Less than six years after 9/11, the great Clash of Civilizations has fizzled out. It’s been replaced by a civil war within a single civilization.
Consider these news events from recent weeks, and the pattern becomes clear:
In Gaza, Islamists loyal to Hamas decisively routed Fatah, the once-unrivaled Palestinian movement founded by Yasser Arafat. As masked Hamas gunmen threw Fatah officials off buildings and executed them in the streets, Fatah-affiliated President Mahmoud Abbas described Hamas as “terrorists” (a word familiar to us, but taboo within Palestinian society - until now).
In Pakistan, government troops laid bloody siege to the Red Mosque in the centre of Islamabad. On Wednesday, Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s second in command, urged revenge against Pakistan’s government. (”This crime can only be washed by repentance or blood.”) A secret Pakistani interior ministry document recently disclosed by The New York Times warns that Islamist insurgents in the country’s northwest tribal areas - the same ones fueling the civil war in Afghanistan - may soon threaten Pakistan’s central government.
In Lebanon, government troops attacked the remnants from the extremist Islamist group Fatah at-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. The country’s governing coalition is also confronting an ongoing political challenge from Iranian-sponsored Islamist terrorist group Hezbollah.
In Iraq, sectarian killings between Shiite and Sunni death squads continue apace. This week, more than 100 people were killed when a jihadi-driven truck filled with tons of explosives blew up in the town of Amirli, in a region claimed by both Arab and Kurdish Muslims. Meanwhile, American troops are waging war against al-Qaeda linked death squads, fighting in collaboration with Sunni sheikhs who, until recently, were considered terrorists themselves.
In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-line theocrat who is seeking to summon Shiite Islam’s “12th Imam” from his ethereal slumber, is facing mounting criticism from disenchanted citizens amidst a gasoline shortage and a brutal state campaign to enforce Sharia law. Several dozen people have been stoned to death in recent days for the crime of adultery.
In Somalia, a grenade attack against troops loyal to the Ethiopian-backed interim government prompted troops to open fire on civilians. Government troops have since closed down Mogadishu’s main market, and are rooting out the Islamist insurgents that infest it.
In Algeria, which this month hosted the Africa Games, a suicide bomber blew up a refrigerator truck full of explosives outside a military post, killing 10. Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility.
In all of these places, the basic plot is the same: traditional Muslim Sheikhs and autocrats battling with murderous jihadis for control of Muslim lands. And in all of these places, it is Muslims themselves - not Western soldiers or politicians - who will decide the outcome.
If anything, in fact, the trend in the West is toward isolationism. Israel withdrew from Gaza unilaterally in 2005. In Washington, even key Republican Senators are now urging George W. Bush to draw down U.S. troops in Iraq. Even in Afghanistan, where NATO troops are bravely fighting and dying to prevent the country from falling into bloody chaos, the public’s patience may soon run out: The best-trained armies in the world can’t win a decisive battle so long as Islamists control Pakistan’s tribal borderlands.
Of course, Muslims are still trying to blow up infidels in New York, London and Glasgow - not to mention Tel Aviv, Kashmir and a hundred other places. But with every passing month, Muslim violence becomes more self-directed. By the time Iran gets its Shiite Bomb, Wahabist Saudi Arabia may be as much at risk as Israel.
In an obvious self-interested sense, this is good news for the West. But the trend also means that we are losing our ability to shape events. After 9/11, George W. Bush and his international supporters were swept up in a grand Wilsonian project to revamp the political culture of the Muslim world. But six years later, we’re largely back on the sidelines, feebly exhorting our chosen autocrats - Pervez Musharraf, Mahmoud Abbas, Fouad Siniora, Nouri al-Maliki, Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah - to “do more to fight terrorism.” We have gone from realists to democratic utopians back to realists again.
In democracies, voters support wars when they see clear, morally compelling arguments for waging them. That wasn’t a problem when the stakes were credibly cast as between good and evil. But the war now is murkier. Most of the Muslim leaders we now are supporting are not democratic folk heroes, but compromised autocrats fighting one side of an alien civil war.
Compared to the Islamists, these men represent the lesser of two evils. But in the long run, Western voters don’t want their sons and daughters putting their lives on the line for any kind of evil.
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