Monday, September 11, 2006

Today is 9/11

Irony of ironies, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in London’s Charing Cross Road, browsing the shelves of a modest Islamic book shop.

There were only a few people in the store. And I noticed that the counter clerk seemed to be smiling enigmatically as he listened to what I assumed was a weird tape-recording of a man who sounded like ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings. Jennings was describing a fantastic occurrence; something about a plane having smashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.
Curiosity got the better of me and I asked the clerk what he was listening to. “The radio – a plane has gone into the World Trade Center,” he politely replied.

I left the shop and hurried to the tube station feeling discombobulated. Given that I had spent several decades of my work life in the vicinity of the WTC, it would have been easier emotionally, at that moment, to have been back in New York City where I grew up, or at home in Jerusalem.
Watching events unfold in London only added to my sense of surrealism.

FIVE YEARS and a day later, the debate about how 9/11 should be understood rages on. From my Jerusalem perch, here’s how this native New Yorker thinks we should conceptualize 9/11:
President George W. Bush isn’t the problem. Progressive Europe’s punching-bag may have exacerbated matters by mishandling the “war on terror,” but obsessive Bush-bashing is an extravagance conscientious folks really can’t afford.

The real problem is the Islamist threat.

It’s this generation’s misfortune that Islamic civilization has been co-opted by those who would exploit its imperialistic and chauvinistic values rather than its more enlightened and reformist traits.

Muslim civilization today is violently catalyzed by antipathy to Western modernity. It’s taken Bush a while to identify the character of the conflict. He still slips back into blurred talk about the “war on terror.” Yet as we all appreciate, “terror” is a strategy – not the enemy itself.
The enemy is militant, rapacious Islam.

Bush sidetracked the war against militant Islam with the ill-conceived, poorly conducted campaign in Iraq. Because of it the West has almost allowed Afghanistan to slip back into Taliban hands.

Bush’s continuing failure to recognize that Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time; that until he made it so, Iraq was not a pillar of the Islamist threat, is lamentable.

So too, are America’s losses, and the administration’s misguided obsession with “democratizing” the Middle East. This is a region where popular support invariably flows to the radicals, not to Western-oriented reformers.

But at the end of the day, Bush mishandled the Islamist threat; he didn’t create it. And it will not go away when America elects its next president, or when British Prime Minister Tony Blair leaves 10 Downing Street.

WE MUST NOT give the enemy the rope with which to hang us. We need to find the right balance between the rights we as citizens of the West enjoy versus giving our government the capacity to win. Only a wise, accountable and enlightened political – and judicial – leadership can navigate such a ground-breaking course.

It is essential, for the morale of Western society as well as for the effectiveness of our struggle, that peacetime notions of civil liberties be adapted to meet the crisis we face.

At airports, for instance, such an approach translates into profiling: We need to admit that an elderly African American grandmother from Harlem is less likely to pose a security threat to international aviation than a 20-something British-born Muslim of Pakistani heritage who’s just come back from a year of religious studies in Peshawar. In failing to connect the simplest of dots we are sacrificing enduring values of liberty and tolerance for fleeting political correctness.

JUST BECAUSE there’s a war of civilizations doesn’t mean that every regional conflict involving Muslims can be subsumed under it.

We should avoid self-fulfilling prophesies. Any steps that can be taken to lessen the religious aspect of confrontations with Muslim society should be pursued – not to delude ourselves, but as a tactic in conflict management.

Militant Islam is heterogenous. Iranian and Wahhabi Islamists share an antipathy for the West – and for each other.

We’ve already seen the Palestinian Arab conflict turned into a religious struggle with the emergence of Hamas – making it even more intractable. Now we’re witnessing the Kurdish struggle in Turkey (and elsewhere) becoming transformed into a religious endeavor. That’s bad for the Jews (and not so great for the Kurds, either).

As much as we need to recognize the war of civilizations, we must not so relish the paradigm that we become blinded to alternative forms of conflict analysis.

Palestinian religious fundamentalism, for instance, is plainly part of the larger Islamist struggle. But for practical purposes, operating purely within that framework is counter-productive.
Once can imagine Hamas reaching a point where it decides that the Palestinian interest dictates the movement enter into a long-term hudna with Israel. Clergy could easily be found to provide the necessary religious imprimatur.

Operationally, we need to de-link our struggle from the larger civilizational war, and exploit those Palestinian religious (and political) sensibilities that would allow a long-term cease-fire.
Pragmatically, we need to find ways to bridge the religious gap, using the language of religion to find ways of accommodation.

LET’S NOT frighten ourselves to death about the terrorist menace. It’s real and scary enough.
But for the most part, this is a slow-burn conflict. We’re going to need the stamina to confront it over the long haul.

Authorities in the West should not be afraid to expose probable terrorist plots, but they ought to temper such readiness with a recognition that their credibility is at stake. For instance, of the 417 people charged with terrorism in the US since 2001, only 143 have actually been indicted, and only 38 convicted.

If you cry wolf too often, folks might discount the genuine peril they face. On the other hand, if authorities fail to expose plots that are real, though hard to prove in court, they risk allowing the conspiracies to come to fruition.

The political system (and that includes the media) needs to adapt to the nature of this unique war in which subversive groups that support the enemy and engage in espionage or sabotage really are in our midst. And we must find a way to balance threat alertness with paralyzing fear-mongering.

FINALLY, WE need a united front and wise leaders. Militant Islam’s war against Western civilization is not aimed at Neo-cons or the Christian Right alone.
It also targets people who summer at Martha’s Vineyard, live in North London or on the Upper West Side, and subscribe to The New York Review and The Guardian. Its war is aimed at the entire range of Western values: from conservative to liberal, and from religious to secular.
We are all infidels.

Regrettably, the Muslim world is all too united in its battle against Judeo-Christian civilization. Only a brave Muslim minority opposes the Islamists outright. Such solidarity in the Muslim camp demands greater cohesion on the Western side.

As the war evolves, as Bush and Blair fade from the scene, the real essence of the struggle may become apparent for some of those now blinded by myopic hatred of Bush.

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