The War and the West

The war that began with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has been defined in different ways for political purposes. President Bush immediately defined the war as one against “terrorists with global reach” and “the states that harbor them,” being careful not to identify the terrorists with Islam and let the war be seen as a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. Osama bin Laden, in contrast, repeatedly spoke of a war between “the Islamic nation” and “the Jews and the Crusaders” (or Christians). For him, the war was definitely supposed to be seen as a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.

The war is indeed a war against terrorists and the states that harbor them as Bush stated, but all of these terrorists and states are Islamic. The war is also a war between the West and Islam as bin Laden stated, but the Western peoples and their governments do not habitually use the term “Western” to identify themselves, nor do the Islamic peoples and their governments routinely engage in terrorism. The war is actually one between Western nations and Islamic terrorists. Because it involves nations that are Western both in fact and in the minds of the Islamic terrorists, it engages the West. The way that the leading nation of the West, the U.S., wages this war will be greatly shaped by the nature of both Western civilization and Islam.

A New Kind of Warfare

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a monstrous example of a new kind of warfare, integrating three different and older forms of political violence: terrorism, which has had a long history in both the West and the East; political suicide, which was largely developed in the East during the twentieth century; and mass destruction, which was largely developed in the West during the twentieth century.

Terrorism has existed since the beginning of human societies across all civilizations, including twentieth-century Western civilization (e.g., the Nazi killing of European civilians and the Allied “terror bombing” of German and Japanese civilians during World War II). During the Cold War, terrorism was used principally by Soviet-sponsored Marxist revolutionary movements (first in Southeast Asia, then in Latin America and the Middle East) and the Western- supported governments who sought to suppress them. The end of the Cold War and the demise of most Marxist revolutionary movements largely brought an end to this era of terrorism. By then, however, the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran had inaugurated Islamic terrorism, a new chapter (or rather renewed chapter, given the record of Muslim regimes such as the Ottoman empire right down to the end of World War I) in the history of terror.

Political suicide has been more rarely practiced. It can also be found in most civilizations going back to ancient times, but not in modern Western civilization. (This is one reason suicide bombers have so shocked Western peoples.) For Americans in the twentieth century, the most famous example was the Japanese kamikazes of World War II. During the Cold War, political suicide was rare, in that the U.S. and the Soviet Union each claimed to represent a version of the Enlightenment (and thus of Western ideas). However, the Islamic revolution in Iran, whose features included the Shi’ite emphasis on martyrdom, revived political suicide. This new chapter in the history of political suicide included the 1983 truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut by Hezbollah (supported by Iran). But during the 1990s, the true experts in political suicide seemed to be the Tamil Liberation Tigers in Sri Lanka, a case of Hindu rather than Islamic terrorism.

Mass destruction in a single operation largely began in the West in the twentieth century, with the application of industrial technology to military weapons -first the chemical weapons of World War I, then the high-explosive bombs of World War II and the atomic nuclear weapons used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It became institutionalized in Cold War nuclear strategies. During the Cold War the U.S. and the Soviet Union also developed non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction, and by the end of the Cold War, many nations in the East (China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Iraq) were also developing their own WMD. A new chapter in this awful history is now being written in the East.

The War Against Islamic Terrorism

The combination and integration of these three elements into the 9/11 attacks and the threat of future attacks by Islamic terrorists has created a new kind of warfare.

The U.S. has had to wage its war against Islamic terrorists on both the foreign front, beginning in Afghanistan, and the domestic front, which began with security measures directed against potential terrorist cells within the U.S. itself.

The war on the foreign front over the next years will be fought with many methods, at the center of which will be “the new American way of war,” the product of an old military tradition called “the Western way of war.” Both are characterized by systematic organization combined with individual initiative at the unit level; intense concentration of killing power achieved through the high technology of the time; and relentless continuation of the war until the enemy is annihilated. The U.S. used these methods to achieve its victory in Afghanistan, and whatever their strengths and limitations will likely use them in future battles in the war against Islamic terrorism in other countries.

