The Blog

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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.