By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 13/09/06):
During Monday’s commemorations of the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, I found myself wondering what the world will look like on the 10th anniversary, or the 20th. Will the catastrophe that began five years ago become a permanent feature of life — a “long war” that won’t end for many decades? Or will it gradually wane with time?
President Bush made an emphatic case for the long war in his speech to the nation Monday night. In his account, America is locked not simply in a war but in a meta-conflict, “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century and the calling of our generation.” He described a global enemy of Muslim fanatics that imprisons women in their homes, beats impious men and attacks Americans at will. I admire Bush’s toughness, but I disagree with his analysis.
As it happened, I spent the hours before Bush’s speech moderating a discussion of the meaning of Sept. 11, which was hosted by the World Affairs Council here. One of the panelists was Marc Sageman, a man who comes to these issues with an unusual background — he was a CIA case officer in Pakistan and then became a psychiatrist. I found in his comments a similarly unusual clarity.
Sageman argues in his book, “Understanding Terror Networks,” that we are facing something closer to a cult network than an organized global adversary. Like many cults through history, the Muslim terrorists thrive by channeling and perverting the idealism of young people. As a forensic psychiatrist, he analyzed data on about 400 jihadists. He found that they weren’t poor, desperate sociopaths but restless young men who found identity by joining the terrorist underground. Ninety percent came from intact families; 63 percent had gone to college; 75 percent were professionals or semi-professionals; 73 percent were married.
What transformed these young Sunni Muslim men was the fellowship of the jihad and the militant role models they found in people such as Osama bin Laden. The terrorist training camps in Afghanistan were a kind of elite finishing school —
Sageman likened it to getting into Harvard. The Sept. 11 hijackers weren’t psychotic killers; none of the 19 had criminal records. In terms of their psychological profiles, says Sageman, they were as healthy as the general population.
The implication of Sageman’s analysis is that the Sunni jihadism of al-Qaeda and its spinoff groups is a generational phenomenon. Unless new grievances spawn new recruits, it will gradually ebb over time. In other words, this is a fire that will gradually burn itself out unless we keep pumping in more oxygen. Nothing in Sageman’s analysis implies that America should be any less aggressive in defending itself against terrorism. But he does argue that we should choose our offensive battles wisely and avoid glamorizing the jihadist network further through our rhetoric or actions.
Sageman’s focus on the generational arc of violence got me thinking about my recent trip to Iran. The revolutionary intensity hasn’t disappeared there, but it is certainly further down the curve than is the Sunni world. When I attended Friday prayers at Tehran University, I was struck by how old the people shouting “death to America” were. I would guess the average age was well over 40. The generation of the Iranian revolution is getting long in the tooth. The only sure way to ignite revolutionary zealotry in the younger generation would be for America to go to war with Iran — something I dearly hope we can avoid.
There’s another small detail about Iran that strikes me as relevant, now that I’m back home. As I explained in an earlier column, Tehran is a city of crazy drivers who nearly collide at every intersection. But the police are quite strict about requiring seat belts — something I don’t often see in the Muslim world. Even fatalistic taxi drivers buckle up. Another surprise: When I was traveling last week from Tehran to the holy city of Qom, there were actually police on the highway with radar guns, stopping pilgrims who might be tempted to speed. And I’m told the new mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Qalibaf, who succeeded the rabble-rousing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has created a special hotline so people can call and get potholes filled and trash collected.
Now I submit to you: A nation that is wearing seat belts is probably not a mortal enemy of the United States.
This is a week when we remember, with horror, that there are dangerous killers in the Muslim world. But unless we make big mistakes, we should not find ourselves condemned to a permanent war, much less a clash of civilizations.