It has become fashionable for various parties in the debate on the War on Terror to suggest that the religious factor -- which President Bush has struggled mightily to suppress in official public rhetoric -- is in reality the dominant element in the confrontation pitting terrorists against the United States and, potentially, the whole of the Western world.
Televangelist Pat Robertson last week became the latest public figure to suggest that the real enemy is not terrorism but Islam itself -- a faith which, he suggested, is "violent" by nature. He fell just short of suggesting, as fellow TV cleric Jerry Falwell had, that Muhammad, the prophet revered by Muslims, was a "terrorist" himself or, as evangelist Franklin Graham did, that Islam was the embodiment of "evil." But Robertson's remarks were in line with those of a few hard-line and wholly secular figures -- like former Reagan-era arms negotiator Ken Adelman -- who are increasingly impatient with the administration's reluctance to draw the religious line.
All of this is happening at a time when prospects for an invasion of Iraq, with the likely result of escalating religious and cultural conflict, seem very real. And spokesmen for our nation's airlines, expressing discontent with new security regulations, have begun lobbying for simpler procedures that would focus on "profiling" measures that would inevitably target Muslims or Middle Easterners. (They and other advocates of profiling haven't bothered to point out whether security screeners should just go on break when there aren't any obvious Islamic passengers ready to board this or that flight.)
It is understandable, with the horrors of September 11th still vividly remembered and with new outrages occurring at an increasing pace, that suggestions of the foregoing sort should be made. But we think it is not only dangerous for us to counter Osama bin Laden's jihad with one of our own, it is a misreading of contemporary history.
It was not the Muslims of Bosnia or those of Albania who were responsible for the "ethnic cleansing" infamies of the last decade. They were the victims, and the perpetrators were people whose Christian faith, though different from the varieties predominant in the rest of the West, were rooted in a similar credo. We found it necessary to come to the rescue of the Islamic Bosnians and Albanians, as we had come to the aid of the Muslims in Somalia before that, and to attempt to shield them against an organized violence that resembled nothing so much as that of the Nazis in World War II. In Kosovo, at least, we proved successful in bringing the persecution to a halt.
It would behoove those who would wage war against a major world religion to remember these realities before they press for action on their assumptions. Fighting fire with fire makes for a good metaphor but, except in rare instances, for poor firefighting tactics. In our judgment, President Bush took the right course back in late 2001 when he managed to isolate al Qaeda from the rest of the Islamic world, and the resultant military campaign in Afghanistan seems to have borne out the wisdom of his policy.
Indeed, one of our major concerns about the president's evident determination to wage war against Iraq is our fear that such a campaign would be the undoing of his previous resolve -- and an invitation to bin Laden and his extremist followers to redouble their efforts at recruiting the Islamic masses against the intruder from the West.