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Jewish World Review Oct. 31, 2001 / 13 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Barbara Amiel

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The West is fighting to rescue Islam, not destroy it


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- Earlier this month, I read a column by Simon Jenkins in The Times of London. It was a miserable experience, as reading most of his columns on the war on terrorism has been. Normally I would have had another piece of toast and turned the page. It was not that I simply disagreed with him. One routinely does with differing opinions. But this work showed such paucity of logic, fact and common sense in sharp contrast to his usual work. Jenkins, after all, is not a run-of-the-mill columnist. As former editor of The Times and a bona fide member of the Great and the Good, he writes columns with gravitas. He counts.

Mr Jenkins is against the current American action for several reasons. Only one makes any sense, namely, the inefficacy of aerial bombing. If indeed the Americans think that this problem can be solved, a la Kosovo, from the skies, without a proper land invasion, we are lost. This would make the war on terrorism another one of those causes for which it is worth killing, but not dying. One hopes this will not be the case.

This apart, Jenkins's other objections are based on inaccurate and erroneous premises. "Britain is not at war at present," he writes. "To describe what should be a relentless campaign against criminal terror as war is metaphor abuse . . . It also insults those who fought and died in real wars, when territory was threatened and states were at risk." Mr Jenkins may not think we are at war, but the terrorists clearly do, and have made an open declaration of war on the military and civilians alike. Territories and states are very much at stake. The whole point about terrorism is that it cannot exist without state support.

You cannot have safe houses, financial instruments, passports, mobility, training camps and indoctrination without states encouraging and permitting on their territory the establishment of terrorist organisations. Hizbollah fires rockets into Israeli kibbutzim and schools from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Firing rockets at schoolchildren is about as plain an act of terrorism as you can get - or an act of war. How can a purely criminal organisation have Katyusha rockets set up and fired into other countries without state support and acquiescence? For tactical reasons, America has left Syria and Hizbollah off its list of terrorist organisations, but it is questionable that this will serve the morality of our cause or its ultimate success.

Jenkins believes that we are dealing with a small number of fanatics who will be joined by larger numbers only if we use "disproportionate" military action. The mere fact that Osama bin Laden and his acolytes are a numerical minority is immaterial. Militant minorities have captured huge entities before. The communists were a small group early in the 20th century, and yet they captured Russia, China and more besides. The Nazis began as a minority. The very fact that you have a militant minority and a passive majority can bring into being Yeats's prophecy about the best lacking all conviction and the worst filled with passionate intensity.

As a democratic Western nation state, Britain cannot exempt itself from this war. If the forces of bin Ladenism succeed in taking over Islam, as they well might, there is no country in the world that would be safe from an expanding and theocratic Islam. It will not be our bombs that bolster this happening, but our indifference or ineptitude.

The West has bent over backwards to say that this is not a war against Islam. In fact, it is a war for Islam. We are facing a battle to rescue it for the quality that many Muslim peoples and nations would say is Islam's greatest tradition: tolerance. Muslim nations that say this has nothing to do with bin Laden, but are too afraid to stand up and fight him openly. "Islamic radicals . . . mean to hijack Islam itself and to destroy 13 centuries of Islamic civilisation," said David Forte, the education affairs fellow of the Heritage Foundation. This remark, and many others like it, implies that genuine Islam is a pacific and benign mainstream, different from the malignant fundamentalism of bin Laden and his followers.

Whether this is accurate doesn't really matter. If the hijacking of Islam is successful - and there are signs that it may be - the nature of Islam will reflect the nature of the hijackers. American Airlines Flight 11 was a pacific and benign flight until it was hijacked on September 11. We in the West can deny that this is a clash of civilisations; bin Laden insists that it is. "These events have divided the whole world into two sides. The side of the believers and the side of the infidels, may God keep you away from them," he said on the Arabic channel al-Jazeera. "Every Muslim has to rush to make his religion victorious."

