In other words, the conflict between the jihadists and the West is a conflict within the modern, globalized world. The extremists are the sort of utopian rebels modern societies have long produced.
In his book "Globalized Islam," the French scholar Olivier Roy points out that today's jihadists have a lot in common with the left-wing extremists of the 1930's and 1960's. Ideologically, Islamic neofundamentalism occupies the same militant space that was once occupied by Marxism. It draws the same sorts of recruits (educated second-generation immigrants, for example), uses some of the same symbols and vilifies some of the same enemies (imperialism and capitalism).
Roy emphasizes that the jihadists are the products of globalization, and its enemies. They are detached from any specific country or culture, he says, and take up jihad because it attaches them to something. They are generally not politically active before they take up jihad. They are looking to strike a vague blow against the system and so give their lives (and deaths) shape and meaning.
In short, the Arab world is maintaining its nearly perfect record of absorbing every bad idea coming from the West. . . .
The first implication, clearly, is that democratizing the Middle East, while worthy in itself, may not stem terrorism. Terrorists are bred in London and Paris as much as anywhere else.
Second, the jihadists' weakness is that they do not spring organically from the Arab or Muslim world. They claim to speak for the Muslim masses, as earlier radicals claimed to speak for the proletariat. But they don't. Surely a key goal for U.S. policy should be to isolate the nationalists from the jihadists.
Third, terrorism is an immigration problem. Terrorists are spawned when educated, successful Muslims still have trouble sinking roots into their adopted homelands. Countries that do not encourage assimilation are not only causing themselves trouble, but endangering others around the world as well.
In many ways, this is a more comforting picture of modern terrorism, if only because it gives us a sense of familiarity. But I have to admit that I'm not entirely convinced.
If the BoJis are the real problem, then it means the rich Saudi potentates who have been bankrolling al Qaeda have misjudged the constituency they're trying to placate. The BoJis may be Islam's right fist of fury, but surely the data we've seen from opinion polls in the Middle East suggest that great masses of people either support or are sympathetic to their terrorism. I don't think there was a similar level of unspoken, grass-roots support for the Weathermen.
Which would suggest that there is something peculiar about Islam as practiced in large swaths of the Middle East that lends itself to terrorism, something that isn't strictly comparable to Marxist radicalism.