August 7, 2006
Hope in a Time of WarBy James Lewis
In calling attention to genuine dangers today we run the danger of inspiring fear and not hope. But that would be a mistake. Realistic alarm is no cause for despair. It is a call for unity and strength. But we also need high hope and constant confidence in the future. The greatest leaders in our political tradition never ceased to inspire hope and optimism, even in the face of formidable existential threats: Lincoln, Churchill, Golda Meir, Ronald Reagan all had their human flaws. But when the time came, they rose to the challenge by appealing to hope and optimism. So this is a column about hope without self—deception and wishful thinking.
Let's start with the most difficult case: Israel and the Arab—Muslim world.
The daily headlines counsel despair, but history does not. Sixty years ago, six Arab armies invaded the newly independent State of Israel. Today two of those neighbors are committed to peace ——— if not love: Egypt and Jordan. A third, Syria, is a helpless enemy. A fourth, Lebanon, would make peace if Syria and Iran would let it. Even the Saudis today believe in a hudna, a period of truce between Muslims and Jews.
By historical standards that is rapid and concrete progress. It took the French and Germans much longer to learn to make peace after the Napoleonic Wars.
Today, Iran under the Khomeini cult is a fanatical and dangerous enemy for the world. But under the Shah, Iran was at peace with Israel and the West. When the Khomeini cult crumbles, it will happen again.
We are seeing a reversion to tribalism in radical Islam, in good part because tribal societies have not had time to adjust to the modern world. Tribal Islam is a way of retreating from the culture shock of modernity. The Saudis and Gulf States are just one or two generations from desert life.
Khomeini was a creature from an age long gone, and the only way his cult sustains itself is by constantly spinning paranoid fantasies about Allah and his enemies. This is 7th century thinking in the 21st century. If Tehran's expansionism can be contained, it will crumble from its own inner contradictions, because educated people in Iran hate the mullahcracy. Today there are said to be 100,000 Persian—language websites.
As for the Salafist fanaticism promoted by Saudi imams, it relies on the most ignorant and alienated people for its shock troops. Terrorists are losers. When the web jihadis stop ranting, they surely go surfing to internet porn sites. They, too, cannot stop the constant penetration of forbidden ideas into their own minds. It is one reason for their helpless rage.
The tribal reversion in Islam is constantly facilitated by liberals, the useful fools of today's secular religion. We cannot afford to forget that it was Jimmy Carter who allowed a modernizing Shah to fall, and the primitive Khomeini cult to rise to absolute power over Iran. We see the results in Lebanon today. Khomeinist Iran is on an imperial path of aggression, an obvious fact to the whole Arab world today, that continues to be denied by such temples of rigid ignorance as the New York Times. The folly and blindness of the Left is still our greatest vulnerability.
For that reason, simply educating our own country and the civilized world continues to be critical. But in the web we have the greatest instrument for education ever known.
In the long term there are plenty of grounds for hope. Life for most of written history was nasty, brutish, short and tyrannical. Today billions of human beings have more comfort, more access to civilized norms, longer lives, and more political freedom than ever. Women and religious minorities are still mistreated in many parts of the world, but even there the trend is steadily upward.
Globalization spreads terrorist beliefs, but also tolerance, better understanding, material well—being. Islamist terror makes all the headlines, and for good reasons. We often hear that there are a billion Muslims in the world; too many are stuck in a tragic cycle of political failure. But they are as intelligent as any group, and today, with the web and even cellphones, Muslims are constantly wondering about more successful political cultures.
About a third of the world today is Christian and about a fifth Hindu—Buddhist, both traditions that have proven to be open to tolerance. After the imperial fanaticism of Mao, China is now rediscovering its ancient Confucian values. Some version of constitutional democracy appears to be rising everywhere, so much so that even the thieves' den of the UN pays it lip service. Some of the most articulate and passionate proponents of democracy today are in Hong Kong.
The immense pent—up intelligence of developing countries is being liberated, as we can see by looking at authors' names on scientific publications. The US Government website PubMed has more than 9 million freely available scientific abstracts. It used to be rare to see Arab, Turkish, Chinese and Japanese authors of scientific articles. Today it is amazingly common. With clear and rigorous thinking, and constant attention to visible evidence, comes a gradual but profound shift in world view, one that is less absolutist, less authoritarian, and more openminded than the stuck beliefs that sustain tyranny. Science is kin to democracy and tolerance; it only thrives under those conditions.
One could easily publish a newspaper today with only hopeful headlines. But blind hope is not the point. There is an immense challenge ahead of us, as nuclear weapons spread to mad and unstable regimes: North Korea, Iran and Pakistan are only the first. In the very near future we will desperately need our Churchills, our Lincolns, our Meirs and Reagans to help navigate some very treacherous waters.
Three separate times in the last century the modern world was able to survive mass totalitarian assaults. We can survive the coming tidal wave, but only by keeping our eyes open, and remembering to keep faith and hope alive.
James Lewis is a frequent contributor.