October 24, 2011

As much as “Seinfeld” or grunge music, al-Qaeda was a phenomenon of the 1990s. That might seem an odd way to describe a group responsible for so much terror in the first decade of the 21st century. Yet it’s true: al-Qaeda was an extremist response to globalization that differed from earlier, more successful Islamist movements—think of Khomeini—in its universal aspirations.

Strictly speaking the group does not have national affiliates: its branch in Yemen is “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” its Iraqi franchise “al-Qaeda in the Land Between the Two Rivers”—i.e., Mesopotamia. Dressed in older Islamic rhetoric, this transnationalist organization is in fact very modern, and that has proved its weakness. For even extremists prefer to fight for local causes: tribe, sect, village, and indeed nation.

Iraqis rejected bin Laden’s grandiose vision even as they resisted American occupation, while the Taliban, in contrast to bin Laden, are nothing if not rooted. Think of al-Qaeda’s dream of a worldwide Caliphate as exactly parallel to the “unipolar moment” and “end of history” delusions common to neoconservatives and neoliberals in the Clinton era.

But if this is so, how has al-Qaeda been able to find any followers at all—and how did it recruit foreign fighters to the cities and countryside of Iraq and Afghanistan?

The answer is found in the occupied lands of Palestine, where for some 20 years television cameras have broadcast the plight of Arab refugees under Israeli rule. The images have outraged opinion across the Islamic world and have proved a uniquely potent tool for converting angry, aimless young men into violent radicals. Until the invasion of Iraq, no footage like it existed to illustrate bin Laden’s claims of American or European hostility.

This is one reason the U.S. has a vital interest in peace for the Holy Land. Another is Americans’ deep sympathy with the people of Israel. As John Mearsheimer and Norman Finkelstein discuss in this issue, those who wish Israel well must confront the reality that Tel Aviv’s own policies are now the greatest threat to the Jewish State. If Palestinians are not permitted a nation of their own, the outcome can only be an Arab majority within the borders controlled by Israel. At that point, Israel will not continue as a democracy, if it can survive at all. No one who empathizes with the suffering of the Jewish people in the 20th century should wish to see Israel follow the path of South Africa.

At stake is not only a deteriorating security situation but the loss of what America and Israel have imagined themselves to stand for. On the left especially there has been a rising chorus concerned that Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians has corrupted the Israel Defense Forces and betrayed the nation’s principles. Once this was a radical critique; today it comes from such centrist liberals as former New Republic editor Peter Beinart and the New Yorker’s David Remnick.

For their part, conservatives have too long deferred judgment about America’s moral and security interests—as well as Israel’s—to apocalyptic figures like Rev. John Hagee and the dubious theology of Christian Zionism. Ideological neoconservatives shout down dissident voices. But it was not always thus. Among the first books published by Henry Regnery could be found not only God and Man at Yale and The Conservative Mind but also Will the Middle East Go West? and They Are Human Too, works which, as Regnery recalled, “brought us face to face with the tragedy of the Arab refugees.”

Conservatives can reclaim this humane tradition—and they must. The cycle of injustice, terror, and war is draining America dry. Ending it will require more than peace in the Holy Land, but that’s a start.

— Ed.