EUROPE'S GREAT RELIGIOUS WARS ended in 1648. Three and a half centuries is a long time, too long for us in the West to truly believe that people still slaughter others to vindicate the faith.
Thus in the face of radical Islamic terrorism that murders 6,000 innocents in a day, we find it almost impossible to accept at face value the reason offered by the murderers. Yet Osama bin Laden could not be clearer. Jihad has been declared against the infidel, whose power and influence thwart the triumph of Islam, and whose success and example--indeed, whose very existence--are an affront to the true faith. As a leader of Hamas declared at a rally three days after the World Trade Center attack, "the only solution is for Bush to convert to Islam."
To Americans, who are taught religious tolerance from the cradle, who visit each other's churches for interdenominational succor and solidarity, this seems simply bizarre. On September 25, bin Laden issues a warning to his people that Bush is coming "under the banner of the cross." Two weeks later, in his pre-taped post-attack video, he scorns Bush as "head of the infidels."
Can he be serious? This idea is so alien that our learned commentators, Western and secular, have gone rummaging through their ideological attics to find more familiar terms to explain why we were so savagely attacked: poverty and destitution in the Islamic world; grievances against the West, America, Israel; the "wretched of the earth"--Frantz Fanon's 1960s apotheosis of anti-colonialism--rising against their oppressors.
Reading conventional notions of class struggle and anti-colonialism into bin Laden, the Taliban, and radical Islam is not just solipsistic. It is nonsense. If poverty and destitution, colonialism and capitalism are animating radical Islam, explain this: In March, the Taliban went to the Afghan desert where stood great monuments of human culture, two massive Buddhas carved out of a cliff. At first, Taliban soldiers tried artillery. The 1,500-year-old masterpieces proved too hardy. The Taliban had to resort to dynamite. They blew the statues to bits, then slaughtered 100 cows in atonement--for having taken so long to finish the job.
Buddhism is hardly a representative of the West. It is hardly a cause of poverty and destitution. It is hardly a symbol of colonialism. No. The statues represented two things: an alternative faith and a great work of civilization. To the Taliban, the presence of both was intolerable.
The distinguished Indian writer and now Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul, who has chronicled the Islamic world in two books ("Among the Believers" and "Beyond Belief"), recently warned (in a public talk in Melbourne before the World Trade Center attack), "We are within reach of great nihilistic forces that have undone civilization." In places like Afghanistan, "religion has been turned by some into a kind of nihilism, where people wish to destroy themselves and destroy their past and their culture . . . to be pure. They are enraged about the world and they wish to pull it down." This kind of fury and fanaticism is unappeasable. It knows no social, economic, or political solution. "You cannot converge with this [position] because it holds that your life is worthless and your beliefs are criminal and should be extirpated."
This insight offers a needed window on the new enemy. It turns out that the enemy does have recognizable analogues in the Western experience. He is, as President Bush averred in his address to the nation, heir to the malignant ideologies of the 20th century. In its nihilism, its will to power, its celebration of blood and death, its craving for the cleansing purity that comes only from eradicating life and culture, radical Islam is heir, above all, to Nazism. The destruction of the World Trade Center was meant not only to wreak terror. Like the smashing of the Bamiyan Buddhas, it was meant to obliterate greatness and beauty, elegance and grace. These artifacts represented civilization embodied in stone or steel. They had to be destroyed.
This worship of death and destruction is a nihilism of a ferocity unlike any since the Nazis burned books, then art, then whole peoples. Goebbels would have marvelled at the recruitment tape for al Qaeda, a two-hour orgy of blood and death: image after image of brutalized Muslims shown in various poses of victimization, followed by glorious images of desecration of the infidel--mutilated American soldiers in Somalia, the destruction of the USS Cole, mangled bodies at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Throughout, the soundtrack endlessly repeats the refrain "with blood, with blood, with blood." Bin Laden appears on the tape to counsel that "the love of this world is wrong. You should love the other world...die in the right cause and go to the other world." In his October 9 taped message, al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman abu Ghaith gloried in the "thousands of young people who look forward to death, like the Americans look forward to living."
Once again, the world is faced with a transcendent conflict between those who love life and those who love death both for themselves and their enemies. Which is why we tremble. Upon witnessing the first atomic bomb explode at the Trinity site at Alamogordo, J. Robert Oppenheimer recited a verse from the Hindu scripture "Bhagavad Gita": "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." We tremble because for the first time in history, nihilism will soon be armed with the ultimate weapons of annihilation. For the first time in history, the nihilist will have the means to match his ends. Which is why the war declared upon us on September 11 is the most urgent not only of our lives, but in the life of civilization itself.
Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.
October 22, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 6