I see the Tablet , a British Catholic magazine, has this article by Ian Markham (registration required) of Hartford Theological Seminary in which he claims that I have said there are 100 million radical Muslims (best described, as I explain in a forthcoming issue of First Things , as Jihadists) bent on the destruction of the United States. That is not quite right. In fact, it is wrong.
Markham is referring to an item in The Public Square where I report on a conference at which an expert on Islam opined that no more than ten percent of the Muslims of the world supported Jihadism. The expert intended to be reassuring, and I commented that ten percent of a billion Muslims is small comfort.
I have no idea how many Muslims are involved in, actively supportive of, or sympathetic to Jihadism. Two of the most helpful books on these questions are Mary Habeck’s Knowing the Enemy (Yale) and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (Knopf). Habeck is especially good at detailing the history and intra-Islamic disputes that have resulted in Jihadist ideology. The strength of her book is in paying close attention to what these people actually believe and demonstrating the inseparability of their lethal ideology and their understanding of Islam.
The Looming Tower is a gripping read, focusing on Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the curious politics of the Middle East¯with particular reference to Saudi Arabia and its history of bizarre relations with the United States¯that have produced the present threat, a threat that stretches far into the future. The Looming Tower was the basis of much of the material in the remarkable ABC docudrama The Road to 9/11 .
Wright comments on one of bin Laden’s many statements about the aim of Jihadism: "What is notable about this response, filled as usual with ritualistic locutions, is the complete absence of any real political plan, beyond imposing Sharia, which of course was already in effect in Saudi Arabia. The happiness and dignity that bin Laden invoked lay on the other side of history from the concepts of nationhood and the state. The radical Islamist movement has never had a clear idea of governing, or even much interest in it, as the Taliban [in Afghanistan] would conclusively demonstrate. Purification is the goal; and whenever purity is paramount, terror is close at hand."
To purify Islam by ridding it of the current rulers who are declared to be apostates and no better than infidels, to compel the submission of the Christian West (meaning mainly America), and to achieve eternal bliss by sacrificing one’s life (if necessary, in suicide attacks)¯these are the driving motivations behind Jihadism. Such is the appeal, not to the poor and disenfranchised of the "Arab street" but to the brightest and best of the relatively well-educated and well-off of young Muslims, both at home and abroad, who are seething with resentment over centuries of what they view as humiliation by the West and are bent upon vengeance to the glory of God.
How many are there? There are thousands in active training in camps run by al-Qaeda and others, hundreds in cells in Europe and America who are actively planning attacks, and millions of youngsters being indoctrinated in Jihadism in schools around the world, largely funded by the corrupt Saudi royals. One hundred million who are at least sympathetic to Jihadism may be a reasonable figure.
Some secularist analysts in the West are placing their hope on "moderate" Islam. By moderate Islam they too often mean Muslims who break from Islam and embrace the values and economic benefits of the West. This strikes me as utterly wrongheaded. The great majority of Muslims are not going to stop being religious, and the religion to which they adhere is Islam. Therefore the most important question of war and peace in our time is a religious question and, as Benedict XVI said at Regensburg , the question of the nature of God. But, if Jihadist theology is to be countered effectively, it must be countered by religious authority and argument within Islam.
In the New York Times Thursday (Times Select), David Brooks quotes a veteran of Middle East conflicts who says of the Jihadist threat, "This is forever." We must hope that he is wrong about that. But over these past five years, we have witnessed a slow and painful evolution in Western thinking about the challenge confronting us. After September 11, First Things worried editorially about the meaning of an open-ended conflict and the applicability of just-war doctrine when it may be impossible to specify the meaning of victory. That is a continuing worry. Perhaps it is forever, or at least as far as we can see into the future, and the best we can hope for is containment of the threat. To clear our minds of cant and prepare for the future, we need a new but very different "Letter X" such as that written by George Kennan in 1947, preparing us for the long contest with the Soviet Union.
Clearing our minds of cant, which Dr. Johnson said is the first step toward understanding, was the great contribution of Benedict XVI in his Regensburg lecture of September 12. In the November issue of First Things , which will be out mid-October, I explain why his lecture may be referred to, five or twenty years from now, as "The Regensburg Moment," meaning a moment of truth preparing us for the long struggle ahead.
Of course, not everybody is convinced about the nature of the threat. We still have with us people like John Esposito of Georgetown and the bestselling Karen Armstrong assuring us that Islam is a religion of peace. "Why can’t we all just get along?" as Rodney King plaintively asked, with the answer implied, and frequently made explicit, that we could all get along just fine if only "we," meaning mainly we Americans, were not so terribly unpleasant to the people who are trying to kill us.
On the wishful-thinking side of these discussions is also John Tierney of the New York Times . His September 9 column (Times Select) touts a new book by John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State. The book is Overblown , referring to the threat posed by the Jihadists. Tierney writes that Mueller calculates that "the odds of an American being killed by international terrorism are about one in 80,000. And even if there were attacks on the scale of September 11 every three months for the next five years, the odds for any individual dying would be one in 5,000."
Oh well, that’s all right then. In a city of 50,000, that’s only ten people killed. Or in New York City, about 1,600 killed. One is reminded of Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman: "What, me worry?" Hundreds or thousands of dead from terrorism cannot, contra Mueller, Tierney, et al., be compared to the thousands killed in automobile accidents, which involves a familiar calculation of risks without lethal intent.
Had the Jihadists recently arrested in Britain gotten away with their plan of blowing up ten airliners over the Atlantic, it is likely that international travel would have come to a screeching halt, at least for a time, with inestimable economic and other consequences. Were a dirty bomb exploded in Times Square¯and the relevant experts claim they know that Jihadists are working on such measures¯a hundred thousand or more would die immediately, with untold effects upon the lives of all Americans and the rest of the world.
This is not a time for either complacency or panic. I can be as caustic as the next guy about some of the apparently silly measures imposed by airport security checks. (This week on a flight to Birmingham, Alabama, I was deprived of my shaving cream.) But anybody who has read, for instance, The Looming Tower will appreciate the hundreds of police and intelligence agents who are working, however fumblingly, to track and contain deadly threats. Rejecting both complacency and panic, we do well to brace ourselves for a future of very real danger, and to be grateful also for the lucidity and courage of people such as Benedict XVI who recall us to truths worth defending, even as they call upon the Muslim world to effectively propose a future that is not dominated by the dark night of Jihadism.