Defang the Fundamentalists

America has embarked on a military campaign to take out the Taliban and Bin Laden’s terror network. Hopefully this will succeed in short order. The more important issue is how do we win the war against terrorism? Special Forces and guided munitions alone cannot do it. We must deal with and curtail Islamic Fundamentalism, from which these terrorists sprang.

President Bush argued in his speech that these attackers had hijacked Islam, and did not represent the true face of Islam. I agree with that. Bush’s argument seems to imply though that the terrorists were a narrow cult of deranged Muslims, kind of like the Branch Davidians. In reality, they are not a narrow cult. Too many Muslims applauded the attack for that to be true. They represent instead the pointed end of the Jihad/Fundamentalist culture that has sprung up in the Arab world. They themselves would reject the idea that they have hijacked Islam. Muhammad Atta’s suicide note clearly indicated that he saw himself as the best Muslim. They are to Islam what Crusader Christianity was to the Catholic Church; not a narrow hijacking, but a widely accepted misreading that needs to be expunged.

Fundamentalists want to create a Utopian Islamic state, based on their own interpretation of Quranic and ancient Islamic legal codes. They have a Manichean worldview. “True Muslims” on one side, everyone else on the other. They are greatly troubled by the emancipation of women in the Muslim world. They see all existing governments in Muslim countries as either too morally corrupt or allied with infidels to be legitimate. As such, wherever they exist they try to seize control of the state. Bin Laden’s primary motives are tied in to this political struggle going on in most Arab countries. By creating a religious war between the West and Islam, he hopes to weaken the Arab governments in Saudi, Egypt, and elsewhere and allow Fundamentalists to seize power. The key element of the Fundamentalist worldview is the belief that Islam is under relentless assault. This assault by America, by corrupt governments, by Israel, etc. requires a dedicated and forceful response.

Fundamentalism has a broad appeal on the Arab street, and to a lesser extent the rest of the Muslim world (only 15% of the World’s Muslims are Arabs). From this Fundamentalist mindset spring those who are willing to die for the Utopian dream and give their life for Jihad, even in an act of suicide. This cult of suicide bombing has become so popular that some senior religious scholars in Egypt and other Arab countries have ruled it is acceptable when used against military targets. But from there it is a slippery slope to attacking the Trade Center and thinking you will end up in heaven.

It must be a priority of American policy in the next few years to defang the Fundamentalists. There are four things that must be done, none of which is easy or glamorous. The first is to create a more democratic society in the major Arab countries, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Fundamentalists do not hate democracy per se, nor are they jealous of it, but to them it is like sunlight to a vampire. In all the Muslim countries that have relatively open political systems (Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh), the Fundamentalists are routinely trounced at the polls and remain a marginal force in society. Democracy forces them to organize a real platform and answer real questions about governance, where the average person can then see through their empty-headed utopian notions.

Secondly, US foreign aid should be geared toward promoting education, particularly female education in the Muslim world. All of these countries have women’s movements, and they act as a check to the Fundamentalists. Educating and empowering women in the Muslim world is a policy that will bear fruit in the long run.

Third, we need to heal the mess in and around Afghanistan. That area became a breeding ground for terrorism partly because America failed to clean up the mess after it used Afghanistan to help win the Cold War. No people paid a higher price for that victory than the Afghanis. We need to ensure that a stable, effective government takes hold, not one that educates boys only in fanaticism and hatred of America, leaves its girls to rot, and exports vast amounts of heroin.

Finally, the Palestinian/Israeli dispute must be solved. We cannot allow that to fester for another decade. While there are Fundamentalists who will not accept anything short of Israel’s destruction, if there is a treaty that ends the violence and empties the refugee camps the vast majority of the Arab/Muslim world will live with it as legitimate. In that context, it might even make sense for America to extend an explicit security guarantee to Israel, if that is the price to be paid for getting a deal. Arafat has to end the Intifada and resume negotiation.