In the Islamic world, some denounce the U.S.-led attacks on the Taliban and their extremist allies as “a war against Islam,” a charge that seeks to justify the carnage in New York and Washington one month ago. Yet the Dome of the Rock, the shrines at Mecca and Medina, the great mosques of Istanbul and Algiers and Cairo - all stand untouched by American vengeance. The United States has taken many steps to show that its war targets terrorism, not Islam. Yet the greatest proof of that fact is not what America has done, but what it has chosen not to do.
IN THE DAYS immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks, journalists who deal with international and military issues began calling sources to divine what response America would have to such an outrage. In the calls I made, all of these conversations were marked by anger, frustration and a determination to hit back. And in those first hours, as the scope of the atrocity began to sink in, one senior official told me no option was off the table, including nuclear ones.
Perhaps it is asking too much of the world, particularly the Islamic world, to give America credit for the fact that the nightmare visited upon its shores by Islamic extremists did not result in a nuclear response. I wonder how many of the Islamic world’s leaders would have shown such restraint in the same circumstances if they had in their arsenals thousands of intercontinental nuclear missiles? And during the three weeks between the attacks and the counter-strike against the Taliban and its “guests,” where were the throngs of blood-thirsty infidels screaming “Death to Islam?” The patience of the American public with its government’s need to plan a response that would not merely heap thousands more innocent victims on the pyre also is under-appreciated.
HATE VS. WAR
The fact is, neither the slanders of extremists nor the inevitable mistakes of Western military technology can make Osama bin Laden’s dreams come true. Bin Laden and his followers, and all the ignorant souls who parade through the streets with his photo, can talk all they like about Jihad and rant about America being “the Great Satan.” But it is not in their power to achieve their ultimate aim of prodding America into the same kind of indiscriminate murder they have embraced.
America’s wars have not been motivated primarily by hatred. Greed, territory, calculations about world power and Cold War ideological fervor often lay behind the fighting. But unlike the wars of Europe and Asia, ethnic and religious hatred has not been a major factor. Indeed, wartime governments found it necessary in 1898, 1917 and 1941 to drum up hatred with propaganda against Spanish, German and Japanese enemies. Once the body bags begin arriving stateside, the job takes care of itself. It is that point at which America, generally reluctant to fight, becomes the most dangerous nation on the planet.
WHO STAYS OUR HAND?
Yet even now, after more than 6,000 dead — all of them non-combatants — Muslims who subscribe to the “war on Islam” theory must ask themselves: what has thus far prevented nuclear strikes on Cairo and Damascus and Algiers and Tehran? Surely, it is no longer Moscow that is protecting you. You’ll need more than Allah on your side if the engineers of the Chechen war ever take charge of the war on terrorism.
What, then stays the hand of the infidel Bush? Perhaps it is a Jewish plot of some kind. Yes, that’s it! A plot like the one uncovered last year to poison the minds of Arab children with Pokemon cards. You’ve heard of it, surely? They’re very clever, those Jews, but Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Egypt all banned the sale of Pokemon cards as soon as they realized what that cute little yellow one was yelling: “Pikachu!” meant “I’m a Jew!” in Japanese. So the cards were banned and burned. Never mind that the Japanese government protested that the actual phrase for “I’m a Jew” is nothing like “Pikachu.” The cards remained banned, not because there was any truth to the rumor, but because the masses and their mullahs thought so.
A very similar thing is happening today in the streets and in the mosques of Jakarta and Lahore and Muscat and Baghdad. Outrageous statements - demonstrably false statements - are presented as truth and the governments dare not say otherwise.
It is a great irony of politics is that when a government is dependent not on the votes of its people but rather on their willingness to tolerate its abuse, the people have a kind of crude leverage that simply doesn’t exist in a democracy. Democratic governments fear the law; dictatorships fear the people. And if the people insist that “America is the enemy of Allah,” what business of the government is it to say otherwise?
‘THE ENEMY OF GOD?’
Is America the enemy of Allah? Let’s look at more empirical evidence. In the last two decades of the 20th century, American troops deployed to seven major war zones: Lebanon and Grenada (1982); Panama (1989); the Gulf (1990-91); Somalia (1993); Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999). National interests, of course, played into each of these interventions. America fought Muslims in two of those wars, yet in five of them American troops fought and died on behalf of Muslims.
In Beirut, U.S. and French troops intervened to prevent the Israeli military from obliterating the cornered Palestine Liberation Organization. U.S. Marines literally rescued the PLO and evacuated Yasser Arafat and 15,000 fighting men safely to exile in Tunis, Tunisia. For their pains, the Marines and the French troops had their barracks blown up by Islamic extremists, losing over 400 soldiers between them.
Nine years later, when Saddam Hussein overran the wealthy Kuwaitis, many Islamic states were indifferent until they realized the Republican Guard had Saudi Arabia in its sites as well. Oil was the overwhelming American motivation for fighting Saddam, no doubt. But then why did the good Muslims of Syria and Egypt and Malaysia send troops as well?
You can make a good argument that the United States saved not Kuwait or Saudi Arabia but rather the venal regimes that run them. Fair enough. And the West botched the aftermath, allowing Saddam to use his people’s suffering to fertilize anti-American rage. But would the world be a better place with Kuwait as the 16th province of Saddam’s slice of hell (and with Mecca and Medina now entrusted to his benevolent care?)
Whatever the truth about the Gulf War, America’s intervention on behalf of the starving Muslims of Somalia, or the besieged Muslims of Bosnia and later Kosovo, had nothing to do with national interest or oil. Another Israeli trick, perhaps?
THE DECADENT WEST
Indeed, what of the Israelis - whom the extremists would cast as our evil Zionist controllers? Surely, our insistence that this particular branch of the family of Abraham not be driven into the sea proves that we are the enemy of God. This may also explain, to some minds, why the United States insisted that Israel refrain from responding in kind in 1991 when Iraq fired Scud missiles into its cities? Or why successive American presidents have wasted so much time and political capital trying to cajole the hard-headed Israelis and miserably led Palestinians into a territorial compromise? For that matter, where is the ”carte blanche” the Arab press assumed America would issue to Israel in the wake of the bombings? Quite to the contrary, Washington finally knocked Israeli and Arab heads together and told them to get on with peace talks.
Perhaps bin Laden is right, then; perhaps the West is corrupt and soft and unable to summon the courage or virility needed to make war or even to recognize its own interests. Then again, what would the residents of Dresden or Stalingrad or Tokyo or or Hiroshima make of that theory? Or, more recently, the people of Hanoi? Is the West incapable of the kind of slaughter that al-Qaida offers up to Allah? In fact, if we’re just talking about pure numbers, we’re a hell of a lot better at it. British bombers incinerated as many as 50,000 people in a single night in Dresden in 1945. American bombers bettered them later that year, killing up to 100,000 in the fire- bombings of Tokyo. Hiroshima and Nagasaki speak for themselves. Yet these were acts taken against enemies that struck first, years into wars that even today stand as warnings to us about the importance of never letting fanatics gain the upper hand again.
Is the United States fighting a war against Islam? If it were, you’d know it by now.
MSNBC.com’s Michael Moran is on assignment in London.