NOVEMBER 15, 2001
Territory Is Not Mind
-- Jonathan H. Ebel
As if to remind us that in every victory there is also defeat, another airplane fell from the sky on Monday, killing all on board, and an undetermined number on the ground. Pushed from largest-font status in the headlines Tuesday morning was what counts as good news these days, the retreat of Taliban forces from Kabul. Few in the United States were in the mood to celebrate this victory in the still-hazy war on terrorism. In the split second that it took for news of the crash to spread, many were thrust back to the second Tuesday in September, wondering when the next plane would fall, and on whom.
Salman Rushdie and Fouad Ajami, whose articles in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were brought to my attention last week, provide assessments of the problem against which we are now warring that are as sobering as Monday's crash. Both describe Osama bin Laden not as a cause but as a symptom, not as an infection but as only the most visible metastasis of a cancer that has been growing in our world for decades. Though both writers are mainly descriptive we ought to concern ourselves with the prescription to which their accounts point.
Disputing claims by nearly every public voice, from President Bush to your local pastor, rabbi, and imam, Rushdie titles his piece "Yes, This Is About Islam" (New York Times, 2 November 2001) "If this isn't about Islam," he writes, "why the worldwide demonstrations in support of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Why did those 10,000 men armed with swords and axes mass on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, answering some mullah's call to jihad? . . . Why the routine anti-Semitism of the much-repeated Islamic slander that "the Jews" arranged the hits on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?" Rushdie goes on to explain that Islam as it has come to be understood and practiced dimly in both cases by the terrorists and their cheerleaders figures importantly enough in their motivations and justifications, that Muslims must take them seriously, and actively contest their interpretation of the faith.
Sounding a similar tone, Fouad Ajami describes the Arabic world as "A Thwarted Civilization" (Wall Street Journal, 16 October 2001) that has become a cauldron of discontent. Governmental repression keeps the cauldron from boiling over, but "the steady narcotic of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism" ensure that it contents remain potent. Its warriors and their supporters, he writes, "are the angry sons of a failed Arab generation . . . direct heirs of two generations of Arabs that have seen all the high dreams of . . . the era of enlightenment and secular nationalism . . . issue in sterility, dictatorship, and misery." Arab failures have created an Arab problem the vengeful fury of which the less-repressive world is now experiencing.
Both writers describe a problem that no number of well-targeted bombs and properly aggressive ground campaigns will solve. The foes that Rushdie and Ajami describe is neither uniformed nor gathered in countries considered hostile to current U.S. interests. Rather they are the minds of many young, disenfranchised Arab or non-Arab Muslims, and their cultural prisms, which make all things not of their faith and culture appear evil. As tanks, troops, and humanitarian aid move their way south through Afghanistan, we must remember that just as map is not territory, territory is not mind, and the battle for the latter is the one that we cannot afford to lose.
Yet placing responsibility for this more entrenched problem within Islam and the Arab world, as Rushdie and Ajami do, appears to call non-Muslims and non-Arabs away from solutions more complex and systemic than the current military campaign. Our past and present demonstrate, however, that the perversions held by Muhammad Atta, his associates, and like-minded Muslims are without an exclusive religious or cultural pedigree. Such destructive viciousness is, sadly, as at home in Christianity and "the West" as it is in Islam and "the East." Further, the United States has, in many cases, more to do with the current ordering of Central Asia and the Middle East than all but a very few who live there.
"This" is not, then, "about" either Islam or the Arab world in any but the narrowest of senses. Our current situation is also "about" foreign policy, humanity, global society, and the just ordering thereof. The problems that afflict this more inclusive set -- inconsistency, poverty, powerlessness, and repression -- are the real fronts on which this war must be fought and won. Until the broadest coalition possible meets with success in this more complicated process of liberation, all talk of victory, on the front page or elsewhere, is premature.
-- Jonathan Ebel is the managing editor of Sightings, and a doctoral candidate in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.