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Note: this essay appeared years back in this magazine.  It is odd how relevant it is to the situation, today (November 29, 2007).  The "surge" is working.  We are winning.  But, most of America's mainstream press is as stuck in their ideological past as the Arabs.

The Wars of the Hard Lands: How Myth Explains Islam and the West

Here is the New York Post Headline

There are two amazing things about the text below that headline. 

First it runs completely counter to all the mainstream press coverage, including recent PBS programs on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the region.  All their reports pose Islamic terrorism as a burgeoning threat -- a serious danger to the West in the class of Mongol hordes bringing down the Roman Empire. 

The only truth to that comparison is that both hordes carry swords and ride on hairy horses.

Visualize Ghengis Khan riding up to the city wall of  ancient Paris and throwing a stolen suitcase nuke over the parapet.  The American mainsteam media, as usual, hasn't the faintest grasp of the situation at hand.  Their record string of misinformational reports is not in danger of being broken

Second, every point made by the author, Pipes, eerily matches the historic behaviour, attitudes, beliefs and happenings portrayed in the legends of the kinds of peoples involved.  We will begin with David Lean's film epic, Lawrence of Arabia, then move on to Camelot and the American frontier. 

                  November 19, 2001 -- EARLY on Nov. 9, the Taliban
                  regime ruled almost 95 percent of Afghanistan. Ten days
                  later, it controlled just 15 percent of the country. Key to
                  this quick disintegration was the fact that, awed by
                  American air power, many Taliban soldiers switched sides
                  to the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance. 

In the David Lean film, T.E. Lawrence's first sight of an Arab encampment was when it was being bombed by WWI, bi-wing planes.   He saw the Arabs fleeing, terrified and howling, from the attack from the sky.

                 According to one analyst, "Defections, even in mid-battle,
                  are proving key to the rapid collapse across Afghanistan of
                  the formerly ruling Taliban militia." 

Lean's British military advisor to Saudi King Faisal, following this aerial bombarbment, said, "You'll lose another hundred men tonight."

                 This development fits into a larger pattern; thanks to
                  American muscle, Afghans now look at militant Islam as a
                  losing proposition. Nor are they alone; Muslims around the
                  world sense the same shift. 

In the film, just prior to being caught and tortured by the Turks, Lawrence is told by  Ali of Nekhareesh (OmarSharif) that if he suffered one more defeat, his Arab followers would lose their faith in him. 

                 If militant Islam achieved its greatest victory ever on Sept.
                  11, by Nov. 9 (when the Taliban lost their first major city)
                  the demise of this murderous movement may have begun. 

                  "Pakistani holy warriors are deserting Taliban ranks and
                  streaming home in large numbers," reported The
                  Associated Press on Friday. In the streets of Peshawar, we
                  learn, "portraits of Osama bin Laden go unsold. Here
                  where it counts, just across the Khyber Pass from the
                  heartland of Afghanistan, the Taliban mystique is waning." 

The film, over and over again, teaches that failure in battle means waning loyalty.  This is because Islamic loyalty is never attached to a set of governming principles as it is in Western civilization.  It is always loyalty to a man, and the outcome of his decisions.  The only guiding principles not attached to a human, yet accepted by Arabs in the film, are sayings from the Koran -- and these constantly speak in terms of tribal, not nation-based, language.  The terminology is constantly couched in terms of the pleasure of the oasis and the harshness of the desert, as though the first were heaven and the second, hell. 

"I think you are another of these desert-loving English.  Doty.  Gordon of Khartoum.  We love water and green things.  No Arab loves the desert.  There is nothing in the desert." -- Alec Guinness as King Faisal to Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence.

Sometimes in the film the Arab warrior and desert religious metaphors are intermingled as in the Anthony Quinn character, who says, "I am Auda Abu Tai.  I carry twenty-six great wounds, all got in battle.  I scatter my enemies and take their flocks, yet I am poor because I am a river to my people."

In the West, all good flows from God by way of the governing principles.  In the East, all good flows from Allah by way of the leader

                  Just a few weeks ago, large crowds of militant Islamic men
                  filled Peshawar's narrow streets, especially on Fridays,
                  listening to vitriolic attacks on the United States and Israel,
                  burning effigies of President Bush, and perhaps clashing
                  with the riot police. This last Friday, however, things went
                  very differently in Peshawar. 

