We Americans are uncomfortable with such ideas as holy wars and religiously motivated mass murder. Raised to believe in equality, tolerance and diversity, we cannot imagine slaughtering fellow human beings so that adherents of the "true faith" might prevail over "enemies of God." Nor can most of us imagine others acting in this way. Our imaginations are failing us.
Two years ago, Andrew C. McCarthy published "Willful Blindness," his authoritative memoir of the years he spent prosecuting terrorists for the federal government. It should have opened the eyes of anyone who, despite the atrocities of 9/11/01, still could not grasp the fact that those who say they are waging a jihad against infidels really mean they are waging a jihad against infidels.
But the response to the attempted terrorist bombing in Times Square demonstrates that many political and media leaders continue to view the global conflict though clouded eyes, insisting that terrorism must be motivated by political grievance or personal frustration or economic deprivation or desperation - anything but theological conviction.
For example, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg theorized that the would-be car bomber might be "someone with a political agenda that doesn't like the health-care bill or something."
The Associated Press was quick to tell the public that the perpetrator's motives were "unknown." It added, however, that suspect Faisal Shahzad's "life had unraveled." National Public Radio provided a specific turning point: "Times Square Suspect's World 'Flipped Upside Down' Last Summer."
Newsweek asked: "Did the economy make him do it?" (Perhaps he had read Newsweek's Feb. 9, 2009 cover story: "We Are All Socialists Now"?)
New York Newsday drilled down to the fact that "Faisal Shahzad's home was in foreclosure," suggesting that he is just one more victim of the real estate market.
CBS's Bob Orr thought he might be "angry over Predator strikes that have killed both terror leaders and civilians in his native Pakistan." In other words, if only President Obama would stop targeting terrorists, maybe the terrorists would ... do what? Concentrate on other victims about whom we need not concern ourselves?
Orr also lamented that while Shahzad has been a U.S. citizen for a year, "he has not realized any American dream." Well, that would justify just about anyone leaving a car bomb in the theater district, don't you think?
Similar theories were offered by CNN and the Washington Post, prompting satirist Joe Queenan to ponder the history of "the connection between personal humiliation and violence. Hitler, it is widely known was so devastated by his failure to win acceptance into art school that he drifted into fascism and violence. Stalin, with his peasant roots and comically rustic accent, never really felt part of the Soviet in-crowd, which may have accounted for his otherwise puzzling decision to butcher 50 million of his countrymen."
Such self-delusion would be more amusing were it not putting Americans in peril. As noted above, I think a failure of imagination is part of the explanation. Also at work is an understandable reluctance to give offense to Muslims.
But genuinely moderate Muslims are not offended by the truth. Commenting on the Time Square bombing attempt, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a prominent American Muslim reformer, stated what so many others will not: "Islamists are at war intellectually and kinetically with western liberal democracies." He added that while Americans are often the victims, "most Islamists globally actually target moderate Muslims who are their greatest existential threat ..."
Anti-Islamist Muslims know, too, that the Islamists have not "hijacked" a "religion of peace," comforting as that might be for us to believe. Islamists are fundamentalists - not heretics. Their reading of Islam is neither new nor unorthodox. They advocate a return to Islam as it was practiced in the 7th century. In that era, Islam was, without apology or ambiguity, a warrior faith, dedicated to conquest -- with power, wealth and glory accruing to conquerors.
Mohammad was a not just a prophet; he also was a military commander. He, his successors and their armies established one of the greatest empires of all times. They began in Arabia, then marched westward to the Atlantic, eastward to the Pacific and penetrated Europe as well. Islamists believe that similar conquests can and should be won in the 21st century -- if only Muslims will return to their roots and fulfill their obligation to wage jihad which now takes the form of asymmetrical warfare.
One additional reason for confusion: taqquiyah, deception of the infidel, an authorized weapon of jihad. For example, Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born academic - he holds the His Highness Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Chair in Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford (no kidding) -- last week told the Washington Post that jihad "has nothing to do with holy war ... Where you are trying to resist bad temptations and reform yourself with good aspirations that you have, this is a jihad of the self."
What makes this lie so brazen - though the Post did not think even to question it -- is that Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Banna himself stated clearly that the Qur'an and other Islamic doctrines "summon people ... to jihad, to warfare, to the armed forces, and all means of land and sea fighting."
In addition: The Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is Hamas. Among Hamas' founders was Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, who also was Osama bin Laden's mentor. As Andy McCarthy relates in "Willful Blindness," Azzam "galvanized Muslims worldwide with his call to jihad - traditional, unreservedly violent jihad..." In a speech in Oklahoma City in 1988, Azzam instructed fellow Muslims: "The jihad, the fighting, is obligatory on you whenever you can perform it. And just as when you are in America you must fast ...so, too, must you wage jihad. The word jihad means fighting only, fighting with the sword."
And fighting with car bombs and plastic explosives in one's underwear, and FN Five-seven semi-automatic pistols and .357 magnums (used to slaughter American soldiers at Fort Hood) and hijacked passenger planes and maybe, before long, with nuclear weapons as well.
None of this should be surprising. What is: the obstinate naivety, the determined ignorance, the continuing willful blindness of so many of our political and media leaders in the face of the 21st century's most daunting challenge and most deadly threat.