"We have seen that the desire for liberty and freedom is, indeed, universal, as men and women in the Middle East rise up to seize it."
I admire Condoleezza Rice and thought she gave a powerful speech at the recent Republican National Convention. But that line was a fingernail on a blackboard, albeit a familiar one: During the Bush administration, I was privileged to serve on a bipartisan democracy-promotion committee reporting to the secretary of state. A baseline assumption was that everyone everywhere wants to be free.
The reality may be less comforting. While there are many people -- not least in what we have come to call the Muslim world -- who are weary of despots, there are others who are not impressed when they see Americans freely picking and choosing their beliefs like diners at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Totalitarianism provides an alternative. In the current century, totalitarianism's most energetic expression is Islamism. Whereas Nazism and Fascism were predicated on the supremacy of particular races and nations, and Communism on the supremacy of a particular class, Islamism asserts the supremacy of a religion and those who embrace it.
Islamists are inspired by Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and who declared, simply and plainly, that "it is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its laws on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet."
Among those laws as the Islamists interpret them: Insulting Islam or its prophet is forbidden. Islamists find it hypocritical, to say the least, when Americans acknowledge that a video disrespecting Islam is "disgusting and reprehensible," as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, assert that it is wrong "to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims," as a statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo phrased it, but then fail to bring to justice those responsible, and take no actions to prevent such crimes from recurring in the future.
Islamism is not a monolithic movement. In addition to the Muslim Brothers, there are those who call themselves jihadis, implying that they are Islamic warriors wielding swords -- and rocket-propelled grenades, roadside bombs, suicide vests and nuclear weapons, if they can get them.
There also are those who call themselves Salafis, a term indicating identification with the prophet Mohammad, his companions and early followers who were, without question, among history's greatest conquerors. They founded an empire as vast as that of Rome, spreading what they proclaimed was the one true faith, displacing Zoroastrianism in Persia, Hinduism in the Indus Valley, Buddhism in Afghanistan, Christianity in Egypt, Constantinople and the Balkans.
This great empire endured until the early 20th century. With its collapse came the rise of what Islamists see as a Judeo-Christian -- or "Zionist-Crusader" -- empire that, on Sept. 11, 2001, was dealt a mighty blow. It should have been obvious that attempts would be made to slaughter Americans on every anniversary of that date.
Islamists find it useful, when recruiting and inciting rioters, to cite grievances. This time around, it was an obscure and amateurish online video. But the notion, articulated by White House press secretary Jay Carney, that the violence we've seen throughout much of the Middle East was "in reaction to a video" is based either on ignorance or delusion.
As Husain Haqqani -- a scholar, former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and anti-Islamist Muslim -- phrased it: "Protests orchestrated on the pretext of slights and offenses against Islam have been part of Islamist strategy for decades."
On the 9/11 anniversary, Americans remembered victims and paid tribute to first-responders. But scant attention was paid to who our enemies are, what they believe, what goals they seek, and what strategies they are pursuing.
"By the end of 2014, the longest war in our history will be over," President Barack Obama said at a memorial service at the Pentagon, referring to his plan to pull troops out of Afghanistan where the Taliban -- allies and hosts of al-Qaida -- has not been defeated.
Is it possible that Obama still does not understand that Afghanistan, too, is only a battle in the "longest war in our history," a war that has flared up again in Libya, Egypt and more than a dozen other Muslim countries, a war whose end is not yet in sight? Nor can we predict with confidence, given what we've seen and heard in recent days, which side will emerge victorious and which will suffer a world-historical defeat.
(Clifford May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.)