Not so long ago, moral equivalence was the name of the favorite game in salons of the intellectual elites. They couldn't see the virtues of Western civilization. "Western civ," in fact, became a sneer. Ronald Reagan, who recognized an evil empire when he saw one, ended all that. He knew that men and women trapped behind the Iron Curtain wanted freedom just like us.
When I visited newspaper editors in Moscow during "glasnost," they told me how American conservatives like the Gipper gave them hope that freedom was possible for them, too. On a later visit, after the Berlin wall came down and the Soviet empire with it, it was the Reagan Revolution in America -- so they told me -- that clarified the differences between the two systems. So successful was the American challenge to the Soviet Union that the Committee for the Free World, founded to nurture that challenge and to promote democracy behind that Iron Curtain, closed down because the job was done.
But if the dream had not died, neither has the nightmare. The intellectual elites of the left, both here and in Britain and Europe, are resuscitating moral equivalence, this time promoting the idea that the values of the West are no better than the nostrums of the Islamists. Bernard Lewis, the distinguished scholar of the history of the Middle East, doesn't like the terms "left" and "right," but he applies them to Europeans of the left who encourage radical Muslims who spout anti-American slogans and the Europeans on the right who encourage Muslims who vow to destroy the Jews: "In Europe, their hatreds outweigh their loyalties."
Bruce Bawer makes this point in his book, "While Europe Slept: How Radicalism Is Destroying the West from Within." One of the most disgraceful developments of our time, he writes, "is that many Western intellectuals who pride themselves on being liberals have effectively aligned themselves with an outrageously illiberal movement that rejects equal rights for women, that believes gays and Jews should be executed, that supports the cold-blooded murder of one's own children in the name of honor." Young Europeans who wear Che Guevara T-shirts and Palestinian scarves, to identify with a "glamorous" revolution that exists only in their naive imaginations, are dangerously out of touch with the authentic peril in the world.
When his book was nominated for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle award, an angry author accused him of "Islamophobia." Mr. Bawer does not suffer these fools. He draws parallels with Germany of the '30s, observing that the European elites are experiencing "a Weimar moment," a refusal to recognize the threat in their midst. Blaming America and Israel is more convenient. Safer, too. Neither Christian nor Jew is likely to go after them with a beheading knife.
Andrew Roberts looks for a parallel in the decay of the Roman Empire, whose destruction was midwifed more by "the vociferous critics within their own society" than by "the declared enemies without." In "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900," he cites Marxists who blame Western imperialism, not Muslim extremists, and who teach Western history as "crimes against humanity," promoting multiculturalism to retard assimilation. The essence of the new moral equivalence was captured in a remark by one Muslim scholar to Bernard Lewis. "The Ottoman Empire allowed Christians to practice monogamy," he said, "why won't the West allow Muslims to practice polygamy?"
Tony Blair, who endures the increasing hatred of certain Englishmen for his resistance to jihad, identifies what's at stake. "The struggle in our world today therefore is not just about security, it is a struggle about values and about modernity -- whether to be at ease with it or rage at it," he told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council last year. "To win, we have to win the battle of values, as much as arms." Like a lot of the rest of us, he's incredulous that so much Western opinion blames the West for terrorism, for perpetuating poverty. If poverty is really a concern of the terrorists, where are the fanatics championing economic development? Terrorism, he says, is about preventing oppressive societies from becoming democracies, about erasing distinctions between church and state.
Establishing "dialogue" between the West and moderate Islam is a good thing to do, but talk cannot succeed with extremists who start the conversation with murder. Theo van Gogh's death at the hands of an Islamist radical in Amsterdam is a dramatic metaphor for the impossibility of reasoning with a terrorist. Just before he died on a darkened street, a witness heard him plead with his assailant. "Don't do it! Don't do it!" he cried. "Surely we can talk about this."