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Can the Crusader

October 17, 2003

Casting military or political struggles in intolerant, especially religious, terms is a sure way to make them intractable. The Thirty Years War, which was at bottom a battle among Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists, left Europe blood-soaked in the 17th century.

In recent decades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has fundamentalist Israeli settlers and Palestinian militants confronting each other in explicit religious terms. That's one reason President Bush has been exceedingly careful to cast the war against terrorism in secular terms. It is a struggle for moderates to quell the fundamentalists' fondest wish, to cast the battle as one between Christian and Muslim cultures. Fundamentalism, unfortunately, can appear in many guises.

Consider this unlikely pair: Army Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin, the new deputy undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, and Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. As Times staffer Richard T. Cooper reported Thursday, Boykin has repeatedly said he sees the war on terrorism as a battle between Judeo-Christian values and Satan.

Meanwhile, Mahathir announced Thursday at the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit that "today the Jews rule this world by proxy" and must be outsmarted by Islam. In their penchant for demonizing, the two men have more in common than they might think.

Imagine the two conversing: Boykin tells Mahathir it's obvious that Islamic militants hate the United States "because we're a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian.... And the enemy is a guy named Satan" (June 2003).

Mahathir laughs and tells Boykin he's got it wrong. No, no, don't forget the Jews: "The expulsion of Jews from the Holy Land 2,000 years ago and the Nazi oppression of Jews have taught them nothing.... It has transformed the Jews into the very monsters that they condemn so roundly"(1986). Mahathir continues that "the European race" itself is sexually deviant, greedy, responsible for warmongering and wants to "control the world again" (June 2003).

Boykin responds that although he doesn't believe Europe is at fault, the war on terror is "a war against the forces of darkness. The battle won't be won with guns. It will be won on our knees.... Stay on your knees and don't ever give up" (January 2003).

The two men perceive the world in similar terms. One sees a perfidious plot against Asian and Islamic values; the other, newly in charge of hunting down Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and other terrorism targets, appears to believe that the entire Islamic world is America's enemy.

Mahathir undermines moderate, secular Muslim leaders while Boykin mocks Bush's attempts to emphasize that the U.S. is targeting terrorists, not Islam. Boykin may say he is speaking for himself, but at his level anything said outside his living room will be seen as speaking for the U.S. military.

Mahathir will fade away on his own. It's up to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to retire the Pentagon's self-proclaimed crusader before he does more damage.

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