Cover story: Islam
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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

Islamic Fundamentalism Feared, Misunderstood

Political repression and poverty fuel a religious movement

Fundamentalism -- Second in an occasional series


Islamic fundamentalism has replaced communism as the enemy of the day. But despite the growing perception in this country that Islamic fundamentalism poses a threat to the United States, many Americans have only a minimal understanding of who Islamic fundamentalists are, what they believe and why their ranks continue to grow.

Misconceptions are common, with one-dimensional views of Islamic fundamentalists as violent extremists prevailing over more nuanced understandings of a movement that is complex and diverse.

In fact, most Islamic fundamentalists have much in common with their Christian counterparts, both perceiving reality through an interpretation of scripture that they view as inerrant. While some Islamic fundamentalists are recruited from the poor and uneducated, others come from middle class or prosperous backgrounds and have university degrees.

“The vast majority are not violent, bomb-throwing people. They are very much like your average very religious Catholic or Protestant,” said Lawrence Davidson, professor of history at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and author of the book Islamic Fundamentalism.

For many Muslims, Islamic revival simply means becoming a more religiously observant Muslim. For others, being an observant Muslim is not simply more attention to prayer or fasting; it’s also about creating a more just, moral, Islam-based society, said John Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the university’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

Context, say scholars, is everything, and the political and economic climate that pertains in many Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, fuels Islamist movements that go beyond respect and reverence for the Islamic religion to adopt Islam as a political strategy or that refer to Islamic principles in calling for social and political reforms. These “Islamist” movements, as fundamentalism in the context of Islam is more properly called, have developed increasing popular support as other efforts at economic and political reform in Muslim societies have failed.

“If you held elections, in almost every single country in the Muslim world, Islamists would probably gain a majority. They would obtain a majority because they are highly organized, they have established an effective social base, and they are seen to be quite legitimate by a sizeable number of Muslims,” said Fawaz Gerges, the Christian A. Johnson Chair in International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of the upcoming book Jihadists: Unholy Warriors. “The point to keep in mind is that Islamism is here to stay.”

Scholars say Islamism represents for many Muslims a last-ditch effort to better their situation after decades of living in impoverished states that have experimented with socialism, Arab nationalism, military dictatorships and monarchies -- with little discernible improvement in living standards for the vast majority of their populations.

“The socialists, the free marketers, the nationalists, the monarchists have failed,” said Stephen Zunes, associate professor of politics at San Francisco University and author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism.

Islam appeals because it is an alternative to the secular nation-state, to a Western, non-indigenous, non-Islamic form of social organization and political process, said R. Scott Appleby, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and co-editor of The Fundamentalism Project, a massive five-volume study of global fundamentalism.

Facing formidable obstacles

But to become successful, Islamists face formidable obstacles, Appleby observed. He said most Muslims are wary of Islam as a political movement, oppose Islam’s manipulation for violent or revolutionary ends, and don’t have confidence in extreme Islamic movements.

“That means political Islam to be successful has a very narrow range of options,” Appleby said. “On one hand, to mobilize large numbers of Muslims it must avoid revolutionary violence, which frightens and repulses Muslims who do not want Islam to be manipulated in that direction. On the other hand, political Muslims face virtually a police state that keeps them on a very short leash indeed and undermines or prohibits or cancels any kind of attempt to build a mass-based political party or movement.”

Appleby said political Muslims are both feared and used by governments for their own ends. “For example, in the republics of the former Soviet Union like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, these republics use anti-fundamentalism as a thin justification for incredible human rights abuses. Any person who is even moderately religious is labeled a fundamentalist, is imprisoned, hassled. It’s been very difficult for many Muslim political parties to have any political effect.”

Before 1967, Islamic fundamentalism was a relatively small movement. However, Israel’s swift success over Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six Day War spelled the end of Arab nationalism as an effective political movement to which citizens throughout the Arab world could rally, while Israel’s conquest of Jerusalem, the third-most holy site in Islam, transformed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a regional conflict into one that affected all Muslims. Other crises throughout the Muslim world -- upheaval in Malaysia in 1969, Pakistan’s invasion of Bangladesh in 1971, and later, the revolution in Iran and the Lebanese civil war -- spurred the sense that the West had failed Muslim societies not only as an ally but as a viable model of development.

“There are those who say … it’s one thing to borrow from the West; it’s another thing to ape another people and culture and their either Christian or their secular values. So, religious revivalism grows and it’s growing in societies that are overwhelmingly Muslim,” said Esposito, who has written numerous books on Islam including The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?

“The slogan for many Islamists is Islam is the solution. In our own day, it’s taken on a violent profile because Islam is being suppressed, quarantined, persecuted -- most directly by the rulers of the nations where most Muslims live,” said Appleby. “The history of Muslim-majority countries in the Mideast has been one of political leadership and governance that has increasingly been at odds, or seen to be at odds, with Islamic values.”

Indeed, it’s one of the aftereffects of colonialism that the leaders of Muslim countries are often tied to Western political and economic interests as much as or more than to the people they govern.

Davidson noted that for a century or more most Muslims were ruled by colonial powers that managed their economies in such a way as to benefit themselves rather than the countries they ruled. When these Western states left, their place was taken by secular, Westernized elites they had developed who were often drawn from Christian business interests or from the ranks of the military.

