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Should we fear Islamic fundamentalists?

IT IS TEMPTING to dismiss the fundamentalists accused of bombing the World Trade Center and planning a host of other violent actions in New York as deranged fanatics, and amateurish ones at that. Yet, to do so is to ignore the fact that radical Islamists, in the U.S. and the Middle East, are pursuing an ambitious political agenda. It also is tempting to characterize the fundamentalists as a fringe group on the periphery of Middle Eastern politics, when, actually, their destabilizing activities are at the center of the region's troubles. Without illusions, Washington must recognize that the slow triumph of militant Islam in the Middle East not only will pose a major threat to the U.S.'s position in the region, but also will bring terrorism to American shores.

The U.S. and its Arab allies are losing steadily to Islamic forces energized by several new trends in the Middle East. The first of these is a crisis of authority. Throughout the region, a widening gap is evident between discredited state structures and increasingly active civil societies. Yesterday's radical shibboleths no longer can legitimatize authoritarian regimes. Even raw power no longer may be enough to suppress the growth of militant Islam. Grass-roots politics, from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, increasingly is Islamic in nature, and its adherents are scornful of the secular Arab order, peace with Israel, and American policy in the Middle East.

The second trend is the paradox of democracy. On the face of it, global democratization represents a vindication of the American experience and should work to the advantage of its regional allies. Yet, when given a choice, voters in the Middle East have rejected their authoritarian and pro-American incumbents, favoring instead parties claiming that "Islam is the solution.

The enthusiasm Islamists now evince for democracy may be merely tactical. Yet, they are correct in objecting to the U.S.'s selective support for democratization and its willingness to see elections abrogated if the results prove unfavorable, as occurred in Algeria.

Even if Washington's authoritarian Arab allies are able to keep the Islamists at bay, they may lose in the long run, through a process of generational change. This third trend is the "graying" of the Arab power-elite. Despite its reputation for turmoil, the outstanding characteristic of modern Arab politics has been the stability of its leadership. King Hussein has ruled Jordan since Pres. Dwight Eisenhower's day. Syria's Hafez al-Assad, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, and the Palestine Liberation Organization's Yasser Arafat all came to power at roughly the same time, 1968-70. Along with the Persian Gulf rulers and the Anwar Sadat-Hosni Mubarak regimes in Egypt, these men long have held sway over the Middle East, defining its political culture.

This will change as the old elite loses its grip on the levers of power. A generational revolt is under way, with Arab "baby boomers" spurning their father's secular ideologies and preoccupations. The younger generation seems to favor an Islamic agenda that features a militant rejection of the old guard's compromises with the West and Israel.

The last trend is the Middle East's increasing independence from outside powers and the world's growing indifference to its problems. Without a sustained American presence, it is difficult to imagine such U.S. allies as Egypt or Saudi Arabia heading a stable regional order for very long, lacking as they do general political and ideological support. Some type of counterforce, most likely Islamic in nature, is bound to challenge the pro-American order. At the cutting edge of this challenge is a loose network of Islamic activists.

This network is not a centrally controlled "Islamintern," but, rather, an informal array of contacts between those states and movements sharing a similar ideological and political agenda. Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman's Islamic Group, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations are animated primarily by local conditions. In many cases, though, they are linked to external patrons and other radical movements in the Middle East and beyond.

A key point of contact for many of these groups was an unintended consequence of U.S. support for the Afghan resistance fighting the Soviet Union. During the 1980s, Islamists from across the world fought with the rebels. When the war ended, many of these Islamists sought to focus their enthusiasms and expertise toward the realization of Islamic revolution in their home countries. The "Afghan Arabs" now are at the vanguard of the fundamentalist groups from Algeria to Egypt to New York.

After the Afghan war, the Pakistani town of Peshawar became a major organizational center, playing host to several thousand Islamists from the Arab world, Africa, Europe, the Far East, and America. In Peshawar, the fundamentalists were free to plan and direct armed operations out of the reach of security forces at home. In response to recent American pressure, Pakistani authorities have moved to expel the fundamentalists.

One popular destination for fleeing militants is Sudan, which has developed a close relationship with Iran over the past several years. The Egyptian and American governments have claimed that, with the Iranian connection and the influx of Afghan Arabs, Sudan has become a major clearinghouse for radical fundamentalists.

Egypt and its secular North African neighbors particularly have been concerned about this development. They see the Tehran-Khartoum axis as a conspiracy to destablize their regimes. For its part, Sudan is convinced that Egypt and the U.S. are planning the demise of Khartoum's Islamic enterprise. It saw Operation Restore Hope in Somalia merely as a prelude to a "humanitarian intervention" in Sudan.

Iran represents yet another point of contact for radicals, serving as a source of inspirational and, in some cases, operational support. Iran is lending assistance to a host of fundamentalist forces including the Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad groups. It also has been accused of backing organizations in Turkey, Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, and elsewhere.

