Published 14 October 05
By Abigail R. Esman
World Defense Review columnist
Understanding the threat
Finally, we have a solution to the threat of Islamic Jihad.
Just shy of a year after the Jihadist murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and only weeks past the four-year anniversary of 9/11, that fateful day when the world discovered such a war even existed, Holland’s Princess Irene, sister to Queen Beatrix, offers up a strategy for world peace: “Let’s talk.”
In a full-page interview in the weekend edition of the national daily, de Volkskrant, the princess voiced support for the idea of a peace talk between Western and Al Qaeda leaders, to be mediated by an impartial party (is there anyone who qualifies as an “impartial party” in this debate?). Western leaders, she said, should take the initiative: “Talk to Al Qaeda and show that you can break through the ‘enemy’ paradigm with real, open discussion.”
Ironically, the last words Theo van Gogh was known to speak, he imparted to his killer, Mohammed Bouyeri. “Don’t do it,” he said. “We can still talk.” But Bouyeri only looked at him and silently drove a Kukri knife across van Gogh’s throat.
It is not because she is sister to the Queen that I find the princess’s pronouncement so distressing: as the “black sheep” of the family, she forfeited her right to the crown years ago. Besides, few Dutch take her seriously, citing amusedly a book she authored about communing with the trees. What troubles me more is this notion – that we can talk our way through this – seems to be circulating with greater frequency within certain ideological circles. Troublesome, too, is the basis for the idea itself: that somehow Islamic jihad is rooted in economic divides or, as the princess described it, “imbalances and trade barriers.”
It is time, I think, to put these misconceptions to rest.
In researching this column, I re-read an article, “THE REVOLT OF ISLAM: When did the conflict with the West begin, and how could it end?” (November 19, 2001, The New Yorker), by Bernard Lewis that should, to my mind, be required reading for anyone – citizen or statesman – espousing an opinion on the events of 9/11 and the future we are shaping in their aftermath. Two key points immediately stood out.
“[Until] the modern period, when European concepts and categories became dominant, Islamic commentators almost always referred to their opponents not in territorial or ethnic terms, but simply as infidels (kafir),” writes Lewis. “They never referred to their own side as Arab or Turkish; they identified themselves as Muslims.”
The concept of jihad, Lewis continues, was “one of the basic tasks bequeathed to Muslims by the Prophet. This word, which literally means ‘striving,’ was usually cited in the Koranic phrase ‘striving in the path of God’ and was interpreted to mean armed struggle for the defense or advancement of Muslim power. In principle, the world was divided into two houses: The House of Islam, in which a Muslim government ruled and Muslim law prevailed; and the House of War, the rest of the world, still inhabited and, more important, ruled by infidels. Between the two, there was to be a perpetual state of war until the entire world either embraced Islam or submitted to the rule of the Muslim state.”
Assuming these things to be true – and Lewis (referred to by Slate.com as the “Islam scholar U.S. politicians listen to”) is as much an expert on the subject as anyone – what could possibly be accomplished by the kinds of talks Princess Irene suggests? It is a matter of religious mandate to defeat the infidel, according to Lewis (and others); hence electing to do otherwise is heresy. What passionately religious man would choose this?
An “infidel,” of course, is quite simply anyone who is not Muslim.
National law, national identity, geographic boundaries – these are subservient, in Islam, to faith: an attack on an Afghan is, to a Muslim radical from Palestine, no different than an attack on a Palestinian; they are “brothers,” united by the family cloak of their Muslimhood. So, too, is an attack on an American the same as one on a Dutchman or a Frenchman or a Swiss (it was, after all, the World Trade Center Al Qaeda targeted). In a world of “us” and “them,” one in which any tolerance of “them” is a forsaking of what it means to be one of “us,” what dialogue, what negotiations, are possible?
There are also practical considerations, not the least of which is the bounty on most Al Qaeda leaders’ heads. Al Qaeda is not a country. It is not even an army or an organization with an address and 501(c) status. While Al Qaeda leaders are sitting at a roundtable in, say, Geneva, will their followers practice any kind of ceasefire? I doubt it.
In Princess Irene’s own country, the Algemene Inlichtingen en Veiligheidsdienst (AIVD) – the Intelligence and Security Service – has noted an alarming increase in the number of young men – and women – joining radical Islamic groups. In the months since van Gogh’s murder, in fact, they have found that the number of such groups itself, is rising in The Netherlands, as many as 10 or 20, according to a July 2005 report. Many of these organizations, like the Hofstad group of which Bouyeri was a member, are comprised of well-educated, middle-class, second and third-generation Dutch Muslims – the emphasis, in their case, as Lewis notes, on “Muslim.”
A summit among leaders is unlikely to make them change their minds. Moreover, as Lewis reminds us, during the 1979 American hostage crisis in Teheran, hostages were held far longer than planned, simply because “statements from Washington made it clear [to the hostage-takers] that there was no danger of serious action against them.”
All of this is not to say that I support any and all military action, or defend violent retribution as a rule. I don’t. But it is to explain that ascribing the roots of jihad to economic “imbalances” is fundamentally naïve, and that seeking a solution to the conflict in conversation, while a picturesque ideal, is in fact and in no small way, dangerous.
“Goatf____rs,” Theo van Gogh called Muslim extremists in his columns and interviews in newspapers and on TV. It was an ugly word, a hideous word, a hate-filled word: but it was a word. He talked.
His killer didn’t.
— Abigail R. Esman is an award-winning author-journalist who divides her time between New York and The Netherlands. In addition to her column in World Defense Review, her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Salon.com, Esquire, Vogue, Glamour, Town & Country, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. She is currently working on a book about Muslim extremism and democracy in the West.
Visit Esman on the web at abigailesman.com.
© 2005 Abigail R. Esman
NOTE: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of World Defense Review and its affiliates. WDR accepts no responsibility whatsoever for the accuracy or inaccuracy of the content of this or any other story published on this website. Copyright and all rights for this story (and all other stories by the author) are held by the author.