Illustration by Open, N.Y.
Illustration by Open, N.Y.

When Osama bin Laden began his war on America in 1996, he was posing two questions. The first was: What is Islam?

Al-Qaeda’s definition of the faith is one that is permanently in conflict with nonbelievers -- a category that includes all Muslims who don’t subscribe to the narrow fundamentalism of bin Laden and his cohort. Measured by its body count, the real Clash of Civilizations was waged inside Islam itself.

Al-Qaeda killed many times more Muslims in Iraq alone than Americans who died on Sept. 11. That doesn’t count the Muslims murdered by the group in Turkey, Morocco, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In the name of al-Qaeda’s vision of Islam, children have been turned into suicide bombers, both Muslims and non-Muslims have been beheaded (sometimes on video), women have had their faces burned off, schools were destroyed, lovers stoned, aid workers murdered, and the whole world held hostage to terror.

In the minds of many non-Muslims, Islam has become synonymous with barbarism. Nothing said by more moderate Muslim voices could compete with the appalling imagery put forward by al-Qaeda’s terror masters.

Then came the Arab Spring.

To understand the scale of nonviolent sacrifice that Muslims have endured in the pursuit of democracy and justice in recent months, it is useful to look back at a similar time in American history. There is a monument in Montgomery, Alabama, to the martyrs of the civil-rights movement. Only a few of the 40 names on that memorial -- Emmett Till, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers -- are familiar to most Americans. The architecture of civil-rights laws that arose from their sacrifice made America a more just nation.

Compare those 40 names to the martyrs of the Arab Spring so far: Some 200 died in the revolution in Tunisia. The death toll in Egypt reached 840 during the 18 days of revolution. More than a thousand have been killed in the youthful rebellion in Yemen. So far in Syria, more than 2,200 lives have been lost.

These demonstrators are not marching into fire hoses or police batons, like the brave marchers in Selma, Alabama, and elsewhere in the civil-rights movement; they are facing tanks and helicopter gunships. Some are killed randomly, others are hunted down by secret police in their homes and even in hospitals.

Most of the dead were nonviolent protesters or innocent bystanders; a few were soldiers shot down by other troops when they refused to fire on their fellow citizens. The protesters are not just bringing about badly needed social revolutions in their societies. By their moral example, they are redefining Islam and redeeming it from the savage caricature that bin Laden made of his religion.

The second question bin Laden posed was: What is America?

Bin Laden had a strategy when he attacked two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000, and the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the failed attempt on the Capitol Building on Sept. 11. He wanted to draw America into Afghanistan, where he hoped and expected that the U.S. would replicate the same catastrophe that befell the Soviet Union: after 10 years of fighting on Afghan territory, the Soviets withdrew and the Soviet Union proceeded to fall apart.

Bin Laden forecast the same fate for the United States: It would become disunited states. The last remaining superpower would disintegrate, leaving the way open for Islam to regain its proper dominant role in the world.

Bin Laden never expected to defeat the U.S. militarily. His intent was to open a gushing financial wound. The war in Afghanistan will cost American taxpayers more than $100 billion this year. The war in Iraq -- an unexpected bonanza for bin Laden -- has so far reached $800 billion. Projections show the cost of these wars reaching a trillion dollars each, more than our total federal deficit.

The crippling economic effects of such vast expenditures -- not to mention the loss of American lives -- have not only undermined our society, but also weakened our standing in the world and diminished our future. This was bin Laden’s goal.

Al-Qaeda will fade away eventually. Perhaps with bin Laden’s death in May, we have seen the dawning of that day. But the security state that we have created to fight it will remain. It is part of our economy, our laws, our culture and our image now of who we are.

We have significantly enlarged the authority of our police agencies at the expense of privacy and due process. We have turned our back on our criminal justice system, which had done an unparalleled job of prosecuting and convicting terrorists, and forced those duties on the military, in secret courts. We have expanded our intelligence agencies to the point that we now patrol the entire world.

In waging this campaign against terrorism, Americans need to realize that we have pushed aside some of the most valuable weapons we have: our concern for human rights, for open government and for fundamental standards of justice. Such rights are rare in history and difficult to restore once they’ve been lost. The actions we have taken in the “War on Terror” may have made us safer. They have certainly made us a different country.

But is it the country we want to be?

(Lawrence Wright is the author of “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Lawrence Wright at lawrencewright@me.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.