Western leaders may protest that al-Qa'eda's leaders don't speak for Islam. Individual mullahs have condemned the September 11 atrocities. But what we have not heard are the real leaders of the Islamic world sounding just as unequivocal as the chieftain of terror. We do not see Iran's Khamenei or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak or Jordan's Abdullah II (a 43rd-generation direct descendant of Mohammed) on such popular forums as al-Jazeera (33 million viewers). Most significant Muslim leaders have shown little inclination to refute bin Laden and his followers on any Arab-language outlet. Their silence in the Arab world leaves bin Laden the dominant voice.

Jenkins has written that the sympathy generated for America in the Middle East after September 11 should have been used for the pursuit of justice. "It took years to bring the Lockerbie suspects to book," he wrote. "Success came only when the West stopped ostracising Colonel Gaddafi and cut a deal with him." I don't understand this. Whoever planned the Lockerbie mass murder is still out there. We brought two insignificant operatives to trial and one was acquitted. The one thing we know for certain is that, whether or not Gaddafi had anything to do with Lockerbie, the people on trial for it did not decide to bring down Pan Am 103 on their own. If you take the prosecution case at its highest level, the defendants were only small cogs who neither initiated nor funded the bombing, but at most carried out some of the mechanics. If anything, this case proved the futility of the judicial or legislative model. As for Gaddafi, what calmed him down were American bombs shredding his home in 1986.

"A great assault on Muslim states," wrote Jenkins, protesting against the current military action, "would be the answer to bin Laden's prayer. Fanatics would flock to his cause . . ." Fanatics have been flocking to bin Laden's cause for the past 10 years, which is why there is no more World Trade Centre. There is nothing we can do to make fanatics worse. Even if you accept the proposition (as Jenkins seems to do) that fanatics exist because of the creation of Israel or the allied bombing of Saddam Hussein, what are we to do? Must we allow Israel to be swept into the sea, Saddam to conquer both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, then let him use our aid or trade to subsidise biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction for use on his own Shi'ite and Kurdish population or the rest of the world? Would this make the world more secure?

Jenkins believes that the "partisan" American support of Israel is a root cause of Islamic terror. Why? More than 100,000 Algerians have had their throats slit by fundamentalists in Algeria. What has Israel to do with this? The murders and jailings in Iran of those who do not support fundamentalism are not caused by Israel. But Jenkins is quite definite. "For a moment this past month," he wrote in The Times, "we saw a new wisdom. Washington seemed to realise that the Muslim world resented its decades of mistreatment." Pardon?

"Decades of mistreatment"? Jenkins can mean only American support of Israel for the 53 years that most of the Arab world has refused to recognise its right to exist. I have great sympathy for the Palestinians condemned to three generations of life in refugee camps - but no guilt. The Arabs rejected a state of their own in 1937 and 1947, as well as Ehud Barak's offer last year. "We are an all-or-nothing people," Hanan Ashrawi told me, when I asked her why the Palestinians kept saying no. Israel ought to have made genuine offers of a state in the 1970s, rather than bogus autonomy plans, but it was the Arab states that refused to take in the Palestinians or dismantle the camps.

There is something quite awful about the conclusions drawn by Jenkins. He claims that America and her allies are "reputedly planning action that would kill tens of thousands of the poorest and most helpless people on Earth, to avenge the killing of five thousand of the richest". But you can't be more helpless than a receptionist in the World Trade Centre when a plane flies through the window. At such a moment, your monthly income is immaterial. Why, indeed, does Jenkins raise the matter of income, if not to suggest that it is all right to incinerate wealthier people, but it is not right for wealthy people to defend themselves? What sort of quasi-Marxist fog is he in?

We are facing a new kind of war. Just because it is not yet geographically rooted in states doesn't make its scope or consequences any less deadly. And because Britain is acting in concert with the Americans does not mean that we are not acting in our own interests. We may be a junior partner by virtue of the size of our economy, geography and population, but there is a huge difference between that and being "subservient" to America, as Jenkins writes. We are subservient only to the institutions and values of the West. This is not jingoism, but a moral imperative.



JWR contributor Barbara Amiel is a columnist with the London Telegraph, where this column originated. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Barbara Amiel