Make Sure Our Actions Abroad Reflect Our Values

A venerable culture, dominant in its area of the world for centuries, is engulfed by the American culture of commerce and consumption. Americans occupy ground considered sacred and deplete the culture's most precious natural resource. As increasing numbers of the culture's people are exposed to the American way of life, the pressure to conform to that way of life increases. It appears to many that the old ways are dying, that the attempt to accommodate the Americans will lead only to extinction. In the midst of despair, a prophet emerges. He foresees the life of the world to come, when all is as it was before. The dead will rise and live forever in a paradise where abundance is restored and the Americans are all killed. He preaches that having faith in this apocalyptic outcome will make his followers immune to American bullets. Those who are killed, he says, will go to paradise.

The culture in question is not Islam, and the prophet is not Osama bin Laden, although the similarities - the promise of eternal life in paradise, the wished-for expulsion of America from the holy land, the death of Americans, and a return to the glorious past — are obvious.

The culture is Native American culture. Its prophet was a man named Wovoka, who had been raised in American Christian culture only to conclude that American culture was un-Christian. The religious song of despair he inspired became known as the Ghost Dance. The year was 1888.

When Indians throughout the Great Plains started performing the Ghost Dance, praying for the return of the buffalo and the many vanished tribes and the disappearance of the Americans, government authorities, who had been trying to assimilate them into "modern" ways panicked. They called in the cavalry. The result was the massacre at Wounded Knee.

It has become the fashion since 9/11 to talk about al-Qaida and the threat posed by radical Islamist terrorism as a phenomenon unique to the late 20th century struggle between tradition and modernity.

In many ways, however, what's new is not the struggle, but the stakes involved in its outcome. By failing to see al-Qaida and fundamentalist Islam in its larger historical context, moreover, we may easily fail to address what the 9/11 Commission identified as the most difficult issue: cultural coexistence.

One need not cite only the parallels with the Native American experience. In postwar Japan, the triumph of commercial American culture set off a similar violent reaction when militant followers of the great writer Yukio Mishima, seeking a return to the samurai culture of honor, a rejection of American capitalism and the restoration of the emperor, staged a failed coup. Mishima committed suicide in 1970, despairing at the disappearance of the Japanese soul.

Is American culture truly incompatible with the great cultures of the past? Does our progress entail their extinction?

Al-Qaida is without doubt our short-term enemy. But the recent arrests of alleged Islamist terrorist cells in Florida, Canada and Great Britain - many of whose members had been raised in the West — points to the ' longer-term problem:. Although the vast majority of the world's 1 billion Muslims would not agree with al-Qaida's violent prescription for responding to the United States, many—perhaps most — feel estranged from our culture and reject the values they associate with us.

As Daniel Pipes points out in his 2002 book "Militant Islam Reaches America," "Islamist leaders tend to be well acquainted with the West, having lived there, learned its languages, and studied its cultures. .. (T)he experience of living in the West often turns indifferent Muslims into Islamists." Furthermore, according to Pipes, one-eighth of the Muslim community supports militant Islam. An even greater percentage is sympathetic with its disaffection from Western values.

Seen in the longer perspective, this is our challenge: even as our short-term objective must be to wipe out Al Qaida specifically and Islamist terrorism generally, in the longer term we must seek and find some cultural common ground with the majority of Muslims. Failure to do so will insure that the cultural alienation that breeds militancy will persist, spawning new generations of terrorists.

Achieving common ground will not be easy, but a critical first step would be to ensure that the face of America presents to the world mirrors our values: individual rights, equality before the law, self-determination, fairness. When we torture, as at Guantánamo Bay, or commit atrocities, as in Iraq, or prop up corrupt regimes to maintain access to oil and other natural resources, as in much of the Middle East, we project values that most Americans, let alone Muslims, would condemn.

A second step would be to learn from history. The Ghost Dance cult that grew up among American Indians in the late 19th century became widespread because, as Sioux Chief Red Cloud explained, "There was no hope on earth, and God seemed to have forgotten us."

By contrast, the attempted coup by Yukio Mishima in Japan in 1970 was seen as farcical; Japanese society failed to rise up and join him, in part because it had been allowed to have hope, to achieve a balance between its traditional culture and the commercial culture of the West America had been fair, for the most part, in dealing with the Japanese after the war.

The challenge, five years after 9/11, is to achieve our short-term victory over al-Qaida without employing tactics that compromise the prospects for coming to terms over time with Islamic culture. The stakes could not be higher. The cost of long-term failure may well be a Ghost Dance that consumes the entire planet.

John Farmer Jr., former special counsel to the 9/11 Commission, teaches at Rutgers University.