If one sees the world as Islamic radicals do, Islam as a faith and as a civilization is locked in a brutal struggle with the West—usually described as a baleful place of aggressive Christians and Jews, or a seductive, immoral realm of atheists (who formerly were aggressive Christians and Jews). Where once this collision was confined primarily to the Middle East, today Islamic radicals regularly concern themselves with the situation, demands, and God-given rights of large Muslim communities living in the West itself. In the last 40 years, Islam has become a truly global faith—something that was not the case when the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb, one of the most influential modern radicals, was in his prime in the 1950’s, or even when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini joined the ranks of the most successful modern militants.
It is certainly fair to define one’s enemies and their battles as they themselves do. Historians, diplomats, spies, and journalists who fail to do this often commit the sin of mirror-imaging—a common problem for secularized Westerners looking at the Muslim Middle East. So on these grounds it is hard to disagree with Norman Podhoretz’s use of the phrase World War IV to describe the violent onslaught of Islamic holy warriors against the West, and in particular against the United States, its cutting edge.
Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with the appellation. My objection is both philosophical and mundane: it gives too much coherence to the enemy, and sociologically and geographically it leaves me frustrated.
Islamic radicalism is still a leaderless tempest: the birth of al Qaeda was an attempt to give organization and charismatic inspiration to a movement that was easy to locate (find a Saudi-funded mosque, and you can usually find the component parts) but difficult to define consistently. Islamic extremism’s greatest growth spurt in the 20th century occurred after Saudi Arabia, spooked by Khomeini’s Islamic revolution, met Iranian proselytizing head-on. Absent this clash, which occurred concurrently with Osama bin Laden’s efforts to rouse devout but often uninterested Muslims to war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Sunni extremism would not be so globally developed today.
The United States was by no means incidental to that clash: at the mosque level, both sides gained adherents by preaching hostility to America. But this common hatred is messy and tense. Radical Iranian commentary on al Qaeda, for example, is a hodge-podge of envy, admiration, and disgust. For all Muslim holy warriors, modernity is the cause of the ethical freefall that in turn allows them to regard the slaughter of women and children as permissible. Nevertheless, these men are also at war with the vast majority of Muslims, who, regardless of their attitude toward the United States, are considered moral backsliders eagerly consuming the worst, if not the best, of the Western world.
Side by side with Sunni and Shiite holy warriors there exist fundamentalists who similarly loathe the United States and want to extirpate much of Western culture from their societies—but who are not themselves active participants in a jihad against America. In common with many liberal Arabs and (for that matter) European intellectuals, they may have experienced a gleeful frisson when the Twin Towers fell; and they would certainly prefer it if their governments limited their military and intelligence dealings with the United States. But, while knowing the risks of contamination, they might also well choose to send their children for higher education in the United States. (Iran’s Islamic revolution was born of this contradiction.)
Either voluntarily or under police pressure, devout Muslims like these have been critical to the efforts of Sunni regimes to monitor, corral, and kill violent extremists. In Shiite Iran, clerics and intellectuals who are not really enemies of the regime are at the same time capable of making trenchant, devastating critiques of the ruling mullahs. No American should want to entrust a nuclear weapon to any of these people, but they are more at odds with the clerical regime than they are with the United States.
I do not feel enough of this nuance, contradiction, and internal Muslim turbulence in World War IV. Yes, the United States must defend itself militarily against those Muslims who define their identity inextricably through violent hatred of the West. But characterizing this necessary self-defense as a world war is too unwieldy, too brusque, and too easily abused by Muslims and Westerners who really want to see a more developed clash of civilizations.
Is Iraq pivotal to the war against Islamic extremism? Absolutely. Al Qaeda now describes the ongoing struggle there in more momentous terms than those formerly used by bin Laden to describe the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The view of clerical Iran is not much different. Both parties intend to radicalize Iraq’s Shiites: to create a Hizballah in Mesopotamia. It is difficult to foresee these dueling radicalisms exhausting each other to America’s advantage.
Rating the Bush administration’s progress likewise depends on Iraq. If the administration fails there, then we will have greatly strengthened the forces of radical Islam. By comparison, Bill Clinton, who failed altogether to rise to the challenge of bin Laden, could look very good.
Is democracy the answer to this extremism? Probably yes. Even thoughtful arguments to the contrary, such as those advanced by Martin Kramer, take us back to an embrace of Muslim dictatorships in the hope that under these “stable” regimes, Islamic radicalism will die out. That is possible. But I think Islamic history teaches the opposite. We have been waiting for decades for the Middle East’s autocracies to permit, à la Atatürk, the emergence of the building blocks of freer societies. Instead, most of these oligarchies have gotten worse.
“Muslims as a community cannot agree upon an error” is an old Sunni dictum waiting to be tested in the democratic arena. Muslim democracy is not likely to be pretty or particularly liberal. But it offers a chance to imbue popular will with a divine sanction, and a chance for Muslims to deracinate the holy warriors from their communities. It is hard to see anything more than continuing stagnation emerging from the Mubaraks, the ben Alis, the Assads, the Sauds, or even the Hashemites