Winning: Al Qaeda's Vision of Victory

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May 12, 2006: Al Qaeda has taken an awful beating since September 11, 2001, and by all measures that matter to Westerners, they appear beaten, and faced with extinction. Yet al Qaeda, and their many supporters, believe they are winning their battle with the infidel (non-Moslem) world. This is based on a rather different view of the world, one that not all Moslems agree with, but an outlook that people are willing to die for. Basically, the Islamic radicals believe that Islam (which means, literally, "submission") is more than a religion. For these fanatics, Islam is a lifestyle, and everyone on the planet must either get with the program ("submit" to Islam) or die. Even the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors made exceptions for Jews and Christians (who could stay as they were, as long as they paid heavy taxes and accepted life as second-class citizens.) But the current Islamic extremists are, well, more extreme than The Prophet.

To most people, including many Moslems, this goal is fantasy. But such fantasies are not unique (remember the Bolsheviks and Nazis of the 20th century?) to Islamic radicals. These "jihadis" (crusaders) believe that time, and history, are on their side. They remember that when the Christian crusaders showed up a thousand years ago, they were eventually sent packing, after several centuries of effort. But the Islamic radical world view also sets up the West (the "crusaders, " or "Franks," or just the Christian world in general, and their allies the Jews) as some kind of arch-enemy, right out of a James Bond movie. But the Islamic warriors have God on their side, and cannot lose.

You really need a face-to-face discussion of this with an Islamic radical, to fully appreciate how firm these beliefs are. Actually, many Moslems of the non-fanatical variety, still believe some of this stuff about the "Western conspiracy to keep the Moslem world down." And Moslems, especially Arabs, have not done very well over the past five or six centuries. Why is that? What has really happened to the Arabs, to leave them so far behind the rest of the world.

Part of the reason is just bad luck. For the first five hundred years of Islam, life was good. The economies of the Moslem countries prospered, and there was a spirit of progress and scientific curiosity. Then three things happened that devastated the Moslem, especially the Arab, world. First, there were the Mongols, who came by in the 13th century, devastating Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, before being driven off by an Egyptian led Arab army. Another Mongol army returned in the 15th century, and did even more damage. The scale of the Mongol destruction was permanent in some places, and a large chunk of the skilled and educated urban population was exterminated.

Before the Mongols first showed up, there was also a major doctrinal dispute among Islamic scholars. The end result was that the idea of scientific inquiry and progress was no longer welcome. Tolerated, yes, but not encouraged. Europe had no such problems, and began to pull ahead of the Moslem world.

Then came the most serious blow, the discovery, by Europeans, of how to get to the Indian Ocean without going through Moslem lands. This was done by developing better ship-building and navigation methods, and being able to sail around Africa, into the Indian Ocean. This enabled the Europeans to trade directly with "the East", and deprived the Moslem world of enormous profits they made as middlemen. This trade profit was critical because it provided those additional funds for public works, more soldiers and something to fall back on after some natural disaster, or a civil war. Finally, the decline in trade was accompanied by a decline in contacts between the West and the Arab world. The two grew apart, and as they did, the West grew more powerful, while the Arabs stagnated.

Note that the crusades don't make the top three. The crusaders were mainly interested in making the Holy Places in and around Jerusalem, available to Christian pilgrims. There was not much else in the area of any value. And the crusaders were driven out after several centuries. But the big three items above had a major effect on Moslem, and especially Arab, culture.

Islamic radicals, and Arabs in general, obsess about the crusades because the Mongols are no longer a threat, or a major world power. Blaming it on the loss of lucrative trade routes is too abstract for most people to comprehend and, finally, medieval theological disputes are considered settled matters. Devout Moslems don't mess with that sort of stuff, so it cannot have anything to do with the sorry state of Arab economies.

Many Arabs do understand that there are practical reasons for the economic and cultural backwardness of the Arab countries. Not enough Arab children go to school. There is too much corruption among government officials. Arab governments tend to be much less effective than Western ones. Arabs do not use their wealth, especially their oil wealth, as efficiently as others do. But these problems are not easily solved, and Islamic radicals have a doctrine that is easier for uneducated Moslems to grasp. As Arabs get more education, they are more likely to understand the need for some fundamental reforms, not for Islam to conquer the planet.

The Islamic radicals seem to understand the threat they face from education. The Islamic radicals try to monopolize education, and make sure most of it is religious in nature, and that girls get little of it. Just as the medieval Islamic theologians feared progress, their modern counterparts continue that stifling tradition, and back it up with murderous terror.

The war on terror involves more than a clash of cultures, it's more to do with clashes within Islamic culture. Non-Moslems have a hard time getting involved with that internal debate. Moslems have to sort it out themselves. Many non-Arab Moslems have no problems with that. But poorly educated Moslems everywhere find the "die a glorious death and go to paradise" call of al Qaeda appealing. If Moslems had kept their internal debate to themselves, the rest of world would have stayed out of it. But once the Islamic terrorists took their attacks to non-Moslem lands, they brought upon themselves, and all Moslems, the wrath of their angry victims. And the victims are not likely to back off until the Islamic world gets it act together.

 


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