Earlier this month the Washington Post's Richard Cohen wrote, "As the late Susan Sontag bravely pointed out in a New Yorker essay published right after Sept. 11, 2001, those terrorist attacks were in response to American policy in the Middle East - not, as Bush has said repeatedly since, because Islamic radicals cannot abide freedom."
And Patrick Buchanan - allegedly on the other side of the ideological spectrum - has declared countless times, "Osama bin Laden and his crew up there in Tora Bora did not stumble on a copy of the Bill of Rights and go berserk that Americans are free in the United States."
In short, the notion that America is in a war for freedom over tyranny has elicited bipartisan snickering and guffawing. In the wake of Bush's inaugural, the chorus of complaints intensified. And understandably so, given the fact that his address was the most forceful articulation of his "freedom" vision to date.
But before the cackles could reach their crescendo, the naysayers hit an inconvenient snag. Musab al-Zarqawi, the "prince" of Al-Qaida in Iraq, appointed by Osama Bin Laden, came out and agreed with President Bush. "We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology," Zarqawi declared in a statement. "Democracy is also based on the right to choose your religion," he said, and that is "against the rule of God."
You can almost hear Cohen and Buchanan snapping their pencils "Darn it, stop stepping on my message!"
Zarqawi's declaration came after a statement by Bin Laden himself in December, in which he pronounced: "Anyone who participates in these elections . has committed apostasy against Allah."
Now, this doesn't mean that Bin Laden and Zarqawi aren't motivated by less lofty - or merely different - principles than an Islamist rejection of democracy. To be sure, Bin Laden's initial grievances included America's relationship to Saudi Arabia, Israel and all the usual complaints. But underlying these gripes was an ideology - and remains an ideology - opposed to freedom and democracy. The intellectual founder of Islamism, Sayyid Qutb, wrote in 1957: "In the world there is only one party, the party of Allah; all of the others are parties of Satan and rebellion. Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah; and those who disbelieve fight in the cause of the rebellion."
If you peruse the incalculably valuable website Memri.org - which translates articles, manifestoes and broadcasts from across the Arabic world - you will find countless declarations from Islamist groups declaring that democracy is an "atheist" heresy that replaces the law of God with the law of man, and that anyone who advocates elections is ipso facto an infidel. In his December statement, Osama Bin Laden "ruled" - as if he has any right to do so - that Iraqi forces who aid the upcoming elections "are apostates who should not be prayed over upon their deaths. They cannot inherit, and they must not be inherited from [after their deaths]. Their wives are divorced from them, and they must not be buried in Muslim cemeteries."
Sure sounds like someone hates democracy to me.
Those who pooh-pooh the notion that our enemies hate freedom believe that such ideologically totalitarian movements can exist within their own borders indefinitely. All we have to do is treat them like a hornet's nest and don't upset them (no matter that they topple their own governments and seek ever more conquests).
Unfortunately, we live in a world where a bunch of antidemocratic and homicidal zealots can make life dangerous for all of us. "Not our fight," the president's critics seem to say. But if they're wrong, thousands or millions could die as a result. And, like it or not, that fight is in Iraq right now.
For the first time in a hard-fought, bloody, and at times metaphysically depressing couple of years, it looks like there's cause for optimism there. Indications are that turnout will be high in Sunday's elections. Sunni leaders now say they want a role in constructing the new constitution. Zarqawi's prized bomb-making lieutenant was captured, and interim Prime Minister Allawi is gaining support.
But the best news from Iraq in a while is Zarqawi's forceful and forthright rejection of democracy and freedom as a principle. He doesn't want a more "authentic" democracy, he wants to kill it. This alone gives Iraqis, particularly the Sunnis he claims to represent, a stark choice: Accept the painful but promising path of elections, or side with the man most responsible for the car-bombings of mosques and markets, who would replace Saddam's nationalist totalitarianism for a new religious one ruled by foreigners like him and Bin Laden. Given that choice, who can doubt the Iraqis will vote with their hearts and ballots for what's behind Curtain No. 1.