Only in Their Dreams

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The West has not fought a serious religious war in 350 years. America is too young to have fought any. Our first reaction, therefore, to the declaration of holy war made upon us on Sept. 11 was to be appalled, impressed and intimidated. Appalled by the primitivism, impressed by the implacability, intimidated by the fanaticism.

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Intimidation was pervasive during the initial hand-wringing period. What have we done to inspire such rage? What can we do? Sure, we can strike back, but will that not just make the enemy even more angry and determined and fanatical? How can you defeat an enemy who thinks he's on a mission from God?

How? A hundred days and one war later, we know the answer: B-52s, for starters.

We were from the beginning a little too impressed. There were endless warnings that making war on a Muslim nation would succeed only in recruiting more enraged volunteers for bin Laden, with a flood of fierce mujahedin going to Afghanistan to confront the infidel. Western experts warned that the seething "Arab street" would rise up against us.

Look around. The Arab street is deathly quiet. The mobs, exultant on Sept. 11 and braying for American blood, have gone home. There are no recruits headed to Afghanistan to fight the infidel. The old recruits, battered and beaten and terrified, are desperately trying to sneak their way out of Afghanistan.

The reason is simple. We won. Crushingly. Astonishingly. Destroying a regime 7,000 miles away, landlocked and almost inaccessible, in nine weeks.

The logic of victory often eludes the secular West. We have a hard time figuring out an enemy who speaks in religious terms. He seems indestructible. Cut him down, and 10 more will rise in his place. How can you destroy an idea?

This gave rise to the initial soul searching, the magazine covers plaintively asking WHY DO THEY HATE US? The feeling that we might be responsible for the hatred directed against us suggested that we should perhaps seek to assuage and placate. But there is no assuaging those who see your very existence as a denial of the faith and an affront to God. There is no placating those who offer you the choice of conversion or death.

There is only war and victory.

Mullah Omar and bin Laden are animated by a vision. They really do believe--or perhaps did believe--that their destiny was to unite all the Muslim lands from the Pyrenees to the Philippines and re-establish the original caliphate of a millennium ago. Omar took the sacred robe, attributed to Muhammad and locked away for more than 60 years, and triumphantly donned it in public as if to declare his succession to the Prophet's earthly rule. (Osama harbored similar fantasies about himself, although he fed Omar's, as a form of flattery and enticement.)

Such visions are not new. Omar's and Osama's are just as expansive, just as eschatological, and yet no more crazy than Hitler's dream of the Thousand-Year Reich or Napoleon's of dominion over all Europe. The Taliban and al-Qaeda, like Nazi Germany and revolutionary France, represent not just political parties or power seekers; they also represent movements. And a movement carries with it an idea, an ideology, a vision for the future.

That is where the mad dreamers are vulnerable: the dream can be defeated by reality. What was left of Nazi ideology with Hitler buried in the rubble of Berlin? What was left of Bonapartism with Napoleon rotting in St. Helena? What was left of Fascism, an idea that swept Europe and entranced a generation, with Mussolini's body hanging upside down, strung up by partisans in 1945?

What is left of the great caliphate today? It is a ruin. Caliph Omar is in hiding; Caliph Osama, on the run.

This is not to say that Islamic fundamentalism is dead. But it has suffered a grievous blow. Its great appeal was not just its revival of a glorious past but also the promise that it was the wave of the future, the inexorable tide that would sweep through not just Arabia but all Islam--and one day the world.

That is why Afghanistan is such a turning point. It marks the first great reversal of fortune for radical Islam. For two decades it tasted one victory after another: the Beirut bombings of 1983 that chased America out of Lebanon; "Black Hawk Down" that chased America out of Somalia; the first Afghan war that chased the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan--and led to the collapse of a superpower, no less. These were heady victories, as were the wounds inflicted with impunity on the other superpower: the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the 1998 destruction of two U.S. embassies in Africa, the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole. The limp and feckless American reaction to these acts of war--a token cruise missile here, a showy indictment there, empty threats everywhere--only reinforced the radical Islamic conviction that America was a paper tiger, fat and decadent, leader of a civilization grown weak and cowardly and ripe for defeat.

For the fundamentalist, success has deep religious significance. The logic of the holy warrior is this:

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