                  Much smaller and quieter crowds heard more sober
                  speeches. No effigy was set on fire and one observer
                  described the few policemen as looking like "a bunch of old
                  friends on an afternoon stroll." 

The followers of this desert religion are, as in the film, waiting to follow the leader who wins.  Without a guiding set of philosophical governmental principles, they are left with the poetry of the Koran and the will of Allah as expressed in the success of he who leads.

                 The Arabic-speaking countries show a similar trend. Martin
                  Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, notes that in the
                  first week after the U.S. airstrikes began on Oct. 7, nine
                  anti-American demonstrations took place. The second
                  week saw three of them, the third week one, the fourth
                  week, two. "Then - nothing," observes Indyk. "The Arab
                  street is quiet." 

                  And so too in the further reaches of the Muslim world -
                  Indonesia, India, Nigeria - where the supercharged
                  protests of September are distant memories.

As in the film, the followers of Islam leave those who lead to defeat, and flock to those who lead to victory.   It is the will of Allah.

                 American military success has also encouraged the
                  authorities to crack down. In China, the government
                  prohibited the selling of badges celebrating Osama bin
                  Laden ("I am bin Laden. Who should I fear?") only after
                  the U.S. victories began. 

To followers of Islam, defeat is the sign that a leader no longer has the blessing of Allah.

                 Similarly, the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia admonished
                  religious leaders to be careful and responsible in their
                  statements ("weigh each word before saying it") after he
                  saw that Washington meant business. Likewise, the
                  Egyptian government has moved more aggressively against
                  its militant Islamic elements. 

The Saudi princes could not speak critically of a leader who was winning.  That leader is no longer winning.  American soldiers in the Gulf War were surprised at the mass surrenders of the vaunted Republican Guards, and the Iraqi individuals who offered to help them overthrow Hussein.  The mainstream American press talks of Holy War and people willing to die, and do not understand the conditions under which these people will do such things.  Even after all the recent defections of Taleban troops, the American mainstream press still talks of entire suicide armies.  With evidence to the contrary in their own reports, they still don't get it!

                 This change in mood results from the change in American

Exactly.  America, as seen by the Islamic mind,  no longer cowers and speaks of peace.  It now speaks in the terms of Islam, which is the poetry of survival in a harsh land where only the fighter will live.  (For another artistic reference to this deeply Islamic attitude, see Frank Herbert's classic work of science fiction, DUNE.  God's favorites are the warriors, the cave is sanctuary and water has religious significance.  The Fremen, or free men, as in Lawrence of Arabia, eagerly follow a non-Fremen whose language is that of the mystic warrior and whose directions lead to victories.)

                  For two decades - since Ayatollah Khomeini reached
                  power in Iran in 1979 spouting "Death to America" - U.S.
                  embassies, planes, ships, and barracks have been
                  assaulted, leading to hundreds of American deaths. In the
                  face of this, Washington hardly responded. 

                 And, as Muslims watched militant Islam inflict one defeat
                  after another on the far more powerful United States, they
                  increasingly concluded that America, for all its resources,
                  was tired and soft. They watched with awe as the audacity
                  of militant Islam increased, culminating with Osama bin
                  Laden's declaration of jihad against the entire Western
                  world and the Taliban leader calling for nothing less than
                  the "extinction of America." 

                  The Sept. 11 attacks were expected to take a major step
                  toward extinguishing America by demoralizing the
                  population and leading to civil unrest, perhaps starting a
                  sequence of events that would lead to the U.S.
                  government's collapse. 

This is the heart of it.  Those who live by the eastern mythos of Islam like those who were instructed by the ancient mythos of the Japanese, fail to grasp the mythos of the West, which is Arthurian in nature --  rooted in rules of engagement similar to those in sport, informed by the requirement of forgiveness toward former enemies and backed up by a sword called Excalibur. 

