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Is Islam a threat to international peace and security?

The Cold War is over. Some people are arguing that Islam is the new threat. For example, Samuel Huntington of Harvard in a well known article 'The Clash of Civilizations (Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993) has argued that in the post-Cold War world, cultures or civilizations consisting of groups of countries will be the basic unit of international relations; the world's two major cultures are those of the West and Islam; because Islam's values are different from those of the West, a clash is inevitable. Or is it?

This article will argue that, although some Islamic groups are a threat to local peace and security in some countries, the Islamic world is not united enough or ill-motivated enough to constitute a threat to international peace and security. Instead of being afraid of Islam and preparing for some grand clash with it, it is necessary to understand it. A more discerning view of Islam will enable governments to better interpret what is happening and how to react.

Iran is a good example of how a situation can be misunderstood. Iran is now seen as the harbinger of the new era of Islamic-based governments (in September, Afghanistan became the latest country to have a strictly Islamic government). It has been an inspiration to groups throughout the Arab world (and parts of Central Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia). But back in the 1960s it was generally thought that politics had broken away from religion, and that as societies became more industrialized, so religious belief and practice would be reduced to the private sphere (if not wither away entirely in a new secular era). Iran was seen as a US showpiece of modernization. Blinded partly by this belief in the blessings of modernization, the CIA failed to assess accurately the popularity of Ayatollah Khomeini or to predict the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979. In the early months of the Iranian revolution, some American scholars refused to accept the revolution as genuine; they thought it was only an interruption to the historical process. Modernization based on economic growth would, they claimed, always win out.

I was in Iran in 1973 and was also impressed with the surface results of the Shah's attempt to modernize the country (while restricting civil and political rights). The Shah's tight control over dissent prohibited any public debate over the way in which many Iranians were alienated by the changes. As a Westerner, it seemed natural to me that Iranians would want the 'good things' of Western life. Like the CIA, I looked at Iran from a Western viewpoint. But underneath the economic change, there lurked a deep resentment at the way in which the West had in 1953 overthrown the moderate constitutional government of Muhammad Mossadegh and kept the Shah in power by quelling all dissent. All secular opposition to the Shah was stopped; there were no moderate secular people around whom critics of the Shah could rally. The mosques were the only viable source of resistance. The result was a strongly Islamic movement which had - and retains - a virulent antipathy for the West.

The West needs to learn from its mistakes in Iran to avoid repeating them elsewhere in the Islamic world. There is more to life than just surface appearances; there is more to life than just the pursuit of money; military power has its limitations, especially when there is widespread popular support for the other point of view.

There are various reasons for the revival of Islam as a political force during this century, especially since 1945. First, there is still a deep-seated resentment at the West's violence to Islam over the centuries. Many more Moslems have been killed by Christians, than Christians have been killed by Moslems. Colonial countries like the UK have tended to forget about their imperial pasts; immediate economic, sporting and entertainment matters get priority; the younger British generation have no direct experience of living in a world 'when one third of the map was British'. But Moslems, as the under dog, have a deeper memory of being run by foreigners.

Additionally, even when the foreigners left, these colonies often received political independence but not necessarily economic and social independence. Many of their leaders were supported in power by the West (such as the Shah of Iran). Their economies were linked to Western markets. Their schools used colonial text books, and their television showed Western programmes (because countries could afford to broadcast programmes but not make them).

Second, there seems to many Moslems to be a Western double-standard. The West was very slow to react against the Serbian and Croatian (both nominally Christian) violence against the Bosnians (who are nominally Moslem). Had the situation, instead, been one of Moslems killing Christians, there is little doubt that Western countries would have intervened more quickly and more forcefully. Incidentally, the failure of the West to help Bosnia, has resulted both in an upsurge of Islamic fanaticism 'within Bosnia and the presence of Iranian 'volunteers' to help defend the Bosnian cause. Meanwhile, the West was quick to respond to Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Many people in the West probably did not realize just how hated is the al-Sabah regime in much of the Arab world; the invasion was praised by many poor Arabs in the Middle East. But the West lined up with a fundamentalist dictatorship and was supported by Saudi Arabia. This was not a crusade against Islam; Saddam Hussein is somewhat less fundamental in his beliefs than the countries supported by the US. (Ironically, when the 1992 elections were held in Kuwait, women and stateless Arabs were still excluded from the poll).

