From the moment Americans learned that the 19 aerial assassins of September 11 were Muslim Arabs, they began to wonder: What did Islam have to do with it? The answers were plentiful and quick to come but often contradictory and confusing. Heads of Muslim nations and leaders of Islamic organizations emphasized that Islam was incompatible with terrorism and intolerance. And the spirit of the oft-quoted line from the Koran, "Let there be no compulsion in religion," seemed to reassure most of America's religious, civic, and political leaders. "The face of terror," President Bush confidently announced, "is not the true faith of Islam."
But if all that were true, why did so many inhabitants of the long Muslim "street," stretching from Morocco to Indonesia, appear to be overjoyed by what Osama bin Laden's henchmen had accomplished? For that matter, why were certain Islamic jurists in Pakistan issuing fatwas directing Muslims to fight American infidels if they attacked Afghanistan? And why do firebrand clerics throughout the Islamic world continue to issue equally inflammatory decrees? Most disturbing, some of those same voices of moderation had occasionally expressed their approval of Islamic groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah that engage in terrorism.
In the years since 9/11, scholars and experts have done little to resolve the contradictions. Often, they have merely taken them to a higher level. On one side, broadly speaking, are those sympathetic to the views of Princeton historian Bernard Lewis. The British-born scholar and author sees the events of 9/11 as the tragic consequence of a long conflict between the Islamic world and the West, a conflict largely dominated by the former until a little over 300 years ago, when the Ottomans failed in their second attempt to take Vienna. Crediting bin Laden with a strong (if not altogether accurate) sense of history, Lewis argues that the al Qaeda leader gave expression to the "resentment and rage" of people throughout the Islamic world.
Strongly rejecting this reading of the problem are the experts associated with the late Columbia literature Prof. Edward Said, author of the influential book Orientalism. The Palestinian-American scholar charged that Lewis is one of those western "orientalists" whose oversimplification of eastern civilizations has helped to justify European imperalism. Said insisted that Islam is no "monolithic whole" but a divided body of competing "interpretations." It should be treated the same way Christianity and Judaism are, Said urged, "as vast complexities that are neither all-inclusive nor completely deterministic in how they affect their adherents." On such disagreements turns an even larger question: Was September 11 the outgrowth of a "clash of civilizations," in the words of Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington? Or was it the product of a struggle within a civilization?
Bewildering as all this has been, Americans might have found it easier to negotiate if they had paid as much attention to the Arab side of the terrorists' identity as they did to the Muslim side. The friction between Lewis and Said loses some of its heat, for example, when 9/11, bin Laden, and al Qaeda are seen as key elements of a struggle that is taking place primarily within the Arab core of the Middle East. At the heart of this struggle is the political failure of the various Arab regimes that emerged after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the end of European colonialism. Those regimes—whether kingdoms, parliamentary democracies, or single-party socialist states—were all roughly designed after western models, with elements of western law. But all quickly devolved into despotic states, corrupt and generally incompetent in meeting the basic needs of their citizens. Not coincidentally, leaders of some of those states—notably, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq—for a time paid lip service, and perhaps something more, to a largely secular vision of pan-Arab political unity. A humiliating defeat at the hands of the Israelis in 1967 largely dashed that dream.
Quickly emerging in its stead was a highly politicized version of Islam—what scholars have come to call Islamism. Its leading ideologues, such as the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (hanged in 1966 for allegedly plotting to assassinate President Gamal Abdel Nasser), advocated the rejection of all western political models and the creation of "pure" Islamic states run according to sharia, or religious law.