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Battle of Symbols

Emerging Symbol of Islam

“The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.”

Samuel P. Huntington
The Clash of Civilizations

“In front of our eyes, a new organizing principle is emerging in the world. Islamic extremism is an ideological challenge, and states have to respond accordingly. Another Cold War is taking shape. Its duration and scope are uncertain … The implications are global.”

David Pryce-Jones
National Review (11/5/2001)

A number of experts suggest the opposition symbol “enemy” America is at war against is much larger than terrorists. Even President Bush has hinted at this stating that those nations that “harbor” terrorists are American enemies. What about the fundamentalist schools which educate young Islamic boys to become terrorists? What about a culture that “harbors” future terrorists?

In October 7, 2001 issue of The New York Times Magazine, columnist Andrew Sullivan argues this is a religious war. “The religious dimension of this conflict is central to its meaning.” The real targets of September 11th was individual faith and pluralism and this is only the beginning of an epic battle. As Sullivan notes:

"… this is surely a religious war – but not of Islam versus Christianity and Judaism. Rather, it is a war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity … These conflicts have ancient roots, but they seem to be gaining new force as modernity spreads and deepens."

As Sullivan says, “They are our new wars of religion.” It is a broad new enemy that others like Samuel Huntingtin agree with. After China, Samuel Huntington sees the gravest challenge to the West as resurgent Islamic identity. To Huntington, the problem goes far beyond violent Islamic extremists, fundamentalists and terrorists.

Huntington acknowledges the formal position of the Bush administration that the West does not have problems with Islam but only with violent Islamic extremists. But he suggests “fourteen hundred years of history demonstrate otherwise” observing:

"The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world. These are the basic ingredients that fuel conflict between Islam and the West."

Others agree with Huntington. One of the leading authorities on the middle east is Daniel Pipes. In an article “What Bush got Right - and Wrong” from the September 26, 2001 Jerusalem Post Pipes sees the enemy as much broader than terrorists. Rather it is militant Islam. Pipes notes, the problems with defining the enemy symbol as terrorists is that “Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy.” Not explicitly defining the enemy “leads to confusion and dissension.”

In confining the enemy symbol to the terrorist edge, the larger symbol of militant Islam is rejected. As Pipes notes:

"The president dismissed al-Qaida’s version of Islam as a repudiated ‘fringe form of Islamic extremism.’ Hardly. Muslims on the streets of many places - Pakistan and Gaza, in particular - are fervently rallying to the defense of al-Qaida’s vision of Islam. Likewise, the president’s calling the terrorists ‘traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam’ implies that other Muslims see them as apostates, which is simply wrong."

Daniel Pipes reminds that Al-Qaida enjoys wide popularity and the very best the US government can hope for is a measure of Muslim neutrality and apathy.

Others agree with Pipes in drawing the enemy in broader strokes. Conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr. writes in the October 2, 2001 National Review Online article “So You Want A Holy War?” that after September 11th “we now have Islam to deal with.” As Buckley puts it, “Whatever is or is not authentic transcription of Islamic dogma, we do know that the people who ran the airliners into the World Trade Center believed that a Koranic voice was telling them to do what they did. We have the four-page document that told them not only what to do, but what to think.”

Buckley observes that we do not need to make the point that Islam’s political and economic record is miserable, that Turkey is the only one of 18 Muslim states which is democratically governed. As Buckley says:

"It is thought to be a sign of toleration to defer to Islam as simply another religion. It isn’t that. It is a form of condescension. Carefully selected, there are Koranic preachments that are consistent with civilized life. But on September 11th we were looked in the face by a deed done by Muslims who understood themselves to be acting out Muslim ideals. It is all very well for individual Muslim spokesmen to assert the misjudgment of the terrorist, but the Islamic world is substantially made up of countries that ignore, or countenance, or support terrorist activity."

It goes beyond the Taliban and scattered cells of fundamentalists. Witness the wide protests against America in Karachi, Pakistan and the explanations of Mustafa Kamal Uddin, a 32-year-old body-and-fender man in Karachi. Talking to a New York Times reporter he says “You see, holy wars come about only when Allah has no other way to maintain justice, times like now. That is why Allah took out his sword on September 11th.”

There are millions of others in the Middle East like Uddin, not terrorists or members of the Taliban or the al-Qaida network but still seeing the epic, religious nature of the coming war. Andrew Sullivan observes that the coming conflict is “indeed as momentous and as grave as the last major conflicts against Nazism and Communism and why it is not hyperbole to see it in these epic terms.” But Sullivan goes further and says the enemy here is a “more formidable” enemy than Nazism or Communism:

"The secular totalitarianisms of of the 20th century were, in President Bush’s memorable words, ‘discarded lies.’ They were fundamentalisms built on the very weak intellectual conceits of a master race and a Communist revolution. But Islamic fundamentalism is based on a glorious civilization and a great faith. It can harness and co-opt and corrupt true and good believers if it has a propitious and toxic enough environment."

As Sullivan concludes, Islam has a more powerful logic than either Stalin’s or Hitler’s Godless ideology, and it can serve as a focal point for all the other societies in the world, “whose resentment of Western success and civilization comes more easily than the arduous task of accommodation to modernity.”

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim