A courageous speech by George W. Bush last week began a new era in what he calls the â€œwar on terror.â€ To comprehend its full significance requires some background. Islamists (supporters of radical Islam) began their war on the United States in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran and later that year his supporters seized the US embassy in Teheran.
For the next 22 years, however, Americans thought they faced merely a criminal problem and failed to see that war had been declared on them. For example, in 1998, when Islamists attacked two US embassies in East Africa, Washington responded by unleashing detectives, arresting the perpetrators, taking them to New York, assigning them defense lawyers, then convicting and jailing them.
The second era began on September 11, 2001. That evening, President Bush declared a â€œwar against terrorismâ€ and the US government promptly went into war mode, for example, by passing the USA Patriot Act. Though welcoming this shift, I during four years criticized the notion of making war on a military tactic, finding this euphemistic, inaccurate, and obstructive. Instead, I repeatedly called on the president to start a third era by acknowledging that the war is against radical Islam.
Bush did occasionally mention radical Islam in fact, as early as nine days after 9/11 but not with enough frequency or detail to change perceptions. British prime minister Tony Blair also advanced the discussion in July, when, after the London transport bombings, he focused on â€œa religious ideology, a strain within the worldwide religion of Islam.â€
BUT THE third era truly began on October 6 with Bushâ€™s speech to the National Endowment for Democracy. He not only gave several names to the force behind terrorism (â€œSome call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant Jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascismâ€), but he provided ample details. In particular, he:
presented this â€œmurderous ideologyâ€ of Islamic radicals as â€œthe great challenge of our new centuryâ€;
distinguished it from the religion of Islam;
drew parallels between radical Islam and communism (both are elitist, cold-blooded, totalitarian, disdainful of free peoples, and fatefully contradictory), then noted in how many ways the US war on radical Islam, â€œresembles the struggle against communism in the last centuryâ€;
pointed out the three-step Islamist drive to power: ending Western influence in the Muslim world, gaining control of Muslim governments, and establishing â€œa radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesiaâ€;
explained the â€œviolent, political visionâ€ of radical Islam as comprising an agenda â€œto develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate Europe, to assault the American people, and to blackmail our government into isolationâ€;
defined its ultimate goal: â€œto enslave whole nations and intimidate the worldâ€;
observed that Muslims themselves have the burden of doing the â€œmost vital workâ€ to fight Islamism;
called on â€œall responsible Islamic leaders to join in denouncingâ€ this ideology and taking steps against it.
THE DETAILED texture of Bushâ€™s speech transforms the official American understanding of who the enemy is, moving it from the superficial and inadequate notion of â€œterrorismâ€ to the far deeper concept of â€œIslamic radicalism.â€ This change has potentially enduring importance if finally, 26 years later, it convinces polite society to name the enemy.
Doing so means, for example, that immigration authorities and law enforcement can take Islam into account when deciding whom to let enter the country or whom to investigate for terrorism offences. Focusing on Muslims as the exclusive source of Islamists permits them finally to do their job adequately.
Despite these many advances, Bushâ€™s speech is far from perfect. His quoting the Koran harks back to 2001, when he instructed Muslims about the true nature of their faith; his comment about extremists distorting â€œthe idea of jihadâ€ unfortunately implies that jihad is a good thing.
Most serious, though, is his limiting the â€œradical Islamic empireâ€ (or caliphate) to just the Spain-to-Indonesia region, for Islamists have a global vision that requires control over non-Muslim countries too and specifically the United States. Their universal ambitions certainly can be stopped, but first they must be understood and resisted. Only when Americans realize that the Islamists intend to replace the US Constitution with Shariâ€™a will they enter the fourth and final era of this war.
The writer is director of the Middle East Forum and author of Miniatures.