The war being waged against the West also is a war against modernity. For nearly a thousand years, Islam reined supreme in much of the world. But with the coming of the modern era - generally seen as beginning in the 18th century -- Christendom outpaced the Muslim world by almost every measure. Islamists believe the destruction of modernity is necessary if Islam is to regain the power to which it is entitled.
"Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war," the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni wrote back in 1942. "Those [who say this] are witless. Those who study jihad will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world."
More than three decades later, Khomeini would put theory into practice, leading a revolution not just against the Shah of Iran, but also against America and other modern liberal democracies.
Modernity went hand-in-and with the Industrial Revolution - the development of a vast array of mechanical, technological and scientific inventions. Islamic societies did not demonstrate great aptitude in this area. That was among the reasons they were left behind economically, with the notable exception of those regimes that had oil underfoot. It was the Industrial Revolution that made oil valuable. Westerners found it, pumped it, refined it and have used it to fuel Western-produced machines ever since.
An important component of the Industrial Revolution was mechanized weaponry: guns, cannons, tanks, missiles. Initially, this also advantaged the West. Early in his career, Winston Churchill battled a variety of radical Islam in the Sudan. In 1899, he wrote that this "militant and proselytizing faith" should be seen as a grave threat, and "were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science ... the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome."
Recent acts of terrorism - a passenger plane manufactured in America becomes an Islamist missile, a cell phone made in Europe detonates an explosive device in Afghanistan - have turned the technological tables; to what extent, it's too soon to predict.
Throughout most of history, war was seen as glorious - at least by kings, generals and others who wielded power. No one expressed this view more eloquently than Genghis Khan who conquered many Islamic lands in the 13th century and who rhapsodized: "Man's highest joy is victory: to conquer his enemies; to pursue them; to deprive them of their possessions; to make their beloved weep; to ride on their horses; and to embrace their wives and daughters."
To modern people, such sentiments sound absurd. The terrible conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries caused most Westerners to treasure peace, and to regard war as hellish, a last resort.
But it is mirror-imaging to assume that all cultures have come to see war the same way. Khomeini explained what he interpreted to be the proper Muslim perspective: "Islam says: Kill [the non-Muslims], put them to the sword and scatter [their armies]. ... People cannot be made obedient except with the sword! The sword is the key to paradise, which can be opened only for holy warriors! ... There are hundreds of other [Koranic] psalms and hadiths [sayings of the prophet] urging Muslims to value war and to fight."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are committed Khomeinists. If you understand this, you understand that it is senseless to attempt to engage them by holding out the prospect of "peace." As the scholar Fouad Ajami recently wrote, for militant Islamists, truces and negotiated agreements are "at best a breathing spell before the fight for their utopia is taken up again."
It is unserious to say - as former National Security Council staff members Flynt and Hillary Leverett did in a recent New York Times op-ed -- that America's problems with Iran derive from Tehran's "legitimate concerns about American intentions," and that what appears to us as hostility is actually a "fundamentally defensive reaction" on the part of the regime.
Only self-delusion can explain their insistence that President Obama be "willing to work with Tehran to integrate [Hamas and Hezbollah] into lasting settlements of the Middle East's core political conflicts." Settlements based on compromises, rather than conquest and victory, are not what militant Jihadists want. And these "core political conflicts" are not that - they are symptoms, not the disease.
There is no reason - other than wishful thinking -- to believe that Iran's rulers and other Islamists seek cordial relations with what they view as the decadent and Satanic West. Nevertheless, one American administration after another has acted as though the truth were otherwise. On his final European tour as president a year ago, George W. Bush said Tehran's rulers must end their drive for nuclear weapons if they want closer ties with the U.S. and Europe. "They can either face isolation, or they can have better relations with all of us," he said. One can imagine Iran's rulers shaking their heads in bewildered amusement. What they seek is not our friendship. It is our submission. We confuse the two at our peril.
Similarly, this week, the White House responded to the test of a nuclear device by North Korea - a regime that has supplied missile and other technology to both Iran and its client, Syria -- by saying "such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea's isolation."
Were North Korean dictator Kim Il Jong a modern man, he would weep salty tears over that prospect. But like Iran's rulers, he's not, so he won't. He will go on his merry way until and unless someone stops him.
Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.