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The Rifts Within Muslim States - A New Survey.

Editor's Note: This is a new survey on the way societies in the Islamic countries of the Middle East are facing internal divisions as a result of events since Sept. 11, 2001. In broad terms, these splits already existed in the area, but the global polarisation since the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon have brought the splits within the Middle East countries into sharper focus.

The Islamist tendencies in the countries of the region are now faced with drastic choices, boiling down to whether they are prepared to change completely and enter mainstream politics - to the extent that they are permitted - or risk being tainted by the Al Qaida stigma and face a crackdown that will not be criticised by the Western powers.

According to APS sources well informed about Islamist groups, the chances are that the more sophisticated among the movements will choose to "bend with the geo-political winds", and adapt to the new situation. In other words, they will lie low for the time being. This has been forecast by APS back in 2000, when it became clear that the governments in the Middle East were gradually gaining the upper hand against militancy through tough security crackdowns, intelligence co-operation and some assistance from the Western powers.

The attack on the WTC/Pentagon was seen by some observers as a reaction to this decline, and as a "lashing out" by the Islamists in view of their inability to changing the governments of the Middle East or overcome the sense of "historic defeat". The effect of the attacks is the opposite of what the radicals expected, i.e. a hardening of positions in the West, which in effect means greater pressure on these movements from governments in the region, and greater pressure from the Western powers on those governments not willing to tackle the militants.

In reality, therefore, the situation for the militant formations is going to get worse. The situation was already bad enough before Sept. 11, 2001. Following the widespread crackdowns on Islamist militancy through the 1990s, most of these movements were operating in a situation where they had no legal political legitimacy although their populist appeal remained, to some extent.

In virtually every country in the region, from Morocco to Turkey, the Islamist politicians were on the defensive. Many were in exile, ironically in the capitals of the West, while the violent activists tended to be in hiding in locations as varied as Afghanistan and Chechnya. None of these options will be available from now on. Washington has warned that it will pursue the "Al Qaida networks" wherever they may be. It is virtually certain that this will mean any Islamic group that gets American attention, whether by carrying out an attack against US interests - unlikely in the current climate, at least for the short-term - or one that uses anti-American rhetoric, or even one that targets US allies.

The problem for most of the countries in the Middle East is that the Islamist rhetoric had high appeal, partly because the perceived sense of injustice was widespread, focusing around issues ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict, to the embargo on Iraq and the Russian campaign in Chechnya, amid others. Thus members of the general public in the Middle East, often referred to as the "Arab street", tended to sympathise with these causes or actively support them in terms of personal opinion.

This was recognised by the rulers throughout the region, and it was used for decades as a means to enhance their own legitimacy. For instance, the Arab-Israeli conflict has strengthened the political power base of several rulers in the Middle East simply because of their hardline stance. The reaction to the conflict, over the past few decades, involved using anti-Western language and symbolism in everything from media commentary to high school education. This type of conditioning has created a group of people who are unable to see things in any other light, and such individuals can be found at the highest levels of regimes as well.

These notions also affect all levels of discourse, ranging from the question of interpreting Islam to distribution of wealth. Thus, there are deep splits within the societies based on various ideological or material tendencies, be that a liberal or conservative reading of Islam or a pro- or anti-Western attitude. At the basic level, the split is also a consequence of whether the individuals adopting one ideology or attitude is wealthy or is one of the "have nots".

This survey, running in parallel with the new "War Against Terror" survey in SBME (see January edition), will begin with an overview and will be conducted on a country-by-country basis, in alphabetical order. It will last well into 2003. By then, it is expected that the fate of the Islamist movements in the region would become much clearer, along with the methods and tactics that they would use to survive in such an environment. There is little doubt among most observers, however, that Islamist movements will survive in some shape and will resurface in strength at a later date when the opportunity presents itself.
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Title Annotation:Middle East
Publication:APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Jan 21, 2002
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