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
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
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
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
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