Four years ago, Mohammed Shakr sent his son away.
Shakr (not his real name) lives in Baghdad, where he works as a translator, and he wanted the young man, Omar, to escape the oppression of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. So he sent Omar to a vocational school in the United Arab Emirates, where he studied automotive maintenance. But as the years went by, Shakr, 50, began to be worried about his son. Omar wrote letters to his father, a smoker, lecturing him about Islam's disdain for tobacco. He chided his mother for wearing Western-style clothes to work. Omar finally returned to Baghdad this spring, after the fall of Saddam's regime. When he showed up at the family home, his father's heart sank. Once clean shaven, Omar now wore a long beard, and his dishdasha, the traditional Islamic gown, fell several inches short of the floor. These are trademarks of Islamic fundamentalists.
This was no longer the carefree young man he knew, Shakr thought, the son who loved to dance and go to parties. Now whenever the music channel was on television, Omar got up and left the room. One day he sternly told his father, who works for an American company, that the U.S. was the "enemy'' of Islam. Shakr's concern deepened. Finally he told friends at work, "I have to rescue Omar. I have to bring back my son."
The war that began three years ago in lower Manhattan has never been a conventional one, waged solely against enemy armies in distant lands. It is a fight for the hearts and minds and souls of millions of Muslims like Omar Shakr, whose life choices may have a greater impact on the long-term security of the U.S., its citizens and its allies than battlefield victories or intelligence reforms. That struggle did not become immediate for most Americans until Sept. 11, 2001, but it has burned in the Islamic world for decades. On one side are the proselytizers of radical Islam, many of whom celebrate the hateful vision of Osama bin Laden. The slaughter last week of hundreds of schoolchildren in Russia by a group of Chechen rebels that Russian officials say may have included foreign Islamic militants was the latest reminder of the terrorists' depravity. On the other side are Islamic moderates, those who believe Muslims can coexist peacefully with people of other faiths, or of no faith at all, because they do so every day, all across the world. The confrontation between the opposing forces of Islam amounts to what Princeton scholar Michael Scott Doran calls a "civil war" within one of the world's fastest-growing religions--a war so tumultuous and far-reaching that, as in Mohammed and Omar's case, it pits fathers against sons.