Beyond the Headlines: Changing Perceptions of Islamic Movements. (Perspectives)

Article excerpt

Despite the failures political Islam has confronted when governing Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan, and Iran, Islamic movements in the 21st century continue to be a significant force in mainstream Muslim politics, from Morocco to Indonesia. The September 11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, DC; suicide bombers' slaughter of noncombatants in Israel and Palestine; bombings in Bali, Indonesia; and the arrests of suspected terrorist cells in Europe and the United States reinforce fears of radical Islamic movements. Muslim rulers in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia, and the Central Asian Republics, as well as the governments of Israel, India, China, and the Philippines, have exploited the danger of Islamic radicalism and global terrorism to deflect from the failures of their governments. They focus on the Islamist threat to divert criticism from their indiscriminate suppression of opposition movements, both mainstream and extremist, as well as to attract US and European aid.

A War on Terrorism?

After September 11, 2001, US President George Bush and many other policy makers emphasized that the United States was waging a war against global terrorism, not against Islam. However, in the Muslim world, a contrasting viewpoint prevails. The US international and domestic prosecution of its broad-based war against terrorism, and the rhetoric that has accompanied it, have made commonplace the belief in the Muslim world that the war is indeed against Islam and Muslims.

Several factors have reinforced this perception, contributing significantly to a widespread anti-US sentiment that cuts across Muslim societies as well as countries in Europe and elsewhere. The United States is increasingly seen as an "imperial" state whose overwhelming military and political power is used unilaterally, disproportionately, and indiscriminately in a war not just against global terrorism and religious extremists but also against Islam itself. The broadening of the US-led military campaign beyond Afghanistan, its "axis of evil" policy, the war against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, and the failure of the Bush administration to establish parity in rhetoric and policies in the conflicts between Palestine and Israel, India and Pakistan, and Russia and Chechnya fuels anti-US sentiment in the Islamic mainstream as well as hatred of the United States among militant extremists. Across the political spectrum there are those who believe that a clash of civilizations is on the horizon, fostered by the United St ates as well as by Al Qaeda and other extremists. Osama bin Laden grows in popularity among many of the younger generation as a cultural hero. In countries and societies whose leaders and elites are often seen as authoritarian and corrupt, bin Laden is a "Robin Hood," willing to forgo a life of privilege to live simply and wage ajihad against injustice, whether that injustice takes the form of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan or US hegemony in the Muslim world.

The Other Face

While the events of September 11 and the period following have reinforced the threat of the dark side of political Islam, with its extremists and their theologies of hate, forces of democratization and the diversity of Islamic movements remain important in electoral politics. Elections in late 2001 in Pakistan, Turkey, Bahrain, and Morocco reinforced the continued saliency of Islam in Muslim politics in the 21st century. Islamic candidates and Muslim parties increased their influence threefold in Morocco and tenfold in Pakistan. In Turkey, the AK (Justice and Development Party) came to power, and in Bahrain, Islamic candidates won 19 of 40 parliamentary seats.

These examples of Islamic candidates and movements urging a turn toward ballots not bullets are not new. If much of the 1980s was dominated by fears of Iran's export of revolutionary Islam, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Islamically oriented candidates were elected as mayors and parliamentarians in countries as diverse as Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. …