The war on the domestic front is much more controversial, and its full meaning much less comprehended. This war is also likely to be extended over many years and expanded, beyond the initial (somewhat feckless) security measures. It may become even more important than the war on the foreign front, because the U.S. itself is the Islamic terrorists’ most important target. Unlike twentieth century American wars, in this war the foreign front will become more peripheral as the domestic front becomes more central. Major adjustments, even a redefinition of American society, will likely be required to provide the U.S. and Western civilization with an effective long-range defense against Islamic terrorism.

The Three Wests and Their Easts

Western civilization is the product of three great traditions and successive eras: (1) the classical culture of the ancient Greece and Rome; (2) the Christian religion, particularly Western Christianity, stretching from the ancient, through the medieval, to the modern eras; and (3) the Enlightenment worldview of the modern era.

The first two of these traditions were greatly shaped by their long and epic struggles with what came to be called “the Near East.” The great Eastern adversary of classical Greece was Persia; the earliest adversary for Rome was Carthage. In their struggles against these empires, the Greek and Roman civilizations evolved from city-states into empires. Western Christianity, too, confronted an Eastern adversary, Islam, for a thousand years, from the Arab conquest of Roman Africa in the eighth century to the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683. In its struggle against Islam, Christianity was also transformed, from being a religion for city-dwellers to one meaningful to feudal knights and crusaders. In contrast, the third great Western tradition, that of the Enlightenment, did not confront an Eastern adversary with strength comparable to its own.

Beginning with Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt, expanding with the British and French empires in the Near East during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and continuing with the American prominence in the Middle East since World War II, the leading powers of the modern West have greatly shaped the Muslim world, but until now have been much less shaped by it.

This long era of the West shaping, but not being shaped by, Islamic civilization has probably come to an end. The growth of sizable (5-10%) and unassimilated Muslim minority communities in most Western European nations has raised in a new way the perennial question of identity-be it national, European, or Western-in these nations. Until now, the response of the governing political classes has been to formulate a multicultural identity, with the deliberate intent to blur traditional definitions of identity. But this multicultural answer now seems naive. The growth of terrorist networks within Muslim minority communities has transformed a seemingly benign question of identity into a malignant threat to security.

The West of the modern and now the post-modern eras will likely be drawn into a struggle-as were the earlier, classical and Christian incarnations of the West-against an Eastern adversary. This Enlightenment version of the West may well be reshaped in a prolonged struggle with the most anti-Western and unenlightened version of Islam.

The New Islamic Adversary

The peoples of the Islamic world seem to be united in hatred toward Israel, envy and anger toward the U.S., and resentment and contempt toward Europe. These attitudes are deeply rooted and will not soon disappear. They provide the setting for the continual generation of Islamic terrorist cells and the transnational networks that support them.

The threat to the West from Islamic terrorism principally resides in these transnational networks, which differ from national states. They can operate flexibly in many locales, not responsible for any one of them, and hence without fixed interests at stake, making deterrence difficult and affording them advantages in conflicts with a national state.

However, as the case of Al Qaeda demonstrated, the transnational network still has to operate in some kind of territory. In most cases, this means it needs the support of the state which rules over that territory, even if that state is more of a gang (as was the case with the Taliban). The transnational terrorist network may not be vulnerable to a deterrence threat from the U.S., but the state that harbors it is. This is why President Bush was right to immediately link the terrorists of global reach with the states that harbor them. The U.S. military operation that destroyed the Taliban has greatly enhanced the credibility of this U.S. deterrence threat aimed at other Muslim states.

In a few cases, such as Somalia, there is no state at all. Here the local elements of the transnational terrorist network might actually constitute a gang. In this kind of situation, however, the U.S. can engage in its own flexible military expedition, a search-and-destroy operation, without seeming to violate national sovereignty (which does not exist in such a case). Indeed, had the U.S. followed through in its military operation in Somalia in 1993, Somalia itself might have provided a prototype and a model for this kind of antiterrorist operation.

In these forms, the states of the Islamic world pose a threat that the U.S. should be able to manage or contain. The Islamic world may be unified around certain political attitudes, but it is not unified around any political power. The Islamic world is divided into almost three dozen states, many of which are hostile to each other.

