It's possible to regard the cartoon crisis as either a strategic disaster or boon for the War on Terror. The argument for it being a disaster is the assertion that in the war against extremists it is necessary to win over the moderates. And even if winning them over is impossible one may still be capable of keeping them neutral or indifferent; but at all events to avoid raising the Muslim masses in an emotional war against the West. The Danish cartoon crisis has managed to ignite what the Bush administration hoped to avoid from the beginning: turning the War on Terror into a War with Islam. Now an incident arising from a relatively obscure newspaper in Denmark has forced a choice between the most deeply held of all Western values, freedom of speech, with the cherished strategic goal of keeping the Muslim "street" aboard in the War on Terror.
The argument for regarding the Danish cartoons as a boon is premised on the belief that President Bush's attempt to separate the War on Terror from Islam was doomed to fail anyway; that it was better to face that question now than later. According to this point of view, a view reinforced by the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, cultural and religious issues were at the root of international conflict. That mere voting -- in Palestine for example -- would never be sufficient to establish a liberal democracy for as long as the underlying culture remained hostile and aggressive to democracy's roots.
Ralph Peters argued that America's shiny weapons were striking at the wrong targets. The West was, like it or not, engaged in a contest of cultures, one it did not know how to fight.
The suicide bomber's willingness to discard civilization's cherished rules for warfare gives him enormous strength. In the Cain-and-Abel conflicts of the 21st century, ruthlessness trumps technology. We refuse to comprehend the suicide bomber's soul--even though today's wars are contests of souls, and belief is our enemy's ultimate order of battle. We write off the suicide bomber as a criminal, a wanton butcher, a terrorist. Yet, within his spiritual universe, he's more heroic than the American soldier who throws himself atop a grenade to spare his comrades: He isn't merely protecting other men, but defending his god. The suicide bomber can justify any level of carnage because he's doing his god's will. We agonize over a prisoner's slapped face, while our enemies are lauded as heroes for killing innocent masses (even of fellow believers). We continue to narrow our view of warfare's acceptable parameters even as our enemies amplify the concept of total war. ...
The hallmark of our age is the failure of belief systems and a subsequent flight back to primitive fundamentalism--and the phenomenon isn't limited to the Middle East. Faith revived is running roughshod over science and civilization. Secular societies appear increasingly fragmented, if not fragile. The angry gods are back. And they will not be defeated with cruise missiles or computer codes.
A paradox of our time is that the overwhelmingly secular global media--a collection of natural-born religion-haters--have become the crucial accomplices of the suicide bomber fueled by rabid faith. Mass murderers are lionized as freedom fighters, while our own troops are attacked by the press they protect for the least waywardness or error. One begins to wonder if the bomber's suicidal impulse isn't matched by a deep death wish affecting the West's cultural froth. (What if Darwin was right conceptually, but failed to grasp that homo sapiens' most powerful evolutionary strategy is faith?) Both the suicide bomber and the "world intellectual" with his reflexive hatred of America exist in emotional realms that our rational models of analysis cannot explain. The modern age's methods for interpreting humanity are played out.
We live in a new age of superstition and bloodthirsty gods, of collective madness. Its icons are the suicide bomber, the veil, and the video camera. ...
We are not (yet) at war with Islam, but the extreme believers within Islam are convinced that they are soldiers in a religious war against us. Despite their rhetoric, they are the crusaders. Even our conceptions of the struggle are asymmetrical. Despite the horrors we have witnessed, we have yet to take religious terrorists seriously on their own self-evident terms. We invaded a succession of their tormented countries, but haven't come close to penetrating their souls. The hermetic universe of the Islamist terrorist is immune to our reality (if not to our bullets), but our intellectuals appear equally incapable of accepting the religious extremist's reality.
Samuel Huntington wrote in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article that the primary driver of international conflicts in the 21st century would be a clash of civilizations.
"It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future."
This does not mean that all-out hostilities between Islam and the West are unavoidable. But it does imply that cultural conflict and competition is inevitable and that these clashes must be played out on some sort of battlefield, though not necessarily a physical one. The attitude of many Western intellectuals paralyzed by the cult of multiculturalism is ironically that "they don't do culture". Mark Steyn understood that multiculturalism was fundamentally about evading cultural conflicts rather than resolving them. In the New Criterion he wrote: "the great thing about multiculturalism is that it doesn’t involve knowing anything about other cultures—the capital of Bhutan, the principal exports of Malawi, who cares? All it requires is feeling good about other cultures. It’s fundamentally a fraud, and I would argue was subliminally accepted on that basis".
The challenge raised by Peters, Huntington and Steyn is to accept the existence of a clash of civilizations and find modalities -- preferably peaceful ones -- in which to resolve them.
No one can foresee where the Danish cartoon controversy will lead. At best both sides will return to their lines of departure after having made their points, each with a renewed respect for the other. The West should understand, if it didn't realize it before, that Muslims are willing to fight for their religion. And Muslims should understand, from the cartoon controversy, that whatever they had heard to the contrary it goes double ditto for the West. And in the long run that grudging respect may make the the process of winning over the Muslim moderates easier than feigning the cheap and superficial attitude of multiculturalism. For who in Islam would believe in us if we did not believe in ourselves? Who in Islam could trust that we would fight at their side if we could not defend all that we were, all that we believed?