By Michael Medved, 2001
Why do America's enemies dwell so incessantly and indulgently in the past? Osama bin Laden himself refers to Islamic history in each of his videotaped statements to the world. He calls President Bush the "Big Crusader," and invokes the memory of Christendom's counterstrike against the Muslim Middle East 900 years ago. He bemoans the Islamic loss of "Al Andalus" (Spain) in the 15th century, and decries the end of the ancient Caliphate that once combined Muslim civil and religious authority. Condemning Kofi Anan as a "criminal," he indicts the United Nations for its 1947 partition of Palestine into one Jewish and one Palestinian State—the same outcome that Yasser Arafat now says he ardently desires.
Surprisingly enough, members of American elites have begun to echo the Islamist obsession with the distant past. Bill Clinton recently pleaded with students at Georgetown University to put contemporary terrorism in its historical context and regaled them with atrocity stories involving their European ancestors. "In the first Crusade," he helpfully explained, "when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem, they first burned a synagogue with 300 Jews in it and proceeded to kill every woman and child who was a Muslim on the Temple Mount." He also reminded his student listeners of America's guilty origins, suggesting a direct connection to our present problems. "Here in the United States," he solemnly intoned, "we were founded as a nation that practiced slavery....This country once looked the other way when a significant number of native Americans were dispossessed and killed to get their land or their mineral rights or because they were thought of as less than fully human. And we are still paying a price today."
This analysis of course begs the question of why so few descendants of black slaves or victimized Native Americans become mass-murdering terrorists. The hijackers of Sept. 11, were, rather, children of Saudi and Egyptian lawyers and businessmen, so it's hard to connect their suicidal depredations to Kunta Kinte or Wounded Knee.
Nevertheless, in attempting to provoke guilt and uncertainty about our current war effort, politically correct sensitive souls resort to their own peculiar spin on history. In November, the Yale Law School sent out a transcribed lecture to all alumni (so my fellow student Bill Clinton presumably received it the same time I did) entitled: "Culture in the Time of Tolerance: Al-Andalus as a Model for Our Own Time." In this earnestly overstated exposition, Professor Maria Rosa Menocal raves about the "first-rate values of Arabic culture itself, and the especially generous acceptance of paradox in al-Andalus." She describes medieval Islamic Spain as "a perfect place to live...where the religions of the children of Abraham all tolerate each other and where, in the peace of that tolerance, and in the shade and fragrance of orange trees, we could all sit and talk about philosophy and poetry."
Of course, Professor Menocal might find it difficult to sit with Osama talking philosophy and poetry—especially since fragrant orange trees seldom blossom in Afghan caves. Her girlish glorification of Islam reaches for the distant past precisely because the Muslim present offers so little worthy of romanticizing. Reviewing Muslim history of the last three centuries, what, exactly, could anyone praise or admire? Which Islamic society has achieved justice or progress for its own people, or contributed anything of worth to the world at large? We hear endlessly about the medieval Arab invention of the zero, or the glories of 13th-century Spain, precisely because the recent record of this decaying civilization remains consistently dysfunctional and disgraceful.
By the same token, enemies of the West dwell on past misdeeds rather than present progress. Of course Crusaders behaved abominably, but how does Christian cruelty of 1099 explain or excuse Muslim barbarism of 2001? Islamic apologists want to compare today's terrorists to Christians of 900 years ago, rather than contrasting them with the Christians of today. They refuse to recognize that Christianity has changed substantially for the better, while Islam, if anything, has degenerated into an even more primitive and brutal faith.
The focus on America's past—emphasizing slavery or Indian wars, or Hiroshima (a favorite subject for Osama)—also serves to obscure the moral clarity of the current conflict. In the past 100 years, no historian could argue against the overwhelmingly positive impact of the United States—rescuing the world from fascism and Stalinism, spreading free markets and democratic ideals, spending billions to rebuild Europe and Asia, facilitating unprecedented progress in humanity's ancient battles against starvation and disease. Bill Clinton and his ideological soul mates state the obvious when they emphasize the flaws in the United States. But if Americans are supposed to feel guilty for their shortcomings, then what other nation should inspire them as an example of greater moral purity and selfless generosity? Sweden, which remained scrupulously neutral while the world battled the Nazis? Saudi Arabia, which practiced black slavery until 1962? China, which slaughtered more than 20 million of its own citizens in its Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolutions?
In one sense, our present predicament offers a peerless opportunity for American patriots: For the first time since the Cold War, we can compare our country with an implacable real-world adversary, rather than measuring ourselves against some abstract ideal. The struggle of the present remains so clearly focused between barbarism and civilization, liberty and tyranny, that it's hardly surprising that our opponents resort to pathetic attempts to manipulate the past.