One Last Thing

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One Last Thing | Post-9/11 conflicts rooted in history

It's not just Afghanistan, Iraq and a "war on terror." It's the West vs. the Islamic world, a clash that has never abated.

By Jonathan Last

Soon after 9/11, the Bush administration labeled the conflict into which it plunged this country the "war on terror." But this is no more descriptive than calling the fight in Iraq a "war on IEDs." The more pressing question is: Are we, or are we not, engaged in a larger clash of civilizations?

If the answer is "We are," the clash long predates 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and George W. Bush. It predates America itself. It is a clash between Western civilization and the Islamic world.

Harvard professor Samuel Huntington first made this case in 1993, in his famous article "The Clash of Civilizations" in the journal Foreign Affairs. "Conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations has been going on for 1,300 years," he wrote. After the founding of Islam, Muslims spread their faith by the sword. Islam conquered North Africa and pushed into Europe, where it ruled in Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and parts of France. Twice, the forces of Islam laid siege to Vienna. For 1,000 years, Islam advanced and Christendom retreated.

As Pope Benedict XVI explains in his book Without Roots, the very concept of "Europe" emerged as a reaction to the surge of Islam. Not until the failure of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 did the Islamic tide recede definitively. For the next 300 years, Western civilization was ascendant and the Islamic world stagnated.

But the conflict between the two cultures never fully abated. Throughout the 20th century, Western countries tussled with Islamic states or their non-state proxies. And, as columnist Mark Steyn points out, when you gaze at conflicts around the globe today, the one constant is Islam. Muslims are fighting, or have recently fought, Jews in the Mideast, Hindus in Kashmir, Christians in Nigeria, atheists in Russia, Buddhists in Thailand and Burma, Catholics in the Philippines, and Orthodox Christians in the Balkans.

Some argue that these conflicts arise not from a clash of civilizations, but from specific grievances, such as the West's support of Israel. This is an unsatisfactory argument. In his 1990 essay "The Roots of Muslim Rage," professor Bernard Lewis pointed out: "The French have left Algeria, the British have left Egypt, the Western oil companies have left their oil wells, the westernizing shah has left Iran, yet the generalized resentment of the fundamentalists... against the West and its friends remains and grows and is not appeased."

The cause of conflict is not what the West does, but what the West is. Lewis gives two examples. When Israel was first founded, U.S. support was less than wholehearted. Instead, it was the Soviet Union that, through its proxy Czechoslovakia, sent Israelis arms to defend themselves in their first war. In 1956, the United States intervened to help force the British and French out of Egypt. Still, through the '50s and '60s, the Muslim world joined with the Soviets in resenting America.

In November 1979, Islamic terrorists took control of the Great Mosque in Mecca. In Islamabad, a Muslim mob was outraged. The response was to attack and burn - the U.S. Embassy. If Western opinion on the clash is divided, many Islamic voices are quite candid on the subject.
"The war with Israel is not about a treaty, a cease-fire agreement, Sykes-Picot borders, national zeal, or disputed borders," Ayman al-Zawahiri explained this year. "It is rather a jihad for the sake of God until the religion of God is established."

Zawahiri, of course, is an al-Qaeda leader. But the views of other Islamic leaders sound similar.

"Let the entire world hear me. Our hostility to the Great Satan is absolute," Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah said in 2002. "Death to America will remain our reverberating and powerful slogan."

Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed in 2005: "[We] will soon experience a world without the United States, and Zionism and will breathe in the brilliant time of Islamic sovereignty over today's world."

"It is not the world against Iraq. It is the West against Islam," wrote Safar Al-Hawali, dean of Islamic Studies at Umm Al-Qura University in Mecca. This last quote, however, is not from 2003 - it is from 1990, and Hawali was speaking about the first Gulf War.

Two lessons and three caveats here. Lesson one: When we face horrors such as the Beslan school massacre, the assassination of Theo van Gogh, the bombings in Bali, or the beheading of Daniel Pearl, we are seeing not a response to this policy or that action, but the latest episode in a long, historic struggle. Second: No matter how frightening, sometimes you must take your adversaries at their word.

First caveat: Appearances can deceive, and even the wise can be wrong. Second, even if this is a clash, it still could be short-circuited via unforseen events (such as the invention of a hydrogen fuel cell, or the rise of a great Muslim teacher who persuades millions to reject fundamentalism).

Finally, as Lewis writes:

"There is something in the religious culture of Islam which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and a courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equaled in other civilizations."

If we accept that this is a clash between civilizations, two questions face us: How does this change our thinking? And the painful one: What do we do about it?

Contact Jonathan V. Last at

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