Fifteen years ago, one might easily have thought we were entering a new era of peace in the world. The Communist evil empire dissolved so quickly, without nukes or invasions, it seemed that swords might indeed be turned into plowshares. An apparently endless cold war ended. Peace dividends danced in our heads. How is it that now we are in such a fix? We face what is presently called an axis of evil, made up, primarily and most pressingly, of Muslim states. A few blasphemous cartoons published months ago in Scandinavia triggered riots and protests, after strategic prodding, in a score of countries. France faced its own internal demons in weeks of car burnings throughout its suburbs. An elected leader in Iran spurns the United Nations, aspires to atomic weaponry and calls for the extinction of Israel. Democracy bestows power on a Palestinian terrorist group. Iraq teeters on the edge of a civil war. Bloodletting continues in Africa, often along lines of religion (Christian and Muslim) and race (black and Arab). There is talk of civilizations clashing and European countries having Muslim majorities in three generations.
A choice of such great danger is at hand that the energies of our national discourse must not be wasted on blame. There is enough blame to go around. If one does not think the Muslim world has profound internal problems, one is not serious. If one does not think the West, in particular the United States, has not for over 50 years contributed to our present crisis, one is not being honest. Discussion on these matters of the past will go on. What is more pressing is the path we take for the future.
The two ways that will be presented to us are these: get tough, or get talking. The toughness scenario has been behind the invasion of Iraq. Our great show of power would teach the renegade states a lesson. Welcomed as liberators, we next might have moved on Iran. Well, it does not work that way. Terrorists play the get tough game as well as anyone, and not with the legal, political and international restraints to which nations generally yield. Since the fall of Communism, certain think tanks have imagined a world dominated by the United States, a world in which no country could challenge or check our power. What might other countries think of such a dream concocted by the most powerful and wealthiest nation on earth, the nation with the most weapons of mass destruction, the only nation to have used one?
I think it is better for us to get talking. Better yet, we might start with some imagination. It is the incapacity of Islamic and non-Islamic worlds alike to imagine the life and thoughts of the other that is the deepest root of our problem.
Imagine yourself a Palestinian Muslim. Your grandfather had a home and vineyard in what is now an occupied territory. It is also non-negotiable that you might ever live in that home again. How do you feel? How do you judge things? How do you look at Osama bin Laden? Is he a fanatic or an ascetic resistance fighter against George W. Bush, who looks to you like an arrogant and superficial apologist for a decadent empire supporting your oppressors? I am not saying our Palestinian is right. I’m just asking you to look at the world as he might look at it.
If you are a Catholic whose father was born in Ireland, you might, like me, have found your earliest allegiances to be with Irishmen and Catholics. My father, a decent and, but for one exception, an unprejudiced man, had one group of people he never trusted. They were the British. He thought the British were behind most conspiracies and catastrophes in the world. Do you think a Palestinian Muslim might have analogous thoughts?
Then imagine the Gunpowder Plot of four centuries ago. The entire Parliament, as well as the royal family, was targeted for destruction by Catholic subterfuge. Religion and nationalism, once again, were the issues. In our present times, however, Catholics and the Church of England seem to get along.
And that is the point. How did the change come about? For that matter, how did the fall of Communism come about? It was not arms. It was talk. It was information. It was the relationship between a guarded but genial President Reagan and a conscientious Mikhail Gorbachev.
The most common complaint against talk is that it shows weakness, but the truth is that it shows rationality. What is more, it reveals a presumption of rationality in the other party. I am not suggesting that we will find sweet reasonableness in hardened terrorists. Although it has occurred that some former terrorists would later be seen at negotiation tables and even in national leadership, it is quite probable that some Islamic extremists will accept nothing less than the extirpation of all their enemies.
Our relationship to Islam is no impenetrable mystery. The vast majority of Muslims, even those who blame the United States and Israel for all the world’s problems (as my father once blamed England) are neither irrational nor evil. They may have just grievances, and they may have distorted views of the West. These grievances and views must be spoken, heard and responded to. Without that alternative, the pull to extremism will only get stronger.
It would be well for us to recognize and publicize the considerable courage of Muslims who have raised their voices against terrorism. From Egypt to Pakistan and on to Indonesia, men and women, often at great risk, have accused the extremists of radical infidelity to Islam. Not to trust the humanity of our Muslim brothers and sisters is ultimately a failure of hope for humanity itself.