09/17/2012 04:25 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

The Problem With the Middle East Is the Middle East

The problem with the Middle East is the Middle East.

Over and over, outsiders have tried to go beyond the basics of trade, free navigation and non-aggression to insert themselves into domestic issues such as democracy, ethnic and religious rights, education and internet access.

Like the Crusaders of old and the Turks and the British and French, we have all been rebuffed. As our diplomatic missions are attacked I'm feeling like what T.E. Lawrence must have felt. He helped Arab tribal leaders seize Damascus from the Turks but then abandon the city. They preferred to retreat to their desert lairs where they would not have to cooperate with each other.

Americans of every political stripe must accept that what we do or don't do will not change the way of life in countries from Morocco to Pakistan.

Those of us who have lived for several years in a variety of majority Muslim countries have discovered that -- like all other people -- most are fine folks who understand that every country has its own language, its own culture and its own version of religion.

But some -- like the mobs attacking our embassies lately -- are not so nice and insist their specific version and interpretation of religion is absolute truth. This misguided minority -- only a few hundred people from Cairo's 14 million -- are particularly lethal. They are compelled to seek the destruction and death of every single human being who will not accept their version of Islam.

These are the same sort of extremists that killed a fine U.S. diplomat in Libya who was greatly loved by Muslims there. They killed reporter Danny Pearl. Aid workers, professors, liberals, tourists, all are acceptable sacrifices on the altar of their fury.

When the U.S. president asks a space alien in the film Independence Day what the extraterrestrial attackers want from human beings, the chilling response is: "die."

The killers of our ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three of his aides on Sept. 11 are like those aliens. All they want of America is that we cease to exist. And not just America, with its more than 200 million Christians and a few million Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others. Israel with its Jews, Iran with its Shiites, India with its Hindus, China with its Confucians and Japan with its Shinto-ists must all simply convert or die.

Some of these Islamist extremists believe that when many of the infidels are dead and dying the survivors will see the light and accept Islam. But most are like Osama bin Laden, who seemed persuaded that mass killings of infidels must continue and expand.

I was able to interview one of the world's leading terrorists, Karam Zohdy of Jamma Islamiya, in Cairo a few years back. He was in jail for ordering the murder of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who had the courage to visit Israel and make peace with the Jewish state. I asked Zohdy what he thought of Al Qaeda and 9/11.

He was against it, he said. But not because thousands of innocent people died. He was against it because it failed to expand the Islamic world. After 9/11, Afghanistan was occupied by infidels. And Pakistan agreed to back the U.S.-led war on Islamic terrorism, meaning that both countries had fallen from the constellation of Muslim-ruled nations.

To his credit, Zohdy did write a book opposing violence saying, after 20 years in jail, he would no longer support violence or assassination. But that change was not because he was sorry for Sadat's widow and his children. No. He was sorry because it had failed to lead to an Islamic state in Egypt and led to a crack down on Islamists.

In his twisted thinking one can find the same dead ends that have left the Middle East in turmoil, terror, error and hate for so many centuries.

President Bush, President Obama and Hillary Clinton had excellent intentions in pushing for democratic change in the region. But books teaching human rights are like Bibles and Korans -- everyone finds therein the justification for their own mischief.

Take the following tolerant quotes from the Koran:

  • You shall have your religion and I shall have my religion.
  • There is no compulsion in religion.
  • Had Allah pleased, He could have made you one nation but He left you in different religions to compete in good deeds, for to Allah you shall all return.

But following are intolerant verses from the same book.

  • Fight those who do not believe.
  • Slay the pagans wherever you find them.
  • Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers.

There is plenty of ammunition to either love or to kill Christians, Jews and those of other faiths or of no faith.

What should be clear by now is that countries from Morocco to Pakistan seem to gravitate to authoritarian rule. The ouster of a few dictators in the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and possibly Syria has led to a struggle for power which Islamists seemed best able to exploit.

In Tunisia, Islamist mobs and the Islamist government have attacked the U.S. embassy, women's rights, secular universities, art galleries, cinemas, journalists and others.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has seized power and gave an amber light to the attack on the U.S. embassy until Obama called President Mohamed Morsi to demand he protect U.S. diplomatic property and personnel. The mobs seemed provoked by ultra-conservative Salafists who are hoping to wrest control from the Brotherhood.

Even in Iraq, where we spent billions of dollars and lost more than 4,400 soldiers, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is increasingly looking like a Shiite version of Saddam Hussein.

The fine young and liberal people who led the Arab Spring have long been eclipsed by events. The weight of Egyptian and other Arab societies is extremely conservative, xenophobic, cynical and suspicious of everything -- especially if it comes from the West.

I am afraid that the pendulum of human events swings slowly in that part of the world. Part of me says it is best to disengage, cut off all but humanitarian foreign aid and minimize interaction. Let them work it out. Another part says we must remain active, especially with the more modern, tolerant and educated parts of society, hoping that we do not taint them and make them targets of the fundamentalists' fury.