It all started on September 11th, 2001. The Twin Towers fell in New York.
Then, on September 12, 2001, I looked out at my period 6 Honor’s English class. My students were 14-years old, and they were confused, scared, and angry about the terrorist attacks that had rocked the United States the day before. Nothing like this had ever happened before. There was no reference point.
They asked me for my thoughts. I was their ninth grade Honor’s English teacher.
I told them that for the first time since D-Day in June 1944, major league baseball had been cancelled. In the heat of the moment, every single aircraft in the air in North America had been ordered to land. Thousands of Americans had died in New York City and in Washington D.C. as they burned to death or jumped from burning buildings, or were crushed under hundreds of tons of steel. A horrible day, September 11th. It would mark the end of one era and the beginning of another; this day would be landmark day for my adolescent students, as well as for myself.
“Who did it?” they asked me. “Islamist terrorists, such as Osama bin Laden,” I told them.
Remarkably, much of America supposedly did not even know who Osama bin Laden was before September 11th. I knew him well, having taught an extensive Islam unit while teaching in a private Jewish school in a previous teaching gig. I knew how he had been so influenced by Sayyid Qutb, having a deep hatred for America and almost everything it stood for. They hate our popular media; they hate our modern way of life; they hate our secularism; they hate our military power; they hate our foreign policy. They hate our allowing women roles of relative equality with men; they hate our technology, and they hate our entertainment. They hate our individualism. They hate our separation of church and state. They rightly saw modern Western life as a dagger pointed at the heart of traditional Islamic life. They hate us.
For example, what is the worst nightmare of an Islamist? Satellite dishes all over an Arab city skyline with Western media pumping into homes for the young to be poisoned by it. What is the worst nightmare of a Islamist from London or Bremen or Detroit? His sister failing to wear the veil. His sister choosing to date a non-Muslim. It is the cosmopolitan future against the values of the tribe.
Does that not put it in perspective? My whole classroom culture and job as a teacher, as well as my wider life, are a testament to this mis-labeled “clash of civilizations” which is really a clash of ideologies within civilizations.
Students from my classes would attend university and join an adult culture that had the technological sophistication to build skyscrapers, for example. al Quaeda, in its weakness, could destroy them once or twice on the sly, but could never build one. They could buy or steal weapons and explosives, but they could never make them from scratch themselves. The Islamists could fight and die, most often by blowing themselves up. But they cannot make scientific breakthroughs or create great cultural works of art. My students could and would.
That was the difference in why September 11th would fail. That was why bin Laden would lose.
But even in the Islamic world, the Islamists are only a loud and dangerous minority. Not all Muslims, by any means, share bin Laden’s vision of a global Islamic caliphate under sharia law. Think about the spectacle of a moderate Muslim in Rabat or Tehran who cares more about freedom of speech than a putative “insult” to Islam (Salman Rushdie, Naguib Mahfouz, Theo van Gogh, Danish cartoon saga) by some polemicist somewhere. Think about a young man in Islamabad who thinks “honor killings” of womanfolk are barbaric, no matter how much “tribal custom” endorses it. Think about the software engineer from Amman or Cairo who speaks English. Think about the Muslim in Berlin who feels more allegiance to secular Europe than to Turkey where her ancestors lived. These are our allies in the struggle against radical Islam.
Mohammad Sidique Khan, Mohammed Bouyeri, and Muhammad Atta, on the other hand, are our enemies. Having lived in the West and seen it first hand, they hate it all the more. They hate what they know. There is no misunderstanding here.
Having begun before I was born, this struggle with then will continue long after I am dead.
A CLASH OF IDEOLOGIES
Military reprisals would not be long in coming after September 11th, I told my students.
But more than that I had one simple message for my students: the Islamists might object to our foreign policy, but what they really hate is who we are. And if my students, and myself, wanted to do something truly destructive to our Islamist enemies, it would be this: go about the same business we were conducting in school two days ago, when September 11th had not yet happened. That is what would make the terrorist attacks meaningless, in the long run.
This class was full of incredibly talented students in a high performing suburban high school in California. It was from schools like this that the engineers who could build skyscrapers and jet airliners came from. It was from honor’s classes like this one that young women and men would move onto college and then the world of work as engineers, doctors, journalists, accountants, teachers, scientists, and a myriad of other professional positions in the American world of work. Especially to my female students, I told them if you wanted to poke one in the eye to Osama bin Laden in response to September 11th, then you should become a powerful, educated, confident, and happy Western woman – exactly the most threatening thing to him and his followers. It was from an honor’s class like this one that the true strength of American could be seen, and they would go on to help make America what it has always been. It was the real strength of the United States. It was why over decades I saw that America would win the war with bin Laden and his associates.
