One night recently I went out of my way to hear a visiting Muslim scholar give a talk entitled "Women in Islam - protected or subjugated?". I am not sure why I went. What little I knew of the subject did not entice me to know more. But Islam demands attention, I think, after that cataclysm three years ago today.

As time passes, the significance of September 11, 2001, seems only to grow. It is proving indeed to be the defining event of the decade. Every atrocity since has been attributed in some way to the same mysterious impulse. The hand of militant Islam was blamed in part even for the Chechen massacre of schoolchildren in Russia last week.

And each time innocent people are used for political slaughter we in the press wring our hands and write stylishly about the drama and the agony. Headlines recycle the essentially meaningless terms "terror" and "evil", steadily immunising everybody to those words and nobody is any closer to making much sense of what is going on.


The superficiality is deliberate; any attempt to explain the context of these sickening events risks excusing them. Horror, outrage, emotion has become the only proper response, along with empty resolutions of defiance, as though "terror" can be defeated with gut resolve alone.

Nothing is defeated until it is understood. Militant Islam, we are constantly told, has not much to do with the real thing, but the militants insist otherwise. So when I noticed the billing for a lecture in Auckland the other night I went along in the hope of hearing what moderate, reasonable, non-militant Islam sounds like. I even dared hope from the title that the speaker might be on the liberal side of Muslim debate.

Dr Zakir Naik, a tall, thin, ascetic-looking scholar in a white skullcap, began by declaring Western "women's liberation" to be a form of exploitation and degradation which encouraged women to be more sexually available. Islam conferred true equality by ensuring women were not exposed to men's sexual interest.

Of course, women's rights under Islam, he warned, "should not be judged by what Muslim societies do but by what is said in the glorious Qur'an". That was to be a constant refrain. The Qur'an, he said, didn't blame Eve for the fall as the Bible did.

On every count - spiritual, legal, economic, educational and political - a woman's rights in Islam were exactly the same as a man's. She could work for a living provided it was "a modest occupation". (Modest in the bodily sense; anything involving singing, dancing or even reading the news on television was out.)

And whatever she earned, she could spend entirely as she wished. Her husband was obliged to support the family financially; she was not. She was equal in all things except leadership of the family, but that did not mean the male was superior, merely that he had greater responsibility to support the family.

Marriage for a woman, as for a man, was compulsory, he said. Islam prohibits celibacy. All who are able to get married should get married because marriage discouraged promiscuity. A man's wife was his "fortress against the Devil".

Islamic law, he said, did not discriminate. Both men and women faced capital punishment for murder. If a women was guilty of theft her hand would be chopped off just as a man's would be. She too would be flogged 100 lashes for fornication.

And so it went on. He seemed to have no idea how all this sounded from our side of the cultural gulf. A couple of women politely challenged the notion that they should have to be covered from head to foot to be protected from men's carnal interest. He replied that even if they acquired martial arts they could not physically fend off a man. Most of the audience were Muslim immigrants and the men applauded points like that. It was impossible to know what the Muslim women were thinking behind their veils.

I left before the end. It felt good to be out of the hall and breathing the air of freedom. It is easy to believe sometimes that a clash of civilisations is coming. It can seem preferable, in fact, to any sort of compromise with a creed like that.

But, then, we are not being asked to compromise. We are just the anvil on which Muslims are working out their own tensions between scriptural fundamentalism and modernity. "Terror" seems to be a stunt extreme fundamentalists use to advance their standing somehow in that Islamic contest. Until we begin to understand that, we are not likely to defeat it.

After three years we should at least have found a term for it more accurate than terror. The word describes neither the strategy of the perpetrators nor the public consequences. They have not terrified us and they probably never imagined they would. Travellers know their risk of being caught in one of these deadly stunts is low.

The hostage-takers, suicide bombers and child killers probably don't have a strategic purpose beyond sacrificing their lives and those of random victims to demonstrate commitment to a national or religious cause. Ultimately, they don't care whether they win Islamic converts to the cause; to their minds the sacrifice is self-justifying.

Outrage, emotion, mere gut resolve, are the responses of Western leaders with nothing more effective to offer. President Bush's address to the Republican convention touched all those buttons brilliantly. The cheering delegates were plainly unconcerned that their intelligence agencies seem no closer to understanding, let alone infiltrating, "terror networks" than they were three years ago.

If anyone had predicted soon after the collapse of the twin towers that, three years later, US security analysts would still be wondering whether al Qaeda was an organisation or an idea, I would not have believed it. But then we all became a bit wiser about what passes for US intelligence after congressional inquiries into September 11, 2001, and, more recently, the pretexts for the Iraq war.

Intelligence has become something intercepted at a distance rather than gathered by people on the ground who make it their business to know other people. Fix that and this "war on terror" could be won.