President George W. Bush says we have begun a new kind of war, the first war of the 21st century, a war like no other we have seen before.
No doubt he is right-this war will not resemble even the Gulf War, any more than the Gulf War resembled the Civil War, or the Civil War resembled the Punic Wars. Left unanswered, however, is an important question: What kind of war will this be?
What kind, indeed. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Mr. Bush can insist, as they have, that this is not a religious war, and from the American-led coalition’s point of view, it isn’t. But hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even millions, of Muslims around the world apparently do not agree. They may be misguided-and certainly some of their leaders are worse than misguided-but that is their view. It’s hard to imagine what we could do to change their minds. When they see B-1 bombers over Afghanistan, they see the latest manifestation of the Crusaders who marched on Islam in the name of Christianity a millennium ago.
The new war might also be described as a rising up of the poor against the rich. True, many of the hijackers of Sept. 11 were not from impoverished backgrounds, but clearly the bulk of Osama bin Laden’s support comes from Muslims trapped in Third World poverty and desperation, many of them living in nations rich in oil, awash in corruption and supported by American military might.
Others might describe Mr. Bush’s war on terrorism as a revolution, with the terrorists playing the role of rebels lashing out not at a foreign oppressor but at foreign ideas, like secularism, equality for women and tolerance.
In fact, the new war is a mixture of all three, and is likely to continue in some form not for the two years Mr. Bush predicts, not for the 50 years that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggests when he compares the war on terrorism to the Cold War, but for the rest of the millennium. No doubt there will be some resolution, sooner rather than later, in Afghanistan-although the Taliban are hanging on longer than the Pentagon expected. But Afghanistan is merely the opening chapter in the 21st-century narrative of conflict. We live in an era of appalling gaps between rich and poor nations, between modern secularism and traditional religious practice. And the poor, the alienated and the zealots all have access to weapons of mass destruction. They can act on their grievances, real and imagined, as never before. The history of humanity suggests that they will avail themselves of this opportunity.
The religious element of this conflict is hard to ignore, as much as we are encouraged to make the effort. The terrorists, after all, believe that Allah blesses their murderous plans and sanctions the slaughter of unbelievers. A group of militants in Pakistan invaded a Catholic church on Oct. 28 and slaughtered 16 innocent men, women and children, most of them dying simply because they practiced Christianity. The terrorists and their sympathizers
divide the world into Muslim and infidel-these are their terms, not ours. Their calls for jihad are meant not for national armies or ethnic militias, but for the legions of their co-religionists, who are expected to take up arms to defend not territory, but their religion.
Those most likely to heed such a call are those without a stake in the status quo. According to the World Bank Group, four billion people-two-thirds of humanity-live in dire poverty, existing, if that is the right word, on less than $2 a day. Of that number, 1.2 billion survive on less than a dollar a day. They live in unimaginable deprivation-so much so that New York’s meanest slums would seem like luxury, and the diets of our poorest would seem like the height of indulgence. No wonder we’re in the predicament we find ourselves. And it seems fair to speculate that of the two billion people who live on more than $2 a day, a good portion are only slightly less desperate than the poorest of the poor.
The developed world had promised to cut world poverty by half over the next 15 years, but that effort is flagging, and may be neglected entirely as the economies of North America and Western Europe slip into recession.
Not all of the globe’s poor are Muslim, of course, but it surely is possible that the desperate would welcome a conflict that pits haves against have-nots. What would they have to lose?
In the Arab world, it is not just the poor whose futures are bleak. Young middle-class men from Egypt and Saudi Arabia may have it better than the rural poor of the Muslim world, but they see their chances for advancement foiled by their corrupt, autocratic nations. Embittered, they flock to the banner of a man who seems to speak for their grievances with the West, with secular capitalism, with conventional political leaders.
The conflict that will define the new century crosses national lines and traditional loyalties: America looks for support not only from Western allies, but from regimes like those of Syria and Iran. Likewise, the bin Laden gang demands that Muslims from Malaysia to the Sudan to Jersey City rise up to attack the infidels wherever they may be found. Poverty and the Islamic religion are the catalysts for the worldwide revolution the bin Laden crowd seeks to provoke. One without the other would not be enough to spark a conflagration.
Nobody would dare predict how this confrontation will end, or when. In trying to explain the Islamic world’s anger, a television commentator recently noted that it had been a “tough 200 years or so” for the Muslim world. That is how today’s conflict will be measured-not in months or even decades, but in centuries.