Crunch time in Iraq, and divided we stand
PARIS There's only one thing you can say about the elections in Iraq: They are either going to be the end of the beginning there or the beginning of the end.
Either Iraqis turn out in large numbers to take control of their own future and write their own constitution - and I think they will - or the fascist insurgents there prevent them from doing so, in which case the Bush team will have to move to Plan B. What's sad is that right when we have reached crunch time in Iraq, the West is totally divided. All that the Europeans care about is being able to say to George W. Bush, "We told you so." What happens the morning after "We told you so"? Well, the Europeans don't have a Plan B either.
Ever since 9/11, I've argued the war on terrorism is really a war of ideas within the Muslim world - a war between those who want to wall Islam off from modernity, and defend it with a suicide cult, and those who want to bring Islam into the 21st century and preserve it as a compassionate faith. This war of ideas is not one that the West can fight, only promote. Muslims have to fight it from within. That is what is at stake in the Iraqi elections. This is the first great battle in the post-9/11 war of ideas.
This war also can't be won with troops - only with turnout. This is a war between Iraqi voters and insurgents - ballots versus bullets. And the people who understand that best are the fascist insurgents.
That is why they are not focusing their attacks on U.S. troops, but on Iraqi election workers, candidates, local officials and police.
The insurgents have one credo: "Iraqis must not vote - there must be no authentic expression of the people's will for a modern, decent Iraq. Because, if there is, the world will see that this is not a war between Muslims and infidel occupiers, but between Muslims with bad ideas and Muslims with progressive ideas."
And at this key juncture the West stands disunited. Condi Rice told the Senate that the "time for diplomacy is now." Give me a break.
The time for diplomacy was two years ago. We would be so much better off now if the entire European Union was actively urging Iraqis to vote, and using its own moral legitimacy in the Arab world to delegitimize the insurgents. The divided West is a real liability.
"The most important threat [to the West] is Islamic terrorism," said Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Doctors Without Borders, and one of the few French intellectuals to support the ouster of Saddam. This is not a war with the Muslim religion, he stressed, but with a violent "fascist" Muslim minority.
"We [in the West] have always been allied against fascism since the Second World War," he said. "We have to be together, America and Europe, because our enemies are the same, Muslim extremism and fascism," but right now, unlike in Bosnia, "we are apart."
Kouchner blames Paris for having been too quick to threaten a UN veto and blames even more the Bush team for having been too quick to go to war without a real UN alliance, and for mismanaging postwar Iraq. At least he cares. Most of his countrymen, I sense, are hoping Bush will fail in Iraq so that the ends will never justify his unilateral means. It's quite amazing, when you consider that Europe, with its large Muslim minorities, needs the moderates to win the war of ideas within Islam so much more than America.
I spent Friday morning interviewing two 18-year-old French Muslim girls in the Paris immigrant district of St.-Ouen. (It is about a mile from the school where in March 2003 a French Muslim girl, who had refused the veil and rebuffed the advances of a Muslim boy, was thrown into a garbage can by three Muslim teenagers, who then tossed lighted cigarette butts into the can and closed the lid.)
Both girls I interviewed wore veils and one also wore a full Afghan-like head-to-toe covering; one was of Egyptian parents, the other of Tunisian parents, but both were born and raised in France.
What did I learn from them? That they got all their news from Al-Jazeera TV, because they did not believe French TV, that the person they admired most in the world was Osama bin Laden, because he was defending Islam, that suicide "martyrdom" was justified because there was no greater glory than dying in defense of Islam, that they saw themselves as Muslims first and French citizens last, and that all their friends felt pretty much the same.
We were not in Kabul. We were standing outside their French public high school - a short ride from the Eiffel Tower.