Islamic Fundamenalists Surge Forward

April 04, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — During the days leading up to this Easter weekend -- religious season for a society that largely has lost its specific religious convictions, even if new forms of religious sentiment or sentimentality abound -- the Islamic world has provided a demonstration of just how serious religion can be.

Algeria is on the brink of something close to civil war as a result of an uprising of Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists against the repressive military government that is the legatee of the freedom movement of the 1950s, the FLN, or National Liberation Front. Afghanistan continues to be ravaged by civil war between religious factions and secular forces.

Local elections in Turkey have given unexpected success to an Islamic fundamentalist party there, which last Sunday gained the most important office up for election, that of lord mayor of Istanbul, with 25 percent of the vote. Although the national average of electoral support for the Islamic fundamentalists remains below 20 percent, this result was nonetheless significant.

In the past Turkey's protest votes have generally gone to parties of the left. This time they were given to a party of extreme social conservatism whose purpose is to cut Turkey away from the influence of the modern West. The Western-influenced Turkish left seems no longer to offer an alternative that voters find credible.

Turkey after the First World War was the initial Islamic country to break away from the theocratic political tradition that in the past deprived Islamic governments of secular political legitimacy. In Christian Europe, the Christian emperor had a divine right to ''the things that are Caesar's,'' sanctioned by Christ's words in the New Testament. Religion functioned in its own sphere.

In Islam, as the eminent American scholar Bernard Lewis has said, ''the principal function of government is to enable the individual Moslem to live a good Moslem life. This is, in the last analysis, the purpose of the state . . . '' This is the regime the Islamic fundamentalists want to re-establish.

The Turkish military revolutionary Kemal Ataturk was from the start an aggressive seculizer, banning polygamy, emancipating women and making civil marriage, the Western alphabet and Western-style education compulsory. To the extent that last week's vote represents a repudiation of Ataturk's reforms, it was a challenge of great moment to modern Turkey's leaders and to its government, headed by a female prime minister, Tansu Ciller.

People in the Islamic world are turning to the fundamentalists because of the failures of the secular model of modernization. There is a serious loss of morale among the modernizers themselves. In part this failure is economic, generating unbalanced growth and the breakdown of traditional institutions, but at a deeper level it is moral.

The modern world -- the Western world, as it is presented to the Islamic peoples -- seems morally anarchical or actively immoral. The Islamic fundamentalists promise to reestablish the values of Islam's own past.

They are most unlikely to be able to fulfill that promise, since past is past, and the forces of secularization and internationalization are in the long term likely to prevail over any effort to turn back. But the form society will assume in many non-Westerncountries may prove to be very distant from the liberal West.

And the liberal West -- modern secular and scientific society -- is not itself in particularly good shape today. The violence and moral anarchy, or the mere aimlessness, of much in contemporary American society is painfully apparent, to Americans most of all. A part of the American intellectual class is even searching for a new national politico-moral orientation in some kind of amalgam of cultural influences, to substitute for those of the American and Western past, naively considered discredited by the evils with which they have been associated.

Societies dominated until the First World War by an official Christianity, and divided in their mid-20th century allegiances by the rivalry between Enlightenment liberalism and apocalyptic communism, now lack a mobilizing vision of the future.

The recent Italian parliamentary election result, for example, in which the Ross Perot-like television magnate Silvio Berlusconi emerged as the country's principal political figure, with a program of demagogic promises, was produced by decades of corruption in both Christian Democratic and Socialist parties, and by the loss of the communists' vision of a supposedly progressive alternative.

France has just endured nearly two weeks of often violent protest against government measures intended to promote youth employment. The emotional reality of the protests was denunciation of a future in which it seems that vast numbers may be deprived of meaningful work by modern capitalism's implacable redistribution of the economic cards in favor of developing countries with low-wage, low-benefit, low-protection labor forces.

Without work, people are literally demoralized, but so are entire societies. Freud once remarked that work is the principal factor binding most people to reality. One works not only for one's self but nearly always in some kind of collective enterprise with a moral quality: to make a better life for one's children, if only that. The Islamic fundamentalists say they offer a society of moral integrity and purpose. Western demagogues offer that, and jobs as well. All respond to a popular sense that the moral gravity of society has been lost; and that is an ethical issue.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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