We are Already in a Religious War

Five days after 9/11, George Bush stated

"This crusade, this war on terrorism is gonna take awhile. And the American people must be patient. I'm gonna be patient."

America has been running from that speech ever since.

It doesn't matter that George Bush used the word "crusade," not in a religious sense, but in a more literary, erudite sense, to mean "a vigorous concerted movement for a cause or against an abuse."  Because the President is known to be a religious man, his detractors and our enemies abroad have latched onto that single word to characterize all of America's subsequent actions in the Middle East as a Christian crusade.  (See, for example, this The Nation article,  in which the author crows about President Bush's ineptitude in allying himself with the medieval Crusaders, something that had "Bush already reading from [Osama Bin Laden's] script.")

These attacks against Bush's (in retrospect) poor choice of words mean that America has vigorously and repeatedly denied that this war has anything to do with religion.  Thus, while our opponents "coincidentally" belong to the same faith — Islam — we're told repeatedly that Islam is a "religion of peace" (all present, historical and doctrinal evidence to the contrary).  The obvious implication is that, to the extent that Islam is peaceful, religion can have nothing to do with events around us.

This blind obeisance to maintaining parity — because we're not engaged in a religious war, they're not engaged in a religious war — is both nonsensical and harmful.  It's nonsensical, of course, because it's so obvious that our opponents — whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Canada, England, or wherever — make no secret about the impetus behind their animus towards us.  While the Marxists may be spouting off about economic imperialism, those who array themselves against us talk generally about seeing Sharia enforced through the world. At a more specific level, they demand a Muslim takeover of America, the imposition of Sharia in Britain,  and urge a holocaust to wipe out the Jewish nation (a nation Islam has long held to be an intractable enemy that must be destroyed). Under these circumstances, our denial that there is a religious component to the instant World War merely makes us look foolish.

Looking foolish doesn't harm us, of course.  What does harm us is our willful refusal to recognize the nature of our enemy.  That self—imposed ignorance means that we are unable to fight effectively the Islamists arrayed against us.  Or more to the purpose, it makes our enemy, which knows us very well, better equipped to challenge us, both on the field and off.

Examples of this asymmetry in knowledge abound.  Islam, the religion we insist has nothing to do with the war raging around the world, believes in martyrdom.  In Iran, for example, tens of thousands of children were trained to be martyrs in the battle against Iraq.  As Mattias Kuntzel wrote:

After Iraq invaded in September, 1980, it had quickly become clear that Iran's forces were no match for Saddam Hussein's professional, well armed military. To compensate for their disadvantage, Khomeini sent Iranian children, some as young as 12 years old, to the front lines. There, they marched in formation across minefields toward the enemy, clearing a path with their bodies. Before every mission, one of the Taiwanese keys would be hung around each child's neck. It was supposed to open the gates to paradise for them.

These children who marched to their deaths were part of the Basiji, a mass movement created by Khomeini in 1979. This volunteer militia went enthusiastically, and by the thousands, to their own destruction. According to one veteran of the Iran—Iraq War, "It was sometimes like a race. Even without the commander's orders, everyone wanted to be first."

This rapturous embrace of martyrdom isn't limited to mystical Shia sects, or even to Iran.  Amongst the Palestinians, Mariam Farhat leapt to fame, not just because she was a political candidate, but because she was a woman who cheerfully sent three of her sons to die in suicide bombings and now hopes to see her remaining children die in the same way.  Other mothers, in other times, have waved their children off to battle, only to see them die in war (see America's Gold Star mothers,  for example), but Farhat is distinguished by her blood—thirsty enthusiasm for her own children's deaths in Allah's service:
We cannot stop sacrificing just because we feel pain. What is the meaning of sacrifice? One sacrifices what is precious, not what is of little value. My children are the most precious thing in my life. That is why I sacrificed them for a greater cause — for Allah, who is more precious than them. My son is not more precious than his God, he is not more precious than the places holy to Islam, and he is not more precious than his homeland or his Islam. Not at all.

Given the enthusiasm the Muslim culture has for those who die in battle with infidels (and the rewards promised in the afterlife to those who make that sacrifice), one would think that Islamists around the world would be enthusiastically trumpeting the deaths of those dying in American or Israeli battles.  I can easily imagine them spouting something along the lines of "Drop all the bombs you want!  We embrace death.  Our martyrs go straight to Paradise, and more will line up to take their place."  Certainly the thought of an unending supply of willing victims would unnerve me, especially since the Russian experience during WWII shows that a nation that has enough cannon fodder can defeat a better trained, better equipped army.

Yet that's not what the Islamists do.  Instead, they bemoan — and make causes c èbres of — the civilian dead, whether in Lebanon, on the beaches, or on the streets. Since Islamic precepts indicate that they should be embracing and celebrating these deaths, not bewailing them, the Islamists' public declarations of outrage can be aimed only at our sensibilities, not theirs.  And our all—American naval gazing, which forces us to deny that there is a religious element to this war, prevents us from understanding events through the Islamic lens.  Instead, it sees us agonizing over these deaths through our guilt—ridden Western perspective.  Each death, therefore, is not only a numerical loss to the opposition, but a disabling blow to ourselves as well.

The same holds true when it comes to torture.  (By the way, I'm not espousing torture in this discussion; merely noting certain asymmetries in how the different cultures understand and rely upon it.)  Americans find the idea of torture revolting and engage in endless debates about the righteousness of even limited torture under the most extreme circumstances (such as extracting knowledge to prevent a nuclear holocaust).  Islamists, on the other hand, embrace torture, and do so in Koranic terms.  For example, Nick Berg's torture death was accompanied by joyous shouts of Allahu Akbar.  The Koran abounds in references to decapitation,  a death Americans instinctively believe to be a "cruel and unusual" punishment.  It's also no secret that criminals under Sharia law are routinely punished by being lashed,  being stoned to death,  having their eyes gouged out, or having hands,  tongues, noses or ears sliced off  — all in the name of Islam.

You'd think people from the Islamic world would be inured to even the ugliest injuries and indignities inflicted on the human body. So it was a bit strange to watch the uproar over the vile, but comparably innocuous, frat pranks played out at Abu Ghraib.  To people used to street corner beheadings under Saddam Hussein, the sight of a man with underpants on his head simply cannot have touched upon the same emotions.  The uproar, therefore, was for our benefit, to touch upon our revulsion over torture and public humiliation.  And our public agony was misplaced because, had we had a better understanding our opponents' religiously based belief about the punishments humans can take, we would have recognized the propaganda—based drama queen hiding behind that emoting.

And so it goes, in endless battles of perception and misperception.  We're entranced by our denial that this is a religious war, and blind to the fact that, on the other side it is.  If we could at least honestly recognize our opponents' driving religious beliefs, it would be less easy for them to manipulate us by dramatizing events that, under their religious tenets, are either appropriate or devoutly to be wished. 

By the way, should the enemy succeed in its objective — which is to see Sharia law imposed in America — we will, finally, understand that this as a religious war because we'll suddenly find ourselves living in Hell.   

Bookworm is the pseudonym for a crypto—conservative blogger in a liberal stronghold. She publishes Bookworm Room.