The "Tehran-Khartoum-Peshawar connection" has become a prominent feature in Western and Egyptian media coverage. Less celebrated is the assistance given by Saudi Arabia, a key American ally. At various times, the Saudis have been linked to the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, Hamas, and the Egyptian Islamic Group.

Regional networking also involves cooperation among individual movements, both fundamentalist and secular. Frequently mentioned in this regard are the Islamic Group and Islamic Jihad organizations in Egypt, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, as well as groups in Jordan and Yemen. Some of these factions have close ties with radical secular movements such as Ahmed Jabril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which also has been linked to Iran. There are indications that these groups are engaging in joint ventures against mutual enemies. It is clear that they are not limiting their operations to the Middle East.

The battle comes to America

When Great Britain and France renounced their empires, they discovered, to their dismay, that the worlds on which they had turned their backs followed them home. Since then, Europe has been a battlefield for a host of Third World conflicts. Now, it is America's turn.

Operatives from a number of Middle Eastern Islamic factions have been exploiting the freedom of speech and movement that the US. offers to engage in fund-raising, recruitment, and planning for terrorist activities. Some groups facing stiff resistance at home, such as Hamas, have transferred part of their command and control operations to America. Several Hamas activists arrested in Israel were said to have received their training in the US. from Lebanese advisors.

It is the probability that fundamentalists were behind actual and planned terrorism in New York that has captured the most attention. There are many theories concerning the motivations and linkages of the suspects held in New York. Some insist it was the work of a small fundamentalist emigre community without any ties to the Middle East. Others suggest that Iraq is the most likely sponsor. Still others maintain that the operation actually was an Israeli or Egyptian conspiracy designed to bring America's wrath upon the fundamentalists.

Yet, the biographies and preoccupations of Sheik Rahman and the suspects suggest some type of connection between the New York Islamists and Middle Eastern networks. The linkages include the central role of Sheik Rahman in New York and Egyptian movements, the involvement of many of the suspects in the Afghan and Peshawar experiences, and their shared ideological hostility to Arab secular regimes. The suspicion is enhanced by indications that Egyptian militants in New York, Peshawar, and Cairo may have been involved in an attempt to assassinate Egypt's Pres. Mubarak. By "Americanizing" their struggle, in the form of attacks within the U.S., the Islamists seek to raise the cost of Washington's support for these secular governments to an unacceptable level.

The Islamization of Middle Eastern politics and the intensification of terrorism in America will evolve in tandem, leaving U.S. officials with a long-term security problem for which there will be no easy remedy. There should be great concern, however, about the types of "solutions" likely to be touted.

Progress on the peace process is a popular remedy. However, peace treaties between Israel and the Arabs will not neutralize the Islamists. In fact, the key question is not whether peace treaties are obtainable, but whether, in light of the Islamic challenge to the Arab secularists sitting at the negotiating table, they will be enforceable over the long run.

Who will prevent Islamic forces from dominating an independent Palestinian entity? Who will prevent Iran and Sudan from becoming its main patrons? How will such developments affect the stability of Egypt or Jordan? There are no obvious answers to these questions.

Some argue that the better part of wisdom would be to find some accommodation between the US. and the emerging Islamic forces. American officials have expressed a desire to court more moderate Islamic tendencies to avoid being caught behind the political curve. The only certainty about such a leap in the dark would be the wavering signal the US. sends to its Arab allies.

Some of America's Arab friends already are nervous. Mention frequently is made in the Arab media of US. contacts with Hamas and Egypt's Islamic Group. Was it, they ask, really an accident that Sheik Rahman gained entry to America? Or was the real significance of what the Egyptians call "Sheik-Gate" an attempt by the US. to foster ties with the Islamists, "hedging its bets" should the Mubarak regime be swept away? Rahman's incarceration has not diminished Egypt's suspicions.

At the same time, it also is dangerous for Washington uncritically to accept Mubarak's definition of the "Islamic threat." By raising the specter of Iranian and Sudanese " subversion, " the Egyptian regime seeks to deflect attention from its own shortcomings and ensure an uninterrupted flow of aid from a budget-obsessed American government. Such a tactic is part of Cairo's attempt to prove its post-Cold War strategic relevance to the US. and its bid for regional leadership as the head of a broad anti-Iranian coalition.

Another bad piece of advice is the insistence that Iraq be rehabilitated and serve as a bulwark against the Islamic threat. It was upon this logic, after all, that the US. and others created circumstances that made Desert Storm necessary.

America and its allies in the Middle East still have many cards left to play. It even is possible that the fundamentalist wave may recede. However, it is more likely that Middle Eastern politics will become increasingly desecularized, as the geo-cultural divide between the Islamic world and the West becomes more pronounced and their interaction grows more violent.
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Author:McGuinn, Bradford R.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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