Indeed, the very notion of the national state is problematic when applied to the Islamic world. The idea of the national state, imported from the West in the first half of the twentieth century, has never flourished there. The most successful attempt to convert an Islamic country into a national state was that of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey in the 1920s-1930s. In later years, others including Gamel Abd al- Nasser in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Shahs in Iran, and Sukarno in Indonesia, were less successful in their attempts to create national states. By the end of the 1970s, it was clear that the national project for the Muslim world had failed, and this recognition provided the opportunity and perhaps the necessity for the new project of political Islam, which rejected Western notions of a secular national identity. After a quarter-century, however, political Islam has not succeeded in unifying any two Muslim states or even in abolishing all vestiges of statehood (although the Taliban in Afghanistan came close).

The Multiethnic Reality of the Islamic World

The true basis for most political behavior of Muslim states is the ethnic or even tribal community. Almost all Muslim countries are really multiethnic societies, usually composed of one large ethnic group plus several smaller ones. Often, each ethnic group is concentrated in a particular region. Sometimes the largest group controls the state and uses it to dominate the others (e.g., Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan), or a smaller group may control the state and use it to dominate the others, including the largest group (e.g. Pakistan and Jordan). In extreme versions, the smaller group compensates for weakness in number by extreme brutality and repression (e.g., Iraq and Syria). In any case, the multiethnic society is held together and held down by a uniethnic state, particularly by its security apparatus. These Muslim political systems are really small multinational empires. Indeed, they are governed in ways similar to those the Ottomans used to govern their empire.

Such multiethnic society/uniethnic state contraptions are unstable. They are accidents, secessions, and partitions waiting to happen. Whenever the state is suddenly and sharply weakened (as with Iran in 1979 and Iraq in 1991), the subordinate ethnic communities try to break away from the empire. The multiethnic empire survives when a new or renewed state security apparatus is constructed, which then puts down the secession.

This multiethnic reality provides the basis for a Western strategy against Muslim states that harbor Islamic terrorists. With its precision-bombing capabilities, the U.S. can credibly threaten to destroy the state security apparatus, which would likely put the state into a long and difficult ordeal of ethnic rebellion during which the U.S. would have many opportunities to support different groups and reshape a successor state according to its own interests. This kind of strategy might be particularly applicable against states such as Iraq, Iran, Sudan, and Pakistan.

The Domestic Front and the Terrorist Cells

As time moves on, the central front of the war against Islamic terrorism will be the domestic front. Here the target is the American population itself, and the threat comes from the terrorist cells who reside as “sleepers” within the U.S., living within the Muslim community, particularly among Muslims of Middle Eastern and South Asian origin. Among such Muslims, some are American citizens; many, however, have some sort of immigrant status.

The fact that the 19 hijackers were all Muslim immigrants from the Middle East (15 from Saudi Arabia), living among other Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, should raise questions about what should be a right and proper immigration policy for the new era. Why should the U.S. indiscriminately admit immigrants from countries whose populations have a demonstrated record of being hostile toward America and providing recruits and funding for the Al Qaeda terrorist network? These countries include, but are not limited to, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Egypt, and Pakistan.

Western Traditions and Muslim Immigrants

Additionally, why should Western nations indiscriminately admit immigrants whose religion and culture have a demonstrated record of being consciously and systematically hostile to the West?

Each of the three Western traditions can provide its own answer to the question about the proper role of Islamic immigrants within Western nations. The classical culture would view the Muslim culture as alien and incompatible. Muslims might be welcomed as temporary visitors engaged in a particular business, but they would not be permitted to become permanent residents, much less citizens.

The Christian religion (at least the Biblical version) would also view the Islamic religion as alien and incompatible. (Jewish immigrants were accepted because they were identified with the Hebrew scripture, or “Old Testament,” the original source for Christian concepts of community and sojourners.) Again, Muslims might be welcomed as temporary visitors, or sojourners, but unless they converted to Christianity, they would not be permitted to become permanent residents or citizens.

In short, if Western nations were still like Greece and Rome or Christendom, Muslims would be excluded from Europe and America and would be contained within the Middle East and the lands still further to the East. There might be transnational terrorist networks like Al Qaeda, but they would not have cells located within the West. However, the West cannot go back to being Greece and Rome or Christendom. It will have to define the role of Islamic immigrants in terms of its third and most recent tradition, the Enlightenment worldview, which can provide a very different answer to the immigration question.

