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No Clash of Civilizations

What do similarities between Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler tell us about terror?

December 5, 2002

What do similarities between Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler tell us about terror?

The problem of war is perhaps the most enduring and perplexing problem of human existence. “The first recorded histories, the first written accounts of the exploits of mortals, are military histories,” writes the anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley in his War Before Civilization.

Throughout history, humanity has wrestled with this problem. The 20th century began with a "war to end all wars" — and it drew to a close with a war to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait — among others.

And still the 21st century began with an assault on the territory of the world’s greatest military power, inaugurating a new and especially vicious cycle of global violence.

President Bush has defined this war as a struggle between good and evil. This definition of the conflict has been mocked, but it does contain an essential insight.

War is traditionally thought of in terms of power relationships. Consequently, most schemes to prevent war have focused on creating a balanced international distribution of power.

Accordingly, political leaders around the world have struggled to maintain a balance of power — or to create collective security systems. But too often, these efforts ended in failure. It may therefore be time to recognize that attempts to base peace on such arrangements can have only limited utility, at best.

Instead, we should recognize that wars begin in peoples’ minds — and are rooted in how they view other people. Put simply, people do not kill people with whom they identify. To feel justified in killing, people must believe there is an essential difference between them — a difference that overwhelms their common humanity.

In this sense, all war arises from a struggle between good and evil: Good is the belief that what unites us is more important than what divides us. In contrast, evil is the opposite conviction that what divides us is more important than what unites us.

It is this distinction which emerges in the statements of Osama bin Laden, who clearly has no respect for the idea of an overriding common humanity.

“These events have divided the world into two camps — the camp of the faithful and the camp of infidels,” he announced in a statement hailing the September 11 attack on the United States. “Every Muslim must rise to defend his religion.”

Some commentators have seen in statements like this a clash of civilizations. But what is really much more striking and to the point is the similarity to pronouncements by Adolf Hitler.

“If men wish to live, then they are forced to kill others,” Germany's despot proclaimed in 1929. “As long as there are peoples on this earth, there will be nations against nations.” And like Mr. bin Laden, Hitler turned to God to justify the emphasis on human difference.

“We recognize only two Gods,” he said in 1928. “A God in Heaven and a God on earth — and that is our Fatherland.”

The similarity between Messrs. bin Laden and Hitler suggests we are now witnessing not a clash of civilizations so much as a distorted fanaticism that can arise out of virtually any civilization.

Rather than looking toward Islam to understand the terror that confronts us today, we might do better to understand the similarities between Mr. bin Laden and people like Hitler and Stalin.

Such an investigation would reveal a number of uniformities, perhaps the most important of which is the culture of unquestioning obedience to the leader. This culture was the foundation of the Nazi system and was reflected in the designation of Hitler as “Führer,” or Leader.

The obligation of unquestioning obedience was drilled into the German people during the Nazi era. When German soldiers entered military service, they swore “by God this holy oath, that I will unconditionally obey the Führer of the German Reich and the German people, Adolf Hitler, Commander in Chief of the Army.”

In a striking parallel, in 1996 the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, wrapped himself in the Cloak of the Prophet Mohammed as a crowd proclaimed him “Amur-al Momineen,” or Commander of the Faithful.

“This oath of allegiance or ‘baiat’ was a procedure similar to when Caliph Omar was confirmed as leader of the Muslim community in Arabia after the death of the Prophet Mohammed,” notes Ahmed Rashid in his authoritative account, Taliban. “It was a political masterstroke, for by cloaking himself with the Prophet’s mantle, Mullah Omar had assumed the right to lead not just all Afghans, but all Muslims.”

Indeed, Mr. bin Laden himself acknowledged this obligation of obedience when he told al-Jazeera in 1998, “We are in a state that has a prince of believers and we are obliged under the Sharia to obey him.”

This culture of unquestioning obedience is opposed by a culture that emphasizes the questioning of authority. And the latter is the culture that has given the world political democracy and scientific progress. After all, it is only by questioning that human beings can create something new and better.

Significantly, on joining the armed forces, Americans take an oath to defend the Constitution, which protects the fundamental freedoms of Americans against the potential of government abuse.

Since the laws are not perfect, they are subject to adjustment, and consequently they must be subject to questioning.

Thus, the struggle we see today is, at bottom, a struggle between these two cultures: the culture of unquestioning obedience vs. the culture of questioning authority.

If we are to create a more peaceful world, we must recognize that these values matter, and that they — more than any distribution of power or assertions of hegemony — will determine whether the 21st century ends more peacefully than it began.

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