Joe Biden hoped to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11 with al-Qaeda as dead as its founder, Osama bin Laden, and all US troops safely home after leaving Afghanistan still in the hands of a friendly government. What he got was the Taliban, who formed a government including at least one character on the FBI’s most wanted list (US$10 million are on offer for anyone who can tell it where he is hanging out), who are Osama’s soul-mates, gleefully celebrating their victory over the Great Satan. So too are the many who by and large approve of what the Jihadists are doing. They may be a small minority, but even if only 10 percent of the two billion or so Muslims are willing to say that extreme violence is justified if it helps their cause, this means the men with suicide-vests, guns, bombs and knives enjoy the support of well over a hundred million people.
Perhaps it is premature to talk, as the British essayist Cyril Connolly did soon after World War II, of “closing time in the gardens of the West,” but for many it does feel that something like that is taking place. By pulling out of Afghanistan in such a feckless manner – Tony Blair described the thinking behind it as “imbecilic” – the United States has all but guaranteed that there will soon be more attacks as devastating as the ones which brought down the Twin Towers in New York and hit a wing of the Pentagon in Washington, killing about 3,000 men and women. Nobody outside Jihadist circles seems to have much idea about the shape they could take, but the temptation to try and mount something as spectacular as 9/11 must be hard for any self-respecting holy warrior to resist.
There is also the danger posed by “lone wolves” who do not belong to any formal organisation but who, down there in their basements or left to themselves in some bedsitter, dream of doing their bit by gruesomely slaughtering vulnerable infidels such as teenagers and others attending a pop concert, as they did in Paris nearly six years ago and then in Manchester on 22 of May 2017. For them, what has just happened in Afghanistan means that militant Islamism is winning the long war it is waging against the rest of humanity.
For leading Westerners, the very idea that the Islamists are as deadly serious about what they aspire to do as were Communists and Fascists not that long ago and are equally prepared to go to any lengths to get their way is so unpleasant that most reject it outright. They point out that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are decent kind-hearted people and take comfort from the thought that all religions are much the same and it would therefore be wrong to discriminate against any faith by assuming that its devotees are more likely than Christians, agnostics or atheists to be terrorists. From day one, and starting with George W. Bush, they have done their best to persuade themselves and others that there is no conceivable connection between “the Muslim world” and the atrocities being committed in its name, an endeavour which, far from convincing the more warlike Islamists who want to be taken seriously that they should stop attacking such high-minded people, has had the opposite effect.
Twenty years ago, the notion that Islam could somehow challenge the West was met with widespread incredulity. It was taken for granted that, sooner or later, Muslims along with everyone else would be absorbed into a globalised civilisation in which religious beliefs, if they persisted, would be a private matter, like a taste for astrology or a yearning to delve into the secrets of Zen Buddhism, because prosperity combined with freedom to create your own philosophy of life was sure to be universally irresistible. However, while in Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America, Christianity has lost much of the firm grip it once had, Muslims, whether in the West or elsewhere, have been less willing to let go of their traditional certainties. Dismissing them as mere superstitions, as irrational as those of Christians until fairly recently, has had only a marginal effect.
In the long run, the sense of belonging, of being part of a community with strict rules about what is tolerable and what is not, could prove stronger than freedom to do whatever you see fit as long as you do not cause excessive harm to others, especially in an epoch in which most find it impossible to achieve the goals, whether modest or not, they had set themselves while growing up and were encouraged to believe they were bound to succeed. For most, the performance of their particular group, which for many is their country, a political movement or even a football team, can be an adequate substitute for their own personal hopes, and it would seem that for many Muslims their religious faith, which may not be very intense, gives them the identity many people crave.
Unfortunately for others, what makes Islam so powerfully attractive to those who are raised in it also makes it aggressive towards the rest of the world. If you take the Quran literally, as believers are told they must, you have no choice but to force infidels either to submit or pay a terrible price for refusing to do so. As for apostates, all significant schools of thought agree they should be put to death, For many centuries, this worked wonderfully well from the point of view of the Islamists, though not for their many millions of victims, until the then-Christian Western countries acquired the military means to put a stop to their expansion.
For a time, it seemed that the “forever war”, which, needless to say, has lasted for rather more than 20 years, between jihadists and those they call crusaders, had finally come to an end, but then the West, reined in by inhibitions stemming from the same intellectual currents that had enabled it to dominate most of the planet, suddenly lost its ability to react as it once would have done towards anyone who dared to defy its dictates.
Exactly when the long retreat began is something for historians to argue about, but it is clearly underway. Unless it is reversed, the West’s many enemies – among them the Islamists who are currently celebrating the triumph of the Taliban as well as the Chinese, who are asking themselves what they should do to take advantage of the opportunities the North Americans seem intent on giving them – will continue to advance, as will other lesser autocracies led by men who think their time has come. Though it would be unfair to blame the unpleasant things that are certain to happen in the next few years on Biden, he will probably be remembered much as are the later Roman emperors whose inability to keep their version of Western civilisation intact did not endear them to posterity.