Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 2001 / 17 Tishrei, 5762

Thomas Sowell

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Islam and the West -- TERRORIST organizations in the Middle East are trying to bill the current crisis as a confrontation between Islam and the West -- as in the Jihads and Crusades of centuries past. But there is no need for the rest of us to go along with that.

Six years ago, Professor Daniel Pipes of Harvard pointed out that terrorists described in the media as "Islamic fundamentalists" are often more Westernized than traditional Moslems. More recently, a leading scholar on the Middle East, Professor Bernard Lewis of Princeton, has pointed out that what these terrorists are doing -- including the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center -- goes counter to the teachings of Islam.

This is not a religious war, on their side or on ours. The lives of American soldiers have been risked to try to save Moslems in Somalia and the Balkans, and American aid has been poured out to help Moslem countries around the world.

What we have witnessed among today's terrorists are some of the oldest and ugliest passions of human beings in general, based on envy and resentment, rather than on any religious teachings. Some fatuous people on college campuses, and in other enclaves of the intelligentsia and the glitterati, have tried to suggest that we must have done something to cause terrorists to attack us. What we have done is have achievements that dwarf theirs.

A thousand years ago, it was the other way around. The Islamic world at that time was far more advanced than the West. It was not only militarily stronger, but also more advanced in science, mathematics and scholarship.

Contrary to the dogmas of the egalitarians, some portion of the human race has always been far in advance of others. In earlier centuries it was China, and in later centuries it was Europe and America. The only egalitarian principle is that no one has been permanently superior.

As the human race has evolved over the millennia, some peoples have taken the lead during one era and others during other eras. Sometimes the reasons seem clear, but at other times no one really knows why. The vast majority of people in all cultures are too busy with their own personal cares and concerns to give much thought to such things. Unfortunately, the rising prosperity of the world in general has supported the rise of increasing numbers of people who have the luxury of becoming preoccupied -- or even obsessed -- with such imponderables.

It is not poverty, but time on their hands to brood, that has produced all sorts of fanaticisms. Many of the leaders of these fanaticisms have come from wealthy families, like Osama bin Laden today and like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 19th century. The poor can seldom spare the time or resources for such things.

What have Americans done to arouse such people? We have succeeded. No, our foreign policies have not always been flawless or even always consistent -- but neither has anyone else's. Still, it is not what we have done wrong that provokes their wrath. It is what we have done right, leading us to surpass them.

Nothing is easier than to blame those who lead for the problems of those who lag. "Exploitation" theories have flourished around the world, in defiance of mountains of evidence, because they say that the rich are rich because the poor are poor. It is a psychological coup, even when it is economic nonsense.

Too many Americans fall for such ideological visions. Not most, but too many. Even in the wake of the terrible catastrophe of September 11th, and with the prospect of still more such lethal attacks looming ahead, they cannot resist an opportunity to try to be morally one-up on their fellow Americans by suggesting that our misbehavior must have provoked these attacks. They simply cannot bring themselves to confront the reality of deliberate evil.

Two World Wars were launched in the 20th century by countries seeking to find "a place in the sun" -- that is, for ego. Rationalistic excuses cannot hide that brutal reality.

Two centuries ago, Edmund Burke said: "There is no safety for honest men except by believing all possible evil of evil men." If we haven't learned that lesson now, what will it take for us to learn it?

Incidentally, has anyone considered that, if pilots had not been forbidden to carry guns, there might be thousands of Americans still alive today and the World Trade Center still standing?

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate