Railroads had made physical isolation increasingly difficult -- the telegraph had made ideological isolation impossible. Remaining modern requires creatively adapting to new circumstances. Ataturk believed no nation can adapt effectively if it political mechanisms are obstructed by clerics claiming the terms of political, social and spiritual perfection were unequivocally settled centuries ago.
The Turkish nationalists concede the spiritual realm to the clerics. However, the pragmatic and empirical modernizers would take responsibility for managing the effects of the railroad and telegraph, then the airplane and telephone, and now, ubiquitous digital communications. Taking responsibility meant expanding education to defeat the devil of illiteracy and expanding the economy to battle the dismal evil of poverty.
Al-Qaida's prescription for correcting history clashed head-on with Ataturk's creative modernity and his separation of mosque and state. Little wonder he remains al-Qaida's most hated man.
The battlefield defeats al-Qaida suffered between fall 2001 and fall 2007 (Iraq surge) undercut the terror gang's claim to possess God's sanction. The mass murder of Iraqi Muslims utterly tarnished its reputation. Now, Arab Spring's pragmatic demands for jobs, education and individual rights -- demands for the fruits of the modernity bin Laden despised -- challenge al-Qaida's violent and utterly unproductive utopianism. Al-Qaida has so little to say about expanding and sustaining an economy in a world where every teenager wants a cellphone.
Where the Arab Spring revolutions will lead no one knows, and violent Islamist utopians definitely intend to undermine them. But we are witnessing more than a drastic change in rhetoric. Instead of playing the blame-someone-else game, Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and Syrians are taking responsibility for changing their political and social conditions.
This marks the emergence of a gritty realism based on self-critique and correction, and a willingness to productively engage the modern world instead of destroy it. What a defeat for al-Qaida.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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