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Understanding Islam

Even the best academics can't decide which parts of Islam give rise to terror, let alone what the proper American response should be.

11:01 PM, Jan 20, 2002 • By DAVID BROOKS
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THE ETHICS AND PUBLIC POLICY CENTER has undertaken a heroic and important task: getting reporters to think about religion. A few years ago a bunch of journalists and I were flown up to Maine to learn about evangelical Christianity from a group of academics. It was an intriguing and coherent lesson on the roots and nature of evangelism from scholars such as Grant Wacker of Duke.

Then, last week, another bunch of us were flown down to Florida to learn about Islam. This conference was fascinating, but the scholars--who are tops in their fields--presented three quite different versions of Islam and the threat the West now faces in the war on terror. And I would guess that none of their descriptions fully satisfied the journalists in the audience.

This is really quite remarkable. We are four months into a conflict with some sort of foe, but there is no clear conception, amongst elite opinion at least, about the nature of our enemy or the stakes of the fight.

First we heard from Harvard's Samuel Huntington, who argued that the al Qaeda terrorists are motivated primarily by religion. They have no coherent ideological or political program, Huntington claimed. What we are seeing, he said with characteristic sweep, is the decline of political ideology and the return of religion as a historical driving force. First-generation urbanites in the Arab world, he said, sometimes turn to religious creeds that sacralize purity and modesty as a response to the problems of modern life and to what is perceived as America's global cultural offensive. Religion becomes the justification for extreme violence.

Then came Roy Mottahedeh, also from Harvard, a celebrated scholar of Islamic history--though no Muslim himself. Mottahedeh argued that the al Qaeda terrorists cannot be understood as a religious threat, and do not reflect modern Islam, which he said was trending moderate and reformist. The Islamic learned men, he said, have very limited interest in the political world of nations, power politics, and constitutionalism. They are quietists, who neither oppose regimes nor endorse them. "Better 60 years of oppression than one day of disorder," is a common sentiment among such leaders, representing their desire for spiritual accomplishment over worldly pursuits.

During the 18th century, Mottahedeh said, European economic and political superiority became obvious to all, and proud Muslims reacted in one of two ways: either by searching for the secrets of European success or by veering toward an allegedly purer and more zealous form of Islamic militancy. But, the professor argued, the zealots inevitably drove themselves to the edge of society and to oblivion. In the Islamic world today (only about a fifth of which is Arab), he argued, the moderates have the upper hand. Books by moderate reformers, many of whom now live in the Islamic diaspora, are popular across the Muslim world, though the authors are sometimes oppressed by autocratic governments. What's needed, Mottahedeh concluded, is a new Fulbright plan that would bring Islamic and non-Islamic people together to build understandings and a commitment on the part of the United States to champion democracy in this region, through Radio Liberty-style broadcasts and Civic Forum-type activist organizations.

The final main speaker was Bruce Hoffman of the Rand Corporation, a leading expert on terrorism. He understands al Qaeda to be primarily a political movement. Osama bin Laden, he said, is basically interested in toppling the Saudi regime. Hoffman acknowledged that there are other motives mixed in, but maintains that bin Laden primarily attacks America to build support for his war on that regime. Religion is a means to mold cultural cohesion and create a cult of personality around the leader. Bin Laden is actually better seen as a CEO of terrorism than as a religious fanatic.

Well, other than that, Mr. Roshomon, how did you like the conference?

It's clear that the main ideological battle in the United States will be to define the nature of the enemy. I suspect most Americans would think that Sam Huntington errs in giving too little weight to the ideological threat Osama bin Laden represents. The terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--political, not religious, targets. While it's true they may not have worked out a political program for taking over the world, the way, say, the Communists and fascists did, they clearly despise political pluralism, democracy, and the economic and political might that emerges from Western power relations. Hating a political system is a political act.

Many will also have a hard time accepting Mottahedeh's rosy picture of moderate reformers gaining the upper hand in the Arab world. It doesn't square with widespread support for terror organizations, the rabid rhetoric in the Middle Eastern media, the relatively sullen response to America's gains in Afghanistan. Recently, a State Department official who had spent his career in the Arab world came up to me and confessed that he hoped never to return there. He had concluded that many of the people he had tried to engage in dialogue were not interested in looking honestly at evidence and logic--some deeper set of passions had come to interfere with reason.

Nor does Hoffman's primarily political explanation satisfy. It too obviously leaves out, for example, the power of resentment and shame. If you are a proud citizen of the Arab world, you see all these culturally inferior civilizations racing ahead in political power and standard of living. The Jews in Israel come to your region and within a short while (by Middle Eastern standards) they are enjoying not only political and cultural freedoms, they have a per capita GDP that is 10 to 18 times higher than yours. Naturally you burn with shame and envy.

Other writers have made broader attempts to define the nature of the threat America faces: Bernard Lewis in a number of places, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit in the New York Review of Books, Daniel Pipes in Commentary, and many others. Defining the threat really is the challenge of the moment.

Two things we do know. George W. Bush has been clever in calling this a war on terrorism and a fight against the evil ones. By declaring war on the means of the attack rather than the motivation for the attack, he has elided this whole controversy. The vagueness of the phrase "the evil ones" does the same.

Second, there seems to be some agreement across many different schools that the United States needs to do more to encourage democracy in the Middle East, to cease its current role as defender of the status quo when that means defending autocrats. All three conference speakers mentioned this.

None of them, though, supported the idea of trying to topple regimes like Saddam Hussein's with military might. That might strike some like trying to win the Cold War with the USIA but without the Pentagon. Good luck.

More likely, it's going to take a lot more than Fulbright scholars to beat bin Laden, Saddam, and the rest of our foes, whoever they are and whatever the hell they represent.

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.