The Political Challenge of Militant Islam

RICHARD N. HAASS

April 28, 1993|By RICHARD N. HAASS

The association of Muslims with terrorists is unfair, for most

devout Muslims are anything but. It is also unwise. Terrorism is only one manifestation of the challenge posed by Islamic militants, and not the principal one at that. The real threat posed by militant Islam is political. If fundamentalists -- people committed to creating societies organized around Islamic foreign policy -- triumph, the results would be catastrophic.

If Iran is any guide, fundamentalist regimes would persecute minorities and eliminate all political opposition. Islam is not just a religion but a way of life, the fusion of political and religious authority. The absence of any division, of any secularism, means there is no brake on power, no check, no balance. Using terror and subversion, fundamentalist regimes would seek to undermine neighboring governments, including orthodox but not fundamentalist Saudi Arabia; success would likely result in a domino effect. This would threaten Middle East peace talks, as non-acceptance of Israel is a tenet, and would also threaten the availability of oil.

Egypt is fast becoming the next battleground with the fundamentalists. It is also key. Egypt has half the Arab world's population; whatever happens there will have an impact throughout the Middle East and the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

Moreover, Egypt is the only Arab state to have made peace with Israel. If an Islamic Republic of Egypt comes to pass and tears up the treaty with Israel, all Israelis will draw the lesson that no peace accord justifies giving up territory. There will be no peace process, just an isolated, garrisoned Israel.

Why is fundamentalism rising? Islamic history in particular suggests religious fervor is often stimulated by events that create self-doubt. The gulf war was such an event, combining as it did Iraq's humiliation and greater dependence upon the West. Key as well was Iran's revolution. It provided an example and a beachhead. Fundamentalists are receiving assistance from governments, groups and individuals, some in this country.

But the key to the fundamentalist surge lies in what is going on inside Mideast societies. Traditional governments have failed to decentralize real authority over economic and political affairs. They often fail to deliver basic social services. Corruption is tolerated. When this happens, as in both Iran and Algeria, people gravitate to the mosque and religious institutions, more from frustration with out-of-touch and inefficient regimes than from anything pious. All other ''isms'' -- communism, nationalism, pan-Arabism -- have proved false gods; many Muslims are turning to their real one.

What can be done to meet this challenge? Political reform is essential. Those countries without working parliaments need to create them; those with parliaments should expand their responsibilities, as well as who can vote for them and sit in them. In addition, governments should permit the gradual emergence of other elements of civic life, including a fair judiciary, a free press, labor unions and professional associations. Men and women will defend only systems in which they have real stakes.

Second, there is a crying need for economic liberalization, including deregulation and privatization. Governments are understandably wary that reform will trigger unrest as prices and unemployment rise and subsidies fall. It will, but such unrest is preferable to the upheaval likely to result from a failure to place economies on a trajectory that will sustain growth and create jobs.

With so much at stake, the United States can't afford to be a bystander. We need to promote political reform, but with great care, never in haste, never insisting on any particular model of democracy. We shouldn't confuse elections with democracy; Iran is a perfect example of the former without the latter. Democracy requires independent political and economic institutions; elections should take place only in their midst, in an environment in which all elements of society can compete.

We will have to be tolerant on the question of human rights and the role of the military. There will be challenges to order that will require firm responses. Turkey's military has intervened several times to save democracy; a step backward is sometimes necessary to preserve the chance to move forward.

Lastly, the United States should push hard for real economic reform, but should also be generous with aid and investment. This is no time to reduce aid; outside help can provide the necessary ''bridge'' for governments -- especially Egypt's -- as they undertake reforms necessary economically but unpopular politically. Success in the long term requires that governments survive the short term.

A great deal is at stake. There is no way to do away with the fundamentalist challenge; it can only be managed. But the potential to do so exists if governments act and we support them. We went to war for our interests in this part of the world; we should be willing to do what we can to win the peace.

Richard N. Haass, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was senior Mideast adviser on the National Security Council staff from 1989 to 1993. He wrote this article for Newsday.

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