The open society and its new enemies

Great shocks change our perceptions. The carnage in Madrid and a number of thwarted terrorist plots across Europe following September 11 – some of them in countries that had opposed the US war in Iraq, have shattered the remaining misconceptions about this new form of terrorism that casts its shadow on our civilized world. Those who sought comfort in the thought that their Middle East policies have been neutral or pro-Muslim – including many politicians and pundits in this country – should think again. Our self-styled immunity is no more. Believing that we are somehow exempted from the threat of terrorism is not only naive, it is dangerous. We are all on the frontline now. It has become clear that we, the people of Western liberal democracies, are the enemy not for what we do, but for what we are. Our stand toward Washington or our stand on Iraq are of absolutely no issue to the terrorists. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander. The infidel is, by definition, guilty of not sharing the radical convictions of the religious extremist. For the first time, terror becomes a weapon of first resort seeking to cause the highest possible death toll, in a psychological game that aspires to promulgate fear but which, at the same time, obliges terrorists to raise the threshold of casualties through spectacular acts. It appears almost as if terrorism becomes not a means to an end – unjustifiable as that end may be – but an end in itself. Terrorists keep murdering in order to perpetuate and justify their existence. «I kill, therefore I am.» However, as a Boston Globe editorial said recently, the victims in Madrid were «murdered by people who had reached the age of reason.» People who had an abstract rationale for their crimes – however mad – that distinguishes them from pure lunatics. Islamic fundamentalists are driven by an absolutist, messianic vision to roll back modernity and return to the values of the earliest Muslims (Wahhabism). Osama bin Laden has for years been exhorting his followers to eliminate Americans and Jews and to reinstate a unified Islamic caliphate throughout the Middle East. Muslims are called upon to revolt against their «apostate» leaders and drive the infidels out of the Holy Land. It should be understood that the West has little to do with the outbreak of this deadly and indiscriminate disease. The same, however, cannot be said about its quick proliferation. Western policies and colonial-like crusades in the Middle East are a significant factor behind the «street appeal» of religious extremism. Muslims feel frustration, envy, hatred and a sense of injustice (the Palestinian question being their most tangible source of discontent) – a set of bitter emotions that turns their regions into a hotbed of terrorism. It is not clear whether the West has the moderate Muslims on its side. Besides, this is more a civil war inside the Muslim world; a war between moderates and extremists. Outside interventions will only feed into their anti-colonial reflexes (history shows that cultural and religious change is more successful when it comes gradually and from within). Rather, in order to attract moderate Muslims the West must project its so-called soft power, the values of humanism, democracy, equality and free market – values that actually helped the US win the Cold War. At the same time, the West must be very careful not to undermine its civil liberties at home. It would be catastrophic if the West suddenly realized that it has started to look a more like the beast it set out to thwart. Despite his utopian belief that history is marching irreversibly toward a universal democracy, Francis Fukuyama was right to claim that hordes of impoverished Muslims in fact vote with their feet every year, as they struggle to reach the shores of the more prosperous democracies of the West. But the attractions of liberal democracies are not a panacea. That is demonstrated by the most puzzling breed of Islamic radicals which has often left the police wondering. A great number of Islamic terrorists and suicide bombers who live in Western states are second-generation immigrants with an educated and well-to-do background. (In his recent book «Fortune Favors the Bold: What We Must Do to Build a New and Lasting Global Prosperity,» Lester Thurow claims that religious extremists hate globalization because it carries ideas that threaten their world view, but it is interesting that without globalization the Madrid bombers would not live in Spain to begin with.) So what is it that drives such theoretically unlikely candidates to turn themselves into bombs? Notwithstanding their freedoms and wealth, our secular societies fall short of providing what all religions and secular totalitarian religions – like communism and Nazism did in the past – offer: consolation and certainty. People are meaning-seeking beings thrown in a meaning-less world. Unlike other animals, man needs to feel at home with the world. Fanaticism offers exactly that. It offers a sense of belonging by dividing the world into opposites: Black and white. Us and them. Religious fanaticism, in particular, offers something extra. It denies the finality of death – most gloriously through the death of oneself and others for the sake of a higher cause (martyrdom). Kill (and be killed) and there will be a place for you in heaven. Hence the hair-raising statement: «You love life and we love death.» Unfortunately, the ability of liberalism to forge solidarity and counter the threat of radical Islam is diminished by the fact that its most important virtues such as tolerance, pluralism and human rights, are by their nature defensive ones. However, as the experience of Nazism and communism demonstrated, a persistent ideological challenge will always push liberalism to rally its fighting forces. It is not a clash of civilizations that we are seeing. For religious extremism is actually the denial of all civilization. This is civilization against barbarity. This is the open society against the terror of absolution. The expansion of more tolerant and pluralist societies will in the long run starve radical Islam of mass support. Liberalism will overcome as more and more people look up to it as a beacon of freedom and prosperity. It remains to be seen at what cost.

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