Middle East Muslims Differ over the Meaning of the Fundamentalist Revival

Article excerpt

`SINCE 95 percent of Egyptians are Muslims, it is natural that they should want an Islamic state," the speaker on the platform declared, to a roar of approval from the crowd.

The scene was the Cairo International Book Fair last January. The speaker at a debate on the fringes of the exhibition was Ma'amoun el-Hodeiba, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, the main Islamic fundamentalist group in Egypt. A few days earlier, Muslim fundamentalists in Algeria had delivered a crushing defeat at the polls to the ruling National Liberation Front. Feelings were running high.

When the meeting ended, hundreds of fundamentalist supporters, chanting "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great"), surged through the fairground. An Egyptian living in London who was visiting Cairo for the book fair came into an exhibition hall looking shaken. "They're crazy," he said. "If democracy means fundamentalism, then forget democracy."

Opponents of the Islamic movement in the Middle East are alarmed by the way in which Arabs of all classes are increasingly returning to their "fundamental" Islamic roots. But many Muslims argue that - contrary to the popular view outside the region of fundamentalism as a sinister force threatening the West - the current Islamic revival is a positive development.

Prof. Aziz Shukri, head of the law faculty at Damascus University, says the Islamic movement is simply seeking a system of life that is compatible with the region's religious and social roots. Fundamentalism, he says, "is going back to the roots of Islam, to the Holy Koran, to the traditions of the Prophet ... to see if they can provide a good response to the problems we face. Islam might not be complete, it might need updating. But it is definitely more likely to suit my life than any imported ideology."

Throughout the Middle East, Muslims cite the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 as an important source of inspiration in rediscovering their roots. This does not mean, however, that there is overwhelming support for the policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Most Iranians belong to the Shiite sect of Islam, while more than 80 percent of Muslims are part of the Sunni movement. Even within Iran there are major differences over the interpretation of Islamic doctrine. This is seen in the tension between the relatively pragmatic view of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - who apparently seeks better relations with the West - and the uncompromising policies of hard-liners like Ali Akbar Mohtashemi. …