War of the Worlds

If the victory of liberalism is inevitable, do we need to fight in the Middle East?


Thursday's bombings of the subways and a bus in London raise a question: If the West (more specifically, the United States) withdraws its armed forces from Iraq and the rest of the Muslim world will the Muslim terrorists leave us alone? Those who think so can point to research done by University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, author of Dying To Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, who argued last week in The New York Times that "Al Qaeda is today less a product of Islamic fundamentalism than of a simple strategic goal: to compel the United States and its Western allies to withdraw combat forces from the Arabian Peninsula and other Muslim countries." Pape also suggests that his analysis leads to the conclusion, "If not for the world's interest in Persian Gulf oil, the obvious solution might well be simply to abandon the region altogether." Recent polls show that a majority of Americans are increasingly sympathetic to the idea that the United States should withdraw at least some of its troops from Iraq.

Osama bin Laden's 2002 letter to America seems initially to confirm Pape's analysis. Bin Laden says that he attacked the United States "because you attacked us and continue to attack us." In his letter bin Laden also writes, "We also advise you to pack your luggage and get out of our lands… Leave us alone, or else expect us in New York and Washington." On its face, bin Laden's letter suggests that if the United States and its allies withdraw their troops from Muslim majority nations that at least he would stop blessing attacks on Western civilians such as the London bombings.

There are reasons to doubt even that small hope. Consider some other bin Laden demands: "The first thing that we are calling you to is Islam." He then goes on to detail the American outrages that offend him. For example, bin Laden declares, "You are the nation who, rather than ruling by the Shariah of Allah in its Constitution and Laws, choose to invent your own laws as you will and desire. You separate religion from your policies…" Among other bin Laden indictments of America are:

(1) "You are the nation that permits Usury, which has been forbidden by all the religions. Yet you build your economy and investments on Usury."
(2) "You are a nation that permits the production, trading and usage of intoxicants."
(3) "You are a nation that permits acts of immorality, and you consider them to be pillars of personal freedom."

Bin Laden further calls upon the United States "to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and trading with interest." Bin Laden concludes, "It is saddening to tell you that you are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind."

Until the era of European exploration and colonization, the history of the world was essentially the history of separate civilizations that hardly ever interacted. The late historian Theodore Von Laue, author of The World Revolution of Westernization: The Twentieth Century in Global Perspective (1987), w rote that "the world revolution of Westernization brought together, in inescapably intimate and virtually instant interaction, all the peoples of the world, regardless of their prior cultural evolution or their capacity—or incapacity—for peaceful coexistence." Von Laue added, "Not surprisingly, Westernizing modernization provokes continuous resistance, as tradition-oriented disoriented people try to affirm their customary ways."

Traditional societies must contend with not just the economic, technological, and military power of the West but also the principle of liberalism that engenders and sustains that power. The only rich societies are liberal societies (with the notable exception of a few petro-monarchies). Liberalism is based on respect for the autonomy of individuals, which is expressed through institutions of voluntary cooperation such as democratic governance and free markets. Liberal societies also stress freedom of conscience, the rule of law, and freedom of speech. Thus liberalism requires mutual recognition and respect for the beliefs of others. Non-liberal societies, both traditional and totalitarian, do not respect the differing beliefs of others and instead demand conformity with a unitary vision of the how people should live.

Opponents of liberalism like bin Laden are fully aware that liberal tolerance undercuts the traditional totalitarianisms they fight for by making all such totalitarian systems of belief voluntary. If an individual chooses to change her beliefs and her way of life, she is free to do so, and her religious, political, or cultural community cannot force her to remain. Thus the traditional sources of authority—families, chieftains, priests—are undermined as people seek new ways of shaping their lives. Facing a constantly expanding sphere of liberalism, bin Laden might well agree with Karl Marx who wrote in The Communist Manifesto that under the onslaught of the bourgeoisie that "all fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned." Marx is right: Liberalism has an inherent drive toward universalizing itself.

So would terrorist bombs stop going off in Madrid and London if the United States and its allies withdrew their troops from the Middle East entirely? Perhaps there would be a respite, but a showdown between the world's remaining traditional totalitarianisms and the expanding sphere of liberalism is inevitable. It is no more possible for Islamic fundamentalists to long maintain and cultivate a separate non-liberal civilization than it was for the 17th-century Tokugawa Shogunate to close Japan to the West permanently. Von Laue concluded, "The outcome of the cultural power struggle seems predetermined: who can resist the lures of Western wealth and self-indulgent life styles, or of freedom, or of advanced technology?" In the long run no culture can, but that unfortunately doesn't mean that bombs will not go off for some time to come in London, Rome, New York and Los Angeles.