This article was first published on Beliefnet in December 2001

Like it or not, we’re entering a long, drawn-out spiritual and ideological struggle with Islamic fundamentalism. As we prepare for this, we should recall with pride that we prevailed in our fight against Communism, not merely by opposing that system but by championing our own.

In that struggle--a jihad of sorts--our economic system proved decisive to our victory. The world admired our model of what economic freedom could produce. In the jihad with Islamic fundamentalism, the strength of our economic system will be secondary in importance. What will count most are our spiritual values, especially those core values that distinguish our culture from Islamic fundamentalism. As a longtime student of American culture and values, I see three sets of core values, deeply embedded in the popular psyche, that should define the battleground for our jihad.

First and foremost is the separation of church and state. If ever we needed a reminder of our founders’ wisdom in keeping religion and politics apart, we have it in the spectacle of mullahs spewing hatred and vitriol from their privileged perch in Muslim mosques. The founders of our nation understood that both religion and politics stir human passions. Kept separate, these passions can fuel great civilizations.

Mixed together, they fuel hatred, prejudice, and a destructive sense of purity that tolerates no dissent. Hundreds of years of bloody and destructive religious wars led our founders to build the separation of church and state into our Constitution. One of the distinguishing features of our civilization, it is totally alien to the worldview of Islamic fundamentalism. We have no mission--or desire--to convert Islam to our method of respecting the special virtues of both religion and politics. But we do have a mission to make the Islamic world understand and respect this hard-won insight into the human condition.

The high value we place on diversity is a second core belief that distinguishes us from Islamic fundamentalism. No task has proved harder for our culture to accomplish than that of placing a positive value on diversity, and, to be sure, the task remains unfinished. But we are well on the path to achieving it, and only a minority of our population refuses to embrace this value.

Our success in creating a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lifestyle culture is of immense historic significance. A great achievement of our civilization, it collides head-on with the intolerance and bigotry of Islamic fundamentalism. We must not flinch in insisting on its spiritual superiority to exclusionary tribalism. A third core value that sets us apart from Islamic fundamentalism is equality of opportunity. This is a never-ending struggle because unrestricted freedom for the individual inevitably leads to inequality, while laws that aim at equality inevitably constrain individual freedom.

Equality of opportunity (as opposed to equality of results) is our traditional way of reconciling freedom and equality. In this framework, providing full equality of opportunity for women is proving to be one of our culture’s greatest successes. Significantly, it is a success that Islamic fundamentalism finds intolerable.

Nothing seems to offend Islamic fundamentalists more than full equality of opportunity for women. The confrontation of cultures is fiercest on this point, and we should welcome its ferocity, for the value issue here is basic.
Pursued vigorously and peacefully, an American cultural jihad centering on these three values will gain us greater success than military battles. For in the clash of civilizations, our support for these core principles places us on the right side of public opinion throughout the world.

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