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The transition we are undergoing now is not only a shift in the world power balance. It is also a potential global realignment, and that’s what is frightening about it. Shifts in the world power balance are fairly common, although serious enough to cause significant concern: the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and the onset and termination of the Cold War, were 20th century examples of such shifts. These events were the results of vast inequalities, wars, and insurgencies. They produced further instabilities and sufferings, and occasioned new wars.

Yet decisive as these occurrences were, the possibility of a global realignment is even more monumental. We are dealing here with a crisis of modernity, a challenge to the domination of the world by the powers usually labelled “the West,” but also sometimes seen as “the North”: the wealthy, generally white, industrialized nations.

The last global realignment was the rise of Europe. This was an epochal shift that took a couple of centuries to accomplish (roughly from 1450 to 1650). It involved the organization of capitalism, the consolidation of European nation-states, the circumnavigation of the globe, the establishment of the African slave trade, the genocide of the indigenous American populations, and the launching of seaborne empires in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The rise of Europe also signalled the dawn of the Enlightenment culture that even today supports our beliefs in a “disenchanted” way of knowing the world: the modernity we take for granted in science, law, history, and art.

Do you think our leaders are aware of the amplitude of the historic wave they are riding?

Do you think George Bush the Second, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, or for that matter Tony Blair, have any concept of what occurred on September 12, 1683, when Kara Mustapha, commander of a Turkish army of about 150,000 men, was defeated in the Battle of Vienna by a combined Polish and Austrian army commanded by Jan Sobieski? That struggle on the Danube represented the final defeat of Islam in Europe. It culminated a series of wars that had been going on since the battles of Covadonga (722 CE) and Tours (732 CE), that had included the European Crusades and their bloody but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to conquer Palestine, and that had also led to the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian peninsula in 1492.

Well, maybe, just possibly, Tony Blair knows a bit of history. He went to Oxford, after all. But George Bush, the “robotic president,” the proud C student at Yale? He has no idea. What’s he thinking about? Getting re-elected in 2004. Protecting US (and US corporations’) access to the oilfields, not only of the Middle East, but also of the southern regions of the former USSR: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. Sure, he’d like to capture Osama bin Laden.

Capturing Osama, desirable as that is from a criminal justice point of view, wouldn’t accomplish that much in terms of forestalling global realignment. There is too much injustice in the world; that’s what is driving discontent with “Western” rule, with “Northern” rule. Is George Bush thinking about that? Not a chance. This is the guy who wants to concentrate even more wealth in the hands of the rich, both at home and abroad. This is the Texas oilman who relates just fine, as his father did before him, to the corrupt and repressive Saudi oil sheiks. He’s the one who denounced the UN World Conference on Racism. Have you heard one word from George Bush about the world’s poor, the “wretched of the earth”? Has he ever so much as acknowledged that the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are illegal under international law? Is he at all concerned about the billions of people around the world who can’t get clean water, can’t educate their kids, can’t get health care (much less AIDS medicine), but are still required to pay their onerous debts to the IMF, Wall Street, Washington, London, Tokyo, and Zurich?

There you have it: the force that’s driving global realignment. It’s not a “clash of civilizations,” as some have claimed, because every country in today’s world is a mixed bag of modernity and backwardness, secularism and fundamentalism. The US today is full of modern Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists. Europe too is thoroughly pluralized religiously and racially. The Middle East, India, China, and Africa are still waiting for modernity to arrive, in the form of development, democracy, and women’s rights. Don’t you think millions, hundred of millions, long for that? Even in Afghanistan, where repressive anti-modern rule has reached obscene heights under the Taliban, the courageous women of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) are running clandestine schools for girls, providing health care, and documenting Taliban abuses of women. These women are another kind of heroes, a kind we don’t hear enough about, who are taking enormous risks for the sake of modernity and human rights. (See their website: http://www.rawa.org.)

And meanwhile terrorism is alive and well in the “West,” where as elsewhere it seeks to set up theocracy, to curtail women’s rights, and to deny the pluralism and equality that democracy is supposed to guarantee. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s stupid statements in the wake of the September 11th attacks were simply the most public evidence that there’s a radical Christian right in the US which longs for theocracy and holds no brief for pluralism and democracy. They have their murderers as well: people who bomb and shoot up abortion clinics and assassinate doctors. Oh, sometimes they bomb government buildings too, though so far they’ve only killed hundreds, not thousands like Osama’s guys did. Jews also have their theocrats and their terrorists: do the names Meir Kahane, Yigal Amir, and Baruch Goldstein ring a bell?

If we want to avoid the terrors of global realignment, though, it’s not these terrorists — Muslims, Christians, or Jews — whom we have to worry about most, though I admit that they are worth worrying about. Rather, we should be concerned about the blind and short-sighted officials who occupy positions of leadership in our country, and in the “coalition” it seeks to assemble to fight a “war against terrorism.” That war is but an excuse to deny the benefits of democracy and development to the nations of the world that are not “Western,” not “Northern.” The terrorist attacks we have already experienced, heinous and cruel as they were, were still criminal acts, not acts of war. Their strategic aim was to provoke us into a much wider war, an aim which has already been achieved in part as our planes roam the skies over Afghanistan. Those who authored the September 11 attacks, those particular terrorists (presumptively Osama and his gang), have openly declared their purposes: to mobilize the Islamic world — where nuclear weapons can be had — for a global confrontation with the “West,” a war against modernity. If the US “war against terrorism” is extended much further, if it is generalized to other countries in the region, if it is used as an excuse to punish rather than assist “the wretched of the earth,” then Osama and his fundamentalists will have achieved their goal: they will have prompted a global realignment. The casualties then will number in the millions, not the thousands. Nor will democracy or even modernity survive such a cataclysm.

Howard Winant is Professor of Sociology at Temple University. His most recent book is THE WORLD IS A GHETTO: RACE AND DEMOCRACY SINCE WORLD WAR II (Basic Books).