- Militant Islam seems to be more popular in the Middle East and more threatening to the West than it really is. Islamic fundamentalism, now generally referred to as political or militant Islam or "Islamism", is a form of nationalism. It is true that the Muslim world is more God fearing than society in Europe or America, but it is quite wrong to imagine, that the recent resurgence of Islam stems from Muslims suddenly having become more religious.
- Where the influence of the Islamic revival is undoubtedly still strong - and is possibly still on the rise - is in the day to day lives of the people. A form of Islamic cant or "political correctness" has emerged. There are some members of society, mainly among the middle classes, who have become annoyed by the way in which the "Islamically correct" tenor of society impinges on their lives.
- When people think of Islamist governments, revolutionary organisations and Islamist politicians en masse, they are unimpressed. Yet at a local political level, and at some of the poorest levels of society, individual honest politicians and charitable bodies, which are often very political, still command respect and increase their following.
- Regardless of the Islamist fashion, society in the region is becoming steadily more modern and better educated. At the same time as there are some members of the middle classes who are embracing Islam because they are rejecting imported philosophies, and members of the very poor who are turning to Islamist groups because they seem to offer hope of jobs, there are millions of families who are becoming more involved with the modern world and whose children have a less unquestioning faith than their parents.
- Hardly anyone in the Middle East imagines that an Islamist government can again come to power by revolution - the movement is too discredited among the middle classes. It is still possible that a coup could happen in an Arab country, but it is unlikely. Both the planning of coups and the prevention of them are arts, and Arab governments have now perfected the art of prevention - mainly through the employment of multiple and competing security services.
- The West should not be too shocked by political Islam. It should certainly be careful that it does not over-react to whatever threat it sees, because that would only cause a counter-reaction and strengthen militant influences. What the Western world might do, in a positive sense, to counter militant Islam would be to work to eradicate its causes.
- First among these is the unresolved Arab-Israeli dispute. Effective pressure on the Israeli government to implement the Oslo peace accords would not only weaken Hamas in Palestine, it would remove one of the issues that feeds Islamic militancy, and authoritarian government, in other Arab countries. Secondly, the Western world should encourage reluctant Arab governments, notably those in Egypt and Tunisia, to resume the process of liberalisation and political reform.
- Lastly, Europe and America should try to help the development of the poor Arab countries, not with aid, but through encouraging bolder free market reforms, and opening their own markets to the countries exports. If Arab economies can be made to grow faster - and at present they are performing as badly as those of sub-Saharan Africa - they will be less fertile breeding grounds for political militancy of any sort, even if their governments remain undemocratic. If the poor Arab countries remain miserably poor they may become part of a divided world, based not on a clash of civilisations but on a huge gap in wealth between North and South.
It is an unhappy thought, but it may be that societies have a need to find enemies. Ideally they like the threat to come from a culture that can be despised as backward, uncivilised and in the end not too dangerous. There are certainly elements of these aggressive and patronising attitudes in the European and American reaction to militant Islam.
Of course, the West has some good reasons for its hostility. It has been shocked by a very bloody revolution in Iran which took and held an American embassy hostage for a year. Since then it has found dealing with Iran extremely difficult. The Islamic Republic is known to have sponsored much international terrorism and to have been behind the taking of Western hostages in Lebanon in the later 1980s. In the 1990s the West has watched the successes of the austere Taleban movement in Afghanistan. It has witnessed periodic Islamist inspired terrorist attacks in Egypt, and an exceptionally cruel civil war in Algeria.
For much of the media the Middle East has become an "Islamic Threat" story, on the same simplistic principle that in the 1970s it was an "Oil and Money" story. If a newspaper is going to print a photograph representing some Middle Eastern country, or life in that country, no credit will be given to a page editor who chooses a picture of an Arab woman in Western dress, which is what most women in the big towns now wear. She has to be shown in hijab - because that reminds readers that she is Muslim and makes her society look different, even alien. It is also the stereotype that readers have come to expect.
Politicians have reacted to the publics concern, and to their own unpleasant experience of dealing with Islamic revolutionaries. Willy Claes, the former Secretary General of NATO, made some famous remarks a few years ago about the main threat to Europe, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, coming from the Islamic world. In the United States much of the political establishment has had its thinking, and speaking, guided by an article entitled "The Clash of Civilisations", which was written in 1993 for the journal, Foreign Affairs, by the conservative political scientist, Samuel Huntington. The article anticipated a world in which conflicts of cultures would dominate the political scene, and it called on the Western democracies to unite against the new threat.
Even the academic world has played a role, accidentally, in heightening peoples fears. In America, particularly, academics are called upon by government and corporations to "explain" what is happening in foreign places, and, in this case, because they are keen to undermine the simplicities of Western thinking, stress the difference between the Islamic world and Western society and emphasise the importance of their own subject, they have tended to exaggerate the power of the Islamic revival. Their analysis may be influenced, also, by the fact that many of them visit the Middle East only once in two or three years.
The overall effect of the reporting, analysis and political reaction has been to make militant Islam seem more popular in the Middle East and more threatening to the West than it really is.
© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
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fes-library | April 1999