Their bomb, our bomb
Noah Feldman, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and writing in the New York Times, thinks that not one, but many Islamic nuclear nations are now inevitable; and that the chance they may be used against each other or on the West is not inevitable but is certainly possible. Feldman spends a great deal of time describing Islamic notions of strategy, focusing in particular on the process by which suicide attacks, once so strictly proscribed in Islam, has become the archetypical Islamic tactic. Moreover, Feldman discusses the eschatological views of both Sunni and Shi'a Islam concluding that from a theological point of view at least, America has more to fear from Iran than al-Qaeda.
Given the increasing instability of the Middle East, nuclear proliferation there is more worrisome than almost anywhere else on earth. As nuclear technology spreads, terrorists will enjoy increasing odds of getting their hands on nuclear weapons. States including North Korea might sell bombs or give them to favored proxy allies, the way Iran gave Hezbollah medium-range rockets that Hezbollah used this summer during its war with Israel. Bombing through an intermediary has its advantages: deniability is, after all, the name of the game for a government trying to avoid nuclear retaliation. ...
The prospect of not just one Islamic bomb, but many, inevitably concentrates the mind on how Muslims ? whether Shiite or Sunni ? might use their nuclear weapons. In the mid-1980?s, when Pakistan became the first Islamic state to go nuclear, it was still possible to avoid asking the awkward question of whether there was something distinctive about Islamic belief or practice that made possession of nuclear technology especially worrisome. Most observers assumed that Islamic states could be deterred from using nuclear force just like other states: by the threat of massive retaliation.
During the last two decades, however, there has been a profound change in the way violence is discussed and deployed in the Muslim world. In particular, we have encountered the rise of suicide bombing. In historic terms, this development is new and unexpected. Suicide bombing has no traditional basis in Islam. As a technique, it was totally absent from the successful Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. Although suicide bombing as a tool of stateless terrorists was dreamed up a hundred years ago by the European anarchists immortalized in Joseph Conrad's ...
What makes suicide bombing especially relevant to the nuclear question is that, by design, it unsettles the theory of deterrence. When the suicide bomber dies in an attack, he means to send the message ?You cannot stop me, because I am already willing to die.? To make the challenge to deterrence even more stark, a suicide bomber who blows up a market or a funeral gathering in Iraq or Afghanistan is willing to kill innocent bystanders, including fellow Muslims. According to the prevailing ideology of suicide bombing, these victims are subjected to an involuntary martyrdom that is no less glorious for being unintentional.
Feldman's article is caught in a curious dilemma: on the one hand arguing that an understanding of Islam as a religion is essential to the knowledge of the strategy of Iran, Saudi Arabia or al-Qaeda; but on the other hand arguing that Islamic dictates need not be taken at face value. For example, Feldman maintains that Middle Eastern countries, like all others, are driven by a mix of national, personal and religious goals; that therefore it would be a mistake to take the religious element and pronounce it dominant. But he is certainly realistic enough to understand that on occasion the religious content can be dominant and accepts the possibility that a momentary ascendance could result in a momentary mushroom cloud over a Western city. In the end Feldman doesn't know what will happen and resorts to what talented writers the world over fall back upon when faced with the unknowable: they dazzle us with prose.
That means that the best we can hope for in nuclear Islamic states in the near term is a rational dictator like Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, who sees his bread buttered on the side of an alliance with the West. Such rulers can be very strong and can bring stability, but we also know that their rule (or reign) promotes Islamist opposition, with its often violent overtones. When such rulers die or otherwise fall from power, the Islamists will be poised to use the international power conferred by nuclear weapons to pursue their own ends ? ends for now overwhelmingly likely to be anti-American.
None of this is inherent in the structure of Islam itself. Islam contains a rich and multivocal set of traditions and ideas, susceptible to being used for good or ill, for restraint or destruction. This interpretive flexibility equally characteristic of the other great world religions does not rob Islam of its distinctiveness. An Islamic bomb would not be just the same as the nationalist bomb of a majority-Muslim state, nor would it be the same as a Christian bomb or a Jewish one. But its role in history will depend, ultimately, on the meaning Muslims give it, and the uses to which they put their faith and their capabilities. In confronting the possibility of the Islamic bomb, we Muslims and non-Muslims alike need to remember that Islam exists both as an ideal system of morals and values and as a force that motivates actual people living today, with all the frailties and imperfections that make us human.
This is a fancy way of saying we haven't a clue whether or not the Islamic world will pull the trigger and about the only way to find out is to wait and see. It is arguments like Feldman's, which more than anything else, establish the need for some kind of faith to get on with our lives. Camus once argued that there was "but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." But I disagree. Doetoevsky was closer to the mark when he argued that the only philosophical question we should ask ourselves is why everything should not be permitted. In a world without transcendental meaning, why shouldn't the West, with its overwhelming preponderance in weapons, not engage in a pre-emptive strike against the Islamic world before it gets a chance to acquire nukes? Richard Dawkins, a convinced atheist, expounded on the concept of the Selfish Gene, here described in a Wikpedia entry. Under this rule an organism's only duty is to survive. If killing a billion Muslims will improve our chances of survival as individuals and as a culture then why not?
More precisely, an organism is expected to evolve to maximise its inclusive fitness – the number of copies of its genes passed on globally (rather than by a particular individual). As a result, populations will tend towards an evolutionarily stable strategy. The book also coins the term meme, for a unit of human cultural evolution analogous to the gene, suggesting that such "selfish" replication may also model human culture, in a different sense.
If evolution were all, then why the dickens not? And the only counterargument I can think of to the idea preemptively destroying an enemy before he can destroy us — if it were possible in principle — is that it is wrong, a word whose insinuation into an argument has untold implications. Everything that Feldman said about Muslims: their role in history, the uses to which they put their faith is true of every man. In order to be men we risk our lives knowing that living is important, but not all that we care about.