An American magazine, Harper's, carries a strange graphic on its front page this month. The illustration takes the form of a recruiting poster for the United States army but instead of Uncle Sam extending his forefinger outward and ordering the reader to join the armed forces, it's Osama Bin Laden with "I want you to invade Iraq". A grim reminder, as if one were needed, of the immense gamble that the American government is making at the moment.
For it is surely self-evident that the invasion of Iraq is a gift to the Bin Ladens of the world. Even those who support the idea of America and its allies remaking the Fertile Crescent in their image would have to agree, at least on the surface. Those who argue the moral case for intervention in Iraq say the benefits outweigh the risks, a world without Saddam Hussein will justify a temporary upsurge in support for extremists who claim to operate in the name of Islam. But they do admit that the upsurge is taking place.
How could they not? BBC television is showing almost daily images of angry protests in Muslim countries. From Jakarta to Cairo, Muslims are marching and often even without their government's tacit support. The riots in the Egyptian capital have shaken the deeply unpopular Hosni Mubarak government to its core. Fears that popular movements instead of armies could replicate "regime change" in Iraq are growing. Even George Bush Sr is said in private to have counseled his son against this invasion, with warnings that the Saudi Arabian government-corrupt, brutal and incompetent-could itself be toppled by Muslim anger over America's behaviour in the region.
A television report from Jordan showed a collection of art students in the capital, Amman, sketching in class. In flawless, British-accented English, a young woman said Saddam Hussein was her "hero" and she expressed a chilling satisfaction with the Iraqi resistance to the American-British advance. A Christian crucifix dangled from a chain around her neck. No stereotypes here, just a proud Arab seething with resentment. The same reporter visited caf?'s where men puffed hubble bubble pipes and cheered at images on Al Jazeera television of American prisoners-of-war.
"It's simple," said a newspaper editor, "someone invades your country, you capture them, you kill them." This is Jordan, remember, an Anglophile king ruling a land that's more than half Palestinian-one of only two Arab countries to recognise Israel-but a place where popular sentiment tends in exactly the opposite direction to the pro-Western feelings of the ruling elite.
Let's look closer to home. Pakistan, a place that should be a proud repository of tolerant Barelvi Islam and Sufism, is becoming ever more militant and angry, largely because its president, General Musharraf, supports Washington's war on terror. Ostensibly, the Pakistani government does not back the invasion of Iraq but the "street"-inflamed by bearded opportunists once derided as marginal and out of touch with popular sentiment-doesn't believe Islamabad truly opposes Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In truth, Musharraf has little choice but to play the game as he does but Washington's latest adventure helps him not one bit. Neither has it escaped notice among the audiences for Al Jazeera that the US soldier who ran amok last week and hurled grenades at his own comrades was a recent convert to Islam, an African-American who felt he was being discriminated against. I'm sure that situation was more complex than this, but America's enemies are presenting it as a religious issue and the message is hitting home.
Bin Laden and his evil colleagues are winning the war for Muslim public opinion. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that America is losing it. This invasion, the treatment of Muslims in the United States, unrelenting support for Ariel Sharon in Israel, plans to invade or pressure Iran into a "regime change", for the conspiracy theorists of the world, it all adds up.
Not to me. I happen to think that there is no grand conspiracy, just short-termism: reactions to events without due consideration of history, context and lasting impact. It was ever thus, and the many mighty empires of the past largely collapsed accordingly.