Third, there is a fear of change. The world is going through the most rapid amount of change since the Industrial Revolution, which began in the UK about 1750. People feel overwhelmed by all this change and are turning to a variety of religious groups, some of which are Islamic. Islamic groups are, for example, concerned about the impact of new technology on traditional Islamic societies. There are five major media monopolies and they are all in the Western world. They all convey the idea that the Western way of life is best and that indigenous culture elsewhere is inferior. There is no Islamic involvement in what is broadcast or reported. In so far as Islam is covered, it is done via images of men with fists in the air ranting against the US. Islamic groups claim that the mass media have a distorted coverage of Islamic affairs. (It is interesting to note that the Talibaan movement, which recently took over much of Afghanistan, 'hangs' televisions - sets are smashed and then strung up from trees: just as they did with the former President Najibullah, when they grabbed him from his UN enclave in Kabul).

Fourth, new technology, ironically, also has been of assistance. During the period when Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile in Paris, he kept in touch with his followers via audio cassette tapes. Given the economic growth in the Shah's Iran, people could afford to copy the tapes and have their own cassette players. Similarly, radio was of great help to the Moslems in the former Soviet Central Asian Republics to retain their religion and identity. The Central Asians were among the earliest converts to Islam (adopting it in the 7th century). The Russian domination of Central Asia began under the Czars' eastward and southward expansion in the 16th century. It was a long struggle, and it was only in about 1930 that the USSR had achieved control over all the region. But the USSR's 60 million Moslems rarely acquired a taste for communism. Islam was banned, as was learning Arabic. With the collapse of the USSR, Islamic governments sprang into power. Islam and Arabic had been kept alive by radio programmes broadcast into the region, which were financed by Saudi Arabia.

Fifth, many Moslems are missing out on the economic growth. Years ago, many of the leaders opposing governments in north Africa and the Middle East would have been communist; now they are Islamic. Communism has failed: Moslems have seen the collapse of the USSR and its eastern European allies. They have also derived little benefit from the quasi-socialistic regimes in places like Egypt (which is still basically run on Nasser's lines), which are large, inefficient bureaucracies, which cannot cope with rapid urbanization and population growth. Cairo, for example, is one of the world's fastest growing and most chaotic cities: there are more cars in Cairo than in all of China. Poor Moslems are sceptical of the new-found eastern European passion for the market system of economics: they can see in Western countries how the rich get richer and the poor become more numerous. They are looking for a third way. Islamic leaders are promising them a better future.

Finally, nothing succeeds like success. Islam is the only force to take on both super powers and beat them: the US in Iran and the USSR in Afghanistan. Moslems today represent about 18.5 per cent of the world's population, and Islam is the second largest religious group after Christianity. It is one of the world's fastest growing religions. In the UK, the home of Methodism, there are now more Moslems than Methodists. It is estimated that in the year 2004 loyal and practising Moslems in Britain will outnumber their Anglican counterparts; There are now 386 mosques in Britain, with two new ones opening each week; the Queen or King - as 'defender of the faith' - in 2004, on this estimation, will be the head of a minority in the realm.

In the US, there are now more Moslems than Episcopalians (the US version of the Anglican church and the elite's church). The most visible - though not necessarily the most important - Moslem is Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam. He is a black leader, who is giving blacks (especially black males, the US's most disadvantaged social group) a new sense of hope. He appeals to the poor, alienated blacks, who feel excluded from the American way of life. 40 per cent of Americans do not vote in presidential elections; the poorer a person is, the less likely that person is to vote; the political system is seen as irrelevant by them. Farrakhan is urging blacks to take part in the system. In September 1996, on a visit to Libya (which was in itself banned by US law), he secured the commitment of US$1 billion by Libya to help poor blacks (how he gets the money into the US - through US sanctions - will be a challenge). Blacks represent about 12 per cent of the US population and less than 10 per cent of those actually support him. But he claims to be a growing force in US politics and given the US's disenchantment with politicians, anything is possible.