“If you look at patterns of trade development in 17th, 18th and early 19th century in the Levant and in northern Egypt, the French and British preferred to work through middlemen who were often Christian -- either Maronites, the Lebanese Catholics, or Coptic Christians in Egypt or Greek Orthodox. That doesn’t mean all these elites as they grew up were Christian. There were also many Muslims who decided they would ally themselves with the powers that be. These were usually found from those seeking military careers.”

Whatever the source, there grew up under colonial rule a Westernized elite whose leadership was culturally alienated from its own Muslim roots, Davidson said. “This was a very unsettling scenario for many religious Muslims, plus there was no economic improvement under either the colonial powers or the subsequent elites.

Davidson described the ruling elites as “businessmen who are concerned with making a profit and they don’t feel a collective responsibility. Nobody has the big picture except the Islamic fundamentalists. They have populist roots.

“A lot of these organizations started as community-based self-help projects. If you look at the Muslim Brotherhood, what did they do? Even today, it runs medical clinics, job training programs, subsidizes cheap food, collects garbage. It does things the government doesn’t. Religious groups are very popular because they are meeting the needs. They go into politics. They meet violent resistance, and they react violently,” said Davidson.

Algeria is a case in point. There, Islamists formed a political party, but once they succeeded in democratic elections, the election was abrogated and the party outlawed. Violence ensued, and a bloody civil war began.

“The elites don’t want to lose their privileged position. They are also afraid of the lifestyle changes that would certainly be brought about if fundamentalists come to power. The women are afraid of that especially,” Davidson said.

Ironically, while radical Islamic groups have recently come to the forefront of policy concerns in Washington, the United States has frequently encouraged such movements either by outright support, as in Afghanistan where the U.S.-supported mujahideen efforts to oust the Soviet Union, or by supporting oppressive regimes that then trigger a backlash both against the government and against the United States for supporting it, as in Iran.

Today, said Gerges, the main beneficiaries of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq are not moderates or secularists but Islamists calling for resistance and jihad against the U.S. occupiers and their supporters. “Iraqi society is being Islamicized from within because of the America invasion and occupation of Iraq,” said Gerges.

Zunes said that extremist Islam arise out of either of two conditions.

“One is political repression. Countries where Islamic parties have been allowed to compete in elections, in Jordan or Yemen or some of the South Asian countries, they’ve tended to be fairly moderate and responsible in terms of parliamentary debate. When they’re forced underground and suppressed, in Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, that’s where they get violent and extreme. The second variable is in areas where there’s been mass dislocation --Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine -- or screwed-up economic policies. Economic dislocation feeds fundamentalism. The social message of the Quran is a lot easier to understand than Marxist dialectics.”

A shift in U.S. policies needed

Like Gerges, Zunes notes extremist forces have also arisen because of wars that the United States has supported. Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine are two examples he cites. Radical Islam was not a force in Lebanon before the Israeli invasion of 1982; Hamas similarly owes its emergence and influence to the ongoing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

In an article titled “U.S. Policy Toward Political Islam” in the journal Foreign Policy in Focus, Zunes argues that the United States must shift its focus from trying to crush radical Islamic movements militarily to pursing policies that discourage their development.

“The U.S. must clearly understand the reasons why a small but dangerous minority of Muslims have embraced extremist ideologies and violent tactics. These movements are often rooted in legitimate grievances voiced by underrepresented and oppressed segments of the population, particularly the poor And the U.S. is increasingly identified with the political, social and economic forces that are responsible for their misery,” Zunes wrote.

Other scholars concur that U.S. policy is aggravating rather than minimizing conflict with Islamic extremism. The war with Iraq, support for Israel, and the U.S. military presence in the Gulf -- perceived as neocolonialism -- feeds anti-Americanism among Muslims while the negative stereotypes of Islam that have developed in the United States since 9/11 have led to a state of mutual fear and suspicion between Americans and Muslims.

University of Chicago historian Martin Marty, co-editor of The Fundamentalism Project, notes that the hard-line rhetoric adopted by the Bush administration -- references to the “axis of evil” and “you’re either with us or against us” -- aggravates divisions between the Muslim world and the West and glosses over the real frictions that exist within the Islamic world itself. At the same time, continuing U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip confirms many Muslims’ belief that the United States is hostile to their interests and hypocritical in its support for democracy.

“American policy toward Israel fuels Islamist sentiment. As long as we’re uncritical, as long as we side with them, as long as we let the peace process die, it shows that we’re out to do the Palestinians in,” said Marty.

While the Bush administration says it has embraced democratization in the Middle East as a goal, it remains an open question whether Islamists will be allowed to take their place at the political table. Like many of the authoritarian rulers in the Middle East that the United States is allied with, many American policymakers are unwilling to support the kind of changes that would enable Islamists to come to power. Repression then fuels extremism, some scholars say.

The corrective to militant Islamism is to integrate mainstream Islamists into the political process of their respective countries, Gerges said.

"If you include mainstream Islamists, you present a peaceful alternative to the jihadist current," Gerges said. "You cannot have a healthy political process in the Middle East without these mainstream Islamists playing a part because they present some of the most powerful voices in the political life of their countries."

For now, most countries in the Arab and Muslim world continue to exclude even moderate Islamists from power. “These dictatorial regimes are still very much in control of forces of coercion -- military, police. As long as they can manage to do that, they can decimate the ranks of Islamist leaders. But in long run, it’s hard to predict,” Davidson said. “Islamic fundamentalism as a belief is growing.”

Margot Patterson is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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