Terry Golway

While the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore hardly speaks for most of those who believe the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, his efforts to portray Iraqi insurgents as heroic freedom-fighters heralds an intellectual crisis on the left. Do opponents of the war in Iraq also believe that the United States and the West are on the wrong side in the war on terror? Do they regard Islamic terrorist groups as the manifestations of local political grievancesa 21st-century version of the Viet Cong? Do they believe that groups like Al Qaeda are the inevitable result of the West’s oppression of the Islamic world and, therefore, are fighting a war of liberation?

I suspect that some on the left have begun to romanticize the jihadists the way some leftists portrayed Communist insurgents in the 1960’s as agrarian reformers or heroic nationalists seeking to throw off the burdens of Western imperialism. And that, if you will forgive the phrase, would be suicidal.

The New York Times recently carried a chilling report from the streets of Luton, England, where young Muslims gather to hear fiery sermons from clerics who wish for nothing less than the imposition of Islam on the West. This, of course, is to be accomplished not by evangelization, but by the swordand the bullet and the bomb. Their goal, according to the Times account, is to see the Union Jack replaced by an Islamic flag, and Britain’s government replaced by Taliban-style leaders.

Throughout Europe young Muslims are responding to clerics who preach hatred of the West and America. In Luton, would-be jihadists cheered the train bombings in Madrid and referred to the hijackers of Sept. 11 as the Magnificent 19. In Geneva, a Muslim cleric has called on young Muslims to impose the will of Islam on the rest of Europe. Intelligence reports indicate that terrorist groups are bringing in streams of recruits prepared not to fight the Americans in Iraq, but to kill godless Europeans whose values offend them.

The Times account noted that the eager jihadists of Luton do not represent anything close to a majority of Muslims in Great Britain. Indeed, some Muslims have condemned the militants and their clerics. But even a small number of murderous terrorists can wreak terrible damage, as Americans know all too well. Britain’s security forces have foiled several bomb plots, but to paraphrase what the I.R.A. said after nearly killing Margaret Thatcher in the 1980’s: the security forces have to be lucky all the time; the terrorists need to be lucky only once.

The war in Iraq has allowed liberals and leftists to avoid the larger issue, which is: How should the West defend itself against the Islamic terrorists who are based in the cities of Europe and who wish to establish an Islamic state not in Palestine but in the United Kingdom, France and other European nations?

During the cold war, liberal Democrats recognized the peril of Soviet Communism and the evils of Soviet imperial rule in Eastern Europe. Democrats like Henry Jackson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Hubert Humphrey and others refused to cede anti-Communism to Republican conservatives. They may have disagreed with Republicans on tactics, but not on overall strategy.

The Democrats and liberals of today must enunciate a foreign policy vision that goes beyond opposition to the war in Iraq and that does not allow Republicans and conservatives to position themselves as the lone defenders of the Western way of life. Too many liberal commentators disparage President Bush’s admittedly simple formula that terrorists hate us because they hate freedom. But is that really so wrong? How else to describe the young militants of Luton, who pray for the day when Islamic lawas interpreted by groups like the Talibanis forced on the people of Europe?

Antiwar Democrats must state plainly that regardless of how they feel about Iraq, there can be no compromise and no negotiation with terrorists who seek to kill us. Leftists who instinctively sympathize with the powerless and oppressed must recognize that the militants of Luton and elsewhere are not fighting for a contested piece of earth, or even to right ancient wrongs. Theirs is not a war of liberation, but of conquest. Offended by the values we cherish, they seek to destroy them.

And yet, many of the antiwar leftists I know refuse to accept what would seem to be self-evident truths. Blinded by their contempt for President Bush and convinced that we are in Iraq for the sake of cheap oil, they have ennobled those who would not hesitate to kill them. This is a perverse variation on the theme of 1960’s-style radical chic, and a good deal more dangerous.

Perhaps the better comparison is with those members of Britain’s ruling classes in the 1930’s who sought to justify Hitler’s prewar aggression. Like some leftists of today who see Islamic militants as victims of history exacting revenge on their oppressors, some British aristocrats explained away Hitlerism as a reaction to the injustices imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. They chose to avert their eyes from the promises Hitler made in Mein Kampf.

Similiarly, the leaders of Al Qaeda have told us precisely what they wish: not a homeland for stateless Palestinians, not an end to oppression in Saudi Arabia, but the overthrow of mainstream Islamic governments in the Middle East and the imposition of Islamic law in the West.

Such a struggle does not allow for ironic detachment.

Terry Golway is a writer for The New York Observer.

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