OPINION

Now the Muslims must speak

Whether Al Qaeda won last Sunday’s Spanish election, or whether it was Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar who lost it at the last minute, we will never know. What is certain, though, is that the train bombers got what they wanted. The man who led Spain to war on the side of the United States was defeated and the man who replaced him has vowed to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, where their presence allowed President George Bush to claim that America had many supporters in what he calls the war against terrorism. Not only does Bush lose a significant ally but the whole «coalition of the willing» that had supported his Iraqi adventure is getting very shaky – because of this and because of other problems faced by its members individually. However significant they may seem, though, last year’s invasion of Iraq and the result of last weekend’s elections in Spain are now history. We have to live with the outcome. And here it is worth noting that even though Al Qaeda may have «won» the Spanish elections, it is not Al Qaeda that will govern. The Spanish government and opposition, in their newly exchanged roles, will chart Spain’s course. And the nations of a united Europe will unite further to try to deal with the threat of terrorism, to look for ways in which to fight this war without destroying the delicate fabric of trust and freedom that constitutes their liberal democracies. The massacre in Madrid certainly reshaped European politics and added a new dimension to the fear that burst upon us on September 11, 2001. But what it has caused is a reaction, not a retreat. Because, even if we want to obsess over the Spanish election, we must not forget that the change of government, even though unexpected, came through an election. And, when it changes again it will be through an election. Terrorists may toy with the sensitivities of nations whose will is expressed freely and therefore emotionally – but they will always be defeated by the very fact that that will is expressed freely. And we must keep in mind that democracy is a faith that must grow stronger the more it is threatened. The early Christians went to horrible deaths secure and serene in the belief that the greater their suffering the greater the power of their faith, and, therefore, the greater the guarantee of eternal life close to their Lord. Their example (though unfashionable and politically incorrect to a dangerous degree) could be useful today. Democracy, despite the fear of terrorism and other problems (such as poverty, inequality and crime) is under far less threat, but it too will triumph through endurance. In contrast, although Islamist-inspired suicide attackers also feel that their sacrifice is a guarantee of faith, instead of seeking redemption through their own death they seek it through the destruction of others. Furthermore, they seek spiritual confirmation through acts rooted firmly in the temporal – they see themselves as soldiers aiming for territorial expansion, not as souls seeking salvation. Their zeal is so blinding and their reason so calculated that they are merciless. And this is where our world must join battle with their missionary madness. All people – and this includes not only the nations that have been hit by terrorism but all those who want a better future for their children, including those from which the killers come – have to identify the terrorists and understand their aims, and to understand that terrorism is a tactic, not an army or religion. It will be defeated when the method is seen as a failure. For this to happen, it must be rejected by those whom it purports to represent. Osama bin Laden, according to his own statements, wants to see all «crusaders» out of Muslim lands and a restoration of the theocratic Caliphate of the seventh century. This fundamentalist, authoritarian and puritanical mentality might be attractive to those who are on the right side of such a society (such as high-born males, as opposed to all women and the lower castes) and to those who cannot face the challenges and uncertainty of the present. Most others, however, do not have the luxury of such utopian pursuits and need to earn a living to shelter and educate their children. So perhaps the most important thing in the war against Islam-inspired terror would be to hear the views of the people for whom bin Laden and his cohorts are ostensibly fighting. What do the majority of people in Saudi Arabia, for example, or Morocco, have to say about the murder of more than 200 people on their way to work in Madrid? Who are those who support such atrocities? Do they see them as a means to an end? Do they believe that bin Laden and his coalition of the all too willing have been good for Islam, or that they will lead to a better future? All of these answers may be known to the people of the Muslim world, or they may not be. But the rest of us certainly do not know what they believe and we do not know how to respond. Everyone has an opinion but we really do not know how to defeat this powerful enemy politically. Because what it all comes down to is that those who will use the tactics of terror have to be defeated from within. No matter how many precautions any country might take, in today’s world it is just too easy to kill large numbers of people. Israel provides the most sobering lesson of this, with even the strategic port of Ashdod being penetrated with ease last Sunday, leading to a double suicide attack that killed 10 civilians. This was far more difficult than blowing up a bus and comes even after Israeli forces have amassed years of experience in fighting terrorism and have used radical measures, such as «pre-emptive» extrajudicial killings and a security wall. The Israelis can only win if they endure, if they outlast the attacks. But for the attacks to end, a political solution has to be found. So many years of death and destruction (both in Israel and elsewhere) have this and only this to show. President Bush has followed Israel’s example of trying to defend his country while conducting pre-emptive attacks. Given the difference in scale, this involves America’s adoption of a policy of pre-emptive war and the seemingly inexorable building of a virtual wall around the United States. Every country has the right to take measures to protect itself, but one can only wonder whether efforts to stamp out terrorism without first isolating the terrorists within their own societies and stripping them of any political legitimacy can have any hope of success. This does not, in any way, suggest appeasing terrorists, because they simply cannot be appeased. On the contrary, they must be stopped at all costs. But apart from defending themselves, all countries have to realize that the threat of extremist paranoia sowing division inside them and among them is a threat to all. It is of the utmost importance that they cooperate and share information and do whatever is necessary to protect their own citizens and those of other countries. The EU’s small steps toward better coordination and information sharing is a step in this direction. But what is needed above all is unity – the unity of all against the small and very easily defined though not so easily uncovered troops of bin Laden. This cuts both ways. The United States has to see, at last, that allies cannot be selected a la carte, with divisions between Old Europe and New Europe. It needs the broadest possible consensus, no matter how frustrating this can be, otherwise it may find itself fighting too many wars on its own. Europe, too, has to see that security cannot be achieved with platitudes and the pretense that things are not as dangerous as they seem. Greece’s realization that it needs NATO to help protect the Olympics is a step in this direction. But perhaps the most important weapon in this war will be to let those who support the enemy out of some misplaced idealism realize that the world’s democracies will endure and they will win – and they will win not because they are swayed by terror but because they are free. And those for whom bin Laden purports to speak should be given the chance to say whether they really would like to follow him on a long march into the lost deserts of the past just because he can inspire murder on a massive scale. These are the people who can end this war, and it’s time that they spoke.