Islam is a religion firstborn of the desert and the sword.  The Prophet's first action was the bloody battle for Mecca, the mosque of the black meteorite.  The sword fought for the stone.  Christianity is a religion born of the peaceful words of Christ, and is slow to battle.  Arthur's sword was in the stone, and did not affect the world until he pulled it from its sheath of rock.

                  Instead, the more than 4,000 deaths served as a rousing
                  call to arms. Just two months later, the deployment of U.S.
                  might has reduced the prospects of militant Islam. 

                  The pattern is clear: So long as Americans submitted
                  passively to murderous attacks by militant Islam, this
                  movement gained support among Muslims. When
                  Americans finally fought militant Islam, its appeal quickly

It is this "Sword in the Stone" that Islam fails to understand.  It is the "sleeping industrial dragon" that Japan awakened with Pearl Harbor.  It is the legend of frontiersman, Jim Bowie, who had great respect for the gentle birdman, Audubon, yet designed a technologically superior weapon, then gave that design to a blacksmith who applied new technology when he infused the metal of a star (a meteorite, just like the black rock of Mecca) into the blade.

Islam fights in the name of the holy stone.  The West fights with the holy stone.

Beautiful technological myth!  And, now to the sleeping Western dragon.

Jeremiah Johnson went into the mountains to find release from war, but when his wife and child were slaughtered, he singlehandedly whipped an entire Indian nation!  One attempts to co-exist with the Other until the Other strikes a savage, undeserved blow.  (I will allow you to tread on me up to a point.  Until you reach that point, we'll try to find a way to live together.  When you pass that point, I will fire up my forges and build a nasty weapon that will  send you screaming into the night.)

The Christian sword is drawn from the stone only at extreme need.  It is the greatest of swords, yet one that the West hesitates to unsheathe, and discards as soon as it can.  The Arab constantly builds toward war.  The West constantly builds toward peace.  America is the only world super power in history that stopped territorial expansion by choice.  When it wins a war, it goes home, returning only to help the enemy it defeated to rebuild his country.

                 Victory on the battlefield, in other words, has not only the
                  obvious advantage of protecting the United States but also
                  the important side-effect of lancing the anti-American boil
                  that spawned those attacks in the first place. 

                  The implication is clear: There is no substitute for victory.
                  The U.S. government must continue the war on terror by
                  weakening militant Islam everywhere it exists, from
                  Afghanistan to Atlanta

All civilizations and cultures are myth-based.  The same events are interpreted differently by those who are founded in different myths.  The outcome of clashes are determined by the weapons and tactics created by the myths.  There was a brief period when Islam became a religion of enlightenment, but it is today a faith that is leaning towards its violent desert tribal roots.  Christianity today encourages industrial, nation-based societies. It accepts secular politics.  It is today a faith of peaceful empire, tolerant and slow to wrath, yet open to technology that is terrifying in war. 

The American press and academia stand in the middle of the pudding and do not see the proof of this.

At the end of Lean's film, the Arab council assembled by T.E. Lawrence falls apart in tribal squabbling.  The Arabs return to their desert lands.  Only Sharif Ali, the follower of King Faisal, remains in the room.  Auda abu Tai, as he departs, tells him, "You will find politics harder than you think."

To be a player,  perhaps to even survive, Islam must find politics that, like the politics of the West, respect personal, not official, religion.  It must find politics that make the ruler the removeable servant of the people instead of the other way around.  It must study more than the Koran.  It must learn that the only justifiable reasons for war reside in the defense of, or the need to support the creation of,  a government that provides the protection of simple human freedoms like those enunciated in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

"But did you know," says King Faisal, "that in the Arab city of Cordoba there were two miles of public lighting in the streets when London was still a village?"

"Yes, you were great once," replies Lawrence.  "Time to be great, again."

Historians will one day name the first decade of the 21st Century as the date of the beginning of the Second Islamic Enlightenment or the Final Islamic Descent.  They will say that it was appropriately in the wars of the hard lands at that time that Islam, a religion that began in violence (a slaughter of the infidels at Mecca), turned thence toward knowledge and reason, then fell yet again under the spell of the sword, and finally set foot on the path to its ultimate destiny.


Daniel Pipes, the author of the text referred to, is the director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, and can be reached via http://www.DanielPipes.org.