Some Thoughts on Islamic Fundamentalism

Article excerpt

One of the after-effects of the collapse of communism has been the growing influence of fundamentalism. In fact, some of the same forces that in the past led to the growth of communism have now resulted in individuals embracing fundamentalism. This is particularly true in the Islamic world, which has been undergoing a period of rapid change over the past fifty years. Though Westernization and modernization have benefitted many, particularly members of the upper economic and professional classes, it has unsettled even larger numbers. When such changes took place in the United States and other Western countries in the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth centuries, it gave rise to movements ranging from secular socialism to the rebirth of Protestant fundamentalism, to utopian dreaming.

For a time, communism seemed to be the movement of the future, and many fell under its sway. Communism differs from fundamentalism in its ultimate worldview. It looked to the future rather than the past. Communism claimed to accept the modern world but hoped to make it more egalitarian. Fundamentalists, for their part, have responded to the crises of today by attempting to turn the clock back.

With the weakening not only of communism but of democratic socialism, it is easy to understand why Islamic fundamentalism with its simplistic answers appears to be so attractive. The communist alternative seems no longer viable to most, and Islam never had the utopian tradition of the West. Fundamentalism, however, is stronger than it might otherwise have been, particularly in Islamic third-world countries, because the United States' fear of communism led it to support any alternative, including fundamentalism, which previously had been only a fringe movement. The United States also had another reason for supporting fundamentalism - namely, vast quantities of Arab oil, mostly in more conservative Arabic countries such as Saudi Arabia - and it did not want to threaten the American investments there.

The result was that money from both the U.S. government and U.S. businesses (as well as those of some other Western countries) supported Islamic fundamentalism. The most noticeable result of this effort was the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by a coalition of forces, made up mostly of Islamic fundamentalists. The defeat caused tremendous disillusionment in the Soviet Union.

In Egypt, when Nasser broke with the United States over its refusal to build the Aswan Dam, he turned to the Soviets. American policy makers saw the Islamic fundamentalists, whom Nasser opposed, as an irritant in his side. Fundamentalists were also seen as a potential source of opposition to Khadafi in Libya. Even in countries that were friendly to us, as Egypt later came to be, and as the Shah in Iran was, we gave refugee status to fundamentalists who opposed them, in part to curry favor with the conservative Arab powers.

Similar action was taken by France regarding regimes in French-speaking North Africa and by England with many parts of its former empire. In fact, Islamic fundamentalism thrived in France, in England, and to some extent in the United States, and the fundamentalists funneled money and arms to their compatriots back home, often assisted by the Central Intelligence Agency as in Oliver North's arms deals. As the United States began to slowly awaken to the dangers of its policy with the assassination of Sadat in Egypt and the fall of the Shah in Iran, it began to withdraw some support. The United States supported Saddam Hussein and his efforts against Islamic fundamentalists. It also took some tentative steps toward ending our long dispute with Syria. Since both Iraq and Syria claimed to be "secular" states, this marked some change in our policy. Even when Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait, the United States government was reluctant to force him to resign, fearful that his removal would make fundamentalist Iran more dangerous. …