Democracy Is the Best Antidote to Fundamentalism

JONATHAN POWER

March 12, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

London. -- The World Trade Center bomb seems to have inextricably linked the word ''terrorist'' to ''fundamentalist.'' The Muslim faith, in particular its Arab adherents, are demonized once more. As Martin Luther wrote: ''Mohammed is a kingdom of revenge, wrath and desolation.'' Three centuries ago it was at the gates of Vienna. Today it is at the port of New York.

Secular society always feels threatened by religious fervor. This goes as much for America's Republican party, periodically at risk of takeover by Christian fundamentalists, as it does for India's Congress party, confronted by the rising tide of Hindu fanaticism, as it does for Israel where steps toward a Middle East peace are often quashed by the religious right.

Whatever the religion, the fundamentalist agenda has many common points -- a return to family values, a revulsion at pornography, corruption and the careless, consumer society. Much of this is the instinctive impulse of thoughtful people in a world that sometimes appears to be running amok, due to too-rapid urbanization and modernization, rising unemployment even for the educated, and the breakdown of family life. It is a healthy reaction unless it turns into intolerance.

But that is the flaw that too of ten marks movements of reform. They attract those who are prone to zealotry.

Whether Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or Judaism, we should be careful to distinguish the zealots from the ordinary worshipers. Moreover, Islamist groups are not monolithic. Some backed Iraq during the Gulf war; others were on the side of the coalition. Some are non-violent and oriented toward democracy; others operate in small, secretive, violence-prone groups known as gamaat.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood in recent years has been a mainstream group, working usually within the law and building a wide electoral appeal, although the government has consistently refused free elections. In marked contrast, the gamaat regularly kill high government officials and, over the last year, have crippled the country's important tourist industry by their murderous attacks on foreign vacationers.

In Algeria, until the electoral process was interrupted by the government in January 1992, it looked as if the fundamentalists would come to power without a shot being fired. Now the zealots, who have little compunction about the use of violence, have been given the upper hand.

There's no question that the more militant forms of Islam are on an upswing. That is, in large measure, because of the missteps taken by their opponents -- at home, in the West and in Israel.

When Arab governments with impotent, corrupt bureaucracies cut social budgets because of past economic errors and overspending on arms imports, it's not surprising that the

fundamentalists who offer free medical treatment, clean the streets and distribute cheap photocopies of textbooks, win the alliance of both the poor and the educated -- particularly when the latter can't find jobs.

So concerned has the West been with its strategic interests and arms markets in the Middle East it has never effectively pushed for democracy, the one tool that could both combat zealotry and give the Islamists a reasonable voice. It was nothing less than outrageous that the West's voice was totally muted when the generals aborted Algeria's election.

Although all Arab governments shy away from democracy to a greater or lesser degree, that's not true of all Islamic nations. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Mali and Senegal are all Muslim-majority nations, all have large measures of democracy and all are able to keep fundamentalist feelings in reasonable check.

Democracy offers the Arab states the only way out of what is rapidly becoming a violent head-on collision. If the fundamentalists were in power or in serious parliamentary opposition, they would find just how difficult it is to devise workable economic and social policies. Over time they would temper their more radical views.

Nothing would pull the fundamentalist sting quicker than democratic rights for the Palestinians. Hamas, the fundamentalist group, is now punching holes into the secularist Palestine Liberation Organization because it can convincingly argue that Israel triumphs because it is faithful to its religion while Arabs are not. Shortsightedly, Israel reacts sharply to Hamas killings while refusing to move quickly toward democratic rights for the Palestinians on the West Bank.

It is here that the future of Islamic zealotry will probably be made or unmade. It should come as no surprise if we learn that the powder trail from the World Trade Center leads to Palestine.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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