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The Islamic iron curtain

A MOST chilling glimpse into the future recently came from Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, who recently warned that "action must be taken before an iron curtain finally descends between the West and the Islamic world." "Iron curtain," those two iconic words of Winston Churchill's, came toward the end of Churchill's famous Fulton, Mo., speech in the spring of 1946. "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind it lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe."

It was a time when some still thought that the Soviet Union could be accommodated instead of confronted and contained. But as he had against the Nazis, Churchill issued his dire warning against the forces of international communism, which before the decade was out would consolidate and expand its control of Eastern and Central Europe as well as China in the Far East. The next 46 years of the 20th century would be consumed in this epic struggle.

Today we are engaged in another struggle between the same ideals that the West maintained against communism and the forces of a militant and radical Islam that seeks to lower an iron curtain so that they can gain control of that vast band of countries that have Muslim majorities, from Rabat on the Atlantic to Surabaya in the Java Sea.

Musharraf, who is in a life-and-death struggle between his own more-tolerant version of the faith and the forces of militant Islam, chose to echo Winston Churchill in order to underscore his warning. "We may be scoring victories against terrorists, but we are in danger of losing the ultimate war if the world does not rally to resolve the injustices in the Muslim World," he said before the United Nations.

"The tragedy of Palestine is an open wound on the psyche of every Muslim," Musharraf said. "The US can and must play the role of a just broker of peace."

The warriors of Al Qaeda may not give a hoot about Palestine, but they can use an obvious injustice to grow their maggots in traumatized flesh. In an era of instant communications, Muslims around the world are aware of another open wound in Kashmir, which both Pakistan and India are working to heal. And, of course, Iraq -- which may yet prove to be the most grievous open wound of all, alienating Muslims in their hundred of thousands, rallying militants to the terrorist cause.

Muslims around the world had to take note of the expressions of joy on the streets of Kabul beamed around the world in 2001. There was, perhaps, a moment when Iraq and the Muslim world might have seen the United States as a liberator in Iraq, but that was lost when an incompetent administration lost control of security all over the country after Saddam Hussein fell. The image of Saddam's statue coming down has been superseded in the Muslim mind by images of Abu Ghraib prison, which is seldom even mentioned in the United States anymore. And when the United States sends planes to bomb the heart of the Iraqi capital, the message of brute force against helpless Muslim civilians is reinforced.

President Bush sees himself as a Churchillian figure, standing up to Saddam the way Churchill did to Hitler, but what the Bush administration failed to fully realize from the beginning was that the threat came from militant Islam -- an idea, not a nation state. Saddam may have been a potential threat down the road, but the lesson of 9/11 was that the clear and present danger lay with Al Qaeda, not Iraq.

Bush today speaks of only a "handful" of Iraqis who oppose America's plans, but the truth is that there is a deep and growing insurgency sucking up Iraqis who hated Saddam worse then we did.

It is resurgent and militant extremism that the West and the more-tolerant Muslim societies of the East must face today. And like the Cold War, it could take half a century of effort. Afghanistan, which should have been a model for the moderates, has been marginalized by America's misadventure in Iraq. And in Iraq, Islamic extremism has found fresh and unplowed soil to set down its roots. Iraq is on its way to becoming a national tragedy for the United States, degrading the security of East and West together.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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