Since the Iranian revolution, Americans have been aware of Islamic extremism. They should have been worried about Islamic fundamentalism much earlier. Decades before Ayatollah Khomeini announced his holy war against the United States, Muslim militants had been increasing their numbers and honing their critique of the West, especially America, and its nefarious cultural and political influence throughout the Islamic world. Under the radar screen of most academics, diplomats, and spies, bin Ladenism was taking shape.
Since 9/11, we have seen more clearly what we did not see before. A consensus has developed in Washington that something is terribly awry in the Muslim Middle East. The Bush administration, echoed by many influential Democrats, believes that the repressive politics of the region need to open to dissenting voices—the nexus between autocracy and Islamic extremism must be broken. Most hope gradual political reform will abate the anti-Americanism that is commonplace throughout the region. Moderate Muslims need to be nourished so they may triumph over the militants and holy warriors. But moderate Muslims are not likely the solution to bin Ladenism. Just the opposite: Those who have hated the United States most—Shiite clerics and Sunni fundamentalists—hold the keys to spreading democracy among the faithful. They, not the much-admired Muslim secularists, will probably liberate the Muslim Middle East from its age-old reflexive hostility to the West. Paradoxically, those who in their souls have felt the clash of civilizations most painfully will be our salvation from future 9/11s.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.