The Ray-ban theory of history
Juan Carlos Zarate, described as a senior US counterterrorism official by the Telegraph is quoted as claiming "that the demise of al-Qa'eda is in sight because its failure to adapt its violent ideology and tactics has provoked growing dissent across the Islamic world." This claim is not as outrageous -- even to those who believe ideologies are invincible -- as it might at first seem. While Islam has maintained its general militancy and aggressiveness over the centuries, the lifespan of individual fanatical movements is distinctly shorter. It is possible that the world has not seen the last of radical Islam; but it may be true that it has seen the last of Bin Laden's crew.
History suggests that Islamic militancy comes in waves. Mohammed bin Abdullah Hassan, better known as the Mad Mullah of Somaliland, had a heyday between the years 1900 and 1920. The Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmad of Khartoum fame, lasted from the early 1880s to the turn of the century, if the career of his successor the Khalifa is added to it. The British were chronically in pursuit of one mad mullah or another throughout their vast colonial possessions. The young Winston Churchill facing the forces of yet another "mad mullah" in the Swat Valley some years after he had accompanied Kitchener to Omdurman, remarked:
"How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property - either as a child, a wife, or a concubine - must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen; all know how to die; but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science - the science against which it had vainly struggled - the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome".
The wave passes. But the ocean remains.
Yet if Zarate were correct in claiming that the US has, for the moment, beaten back al-Qaeda to what would it be due? To two things. The first is to inevitable excesses of the Mad Mullahs themselves. A movement like the Jihad eventually sustains itself by exactions and impositions on the population. A movement which aims at paradise can have little regard for daily concerns. Al-Qaeda gets real old, real quickly when you actually have to live under it. The reason it retains the sympathy of the Western intelligensia is because they don't have to live under it.
The second reason for al-Qaeda's decline has been their defeat on every battlefield on which they have been found. And as important as the material losses to them have been, far more serious has been the loss to their prestige. They have gone from godlike warriors who can topple skyscrapers in Manhattan to helpless bugs who are effortlessly incinerated despite their incantation. And that battlefield helplessness, to their adherents, is subliminal proof of the power of a greater magic: "the strong arms of science". It is the triumph in this battle of conjury, this wizard war, which in some sense has been the true metric of victory.
The widespread disgust with brutality of al-Qaeda coupled with a grudging admiration for the power of the US is the psychological reason why al-Qaeda, if it has declined as Zarate claims, has done so. Deborah Haynes, a journalist with the Times Online, describes the latest fashion trends among young men in Baghdad. They want to look like American soldiers.
Elbow or knee pads strapped deliberately to ankles and goggles worn back to front over helmets, some Iraqi soldiers have a unique sense of style. Efforts to mimic their American mentors or simply spruce up and re-enforce their regular army gear result in a variety of different outfits whenever the troops are on patrol. Sejad Mehdi, 21, said that he habitually fixes a pair of goggles to the back of his American helmet – bought at a Baghdad market for 50,000 Iraqi dinar (21 pounds) – because he saw US troops wearing them that way rather than because he uses the mask in his job.
If it is true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, some enterprising sociology student may one day describe a correlation between fashion and consciousness. In the years after the Second World War the hot fashion item in war-ravaged Manila were Ray Ban aviator sunglasses. Not because people had any Hellcats to fly, but because everyone wanted to look like a "winner".
In short, winning against al-Qaeda has been largely achieved by winning. There are those who think negotiations are a substitute for winning, rather than their complement. When J. Peter Scoblic, writing in the LA Times argues that "negotiating isn't appeasement", urges US officials to go cap in hand to Teheran and has even written a book to prove it entitled How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America's Security, he neglects this essential correlation. He claims the fact that Reagan negotiated with Gorbachev is implicit proof that real men negotiate with the enemy while wusses like Bush don't. But that is to see negotiations in isolation from the battlefield. He neglects to mention that timing is everything. Negotiations are useful when they are used to complement success or effect a mutually improved solution to a crisis. Negotiations are not useful merely as instruments of surrender or vanity platforms for the self-flagellant. Timing is everything. Wainrights negotiations with Japan after the Fall of Bataan are not the same as the one Wainright attended on the deck of the USS Missouri.
And that difference is sometimes more acutely perceived by the man on the street than by academics. Everyone loves a winner. Nobody remembers a loser. And that fact is remembered in popular culture. There are in Mindanao Muslims named "Pershing" and "Temojin" but there isn't to my knowledge anyone called Scoblic, or Berrigan or Joan Baez. In the days after September 11 there were probably a spate of "Osamas". My guess is that there are fewer now.
It is significant that some members of the Western elite want to wear a keffiyeh at precisely the time when young Muslim men in Baghdad are saving to buy Wiley-X's. While I don't know precisely what it signifies, it's fair to claim that a world where Islamic militants wanted to dress like Nancy Pelosi would be profoundly different from on in which Nancy Pelosi wants to dress like an Islamic militant. Call it the Ray Ban theory of history. It means something and I leave it to wiser heads to puzzle out what.
The wave passes but the ocean remains. And while al-Qaeda may be beaten down for now in the long run the outcome of historical encounters is determined by health of cultures. And how does our culture fare? If Churchill were alive today he might say:
How dreadful are the curses which Political Correctness lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of thought, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the PC rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in post-modern politics every minority must belong to some liberal as his absolute property - either as ward, token, or a concubine - must delay the final extinction of slavery until PC has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual leftists may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen; all know how to die; but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, PC is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Europe, raising mindless warriors at every step; and were it not the strong arms of science are sheltered in the strong arms of freedom - the freedom against which it had vainly struggled - the West might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.
Lance Mungia got it right in his movie The Six String Samurai. All that ultimately matters is whether the spirit survives. In what, even in a post apocalyptic world, people choose to wear or to sing. Even at the end of things, what matters is whether and who takes the throne of Elvis.
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