This is not a war between civilizations, say the Americans. Yes it is, says Osama bin Laden: It is a war to the death between Islam and the West: "These events have divided the whole world into two sides. The side of believers and the side of infidels ... Every Muslim has to rush to make his religion victorious."
In this one instance, we would be well advised to listen to bin Laden. He's right and the rhetoric of our side is wrong. As bin Laden put it, "the situation is clear and obvious."
The Americans insist this is a war between terrorists on the one hand and terrorist-hating nations on the other: Religion and civilization have nothing to do with it. We can see why politicians feel they must say this. It's the language of diplomacy and coalition-building. Using such necessary circumlocutions, the Allies fought the Second World War at the side of Stalin's Soviet Union. It works, sometimes.
But the leaders of the coalition, such as George Bush ("the head of infidels worldwide," as bin Laden says), are deluded if they think anyone else believes this benign fiction. Certainly no Islamic state believes it, because no Islamic state takes terrorism as seriously as the West does. Not a single Islamic leader has stepped forward to offer unequivocal help. If one Islamic head of government were speaking this week in the style of Tony Blair, then the idea that this is not a war of civilizations might acquire some credibility. But no Islamic leader has even approached that level of commitment, nor is there any sign that one of them will.
Furthermore, there is no sign of a vigorous anti-terrorist movement or anti-Taleban movement within the Islamic communities of the world. If there were, we would be seeing anti-bin Laden and anti-Taleban demonstrations in the streets of the great Islamic nations, such as Indonesia and Egypt. But the demonstrations the world hears about are anti-American.
In recent weeks, several thousand commentators, most of whom are in no position to know, have earnestly informed us that terrorists constitute at most the tiniest, tiniest minority of Muslims. That's what we all want to believe, but the evidence remains slim. Why do we not hear of Islamic religious leaders across the world providing appropriate leadership at this moment of peril? They should be delivering to passionate young believers and their parents a blunt statement: No matter what those literal-minded madmen try to tell you, the Koran does not mean that you can enter paradise by killing the innocent.
Muslims, patiently explaining their faith to non-Muslims, make this point clearly. How often, and how insistently, is that point made by religious leaders to believers? When it comes to that, why are Muslims not lined up at U.S. embassies to sign books of condolence for the crimes of their co-religionists (and, while there, seizing the occasion to offer belated thanks to the Americans for saving Muslim lives by risking American lives in Desert Storm, Bosnia and Kosovo)?
Even those institutions whose mission is to win a good reputation for Islam have failed to speak with clarity. A recent Washington Post story noted that even though Saudi Arabia has declared that the Taleban is damaging the good name of Muslims everywhere, the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington has declined to state an opinion. A spokesman, Ibrahim Hooper, said: "Obviously, people who crash a plane into a building are not following Islamic beliefs. But as far as governments, we don't get into these issues."
Consider Pakistan, our new friend. It has been so lavishly bribed by the Americans that it has graciously agreed to offer some minor assistance to the war effort, such as flyover rights. It put a terrorism-crazed Muslim cleric under house arrest the other day, apparently to keep him from creating riots, but it left at liberty many who hold similar views. Yesterday, in the cities of Pakistan near the Afghan border, thousands of pro-terrorist Muslims rioted -- or possibly they were just anti-American. No anti-terrorist demonstrations were reported.
Pakistan, in fact, has long been a breeding ground for terrorism. Almost no one seems to have noticed that even as the diplomatic dance goes on, Pakistan's Islamic terrorists are conducting business as usual. One would have imagined that the outrage over the Sept. 11 atrocity would have stalled them for a moment. Not so. On Monday, Oct. 2, only 21 days after suicide hijackers destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, a suicide bomber crashed a car packed with explosives into the gate of the state legislature in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. Some 35 people died and about 70 were injured. Two more terrorists, disguised as police officers, entered the legislature and began shooting at random till they were killed.
The international news media reported this briefly and then moved on, but that attack was heavy with significance. The central point is that responsibility was claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammad, an Islamic militant group based in Pakistan. For years, these killers have been trained and indoctrinated at camps in Pakistan, where they mingled with bin Laden's troops. The leaders of the government of Pakistan deny this is so, but no one believes them.
The West has two reasons for ignoring the continuing outrages. One is that we need Pakistan (and other Muslim countries) on our side, however briefly and however half-heartedly. That's a good reason. The other reason is our sentimental idea of cultures. We cannot stand the idea that one culture in the world may be superior to another, in any way. At UNESCO in Paris, the Department of Culture used to have a slogan: "All cultures are equal." The less solemn members of the staff liked to add, in Orwellian paraphrase, "But perhaps some are more equal than others."
Islam is a culture that has soared high; a millennium ago it was in every way more sophisticated than Christian Europe. But today Islamic culture tolerates terrorists, and often uses them (as Pakistan does) for its own aggressive purposes. Is it, then, the equal of a culture that doesn't tolerate terrorism?
That kind of comparison has been ruled off limits. Ask Silvio Berlusconi, the Premier of Italy. He said on Sept. 27 that Western civilization is superior to that of the Islamic world. "We should be confident of the superiority of our civilization, which has given people widespread prosperity and guarantees respect for human rights and religion. This respect certainly does not exist in Islamic countries."
Scandalo! Berlusconi had said what everybody believes. Naturally, he was condemned across Europe. Naturally, Muslims demanded an apology (he refused). But something like the pride he expressed will be necessary for all of us if we are to pursue what is, as bin Laden says, a war between ways of life.