History is full of wars over religion. For thousands of years, people who held one religious belief have fought against those who held another. But we who have lived in the twentieth century have been somewhat insulated against those wars, because throughout that century, and in fact most of the two centuries before that, the majority of the significant conflicts were fought over territory or for independence. Religious wars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were generally smaller, contained, limited to internal conflicts in obscure little countries (by modern civilizations’ accounting) like Sudan and Nigeria, or hidden behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union or China. Individuals in those nations were aware of the conflicts, of course, but most of us in the western world simply went about our own business and pretended they didn’t exist. And when we did experience the occasional attack (like the Khobar Towers, the first World Trade Center bombing, or the USS Cole), we assumed the motivations were territorial or financial, and ignored the religious rhetoric of the attackers.
So it came as a huge shock to us when September 11 suddenly burst upon us, "out of the blue," so to speak. Many of us still have not correctly assessed the real issue behind the WTC attack. We continue to insist that the reason we were attacked was territorial (we support Israel’s continuing to exist in Palestine, for example) or financial (the terrorists were jealous of our prosperity). Meanwhile, the Islamic fanatics shout ever more loudly that this is a war about religion, a war that has continued, to one extent or another, since Islam was founded over 1000 years ago. While Westerners tend to see the Crusades as ancient history – and indeed, to blame the Christian side exclusively for them - the Islamic extremists perceive today’s "war on terror" as simply a continuation of that long-standing struggle. No wonder we make so many strategic errors in the way we interact with them!
If we want to understand how the Islamic fundamentalists think, if we want to know how we should deal with them, it seems to me we need to seriously re-examine the history of this war and the rhetoric of our enemies. We need to understand how the war started – and I don’t mean we need to look back to 9/11, or to the first WTC bombing, or to the 1970’s. Americans and other Westerners know far too little history, especially of the Middle Ages. Most of us know next to nothing about how Islam began or what was happening in their world at the time. We are utterly unfamiliar with the schisms that have occurred, with who ruled them and when and how. When we hear the word "Crusades," we think of Europeans riding off to fight the Arabs, with no idea of why. We tend to forget that Spain was ruled for many years by Muslim extremists, and that Europe was almost overrun by them. What strategy worked then to drive them back, and why? And what has happened since then in Islamic history? What do our enemies say about why they do what they do? How do they motivate others to join their cause?
I have to admit I don’t know the answers to these questions either. But without these answers, how can we possibly hope to beat them? Any baseball or football or soccer coach will tell you that you first have to analyze the opponents’ strategy, know their strengths and weaknesses, and understand why they make the moves they make, before you can win against them. And those are just games. This is a matter of life and death; it is absolutely critical that we figure these things out. Need I point out that the enemy is already doing this? They know us, all too often, better than we know ourselves; which is why they are so successful at using our media (without the media’s even realizing it is being used) against us. If we don’t get to know them at least as well as they know us, I fear one day the history books will record that this religious war is one we ultimately lost.