Why is this happening? It is happening because the Islamic forces in the northern regions of Nigeria want to impose sharia law, the primitive Muslim code of mutilation and retribution. Do the religious authorities propose to inflict this code only on members of their own congregation, who share the supposed values and taboos? No they do not. They wish to have it imposed also on Christians and unbelievers. This they already do in the regions of Nigeria that have fallen under their control.
But they also want to extend sharia to the whole of Nigeria, where Islam is still a minority religion and where the society is emerging with some difficulty from a lousy period of military dictatorship. In the sanguinary sectarian rioting that has resulted, portraits of Osama bin Laden have been flourished by the Muslim militants.
Now perhaps somebody will tell me how this - the stoning, the disregard of pluralism, the stupidity and the viciousness - connects to the situation in Gaza, or would help alleviate the plight of the Palestinians. Quite obviously, the clerical bullies in Nigeria are doing this because they think they can. Their counterparts in Malaysia and Indonesia, who want to declare absolutist Islamic republics in countries celebrated for their confessional and ethnic diversity, are not reacting to any "grievance" or suffering from any oppression. They simply think it obvious that the true word of god is contained in one book, and that further reflection is not only unnecessary but profane.
Why should this be our business? Well, a year ago I would have said without expecting to be contradicted that the answer to that was self-evident. There is a civil war raging within the Muslim world, where many believers do not wish to live under sharia any more than I do. This war has been at an incandescent pitch in Algeria, for example, for more than a decade. It is smouldering but still toxic in Iran, in Egypt, among the Palestinians and now in some of the major cities of "the West".
But the extremist and fundamentalist side in that war has evolved a new tactic. By exporting the conflict and staging it in Europe and America, it hopes both to intimidate and impress those who are wavering. This simple point was made, you may remember, in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania about 12 months ago, and we can be entirely certain that it will be rammed home to us again.
The most notorious manifestation of the other side in this two-front war is of course al Qaeda, which combines all the worst features of a crime family, a corrupt multinational corporation and a fascist gangster operation. I personally think we owe its demented militants a favour: by doing what they did last year they alerted the whole world to something that was hitherto only dimly understood.
And by taking their own insane ideology seriously, they ruined the chance for some more cautious and tactical fanatics to take over the Pakistani state, including its thermonuclear capacity, from within. They also embarrassed and isolated the equivalent faction within the oligarchy of Saudi Arabia.
Paradoxically, I think the world is a less dangerous place as a consequence of September 11, 2001. Until that day, we had been suffering severely from "under-reaction" to the most lethal threat to our civilisation.
This does not mean that a danger of "over-reaction", or mistaken diagnosis, does not exist. We are on the "right" side of this civil war in one way, because we have no choice. It is impossible to compromise with the proponents of sacrificial killing of civilians, the disseminators of anti-Semitic filth, the violators of women and the cheerful murderers of children.
It is also impossible to compromise with the stone-faced propagandists for Bronze Age morality: morons and philistines who hate Darwin and Einstein and who managed, during their brief rule in Afghanistan, to ban and to erase music and art while cultivating the skills of germ warfare. If they would do that to Afghans, what might they not have in mind for us? In confronting such people, the crucial thing is to be willing and able, if not in fact eager, to kill them without pity before they can get started.
But can we be sure we are on the "right" side of the Islamic civil war in the second sense? The holy writ on public stoning for sexual "offences" actually occurs often in the Bible and nowhere in the Koran, and much of the Islamic world is now in the position that "Christian" society occupied a few centuries ago. It has been widely discovered that you cannot run anything but a primaeval and cruel and stupid society out of the precepts of one rather mediocre "revelation". Muslims want to travel, to engage with others, and to have access to information and enlightenment (to which they have already made quite majestic contributions).
I am sure many people make the assumption that the United States, which is actually the world's only truly secular state as well as in some ways the world's most religious one - is on the side of those Muslims who want to practise their religion but otherwise neither to impose it or to be stifled by it.
However, the two regimes that did most to incubate and protect al Qaeda and the Taliban - the Saudi feudalists and the Pakistani military - were and still are on the official "friends and allies" list of the American establishment. The obscurantists and fanatics were nurtured in the bosom of the same "national security" apparatus that so grotesquely, if not criminally, failed to protect our civil society a year ago. And this is to say nothing about the central question of Palestine, where our military and political elite cannot with any honesty state to this day whether it has cast itself in the role of a mediator or a partisan, and has come to be widely and rightly distrusted as a consequence.
I repeat what I said at the beginning: the objective of al Qaeda is not the emancipation of the Palestinians but the establishment of tyranny in the Muslim world by means of indiscriminate violence in the non-Muslim world, and those who confuse the two issues are idiots who don't always have the excuse of stupidity.
However, this does not absolve us as citizens from the responsibility of demanding that our leaders be on the side of justice and of international law, for our own sake as well as everybody else's. And we may often have to uphold this view in spite of the unfavourable conditions - of "fallout shelter" paranoia and obsessive secrecy - that are created by our "own" governments.
There is no argument about the foe, in other words, and no real argument with it: only a settled determination to outlive and defeat this latest barbarism. Discovering friends and allies, discarding false ones and making new ones, will test our cultural and political intelligence to a hitherto-unknown degree. But the very complexity and subtlety of the task is one of the things that makes this war worth fighting.