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Column: In Nairobi mall, a layered ‘clash of civilizations'

By Nicholas Wapshott

What can we make of the terrible events in Nairobi, where innocent shopping trips turned into a bloodbath? It is usual to think of such horrors as acts of senseless killing. For every civilized person, the slaughter is inexcusable and incomprehensible. But in this case, as in so many others, it is not inexplicable.

The notion of a "clash of civilizations" has gained widespread currency since the September 11 al Qaeda attacks, particularly in the United States, where the idea has not only been used to explain why many young Muslims hate the West but to encourage a general fear and suspicion of all Muslims.

Islamists set out to violently counter the perceived decadence of Western capitalism. Those who use such intolerance to promulgate hatred against Muslims in general do not do justice to the subtlety of the arguments on the "clash of civilizations" made by Bernard Lewis, the Princeton professor who requisitioned the phrase for modern use, and the late Samuel P. Huntington, the Harvard and Columbia academic who came to similar conclusions.

In Nairobi, Islamists from lawless, pirate-ridden Somalia have been waging war against their Kenyan neighbors, who have been fiercely fighting back. According to the Kenyans, the Islamists are almost defeated and the Nairobi shopping mall massacre was their last desperate attempt to turn the tide.

Certainly the Islamist killers achieved the one aim they prize above all: They have drawn attention to their cause. How many had heard of Osama bin Laden until he brought down the Twin Towers? The Nairobi slaughter, like the 9/11 attacks, was a propaganda coup. The fact the terrorists targeted a Western-style shopping mall, patronized by prominent, prosperous Kenyans — President Uhuru Kenyatta's nephew and his fiancée were among the at least 67 people who were killed — suggests the terrorists were protesting against commerce and symbols of the West.

For those who would brand all Muslims as potential terrorists, it is worth considering that Muslims have, for centuries, been plying their trade in dhows between the east coast of Africa and the west coast of India. There is nothing incompatible between being a Muslim and being a successful, wealthy merchant.

There is, however, a resentment among some Muslims against the materialism that has come to preoccupy the globe. This hostility has taken increasingly extreme forms, most conspicuously in the attack on the World Trade Center — whose very name suggested the dominance of the New World's consumer ethos, and most recently in the Westgate Mall, Nairobi, where affluent Kenyans enjoyed the sort of shopping experience now commonplace across America and Western Europe.

The decision to wage war against such temples to conspicuous consumption defies history. It is near impossible to read of the lavish backdrops against which the tales of 1001 Arabian Nights are set, or look at the sumptuous palaces and licentiousness depicted in Islamic miniature paintings, and not realize that Islamists are turning their backs as much on their own history as Western culture.

Lewis did not believe Islam was to blame for the clash of civilizations. "Islam is one of the world's great religions," he wrote in 1990. "Islam has brought comfort and peace of mind to countless millions of men and women. It has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives. It has taught people of different races to live in brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance. It inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched the whole world."

Nor is there anything new about the enmity between "fundamentalist" Muslims and the civilization they consider to have usurped their lands. Lewis again: "The struggle between these rival systems has now lasted for some 14 centuries. It began with the advent of Islam, in the seventh century, and has continued virtually to the present day."

In recent times — that is, the last few centuries — there has grown up what Lewis calls "a feeling of humiliation — a growing awareness, among the heirs of an old, proud and long dominant civilization, of having been overtaken, overborne and overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors." The shrinking of the world due to airplanes, the Internet, globalization, television, cell phones and all the other paraphernalia of our modern age has only exacerbated such passions.

What should be done about it? As America abruptly discovered on the morning of September 11, the price of freedom from attack by Muslim extremists is eternal vigilance. It seems extraordinary today to look back at a time when it was possible to walk on to a jetliner as if it were a bus and buy a ticket long after it had taken off. It is unimaginable to think we could wander around an airport without being frisked or x-rayed. It seems odd to remember that once we did not have to be prepared to have our bags searched at crowded events or on mass transport.

Those carefree days are gone and will perhaps never return — certainly not within the lifetimes of most of us. Just as there was a brief carefree period between the invention of oral contraception and the advent of AIDS, there was a time of sublime, almost naïve freedom when we did not have to trade our liberties for our lives.

George W. Bush was often ridiculed for launching what he called the War on Terror, and across the spectrum, from the Left to the libertarians, the precautions that have become commonplace to avoid being slaughtered have been dismissed as over-reaction. We should beware, however, not to be so eager to recapture the lost age of innocence that we drop our guard. Everyone would like to declare an end to the War on Terror, but merely wishing terrorists to disappear will not defeat them.

This week there emerged a belief that if only President Barack Obama were to shake hands with the new president of Iran we would set out on a path of reconciliation with the Islamist regime that funds and inspires most of the world's terrorists. That this encounter did not take place is no bad thing if it means maintaining our wariness of the mullahs who preach hatred and vengeance towards not only Israel but all of those who do not subscribe to their beliefs.

The plan to evacuate allied forces from Afghanistan without delay has been hastened by those who believe the country that harbored the September 11 killers should be left to its own fate. If our retreat from Kabul, like the Soviet retreat, allows the Taliban to subject the Afghans to a living hell (particularly women, who wish to choose their own future), it will be an abdication of our responsibility to maintain and protect our own civilization and values.

Lewis, whose words have too often been hijacked by the ostriches and the neo-isolationists, was clear that such chilling events as the Nairobi slaughter can be avoided not by using Muslims as scapegoats but by better understanding the small minority who wish us ill.

"We must strive to achieve a better appreciation of other religious and political cultures," he wrote, "through the study of their history, their literature, and their achievements. At the same time, we may hope that they will try to achieve a better understanding of ours, and especially that they will understand and respect, even if they do not choose to adopt for themselves, our Western perception of the proper relationship between religion and politics."

(Nicholas Wapshott is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are his own.)

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