Today's date:
Winter 2004

Center of Islamist Fundamentalism Shifting Eastward

Bernard-Henri Levy, France's most well-known philosopher, is author most recently of Who Killed Daniel Pearl?

Paris -- The center of gravity of Islamist fundamentalism is shifting from west to east -- from the Arab world to the Asiatic world. As V.S. Naipaul has pointed out in his book, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among Converted Peoples, the zeal of converts outside the Arab world is more fervent. The Iraq war is a diversion that ignores this emerging reality.

For example, if you look at a map of the world from the point of view of Al Qaeda, the focal point is not Palestine. It is Kashmir. That is closer to the center of the Muslim world, which after all is mostly Asian, than Palestine. For Osama bin Laden and other jihadists, Kashmir is much more important. Kashmir is their name for Palestine.

Remember, before Sept. 11, Osama bin Laden never mentioned Palestine. His camps were in Afghanistan, which were close to Kashmir.

Of course, all jihadists, like politicians in Muslim countries, invoke Palestine ritualistically in their rhetoric. But the passion is moving elsewhere.

In 20 years, I doubt if the Arab world will be the main problem. President George Bush's mistake is that he is a messianic democrat who thinks you can change the Arabs in one day. But the Americans are right in a broader sense.

Historically, there is a kind of maturity in the Arab world -- in part because of the protracted contacts over the Middle East peace process -- that may make it more open to pressures for democracy. Muslim Asia is a much bigger challenge.

In Francis Fukuyama's sense, history may well come to an end in the Arab world, just as it has in the West, with the acceptance of the liberal democratic alternative. But history begins again in the Asiatic Muslim world.

In this context, the United States is naive about President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. I am not against an alliance with him in the "war on terrorism," but the aid given to Pakistan through Musharraf should be much more tied to democratic reforms and to such actions as closing down the "madrasas" that teach hatred and sometimes how to act on that hatred.

The unconditional embrace of Musharraf during his visits to the US and Europe was a slap in the face of the democrats in Pakistan, for example, those journalists who want a free press, or those women seeking an end to honor killings. More than an insult, it was taken as a sign they were abandoned in favor of the military regime. It breeds despair among the best people in the society.

With Musharraf we are repeating the same mistake we committed before Sept. 11 by abandoning Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Afghan resistance fighter, while acquiescing in the Taliban regime. Pakistan is not just Musharraf and his ISI, or secret services. It is the civil society as well.

This is the same game the West played with Slobodan Milosevic, the game of accepting his power as a way to control, in that case, the Bosnian Serb militias. We do the same with Musharraf, believing he can rein in the radical Islamists. This is a lazy diplomacy. We think if we invest in him, he will manage everything and it will all be quiet.

But what did Milosevic do? If tactics required it, on some days he played to the West. On other days he blessed the genocide at Srebrenica.

Is Musharraf in control of his security forces? He doesn't even control his own mind. That is where the front line is. And, as in any war, the front line moves. His mind is split down the middle between playing sheriff for the West and promoting moderation, while at the same time giving breathing space to the considerable constituency of sympathizers for the Taliban and Al Qaeda who still support a radical agenda. This is not about psychology.

For Musharraf, it is a matter of balance of power. Like any individual he is not an entity unto himself but a meeting point of others that constitute him. So he gives a little here, he gives a little there.

It appears obvious to me that he holds in reserve, as a kind of currency, his ability to arrest Al Qaeda-linked militants at will. He lets them run free until he needs something from the West or feels he has to smooth feathers.

How was it that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was arrested in March the day before the UN vote on going to war in Iraq, in which Musharraf had to tell Bush he did not support the US resolution? The same goes for the arrest of Ramzi bin al-Shibh in 2002 on the very anniversary of Sept. 11 as a sort of gift to Bush.

I have no doubt that when it suits his purpose, Musharraf will turn Osama bin Laden over to the US.