Magazine article USA TODAY

Should We Fear Islamic Fundamentalists?

Magazine article USA TODAY

Should We Fear Islamic Fundamentalists?

Article excerpt

IT IS TEMPTING to dismiss the fundamentalists accused of bombing the World Trade Center and planning a host of other violent actions in New York as deranged fanatics, and amateurish ones at that. Yet, to do so is to ignore the fact that radical Islamists, in the U.S. and the Middle East, are pursuing an ambitious political agenda. It also is tempting to characterize the fundamentalists as a fringe group on the periphery of Middle Eastern politics, when, actually, their destabilizing activities are at the center of the region's troubles. Without illusions, Washington must recognize that the slow triumph of militant Islam in the Middle East not only will pose a major threat to the U.S.'s position in the region, but also will bring terrorism to American shores.

The U.S. and its Arab allies are losing steadily to Islamic forces energized by several new trends in the Middle East. The first of these is a crisis of authority. Throughout the region, a widening gap is evident between discredited state structures and increasingly active civil societies. Yesterday's radical shibboleths no longer can legitimatize authoritarian regimes. Even raw power no longer may be enough to suppress the growth of militant Islam. Grass-roots politics, from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, increasingly is Islamic in nature, and its adherents are scornful of the secular Arab order, peace with Israel, and American policy in the Middle East.

The second trend is the paradox of democracy. On the face of it, global democratization represents a vindication of the American experience and should work to the advantage of its regional allies. Yet, when given a choice, voters in the Middle East have rejected their authoritarian and pro-American incumbents, favoring instead parties claiming that "Islam is the solution.

The enthusiasm Islamists now evince for democracy may be merely tactical. Yet, they are correct in objecting to the U.S.'s selective support for democratization and its willingness to see elections abrogated if the results prove unfavorable, as occurred in Algeria.

Even if Washington's authoritarian Arab allies are able to keep the Islamists at bay, they may lose in the long run, through a process of generational change. This third trend is the "graying" of the Arab power-elite. Despite its reputation for turmoil, the outstanding characteristic of modern Arab politics has been the stability of its leadership. King Hussein has ruled Jordan since Pres. Dwight Eisenhower's day. Syria's Hafez al-Assad, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, and the Palestine Liberation Organization's Yasser Arafat all came to power at roughly the same time, 1968-70. Along with the Persian Gulf rulers and the Anwar Sadat-Hosni Mubarak regimes in Egypt, these men long have held sway over the Middle East, defining its political culture.

This will change as the old elite loses its grip on the levers of power. A generational revolt is under way, with Arab "baby boomers" spurning their father's secular ideologies and preoccupations. The younger generation seems to favor an Islamic agenda that features a militant rejection of the old guard's compromises with the West and Israel.

The last trend is the Middle East's increasing independence from outside powers and the world's growing indifference to its problems. Without a sustained American presence, it is difficult to imagine such U.S. allies as Egypt or Saudi Arabia heading a stable regional order for very long, lacking as they do general political and ideological support. Some type of counterforce, most likely Islamic in nature, is bound to challenge the pro-American order. At the cutting edge of this challenge is a loose network of Islamic activists.

This network is not a centrally controlled "Islamintern," but, rather, an informal array of contacts between those states and movements sharing a similar ideological and political agenda. Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman's Islamic Group, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations are animated primarily by local conditions. …

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