Osama bin Laden might be able to knock down two skyscrapers, but there is no way he could build one. The Islamists could hide in caves and strike at the West here and there where they could, but they could not produce operating system software, microcomputer processors, a cure for a disease, or a better way to fly across oceans. Osama bin Laden had an anti-message to the West, but his prescription for the Muslim world was to move back to the 15th century. That will not work.
I remember the scene where American soldiers, with cheering Iraqis surrounding them, pulled down that ostentatious statue of Saddam Hussein. (How symbolic was that? The Iraqis could not pull down the statue themselves!) I always thought in the place of Saddam Hussein they should have put up a statue of an engineering textbook. Replace the cult of personality of a dictator or a religion with a commitment to building up their tottering country – that, in a nutshell, is why the Arabs are so weak. Talk to me about the time an Arab nation produces its own fighter aircraft, its own assault rifle. Talk to me when it develops its own computer operating system. Talk to me when it does not need to bring in thousands of European or American engineers to build infrastructure. Talk to me when the most notable sources of news from the Middle East is not a that most asinine of low tech weapons, the suicide bomber.
THE WOMAN QUESTION
A successful, confident young American woman in a leadership position is a standing refutation to almost everything Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri stand for, and such a woman is a role model not only in America but in the Middle East. She can make up her own mind without father or husband dictating her thinking. She is sexually confident and in control of her social life. She has a career and a family; and the family is but only one aspect of her life – not the center of it. I remember distinctly reading about Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb, and how much he had hated living in New York after WWII; in particular, he hated the American women with their frank looking men in the face – the lust, the boldness, the confidence, the shamelessness. It is not that an Islamist such as Sayyid Qutb hates not what he knows not about America; the more he came to know it, the more he hated it. Nowhere was this more in evidence in his view of women: even in his native Egypt he felt women were becoming too Westernized and complained of being unable to find a woman of sufficient “moral purity and discretion” to marry and so lived a bachelor.
There is a culture clash between the West and those in the Islamic world who hate it so much. The clash is much more about values and how one should live than about weapons or the War in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is a war that will continue for decades, akin to the Cold War, and it will be an ideological war more than a shooting war. This conflict will be going on long after American troops exit the mess of Iraq. The struggle between Islamism and the West started not on September 11th, 2001, but when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from France on February 1, 1979 and the US Embassy was stormed. That was when it began.
I will be overjoyed the minute the last American soldiers exit Iraq. I strongly hope the American profile will be vastly reduced in the Middle East, with my fellow citizens out of harm’s way. The Iraqis and the Lebanese and the Israelis and the Palestinians can kill each other day and night, as they most likely will, with Americans more wary bystanders than active participants. But the struggle will not end, and the angry “Arab street” will foment and seethe against the “Great Satan.” Like we contained communism, we should at arm’s length closely contain Islamism. Quarantine it as you quarantine rabies. Kill al-Qaeda when and where we can, but use more the rapier, less the blunderbuss. The tank or the aircraft carrier is not the weapon to win the war on terror with. Our weapon is the computer operating system. It is New York City. It is the idea of freedom. It is a future where reason and rationality rules the affairs of men – the rule of law. It is Google. It is iTunes. It is Lotus Notes. It is the American Muslim who dates a Christian. She maybe even marries him.
Let America go about its business of modernizing and adapting and building and moving forward to the future. The future is in Asia. The Middle East is a fetid caldron of ancient hatred and religious fanaticism, in my opinion. Little good will ever come from it. Contain the danger from it while advancing American projects and interests in other parts of the world. The Islamists win if they can force a fight in some nasty desert town. We win by managing not to fight them, as they eventually begin to kill one another. One American Marine’s life is not worth ten semi-literate Islamist foot soldiers from the Pakistani madrassas fighting in dusty Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Last week American military aircraft expertly targeted a giant caravan of Taliban fighters as they drove across the Pakistan-Afghani border at night to reinforce their colleagues fighting a pitched battle against NATO forces. We very efficiently and brutally killed thousands of these Pashtun fighters, using night vision equipped drones and precision guided munitions. But the world is full of such enemies – impoverished young men who barely know what they are fighting for, and have little otherwise to do – and they are hardly worth the killing. Best that they rot in some obscure corner of the world. Let the more obvious hatreds lessen with time.
