According to the eminent scholar Bernard Lewis, whose work I rely upon heavily here (and whose essay in Commentary, "The Return of Islam," a prescient analysis of things to come, appeared as long ago as 1976), the Islam of the September 11 killers "is not the true Islam. But it comes out of Islamic history and culture." This makes it incumbent upon us to familiarize ourselves with pertinent elements of that history and culture.
To begin at the beginning, does the word Islam mean "Peace," as one of former President Clinton's speechwriters put it? In fact it means "submission"-in particular, submission to the will of Allah. Having been vouchsafed a revelation of that will, the Prophet Muhammad founded a religion inspirited by the zeal to succeed and propelled by a militant confidence in the rightness of his cause. And indeed, for the first few centuries of its existence, Islam was an almost unstoppable force-and force, including the murder or conversion of masses of people at swordpoint, was regarded as the wholly legitimate tool of its ascendancy. In rapid succession its armies conquered the lands of Persia, Egypt, and Syria, eventually sweeping across the North African littoral, spreading into Spain, and moving inexorably northward until halted by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732.
Over the next several centuries, Islam and Christianity traded victories and defeats, with Crusader thrusts into the Holy Land and elsewhere being more than offset by Muslim reconquests and the takeover of India and the eastern parts of the old Roman Empire. During this period Islam reached peaks of intellectual and economic accomplishment, anticipating, rivaling, or surpassing the achievements of Christian Europe. But decay had set in even before the decisive defeat of advancing Muslim forces at the gates of Vienna in 1683. That event heralded an even longer period of decline, colonization, and loss, highlighted in the early twentieth century by the traumatic breaking-apart of the Ottoman Empire at the hands of the Western powers after World War I.
It would be hard to overestimate the significance in Muslim consciousness of this series of defeats: When Osama bin Laden alluded cryptically in an October speech to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, he could count on the ominous resonance of his words among his Arabic-speaking listeners, for in the classical understanding, the world is divided into the "realm of Islam" and the "realm of the sword"-that is, the realm not yet conquered by Islam-and no piece of land, once fallen to the former, can be renounced or alienated or surrendered to the latter. (Although President Bush was sharply criticized for offending Muslim sensibilities when he used the word crusade to characterize our war against terrorism, it is plain that we harbor no plans to conquer anyone, or to separate anyone from his religion; the same cannot be said for Islamist radicals.) Similarly, a penalty of death awaits the convert to Islam who reverts to his previous religion.
To these faithful there is but one Muslim world or empire, artificially divided into nations and ethnic groupings but united in essential loyalty and identification. It is not a question of being an Arab or a Turk--indeed the fragmentation of the Islamic empire into national groupings with their own separate interests is one of the many alleged disasters perpetrated by infidels that Osama bin Laden meant to correct. It is, rather, a question of being a Muslim or being an infidel. Between the two there exists a state of permanent war.
To be sure, the nature of that war is governed by strict codes, adumbrated in the Koran itself and refined over centuries of reflection and interpretation. Killing innocents, for example, is forbidden, and an offensive jihad come under tighter limits than a defensive one in which "they [the unbelievers] attack you [the faithful] first." Terrorism is ruled out, as is suicide, suggesting in Lewis's words that "there is no precedent and no authority in Islam" for the assaults of September 11. On the other hand, martyrdom in the service of Allah has always been honored among Muslims, and the category of the martyr in Islamic thought, unlike in Christian thought, routinely includes one "killed in battle."
An echo of all these theological distinctions turned up in Osama bin Laden's ludicrous post-September 11 claim that, in massacring innocent Americans, "we are only defending ourselves. This is defensive jihad." (Ghoulishly, he went on: "This is a simple formula that even an American child can understand. Live and let live.") It is also no doubt why so many bin Laden sympathizers are at pains to claim that Islam is itself under attack by an "Islamophobic" West.
For many in the Islamic orbit, in short, what defines the religious status, and the morality, of a terrorist act is whether a given target is "legitimate," and the sole criterion of legitimacy would seem to be a perceived sufficiency of grievance. The consensus appears to be that terrorism against Israel qualifies without hesitation; against America, with hesitation.
But, it will be said, this is understandable enough: People bent on a course of action naturally seek justification where they can, and besides, every religion has its contradictions and its hypocrisies. So why make a special issue of Islam's? Look, after all, at the long record of violence conducted in the name of Christianity, the religion of love and peace and forgiveness.
But that is just my point. Christianity's record is indisputably spotted. But standing in eternal reproof of that record, crying hypocrisy and betrayal, is Christianity itself, quintessentially embodied in the example and the teachings of Jesus. In the case of Islam, the charge of hypocrisy hardly applies-certainly not on the matter of religious violence. To put the issue at its starkest, there is simply no equivalent in the Koran to the New Testament's admonishment to "turn the other cheek"; conversely, there is no equivalent in the New Testament to the Koranic injunction to "kill the disbelievers wherever [you] find them."
True, in classical Islamic theory, Jews and Christians are at least accorded an officially tolerated (dhimmi) status as adherents of monotheistic religions, but in practice the attitude toward them has always been condescending at best, ranging from the contemptuous to the murderously hostile. In schools all over the Islamic world today, even in universities, triumphalist habits of thought are inculcated as a matter of course, reflective self-criticism is unknown and unencouraged. Hatred of Jews is vicious and endemic and defining; in many Muslim countries, epecially in the Middle East, Jews-not Israeli Jews but Jews, period-are not even permitted to reside. Conspiracy-thinking runs rampant; just this past fall, during the second half of Ramadan, Arab television broadcast a lavishly funded thirty-part series, Horseman Without a Horse, dramatizing the notorious nineteenth-century forgery known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In faraway Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad once blamed Jewish control of the media for criticism of him in the Chinese (yes, the Chinese) press.
What Islam needs and has never undergone, some have argued, is the equivalent of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment. Christianity made its peace with modernity; in time Islam will, too. This indeed may happen; if it does, it may begin to take shape first among Muslims in the rich cultural stew of the United States, where a few voices have already asked, in the words of a recent op-ed article by a former Egyptian journalist, "What in Islam, what in the way it is practiced today, allowed bin Laden to promote his murderous message?" For many, however, radical Islam of the bin Laden type, for all its insistence on a return to a pure and austere faith, is itself (as Clive Crook noted in National Journal) "a modern invention," not a remnant of a past to which people blindly cling but an innovation that shrewdly picks and chooses among the offerings of modernity. So far, and despite our great initial successes in the war against terrorism, it has shown few signs of retreating.