For the Obama White House, the anniversary of 9/11 serves an ongoing effort to detach the attacks on New York and Washington from their Islamist roots. Like its predecessor, the Obama administration has chosen not to name the enemy or its distinctive religious history, both as a matter of strategy and for fear of singling out one world faith. It prefers the abstraction of a war on “terror.” Thus the administration offered helpful guidelines for the 9/11 commemorations that would remind Americans of the devastating strikes against Mumbai, Madrid, and London. Missing from this list of victims was Israel, which has suffered more from Islamist-inspired terrorism than any country in the world. What can be the reason for this omission, other than the fact that including the Jewish state might tell us more about the perpetrators and their roots than the White House wants us to know? It would be far better to use the anniversary as a time to reflect on the source of most terrorism today: revolutionary Islamism. Unfortunately, Americans have shied away from the implications of the historic struggle between the West and the political cultures that produced jihadism for 1,000 years before the United States was created.
Granted, American reaction to the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center had the sense of a sudden public illumination, especially after our lax response to the first attack in 1993. The trial of the 1993 ringleader, the “Blind Sheik” Omar Abdel-Rahman, revealed Islamist plans to blow up the Holland Tunnel and other city landmarks, but these lurid details were buried in the inside pages of the New York Times. In 2001, the terrorists and their foreign enablers finally got our attention. The Bush administration responded with mixed success to an unprecedented challenge to American security. Despite the civil-liberties hysteria generated by President Bush’s counterterror measures, those policies have largely been continued under Obama, though his supporters go through semantic contortions to deny it. One result (and the Bush and Obama administrations deserve credit for this) is that America is far better defended today.
But while America has learned a good deal about how to prevent catastrophic acts of terrorism on the home front, it’s disconcerting that we have made little progress in understanding the conceptual mind-set of revolutionary Islamism, the religious and political construct that underlies international terrorism. In the early 1990s, the two leading European experts on militant Islam, Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, declared that Islamism was on the wane because jihad had been defeated. Americans, like Westerners generally, tend to think in terms of definitive outcomes and decisive battles like those that brought an end to past conflicts. Our mistaken assumption, when we entered Afghanistan and Iraq, was that our military interventions could produce World War II–type victories, in which our enemies would be de-Talibanized or de-Baathified and reconstructed as peaceful democracies.
And so President Bush’s unfortunate “Mission Accomplished” speech left America blindsided when a Sunni insurgency, led by ex-Baathists and financed by Saudi money, started a civil war in Iraq. More recently, the killing of bin Laden and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, one of his top deputies, prompted claims by Obama-administration supporters that the Islamist threat was all but over—as if the degrading of al-Qaida were tantamount to a deep change in the hearts and minds of the faithful. Similarly, Muammar el-Qaddafi’s fall from power in Libya has led Obama’s media advocates to claim victory there for Western values.
Our vision is chronically stuck in the short term. As the State Department’s Tony Corn has written, since the end of the Cold War, “the strategic management of time seems to have eluded U.S. elites, whose timelines now rarely extend beyond the 24/7 news cycle, the quarterly financial report, and the midterm elections.” Even after 9/11, we failed to adapt to the Islamic sense of time and war. The difference between our clocks and our enemies’ can be summarized by a famous boast among the tribes of Waziristan: “I took my revenge early. I waited only 100 years.”
Some have argued that Islamism stands in relationship to jihadism as did Marxism/Leninism to Stalin’s post–World War II aggression. There’s something to this analogy, but it can be pushed too hard. Developing an ideological counterweight to Islamism isn’t likely to bring about victory. What kept the East Europeans in chains for so long was not Communist ideology but the Red Army. The day the Soviet military-industrial complex imploded, the war was over. Revolutionary Islamism, by contrast—even assuming that it represents a heresy, as many liberals claim—is not a “secular religion” as was Communism, but a religion recognized as legitimate by the Prophet’s devotees. Believers will not be persuaded by criticism, like that directed at the Soviets, about the failure to deliver material prosperity.
Our great failing is that we insist on seeing the Islamic world through our values, rather than dealing with it on its own terms. The press has reported on the Arab Spring as though it self-evidently represents a breakthrough for modernity and Western values. We can hope. But as the Muslim Brotherhood begins its long march to power in Egypt and Hezbollah tightens its grip on once-republican Lebanon, that typically American optimism seems misplaced. A timeless, extremist ideology based on a holy text; true believers’ resentment of the West; the easy availability of powerful weaponry to networked warriors—these realities will keep Americans guarding the ramparts for decades to come.