2001 : WHAT NOW?

kevin_kelly's picture
Senior Maverick, Wired; Author, What Technology Wants and The Inevitable
Senior Maverick at Wired magazine

The Taliban are kind of like Nazis to the Afghanis, but we should remember that while the Nazis had resistance and passive obedience among the Germans, they also had supporters. And so do the Taliban. But it's true most of the Afghanis, like the Germans, are just getting screwed.

The other important point is that the Taliban are not bin Laden, and bin Laden not the Taliban. bin Laden is a foreigner who is barely tolerated by most rural Afghanis, since the Afghanis are very xenophobic. I think bin Laden is far more sophisticated, complex, and cosmopolitan than the Taliban. Few Taliban have ever left their home province. bin Laden is a world savvy.

For another thing, he is brilliantly creative, and known among his supporters as 'imaginative." You can't say that about the Taliban. His idea of using American know-how to bomb itself, using no resources of his own, is sheer genius.

He is one of the few Islamics to bridge the great cultural gulf between and among the Arabs. Remember that the Afghanis are NOT Arabs. They are Caucasians, their language is "Indo-European" and they are culturally Persians. The Afghanis don't even like Arabs. Yet bin Laden is able to speak to and appeal to them as well as North Africans, Lebanese, Egyptians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Iranians, Pakistanis, Kashmiris ‹ which is simply remarkable. More so, he has bridge the religious differences among the Muslims, although he still has a way to go. Just getting Shiite and Suni Muslims in the same room is itself a remarkable achievement.

That fact that bin Laden appeals to married, 43-year old residents of America with pilot licenses willing to give their lives, says to me there is something large and non-marginal about this. bin Laden may be Hitler, but it does no good to think of Hitler, or bin Laden, as "fringe" or even as a terrorist. This is a main stream, middle of the road skirmish.

Radical Islam will become the new communism, if it isn't that already. It has a deep appeal, even to those subjugated to it. There are aspects about that, even supporters don't like and can't stand, but they will submit to it because they believe it is better overall than the alternative of "western capitalism."

And like communism it will be very hard to eradicate it, should we attempt to. The Arab countries we are now asking to take sides, will probably take sides with us, but this will kill and maim them because they are essentially taking sides against many of their own citizens, who may be better organized and committed than the government itself.

The key question for me is: will this revolutionary style ‹ a sort of mafia, suicidal, networked, globally guerilla insurgency ‹ be imported by other non Muslim radicals? Will bin Laden become the Che Guevera of this century? Will the resident antipathy towards America in other spheres be cast in the same style? Will all anti-global-capitalism become clones of bin Laden?

Like communism this can spread. And like communism I think it's a very bad idea in practice, though it sounds good in theory. So I am in favor of halting it, and I believe that it needs to be combated early and often.

But the danger of radical Islam becoming the new communism is that anyone who is not against them becomes branded a communist, or "terrorist," themselves. That worries me because I am not so eager to label bin Laden a "tinpot terrorist." He is not second rate, and he may not even be a terrorist. This is a new kind of war. There has been no demands made, like in most terrorism. There is nothing we have that they want. Their intent is not to terrorize. This is only a side product. Their intent is to destroy the prevailing mono-system. But they are not a state government, but a pan-national network that is growing. We've done little to eradicate them in 20 years. They are stronger now then ever before.

At first I thought that the World Trade airbombing would need to be followed through by another attack to have lasting meaning, but as the depth and sophistication of the network of the radicals is revealed I think we have already reached a critical moment. I think we need a new framework for understanding them. I would ban the use of the words "terrorists" and "terrorism." A better old word is "revolutionary."

Our chief concern should be that there is nothing we have they want. They don't want recognition. They don't want our trade. They don't want our culture. They don't want our aspirations ‹ democracy, free choice, high technology. They don't want our values. They don't want our wealth.

Actually, they would like our literacy (for males) and health care, but that is not enough. I think we need to enlarge western civilization so that we have something to offer them that they want. For all their differences, the Chinese and other Asians share aspirations with us. They would like to have much that we have. This is true of Latin America and even Africa to some extent. They want it in their own way, and on their own terms, and with their own improvements, but there is a sense of a common goal.

The Radical Islamics don't share that goal. And for the first time since communism, there is a competing destiny in the world. It is not the end of history as far as they are concerned. We in the west look at radical Islam and blink in disbelief that anyone could possibly want this? Are you serious? Yes. They are as serious as the World Trade Towers. Does it work in practice? Well the few examples we have (Afghanistan, Iran, etc.) do not give us much hope. But it took many decades for the practicality of communism to sink in.

There were plenty of bombs dropped and people killed in western capitalism's battle against communism. But my own view of all that warring is that very little of it made as much difference in the end as the simple fact that the west, through its own improvement, came to offer many things that those in communist countries wanted. And when we had something they wanted, communism collapsed.

We don't have much radical Islam wants right now, but we should. Providing it will be the only way, and the only honest way, to triumph.

Needless to say, even if Bush was Churchill (ha!) this would not happen during his term. It's gonna take many many years.