The Enlightenment has been especially committed to the idea of universality. Indeed, it does not take either the classical culture or the Christian religion seriously; it holds that religious or cultural traditions provide no good reason to exclude anyone from immigrating to an enlightened society. The Enlightenment thinker has tended to assume that a Muslim who is exposed to or immigrates to an enlightened society will eventually give up the Islamic faith and become an enlightened, universal individual. The recent indiscriminate admission of immigrants, including Muslims, into Western nations has not only been permitted by this particular tradition; it has been its fulfillment.

Of course, just as Christianity could be interpreted to allow the immigration of Muslims if they converted to the Christian faith, so the Enlightenment could be interpreted to allow the immigration of Muslims if they adopted the Enlightenment worldview. Until changes in the immigration law in 1965, the U.S. took something like this position. There was a systematic effort to bring about immigrants’ assimilation into the national culture. Known as the Americanization program, its content was “the American Creed,” which was very much the expression of the Anglo-American version of the Enlightenment.

This approach to ensuring that immigrant values were compatible with Enlightenment values was abandoned after 1965. The new immigration law provided for no discrimination according to culture, and the simultaneous rise of multiculturalism rejected the very idea of Americanization. What remained was the universalist element of the Enlightenment worldview. The consequence has been a universalism of multiculturalism.

Because of its universalist imperative, the currently- reigning version of the Enlightenment worldview cannot discriminate against any particular groups within society, i.e., it cannot engage in any kind of cultural or geographical “profiling.” Any security measures it implements must be imposed universally; this has largely been the case with security checks at American airports. As these airport checks illustrate, however, security measures that are applied to everyone will be either loose, symbolic and ineffective or strict and effective but onerous, time- consuming, and ultimately inoperable. New information and computer technologies may enable the development of a surveillance and profiling system that would not be physically onerous and overtly discriminatory, but such a system could erode a central pillar of the Anglo-American Enlightenment: individual liberty and privacy.

An alternative way of dealing with the terrorist threat would be a return to an earlier form of the assimilationist or nationalist version of the Enlightenment. This would entail reestablishing a sharp distinction between those persons who are assimilated into the national culture and those who are not. This distinction would roughly correlate with that between citizens and immigrants (or “aliens,” as earlier and more blunt language put it). The assimilationist or nationalist conception can confidently distinguish between citizens and non-citizens and engage in cultural and geographical profiling. It therefore can adopt security measures focused on particular persons; these would be onerous and burdensome for only a small minority (e.g., Muslim immigrants) of the population, favoring majority rule over minority rights (to use multiculturalist language) or promoting the greatest good of the greatest number (to use utilitarian language).

Some compensation would be appropriate for the innocent members of the minority, for the additional hassles that they would experience. But since discrimination against particular ethnic minorities-Muslim as well as non-Muslim-is the policy and practice in virtually every Muslim state, Western states would be doing no more (and indeed rather less) than what the immigrants’ own communities do to other minorities back in their home countries.

Security measures based upon cultural or geographical profiling would be more effective than the current general and universal ones, but they would not be completely so. Terrorist cells would try to infiltrate the circle of citizenship or assimilation. But the pool of potential terrorists and the probability of successful attacks could be substantially reduced.

However, just as the West cannot go back to being Greece and Rome or Christendom, perhaps in this era of globalization and multiculturalism it can no longer go back to the national identity which, until recently, was so much a feature of the modern era. If so, there is really no longer any West at all, except in the fevered imagination of its Eastern adversaries. There is only the post-West civilization, defined by its universal, transnational, and global pretensions but potentially unable to develop the effective means to defend itself against transnational terrorist networks of global reach.

You may forward this email as you like provided that you send it in its entirety, attribute it to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and include our web address ( If you post it on a mailing list, please contact FPRI with the name, location, purpose, and number of recipients of the mailing list.

If you receive this as a forward and would like to be placed directly on our mailing lists, send email to Include your name, address, and affiliation. For further information, contact Eli Gilman at (215) 732-3774 ext. 255.