THE REAL BIN LADEN THREAT

At a recent rally in Indonesia against US attacks on Afghanistan, Muslim sympathizers of Osama bin Laden held up signs that said, "America is the enemy of God."

In the US, meanwhile, many people have put up "God Bless America" signs. And President Bush, while saying the war is only against terrorism and not Islam, nonetheless speaks in religious terms of a battle between good and evil.

If nothing else, this war will serve the purpose of reopening the debate over whether violence can be justified in the name of God.

But there's an even more critical debate in this war: whether Mr. bin Laden will achieve his desire for all "true" Muslims to form a single utopian-like community of the faithful under leaders like him who will try to impose a way of life based on their conception of God - and will tolerate no compromise.

That type of thinking can't just be bombed into oblivion. The 20th century was littered with examples of extremists imposing "isms" - communism or Nazism - on people without their consent. Christian fundamentalists who bomb abortion clinics, or environmentalists who bomb research labs, or Hindus who tear down mosques - all reflect an attitude of arrogant superiority over democracy.

In 1979, for instance, Iran fell under a theocratic regime run by clerics who now are on the defensive against rising public demand for more democracy.

Nations run best when individuals can claim a supremacy of God in their thinking and private actions while their government can only claim a supremacy of the people. Millions of Muslims living in democracies have accepted that. They cherish a respect for the individual right of self-government. Such tolerance encourages religious faith.

Bin Laden and others fear that Western-style democracy will be the end of Islam. His campaign relies on the ideas of earlier Arab radicals who confused Western democracy with its many examples of "decadence." They made the same mistake as early communist thinkers who saw democracy as a tool of capitalism to be eliminated - by force.

With no authoritative hierarchy to settle such disputes, the world's 1.2 billion Muslims are vulnerable to being hijacked by extremists such as bin Laden. While he claims the US is the enemy, his real goal is to use American attacks on Muslims to rally them behind him and then purge Islam of Muslims - such as the Saudi royalty - whom he sees as "infidels."

God cannot both love and hate. And those who evoke Deity in the name of hate must be persuaded of God's all-encompassing compassion.

Then the war will be won.

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