The Islamists have nothing better to do than fight for Allah, as they see Him. We have a whole future to build, a dynamic society to reform and maintain, a future of peace and prosperity to enjoy. The Islamists hope to die for their cause, and when prudent and necessary we should help them to do so. But we have better things to do than die for our cause, if at all possible. We have technology to improve in a “can do” culture of optimists. We have a national destiny to fulfill. Where once there was a hole at ground zero where the World Trade Center buildings collapsed, in ten years New Yorkers and citizens of a hundred other nationalities will swarm in new office buildings.
We gain little from fighting the Islamists directly. On the world stage they have little reason to exist without us. What the Islamists do have is fanaticism and oil. Get rid of oil, and the Middle East is the backwater it has been for centuries. What is the one thing in which all acknowledge the Arabs excel? Praying. They invest in their mosques. Their national political cultures are immature in the extreme: between the Scylla of the ruling authoritarian secular elites (Egypt, Syria) and the Charybdis of popular Islamist religious parties (Iran) there seems little to no room for moderates in the Middle East. It is a place where the “good guys” don’t get far.
In fact, time and time again I have wondered at the immense folly of President Bush trying to launch a new democratic Middle East, in some idea of the future that exists only in his and other Neoconservative’s imaginations. The real world is made of some other thing! Any democracy would badly need the services and talents of moderates, and if there is anything more feckless than a Middle Eastern moderate I know it not. Talk about building castles in the sand!
And Bush has invested thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in a cause which will garner the United States no thanks at all. I have never regretted voting for any president like I regret having voted for George W. Bush – and it all comes down, for me, to one issue – the decision to invade Iraq.
But the fight is so much bigger, and will last so much longer, than the drama currently taking place in Iraq.
And this takes me to my real point in this writing piece…
“OSAMA” AS NAMESAKE
There is, for example, the symbolism surrounding Osama bin Laden.
To Arabs (and non-Arabs) who feel ashamed and humiliated by four hundred years of cultural decline in the Islamic world, Osama bin Laden is the great anti-hero able to stand up to the success story of the last century – the United States. I remember distinctly in the days after September 11th listening to Muslims sing his praises, as in all corners they named their children “Osama” in honor of him. Over the next few decades thousands of young men named “Osama” will grow up in the wake of their namesake. Their parents will instruct them in the glories of Osama bin Laden and his cause.
Well, I soon will have a daughter.
Her middle name will be “Emerson,” and I have put much thought into this. Partly she will be named after the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, the man who arguably helped to invent American literature in the great Transcendentalist era. Emerson was one of the first great love affairs that her father enjoyed in his rich intellectual life – that enough warrants a naming.
But party Julia will be named after Jeremy Glick’s child, “Emerson.” Jeremy was one of the airline passengers who brought down United Flight 93 after it had been taken over by Islamist hijackers and turned around as a weapon towards Washington D.C. Jeremy was a sales and marketing executive for an Internet company, Vividence. He was a judo champion in college. Jeremy was just an ordinary American suddenly caught up in extraordinary events. Right before he and other passengers stormed the cockpit, Jeremy told his wife Lyzbeth to take care of Emmy (Emerson), their 12-week-old daughter, and “have a good life.” In honor of Jeremy Glick, our daughter will bear his daughter’s name, “Emerson.”
In the year 2032, my daughter Ms. Julia Emerson Geib will turn 25 years old.
I see Julia happy and strong as a young woman. She is well educated and ambitious, and she can move easily in the professional world. Technology is like a second language to her, and she possesses an advanced university degree. She is sexually confident and knows what she wants. She does not cry or run home to daddy when challenged. She knows how to use birth control. She uses it. She wears a bikini and wears it well. She can fire an M-16 rifle. She would not walk five yards behind her husband simply because she was a woman. She would not tolerate a man looking down on her just because she was a woman. On occasion she drinks tequila straight up.
It is she who will take the fight to Osama bin Laden and his ideological descendents. It is because of she – and who she is, who we Americans are – that the Islamists will lose.
The Spartans used to claim that their city’s walls were its fighting men and its borders the tips of their spears. They needed no fortified works. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia’s partial namesake, claimed, “The true test of civilization is, not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the crops – no, but the kind of man the country turns out.” Exactly.
Julia, my firstborn, should arrive around March 8, 2007.
A long line of Geibs precede you, Julia. They await your arrival as blood calls out to blood.
Julia Emerson Geib. The world, and your father, await you to live up to your destiny.