‘We have seen that the desire for liberty and freedom is, indeed, universal, as men and women in the Middle East rise up to seize it.”
I admire Condoleezza Rice and thought she gave a powerful speech at the recent Republican National Convention. But that line was a fingernail on a blackboard, albeit a familiar one: During the Bush administration, I was privileged to serve on a bipartisan democracy-promotion committee reporting to the secretary of state. A baseline assumption was that everyone everywhere wants to be free.
The reality may be less comforting. While there are many people — not least in what we have come to call the “Muslim World” — who are weary of despots, there are others who are not impressed when they see Americans and Europeans freely picking and choosing their beliefs like diners at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Totalitarianism provides an alternative. In the current century, totalitarianism’s most energetic expression is Islamism. Whereas Nazism and Fascism were predicated on the supremacy of particular races and nations, and Communism on the supremacy of a particular class, Islamism asserts the supremacy of a religion and those who embrace it.
Islamists are inspired by Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian intellectual who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and who declared, simply and plainly, that “it is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its laws on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”
Among those laws as the Islamists interpret them: Insulting Islam, its scriptures, or its Prophet is forbidden to everyone everywhere. Infidels may not offend Muslims. Those who violate these laws are to be punished. Islamists find it hypocritical, to say the least, when Americans acknowledge that a video disrespecting Islam is “disgusting and reprehensible,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, or assert that it is wrong “to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims,” as a statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo phrased it, but then fail to bring to justice those responsible, and take no actions to prevent such crimes from recurring in the future.
Islamism is not a monolithic movement. In addition to the Muslim Brothers, there are those who call themselves jihadis, implying that they are Islamic warriors wielding swords — and RPGs, IEDs, suicide vests, and nuclear weapons if they can get them.
There also are those who call themselves Salafis, a term indicating identification with the prophet Mohammed, his companions, and early followers, who were, without question, among history’s greatest conquerors. They founded a colonial empire as vast as that of Rome, spreading what they proclaimed was the one true faith, displacing Zoroastrianism in Persia, Hinduism in the Indus Valley, Buddhism in Afghanistan, and Christianity in Egypt, Constantinople, and the Balkans.
This great empire endured until the early 20th century. With its collapse came the rise of what Islamists see as a Judeo-Christian — or “Zionist-Crusader” — empire which, on September 11, 2001, was dealt a mighty blow. We should have anticipated that on every anniversary of that date attempts would be made attempts to slaughter Americans — whether or not, as reported, “the US State Department had credible information . . . that American missions may be targeted.”
Islamists find it useful, when recruiting and inciting rioters, to cite grievances. In the age of the Internet, such grievances are always close at hand. This time around, it was an obscure and amateurish online video made by a strange individual who happens to be an Egyptian Christian living in America (not an “Israeli-American” as first reported). But the notion, articulated by White House press secretary Jay Carney and many in the media, that the violence we’ve seen throughout much of the Middle East was “in reaction to a video” is based either on ignorance or delusion.
As Husain Haqqani, a scholar, former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., and anti-Islamist Muslim, phrased it: “Protests orchestrated on the pretext of slights and offenses against Islam have been part of Islamist strategy for decades.” For Islamists, “every perceived affront to Islam is an opportunity to exploit a wedge issue for their own empowerment.” The Islamists themselves publicize such material “for radical effect . . . fanning the flames of Muslim victimhood.”
Note that the slaughter of more than 20,000 Syrians by the Assad regime has not produced similar protests on the Arab street; nor does the Taliban’s barbarism, including, for example, throwing acid in the faces of little girls daring to attend school; and al-Qaeda suicide bombers and Iranian-backed death squads in Iraq never produced such protests. On the contrary, in Muslim countries and much of the Western media as well, such carnage was — and still is — blamed on the U.S.
Even before I learned of the killing of the American ambassador in Benghazi and the storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, it seemed to me that our commemorations of the 9/11/01 attacks have become exercises in self-deception. Of course it is appropriate to remember victims and pay tribute to first-responders. But did you hear any government official or major media figure say what should by now be obvious: that on a September morning eleven years ago, America lost a battle in a global conflict that began much earlier and continues to this day? On television and in the editorial pages of newspapers there was almost no discussion of who our enemies are, what they believe, what goals they seek to achieve, and what strategies they are pursuing. There was no debate about the policies that can best defend “liberty and freedom.”
On September, 11, 2012, the front page of the New York Times had not a single article on the attacks or the anniversary, but a piece on page 17 described “a growing feeling that it may be time to move on.” The day before, there was an op-ed by former Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald charging that President Bush could have prevented the 2001 assault had he “reacted with urgency” to warnings provided by the CIA — warnings that gave no indication of where or when the attacks would take place. Eichenwald wrote that “Mohamed al-Kahtani, a Saudi believed to have been assigned a role in the 9/11 attacks, was stopped at an airport in Orlando, Fla., by a suspicious customs agent and sent back overseas on Aug. 4. Two weeks later, another co-conspirator, Zacarias Moussaoui, was arrested on immigration charges in Minnesota after arousing suspicions at a flight school. But the dots were not connected, and Washington did not react.” How should Washington have reacted, Kurt? Should Bush have ordered al-Kahtani and Moussaoui arrested and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques if that’s what would have been necessary to make them talk?
On the morning of September 11, 2012, NBC’s Today show featured Kim Kardashian’s mother discussing breast implants. The producers did not bother to cut away to the moment of silence that was being observed elsewhere in New York City. Even Foreign Policy magazine featured an article by Juliette Kayyem, a former Obama administration official now teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, headlined “Our Foolish Obsession with Stopping the Next Attack.” She argued: “It is time to make [9/11] personal again. . . . The burden of tragedy is private.” Silly me, thinking this had something to do with national security. I guess if I were at Harvard — which, coincidently, has received millions of Saudi petro-dollars — I’d know better.
“By the end of 2014, the longest war in our history will be over,” President Obama said at a 9/11 memorial service at the Pentagon, referring to his plan to pull troops out of Afghanistan, where the Taliban — allies and hosts of al-Qaeda — has not been defeated.
Is it possible that Mr. Obama still does not understand that Afghanistan, too, is only a battle in the “longest war in our history,” a war that has flared up again in Libya, Egypt, and more than a dozen other Muslim countries? It is a war whose end is not yet in sight, and we cannot predict with confidence, given what we’ve seen and heard in recent days, which side will emerge victorious and which will be vanquished.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.