The New York Times


June 2, 2002

War of Ideas


I'm glad that frustrated F.B.I. agents are banging away at all the missed signals that might have tipped us off to 9/11, but we need to remember something: not all the signals for 9/11 were hidden. Many were out there in public, in the form of hate speech and conspiracy theories directed at America and preached in mosques and schools throughout the Muslim world. If we are intent on preventing the next 9/11, we need to do more than just spy on our enemies better in secret. We need to take on their ideas in public.

Frankly, I hope Saddam Hussein disappears tomorrow. But even if he does, that's not going to solve our problem. Saddam is a conventional threat who can be eliminated by conventional means. He inspires no one. The idea people who inspired the hijackers are religious leaders, pseudo-intellectuals, pundits and educators, primarily in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which continues to use its vast oil wealth to spread its austere and intolerant brand of Islam, Wahhabism.

But here's the good news: These societies are not monoliths, and there are a lot of ordinary people, and officials, inside both who would like to see us pressing their leaders and religious authorities to teach tolerance, modernize Islam and stop financing those who won't.

Too bad President Bush has shied away from this challenge. After recently visiting Saudi Arabia, I got an e-mail note from a young Saudi woman (who signed her name) that began: "Thank you as a moderate Saudi for your efforts to expose what's going on in Saudi Arabia. . . . Mr. Friedman, our schools teach religious intolerance, most of our mosques preach hate against any non-Muslims, our media is exclusively controlled by the government and religious people. Our moderate ideas have no place to be presented. Our government is not doing anything really to stop the religious control from paralyzing our lives. Mr. Friedman, we need help."

On May 8, the Saudi-owned Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat ran an essay by an anonymous Arab diplomat who asked: "What would happen if every Arab country had, since 1948, turned its attention to building itself up from within, without making Palestine its main issue? What would happen if every Arab country focused on educating its citizens, and on improving their physical and emotional health and cultural level? I am amazed at the clerics who raise a hue and cry about Jihad against Israel and compete with each other in issuing religious rulings [in support of] suicide, but do not encourage their citizens to wage spiritual Jihad" to build up their own countries. [Translation by Memri.]

In short, America and the West have potential partners in these countries who are eager for us to help move the struggle to where it belongs: to a war within Islam over its spiritual message and identity, not a war with Islam.

And that war within Islam is not really a religious war. It is a war between the future and the past, between development and underdevelopment, between authors of crazy conspiracy theories versus those espousing rationality, between advocates of suicide bombing and those who know you can't build a society out of gravestones. Only Arabs and Muslims can win this war within, but we can openly encourage the progressives. Instead, we're looking for some quick fix. Just get rid of Saddam and all the fanatics will fall. I doubt it.

The only Western leader who vigorously took up this challenge was actually the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated on May 6 for other reasons. Mr. Fortuyn questioned Muslim immigration to the Netherlands (which by 2010 will have more mosques than churches), not because he was against Muslims but because he felt that Islam had not gone through the Enlightenment or the Reformation, which separated church from state in the West and prepared it to embrace modernity, democracy and tolerance.

As a gay man, Mr. Fortuyn was very much in need of tolerance, and his challenge to Muslim immigrants was this: I want to be tolerant, but do you? Or do you have an authoritarian culture that will not be assimilated, and that threatens my country's liberal, multicultural ethos?

Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of being the 20th hijacker, told a U.S. court that he "prayed to Allah for the destruction of the United States." That is an ugly idea one many Muslims would not endorse. But until we and they team up to fight a war of ideas against those who do, there will be plenty more Moussaouis where he came from and there will never be enough F.B.I. agents to find them.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company