West have greeted the news with such a sunny face, from Noam Chomsky all the way down to Naomi Klein.

Are there grounds for optimism in this struggle? Not only Canadians but modern peoples throughout the world, while grieving their own losses, have expressed solidarity with the Americans. The Americans have rallied to their flag and their task. As Robert Fulford noted in these pages, the valour of the New York City police, firefighters and paramedics, from middle-aged officers to the youthful rank and file, was a stern rebuke to those who muse on the West's incurable decadence. You may have seen Larry King's interview with the young firefighter, bruised and exhausted, recounting the horrors he had seen, the mangled bodies and the deaths of so many of his comrades ("great men, very great men"), but vowing in that he would remain in his vocation for as many years as the force would have him. George W. Bush, no orator, rose to the occasion with a truly moving speech, and that America is modernity's most religious nation has never been so abundantly clear. It will need that, and much more, in the years to come.

Heed those leaders who warn that the struggle will be a long one. Never has modernity been so ubiquitous, but for that very reason, never has opposition to it been so determined. Nor has it ever been so vulnerable in its extreme porousness on the one hand and utter dependence on complex technology on the other. And because modernity has progressed so far, even its enemies have easy access to its vast powers of destruction. Nothing delights them more than to turn modernity's resources against itself.

The way ahead is murky and treacherous. A new kind of war, a new kind of enemy, neither of which the West is prepared to fight. Any support from non-modern countries will likely be lukewarm at best. As the Muslim world watches to see which way things will go, every victory of the radicals will bring new adherents to their side. (Last week's horrible triumph will have done so already: What better confirmation that Allah has marked the Great Satan for destruction?) But so, too, will our vigorous response, as the Muslims of the Middle East close ranks in the face of attacks from a foreign enemy. And every attack on them over there is sure to provoke an attempted counterattack on us over here. Most of all, the struggle will be long because modernity will not go away and neither will radical Islam.



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