There is a debate raging within the Bush administration over what to do after it strikes Afghanistan. Some argue for a relentless attack on the Qaeda network of terrorist groups. Others want to broaden the war to fight states like Iraq, Iran and Syria that help other terrorists. But what are we going to do about countries that are the real source of modern Islamic terrorism--our faithful allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt?
Consider the nationalities of the suicide bombers. Almost all are from Saudi Arabia, Egypt or that quasi-Saudi gulf state, the United Arab Emirates. This is not a coincidence. These countries have been the fertile ground on which radical Islamic terrorism has grown. We will almost certainly attack Afghanistan (as we must, because the Taliban has sheltered Al Qaeda), but it is worth remembering that not a single Afghan has been directly tied to any terrorist attack against the West. This is a vast Arab operation that happens to be based in Afghanistan.
Saudi Arabia's connection to these terrorists is particularly illuminating. Embracing Wahhabism, a rigid, puritanical version of Islam, the Saudi regime has tried to bolster its faltering legitimacy in the past two decades by fueling a religious revival in the Arab world. It funds mosques, trains preachers and builds schools across the globe that teach its fiery interpretation of Islam, one that views the outside world and modernity with hostility. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Saudis sent money to the mujahedin and glorified their cause. Tarek Masoud, a writer who grew up in Saudi Arabia, recalls that "my Islamic-studies teacher told me that the world's best Muslims were Afghans because they were fighting the unbelievers." The Saudi regime has tried to deflect questions about its management of the country, its alliance with America and its own corruption by supporting and spreading an uncompromising religious dogma.
The policy has boomeranged. The editor of the international Arabic paper Al-Hayat met Osama bin Laden six months ago and said that the aides and bodyguards who surrounded him, almost 200 people, were all Saudis. In an article in the current Spectator of London, Stephen Schwartz points out that every major terrorist attack against the West in recent years has been conducted by people who have embraced Wahhabism. "Bin Laden is a Wahhabi. So are the suicide bombers in Israel. So are his Egyptian allies, who exulted as they stabbed foreign tourists to death at Luxor... So are the Algerian terrorists... So are the Taliban-style guerrillas in Kashmir." It is clear that Saudi Arabia now exports two products around the globe--oil and religious fanaticism.
Egypt's problem is more familiar. It has turned into something resembling a police state, repressing political dissent with a brutality that Hafez Assad of Syria would have admired. It censors all information that enters the country. It jails intellectuals for even the slightest criticism of the regime. The result is a society that is utterly dysfunctional, a regime deeply unpopular and furtive opposition movements that are increasingly extreme.
We think of our allies in the Middle East as "moderates." And certainly compared with the barbarians of Al Qaeda, they are cautious, conservative rulers. But for decades now the governments in Riyadh and Cairo have resisted economic and political modernization with disastrous results. (And Saudi Arabia is the richest Arab country and Egypt the most populous, so they are watched closely in the Middle East.)
There is another path. Those governments that have chosen to walk ever so slowly on it--being modern and tolerant and easing up on the police apparatus--are actually in better shape politically. There have been few terrorists from Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Qatar. None of these regimes are democracies--elections in the Middle East would simply bring more Talibans into power--but they have opened up a little political and civil space and tried to show that Islam is compatible with modernity.
We think of Africa as the basket case of today's global market, but in many ways the Arab world is in worse shape, with 65 percent of its population under 18, stagnant economies and a fetid political culture. By the thousands young men are increasingly taking comfort in radical religious and political doctrines that promise salvation through a struggle with the West. But the focus of their hatred is their own regimes. In fact, the Qaeda network began in the early 1990s as a series of disparate groups in Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia that were seeking to topple their respective governments. When those efforts failed, they decided to attack what they saw as the power behind the thrones, the upholder of order in the Middle East: the United States of America.
We are now searching for the roots of this conflict in Islam and in theories about the clash of civilizations. But the roots may lie much closer, in our association with dysfunctional Arab regimes that have spawned violent opposition. President Bush explained that the war against terrorism will be fought on many fronts. One of them must be political pressure on our closest Arab allies to change their ways and actively fight the virulent currents that are capturing Arab culture. Otherwise bin Laden's prophecy will come true: kill him and "a hundred Osamas" will rise to take his place.