The following is an excerpt from my new book, Collected Columns Vol. II: Crisis & Conceit, 2006-2009. It is 630 pages and retails for $6.99.
Who’s really riding the weaker horse?
July 31, 2006
When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.
—Osama bin Ladin
In examining the events of the past five years, it is increasingly apparent that Western leaders and commentators alike have fundamentally misconceived the relative positions of the primary parties in this third great wave of Islamic expansion. While there are nearly as many grand strategic recommendations floating around the Internet as there are editorialists, it is intriguing to note that virtually none of the Western analysts have grasped the basic reality that from the perspective from which a clash of civilizations must be considered, it is the West that is the weak horse.
The overwheening confidence which so often colors statements from men such as bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad always rings strange in Western ears. It stands so powerfully at variance with what we know of Western wealth, technology and military advantages that it seems to be indicative of false bravado at best, at worst, clinical insanity. The fact that this sort of thing sounds exactly like Baghdad Bob’s surreal rantings only makes it that much more difficult for anyone to take it seriously.
And yet, history is rife with examples wherein a wealthy or more technogically advanced society is defeated by its lesser rival. Despite its lack of a navy, the intrepid Romans defeated Carthage on both land and sea, while the technical superiority of its machine guns, tanks, submarines, rockets and airplanes were not enough to allow the Germans to overcome the allies in World War II. The knights of Western Europe lost numerous battles and a number of wars to Mongols, Magyars, Turks and Saracens even though none of their enemies could stand before an armored cavalry charge.
Neocon ravings notwithstanding, national will, (or more accurately, cultural will), is not the issue at hand here. The majority of Americans are largely indifferent to the Bush administration’s Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism while an ovewhelming majority of the rest of the West is openly against it. But most Muslims are similarly indifferent to this third round in the great clash of civilizations too. An anecdote from William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill is most informative in this regard:
During the early 1950s, when this writer was living in Dehli as a foreign correspondent, social scientists began a comprehensive poll of Indian villages to determine how many natives knew British rule had ended in 1947. The survey was aborted when it was discovered that a majority didn’t know the British had even arrived.
And while it might be tempting to dismiss those Indians as ignorant illiterates, it might be illuminating to ask your neighbor if he knows the name of his congressman, his state representative or his city councilman.
Christendom has twice previously endured periods of Islamic expansion and even managed to roll back Islamic gains with the Reconquista, and, more temporarily, during the Crusades. But that was when the Christian West saw Islam as an enemy and bitterly contested it on every side. Now, a secular West no longer sees itself as a player in the great game, but as a referee, and views Islam as being merely one of the various contestants.
The unavoidable challenge is this. In the same way that atheism provides no moral basis for an individual to resist evil, secular, religious-neutral government provides no practical foundation for opposing Islamic expansion. If Congress funds no mosques, neither can it prevent them from being constructed by militant Saudi Wahhabists. If the Supreme Court requires no one to pray towards Mecca, neither does it allow the banning of immigrants on the basis of a religious adherence to jihad. The range of options accessible to the leaders of the West are formidable; they are also irrelevant.
Bin Laden’s statement about horses can perhaps be best understood thusly: Unlike its Christian predecessor, the secular West is structurally incapable of resisting an Islamic expansion due to its demographic disadvantages and philosophical weaknesses. If this is an accurate characterization, one can only conclude, unfortunately, that bin Laden’s statement is logically, historically and psychologically sound. Certainly the actions of the West’s leaders, especially those of the Bush administration, have done nothing to disprove the assertion, the establishment of a modern-day Kingdom of Acre in Iraq notwithstanding.
None of this means that Islam cannot be turned back a third time; it does, however, suggest that the concept of Western secularism is doomed to failure one way or another. Secularism does not inspire, it enervates. The spirit which led to the sapping of British spirit and the decline of the Raj has been at work in America for decades, it should surprise no one that the lion’s heir is following the mighty tracks of its predecessor.
The impotence of secularism is only the first of several realities that must be recognized if the West is to survive its third test of character. Here are some other important verities:
- Democracy does not reduce radicalism or inhibit religion.
- Exposure to Western culture does not eliminate radicalism. Even complete immersion in it does not guarantee its elimination.
- Western shock and awe cannot impose permanant defeat upon an Eastern culture of retreat and regroup.
- Technological proliferation is inevitable. This includes nuclear weapons.
- Internal dissension, not external force, ends offensive expansion.
The West turned back the forces of an expansionary Islam twice before. Those hoping to see it turned back a third time would be wise to examine precisely how it was accomplished on the previous occasions.