Is Islam a Threat to International Peace and Security?

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Is Islam a Threat to International Peace and Security?


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


The Cold War is over. Some people are arguing that Islam is the new threat. For example, Samuel Huntington of Harvard in a well known article 'The Clash of Civilizations (Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993) has argued that in the post-Cold War world, cultures or civilizations consisting of groups of countries will be the basic unit of international relations; the world's two major cultures are those of the West and Islam; because Islam's values are different from those of the West, a clash is inevitable. Or is it?

This article will argue that, although some Islamic groups are a threat to local peace and security in some countries, the Islamic world is not united enough or ill-motivated enough to constitute a threat to international peace and security. Instead of being afraid of Islam and preparing for some grand clash with it, it is necessary to understand it. A more discerning view of Islam will enable governments to better interpret what is happening and how to react.

Iran is a good example of how a situation can be misunderstood. Iran is now seen as the harbinger of the new era of Islamic-based governments (in September, Afghanistan became the latest country to have a strictly Islamic government). It has been an inspiration to groups throughout the Arab world (and parts of Central Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia). But back in the 1960s it was generally thought that politics had broken away from religion, and that as societies became more industrialized, so religious belief and practice would be reduced to the private sphere (if not wither away entirely in a new secular era). Iran was seen as a US showpiece of modernization. Blinded partly by this belief in the blessings of modernization, the CIA failed to assess accurately the popularity of Ayatollah Khomeini or to predict the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979. In the early months of the Iranian revolution, some American scholars refused to accept the revolution as genuine; they thought it was only an interruption to the historical process. Modernization based on economic growth would, they claimed, always win out.

I was in Iran in 1973 and was also impressed with the surface results of the Shah's attempt to modernize the country (while restricting civil and political rights). The Shah's tight control over dissent prohibited any public debate over the way in which many Iranians were alienated by the changes. As a Westerner, it seemed natural to me that Iranians would want the 'good things' of Western life. Like the CIA, I looked at Iran from a Western viewpoint. But underneath the economic change, there lurked a deep resentment at the way in which the West had in 1953 overthrown the moderate constitutional government of Muhammad Mossadegh and kept the Shah in power by quelling all dissent. All secular opposition to the Shah was stopped; there were no moderate secular people around whom critics of the Shah could rally. The mosques were the only viable source of resistance. The result was a strongly Islamic movement which had - and retains - a virulent antipathy for the West.

The West needs to learn from its mistakes in Iran to avoid repeating them elsewhere in the Islamic world. There is more to life than just surface appearances; there is more to life than just the pursuit of money; military power has its limitations, especially when there is widespread popular support for the other point of view.

There are various reasons for the revival of Islam as a political force during this century, especially since 1945. First, there is still a deep-seated resentment at the West's violence to Islam over the centuries. Many more Moslems have been killed by Christians, than Christians have been killed by Moslems. Colonial countries like the UK have tended to forget about their imperial pasts; immediate economic, sporting and entertainment matters get priority; the younger British generation have no direct experience of living in a world 'when one third of the map was British'. …

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