Confronted with fanatical Muslims who seem bent on corroborating the worst accusations against their religion, we in the West seem justified in upholding Samuel Huntington's famous thesis of a "clash of civilizations." From the Danish cartoon controversy to the reaction to the Pope's Regensburg address, we seem to be witnessing a virtually unbridgeable abyss between Western principles and Islamic principles. We believe in free speech, and they don't. We believe in reason and pluralism, and they believe in violence.
This way of portraying the Muslim world, however, suffers from two serious flaws. First, it is tactically foolish. This becomes obvious when we recognize that there is a second clash of civilizations, and it is within the Muslim world. The Muslim world is divided between traditional Muslims and radical Muslims. The traditional Muslims are the majority, but the radical Muslims are an influential minority and their numbers are growing. For the past few decades the radical Muslims have been actively recruiting members from the traditional Muslim population. In some parts of the Muslim world, we have seen the Islamic radicals grow so strong that they are in a position to win elections.
What this means is that no victory is possible in the war against terrorism without stopping the growth of radical Islam. No strategy can work that fails to stem the tide of conversions from traditional Islam to radical Islam. No matter how many Islamic radicals we kill, the strength of radical Islam is undiminished if it is capable of replenishing its numbers with traditional Muslim recruits. Consequently America should make it a central element of its strategy to drive a wedge between traditional Islam and radical Islam. If we can find common ground with traditional Muslims, we can deter them from flocking to the radical camp.
Attacks on the Muslim religion as violent, or attacks on the Prophet Muhammad as a forerunner of Islamic terrorism, are counterproductive because they have the predictable effect of unifying traditional Muslims and radical Muslims. How can traditional Muslims be expected to show any sympathy toward assaults on their most sacred beliefs and the founder of their way of life? Even if true, such accusations should not be made publicly because their effect is likely to strengthen the worst elements in Islam and make terrorism worse.