But does all this make Islam a threat to international peace and security? Islam is certainly a threat to some fellow Moslems and others caught up in conflicts. For example, in Algeria, which was once a showcase of a modern Islamic country with a secular (if corrupt and inefficient) government, the government in 1991 cancelled Algeria's first free elections because they would be won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The FIS was identified with the resistance to the government. The FIS went underground. At least 50,000 people have been killed in the ensuring conflict (the figure is unclear because the government conceals casualty figures to play down the size of the violence).

In Egypt, fundamentalist groups are conducting guerrilla raids against government installations. They are also targeting foreign tourists. Tourism is a major source of foreign income and if tourism declines, the Egyptian economy will go into greater chaos (thereby, the Islamic groups hope, creating an opportunity for them to seize power). Additionally, the tourists visit pre-Islamic monuments, such as the Pyramids, and the Moslem extremists disapprove of the foreign attention lavished about these 'pagan' places.

Finally, I do not hold out much hope for Salman Rushdie living a long and peaceful life. He wrote (what is in my opinion) a tedious and boring book, Satanic Verses. In February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini (without reading the book) issued a fatwa or religious decree imposing a death sentence to be carried out by assassination for Rushdie's alleged blasphemy against Islam. Various people associated with the book have already been killed (including the Japanese translator, who was killed in Tokyo). Khomeini himself is dead and apparently the fatwa cannot be revoked.

But I do not believe that Islam is the threat predicted by some political commentators. First, the 'Islamic world' is not a united monolithic bloc. One lesson we have learned about the Cold War is that the 'communist bloc' was never the monolithic bloc stretching from Berlin to Beijing that some politicians claimed. There were strains in that bloc from the outset. Indeed, the USSR, it seems to me, was the only country in the world surrounded by hostile communist countries. The Eastern European countries resented the Soviet occupation, the Soviet Asian Republics resented the (communist) Russian occupation, and the USSR and China were never on good terms (even before the well publicized 1961 split).

Meanwhile, China was rarely on good terms with its Asian neighbours. When I was in Vietnam during the war, I was impressed by the way that all the Vietnamese military heroes were people who had fought the Chinese (all the way back to Troung sisters in AD 54). The French and US were merely a diversion from the serious struggle, which is still there beneath the surface in present Chinese/Vietnamese relations.

Therefore, we need to recognize that old nationalisms, historical grudges, racism and various other less pleasant aspects of human nature can all erode some form of global religion. Christianity is as much an example of this as any other religion. We must not assume that Islam is a more unifying force than any other religion or political ideology.

Indeed, we know that Islam is divided. There is the standard division between the Sunnis (about 800 million) and the Shi'as (about 110 million). While Sunni Moslems assume a direct relationship between believers and God, Shiites believe in the mediation of a highly trained clergy. Usually each Shiite chooses a high-ranking clerical thinker and follows any religious ruling (fatwa) from that person. There are other groups, such as Ithna' Asharis of whom there are about 60 million (they are the most highly politicized of the Shi'as: Khomeini used this thinking as the basis of the Iranian revolution and the creation of his theocratic government); Sufi Brotherhoods (no figure available) which are mystic groups; and the Kurds (10 million) who are in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and the former USSR. This fragmentation is not a good basis on which to unite against the West.

Second, there is no agreed manifesto with which to unify Moslems against the West. The Koran, despite some Western allegations, is not a recipe for waging wars against infidels. Moslems are very worried about, for example, Western television eroding their culture but they are not agreed as to what ought to be done about it. (Much the same, I suppose, could be said about Western parents worried about the impact of television on their children).

To conclude, Islam is not a threat to overall international peace and security but it does contain the risk of some localized violence. Instead of a blanket warning about the dangers of Islam, it is necessary to learn the nuances of it and finds ways of ensuring that the world is made safe for diversity.

[Keith Suter is the President of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney.]
COPYRIGHT 1996 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
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Author:Suter, Keith
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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