Islam's Resurgence and the West's Blindness

JONATHAN POWER

August 14, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. -- Maybe the Bosnian crisis is doing one thing for

Western public opinion -- making it feel sympathy, even cry tears, for Muslims.

Ever since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran 13 years ago and Iran's explosion into religious fundamentalism, Islam has seemed loom again, for the Western world, as one of those nightmare horses of the threatening apocalypse. Even as the Communist dragon was being slain, a more ancient monster raised its head -- one that pushed into Spain and much of France in the 7th and 8th centuries, and a short 300 years ago under the Turkish banner sliced through eastern Europe to the gates of Vienna.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini may be dead but his revolution lives on in Iran, only slightly moderated; and the tide of fundamentalism is sweeping through Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt -- as menacing in its own way, as Western public opinion sees it, as the secular Arab dictators Muammar el Kadafi and Saddam Hussein.

Anti-Islamic feelings in the West exert a subliminal influence not only on the hoi polloi but on high policy -- as, for example, the European Community's failure to honor its 20-year-old promise to consider Muslim Turkey's membership request.

Despite the initial success of the Persian Gulf coalition against Saddam Hussein -- and never before have large parts of the Arab world and the West stood so close -- the Western political establishment too often behaves as if resurgent Islam is a threat to be contained at any cost. Consider two quite separate developments -- the West's response to the rising strength of the fundamentalists in North Africa, and to the re-emergence of Islamic institutions and parties (but not, so far, fundamentalism) in the former Soviet Asian republics.

The decision of the Algerian military in January to annul the general election then in progress, because it appeared the party of the fundamentalists was going to win, should have been the occasion for Western leaders to stand up, loud and clear, for democracy. Instead, we got a muted official ''regret.'' Democracy is our creed -- except where militant Islam looks like it is winning.

We see the same fear of the Islamic unknown as we have watched the quite unexpected rebirth of Islam in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. The conventional wisdom used to be that seven decades of atheistic propaganda had effectively undermined the strong religious traditions of these societies. Wrong. One estimate now is that 10 new mosques are opened daily somewhere in the five new Muslim states.

Even though this new Muslim leadership appears quite moderate, demanding only the outlawing of alcohol, drugs and prostitution, the restoration of Islamic culture and the end of the still prevailing Communist domination of politics, it has been largely shunned by Western leaders.

Democracy is a top priority of these Central Asian Muslims. How could it be, given their total lack of contact, even indirect, with electoral politics? But they certainly prefer to work with minority democratic parties than with the ruling Communists.

Moreover, they're much more interested in forging contacts with well established, secular Turkey than with the theocrats of Iran. Yet when U.S. Secretary of State James Baker toured the new Central Asian states earlier this year, most of the time he didn't bother to call on the local Islamic leadership. As Robin Wright has observed in Foreign Affairs, ''the real message [from Washington] appears to be as much anti-Islam as pro-democracy.''

Islamic fundamentalism is not necessarily politically extreme in the Western sense -- certainly not in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. It may not, at the moment, incorporate Western liberal values on the role of women, judicial punishment or the separation of church and state, but Islam, too, is in the midst of its own ''Protestant Reformation'' and even among the fundamentalists there are sharp clashes of opinion and significant variations in practice between countries.

If it is sensible, the West should want to see this religious debate flourish -- and it is more likely to bloom in a democratic milieu than an authoritarian one.

The West should remember that the regimes most committed to blocking Islamist movements are Libya's Mr. Kadafi, Syria's Hafez el Assad, Iraq's Mr. Hussein and Algeria's army strongmen -- just those most bitterly opposed to democracy.

Of course, the Islamic resurgence does present a challenge to the West's own half-forgotten, sporadically practiced religious values. But the revival of Islamic fervor also offers, if it takes a democratic form, perhaps the best opportunity of peace and tolerance between the Christian and Muslim worlds since the 11th century.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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