The West's role in Muslim extremism

Stephen Zunes

March 18, 1993|By Stephen Zunes

THE possibility that terrorism by Muslim fundamentalists may well have reached America's shores has already reinforced ugly stereotypes of Muslims. In reality, the vast majority of Muslims -- both in the U.S. and abroad -- not only oppose terrorism; they also reject the religious intolerance and the oppression of women practiced by some of their co-religionists.

Indeed, over the past 500 years, Western countries have experienced far more warfare, instability and intolerance than has the Muslim world.

At the same time, the reasons why a small but increasingly dangerous minority of Muslims have embraced extremist ideologies and violent tactics must be clearly understood for the West to be able to respond effectively.

The scientific and other advances from the Muslim world helped bring the West out of the Dark Ages. Still, the relationship between the West and Islamic countries has been largely hostile. From the time of the Crusades, through the European colonial era, to the wholesale bombing of Iraq two years ago, Western Christians have killed far more Muslims than Muslims have killed Western Christians.

It is noteworthy that when predominantly Muslim countries have sought to create democratic secular governments, they have been crushed by hard-line Christian militias with either the acquiescence or outright support of Western nations.

In the 1970s, when the predominantly Muslim but secular Lebanese National Movement tried to overturn the undemocratic sectarian state system imposed by the French, they were defeated by the rightist Christian Phalangists, clandestinely backed by the French, Israelis and Americans.

Today, Western powers have refused to respond forcefully to the brutal invasion of Bosnia by Serbian Christians, and are even pressuring the Bosnian government to abolish a secular unitary system for an effective partition of the country along religious lines. Had the situation instead been one of Muslims slaughtering Christians, there is little doubt that Western countries would have come to the defense of international law.

With the exception of Algeria, with its unique set of historic circumstances, it is the West which has been largely responsible for the rise of modern Islamic fundamentalist movements. The 1953 overthrow by the CIA of the moderate constitutional government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, followed by years of support for the brutal regime of the shah, led directly to the rise of the Islamic revolution in that country.

Largely unregulated Western economic penetration in Egypt and Tunisia has led to widespread social dislocation and gross inequalities which have spearheaded these All the military and police resources the U.S. can muster against terrorism will not be enough if such efforts focus exclusively on the end results.

countries' fundamentalist movements. In Lebanon, Islamic fundamentalism had never been a factor in that country's politics until after the 1982 Israeli invasion and the subsequent U.S. military intervention in support of the minority Phalangist government.

The Palestinians, with a large Christian minority and a highly educated population, were once thought to be the least susceptible to Islamic extremism. However, years of increasingly repressive Israeli occupation -- made possible by large-scale U.S. economic, military and diplomatic support -- have led to the rise of Muslim fundamentalists. The refusal of the U.S., the convener of the Middle East peace talks, to accept the creation of a Palestinian mini-state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel has led many Palestinians to drop the increasingly HTC moderate Palestine Liberation Organization and embrace the dangerously radical Hamas movement.

Ironically, Hamas is funded primarily from Saudi and Kuwaiti sources, whose governments are strongly supported by the United States. Meanwhile, the U.S. refuses even to talk with the PLO or include it in the negotiations, despite the PLO's rejection of Islamic fundamentalism and its unilateral recognition of Israel. The U.S. has even blocked enforcement of the United Nations Security Council resolution insisting that Israel rescind its illegal expulsion of 400 Palestinian Muslims, even though their exile has greatly enhanced the popularity of Hamas in the occupied territories at the expense of moderate nationalists.

This raises questions as to whether the United States really opposes Islamic fundamentalism. Most U.S. aid to the Afghan resistance went to the most extremist fundamentalist faction, which has since launched bloody attacks to overthrow the more moderate post-communist Islamic government. The U.S. also heavily armed a fundamentalist-oriented military government in Pakistan throughout the 1980s and clandestinely supplied weapons to the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime in Iran.

If the Clinton administration is truly concerned about stopping Islamic fundamentalism, it must dedicate itself to stopping the sources of the instability that breeds it; the U.S. must cease its support of fundamentalist movements, end its opposition to the establishment of a Middle East Development Bank, stop arming and supporting Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes and support the Palestinians' right to self-determination alongside a secure Israel.

All the military and police resources the U.S. can muster against terrorism will not be enough if such efforts focus exclusively on the end results. Terrorism can never be justified. But only by understanding and addressing the root causes of movements which embrace such tactics can it be stopped.

Stephen Zunes is a research fellow at the Institute for Global Security Studies in Seattle and director of the Institute for a New Middle East Policy.

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