Whoa Unto Us

By Leonard Fein

Published April 07, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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Whoa unto us. That’s “whoa,” not woe. We’re in a kind of sucking swamp just now.

Think about Hamas, and experience dismay. Think about Washington and Baghdad and experience despair. Think about Iran’s announcement that it now has ballistic missiles with multiple warheads that can be independently targeted, and experience, well, righteous fear.

And by no means think about such “peripheral” issues as global warming or Darfur; how much, after all, can a body absorb? The temptation to hunker down into crisis mode is very great. But it is really time to slow down and try for rational assessment.

Item: The new Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniya, reportedly asserted, “No plan will ever work without a guarantee, in exchange for an end to hostilities by both sides, of a total Israeli withdrawal from all the land occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem; the release of all our prisoners; the removal of all settlers from all settlements, and recognition of the right of all refugees to return.” This comes very close to the classic definition of chutzpah: the boy who kills his parents and then asks for clemency from the court on the grounds that he’s an orphan.

“An end to hostilities” is not yet peace and does not at all imply recognition of Israel’s legitimacy; it is no more than an armistice. And even that, says Haniya, can only happen if Israel first concedes every self-destructive demand of his terrorist movement.

Item: Henry Luce famously announced in 1945 the dawn of “the American Century.” Well, that century has run its course. It ended with the American invasion of Iraq, an invasion so misconceived and so mismanaged that future historians will regard it as the beginning of “the American Decline.” No, we are not in freefall, but neither does one need a seismograph to measure the shocks and aftershocks that have ended and are ending our century four decades before its scheduled time.

Item, more pressing than all the rest: It is unfashionable, politically grossly incorrect, to buy into the “clash of civilizations” understanding of the relationship between Islam and the West. But it becomes more and more difficult to resist the idea.

When the Islamic world reacted as it did to the offensive cartoons, that surely suggested a fundamental difference in worldview. And when Afghanistan’s clerics demanded the death penalty for an apostate, and no senior Islamic figure, religious or political, saw fit to denounce the demand, more fuel was added to the fire of the clash. And these episodes come against a background crowded with suicide bombers whose parents celebrate their martyrdom, the Salman Rushdie fatwa, the Hamas covenant, beheadings and other atrocities in Iraq.

Who can pretend — who in the West, that is — to understand all this? So we repair to the notion of a clash of civilizations, which provides us with a convenient cover: If, indeed, there is such a clash, then how can we be expected to understand it? “They” are fundamentally different from us; what more does one need to know?

Much more, as it turns out. One needs to know, but does not, how it is that so many of America’s Muslims seem so readily to have absorbed American values of pluralism and tolerance. One needs to know the true status of Islamism worldwide.

Most of all, one needs a coherent strategy of response. Appointing Karen Hughes to manage the problem of America’s “image” in the Muslim world is very nearly irrelevant; the American problem is only a piece of the larger problem, and in any case has less to do with America’s image than with America’s reality. We cannot casually dismiss the relevance of Abu Ghraib and other similar indignities.

The real question, then, is the degree to which America and its allies, working quietly, can craft a coalition of Muslims who are offended by the behavior of their co-religionists, and are ready to say so. The world’s Muslims are not a 1.5 billion-person mob, even if that is how many in the West see them; they contain enormous internal variety.

But at the moment, the variety is overwhelmed by the mob. And no one appears to be seeking to build the needed coalition, a task that would require a sustained investment of energy and intelligence.

It would require, as well, a frank recognition that our left hand is often opposed to our right hand. Our left hand, for example, makes nice to the Saudi regime, on whom we depend for some measure of reliability in our oil supply. Our right hand looks at the Saudis and scratches our head: Can these be depended on for serious leadership of a more moderate Islam? What of Egypt, so central to the Muslim world, so obstinately undemocratic, so likely were it to turn from its current authoritarianism toward democracy to veer toward radical Islamism?

And so forth.

But unless we are prepared for a century and more of conflict, of a war that knows no victor but only victims, what choice have we? The question really does not come down to whether or not there is a genuine clash of civilizations. Whatever one chooses to call the bloody misunderstandings of the moment, they are not “merely” the product of a singular Osama bin Laden and his followers.

The mobs that protested the cartoons and the mobs that kept silent when death was demanded for the apostate are not Al Qaeda enthusiasts; they are part of a culture that is in many ways alien to our own. But: Some of the differences are not merely inevitable, but also palatable. The rest? Louder, louder, new voices; slowly, slowly, new bridges.

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