By Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal
Pop quiz—What does more to galvanize radical anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world: (a) Israeli settlements on the West Bank; or (b) a Lady Gaga music video?
If your answer is (b) it means you probably have a grasp of the historical roots of modern jihadism. If, however, you answered (a), then congratulations: You are perfectly in synch with the new Beltway conventional wisdom, now jointly defined by Pat Buchanan and his strange bedfellows within the Obama administration.
What is that wisdom? In a March 26 column in Human Events, Mr. Buchanan put the case with his usual subtlety:
“Each new report of settlement expansion,” he wrote, “each new seizure of Palestinian property, each new West Bank clash between Palestinians and Israeli troops inflames the Arab street, humiliates our Arab allies, exposes America as a weakling that cannot stand up to Israel, and imperils our troops and their mission in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Mr. Buchanan was playing off a story in the Israeli press that Vice President Joe Biden had warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “what you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops.” Also in the mix was a story that Centcom commander David Petraeus had cited Arab-Israeli tensions as the key impediment to wider progress in the region. Both reports were later denied—in Mr. Biden’s case, via Rahm Emanuel; in Gen. Petraeus’s case, personally and forcefully—but the important point is how eagerly they were believed. If you’re of the view that Israel is the root cause of everything that ails the Middle East—think of it as global warming in Hebrew form—then nothing so powerfully makes the case against the Jewish state as a flag-draped American coffin.
Now consider Lady Gaga—or, if you prefer, Madonna, Farrah Fawcett, Marilyn Monroe, Josephine Baker or any other American woman who has, at one time or another, personified what the Egyptian Islamist writer Sayyid Qutb once called “the American Temptress.”
Qutb, for those unfamiliar with the name, is widely considered the intellectual godfather of al Qaeda; his 30-volume exegesis “In the Shade of the Quran” is canonical in jihadist circles. But Qutb, who spent time as a student in Colorado in the late 1940s, also decisively shaped jihadist views about the U.S.
In his 1951 essay “The America I Have Seen,” Qutb gave his account of the U.S. “in the scale of human values.” “I fear,” he wrote, “that a balance may not exist between America’s material greatness and the quality of her people.” Qutb was particularly exercised by what he saw as the “primitiveness” of American values, not least in matters of sex.
“The American girl,” he noted, “knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she shows all this and does not hide it.” Nor did he approve of Jazz—”this music the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires”—or of American films, or clothes, or haircuts, or food. It was all, in his eyes, equally wretched.
Qutb’s disdain for America’s supposedly libertine culture would not matter much were it not wedded to a kind of theological Leninism that emphasized the necessity of violently overthrowing any political arrangement not based on Shariah law. No less violent was Qutb’s attitude toward Jews: “The war the Jews began to wage against Islam and Muslims in those early days ,” he wrote in the 1950s, “has raged to the present. The form and appearance may have changed, but the nature and the means remain the same.”
Needless to say, that passage was written long before Israel had “occupied” a single inch of Arab territory, unless one takes the view—held to this day by Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah and every other jihadist group that owes an intellectual debt to Qutb, including significant elements of the “moderate” Palestinian Fatah—that Tel Aviv itself is occupied territory.
Bear in mind, too, that the America Qutb found so offensive had yet to discover Elvis, Playboy, the pill, women’s lib, acid tabs, gay rights, Studio 54, Jersey Shore and, of course, Lady Gaga. In other words, even in some dystopic hypothetical world in which hyper-conservatives were to seize power in the U.S. and turn the cultural clock back to 1948, America would still remain a swamp of degeneracy in the eyes of Qutb’s latter-day disciples.
This, then, is the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West. It explains why jihadists remain aggrieved even after the U.S. addressed their previous casus belli by removing troops from Saudi Arabia, and why they will continue to remain aggrieved long after we’ve decamped from Iraq, Afghanistan and even the Persian Gulf. As for Israel, its offenses are literally inextricable: as a democracy, as a Jewish homeland, as a country in which liberalism in all its forms, including cultural, prevails.
Which brings me back to the settlements. There may well be good reasons for Israel to dismantle many of them, assuming that such an act is met with reciprocal and credible Palestinian commitments to suppress terrorism and religious incitement, and accept Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. But to imagine that the settlements account for even a fraction of the rage that has inhabited the radical Muslim mind since the days of Qutb is fantasy: The settlements are merely the latest politically convenient cover behind which lies a universe of hatred. If the administration’s aim is to appease our enemies, it will get more mileage out of banning Lady Gaga than by applying the screws on Israel. It should go without saying that it ought to do neither.