Fundamentalism's Angry Roar in Algeria

August 11, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- Revolutions are hard on moderates. They usually turn into a struggle between the most intransigent reactionaries and the most radical of the revolutionaries. That seems to be happening in Algeria, and the result could feed the paranoia about Islamic fundamentalism already apparent in the United States and Western Europe.

The French are bracing themselves right now for possible terrorist retaliation for the round-up of Algerian fundamentalist activists that has been going on since the weekend. This action followed the murder in Algiers of five French nationals connected to the embassy there. They were the latest of 57 foreigners murdered by Algerian fundamentalists during the last 11 months.

If the fundamentalists do win in Algeria, not only Algerians will have a problem. The proposition that we are doomed to decades of a ''war of civilizations'' -- as advanced by Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington and taken up by many others -- is making its way into the American as well as European consciousness in a manner that unpleasantly recalls the 19th century's paranoia about the Yellow Peril.

This ignores two basic points about Islamic fundamentalism today. The first is that it primarily concerns Muslims, not the West. The people mostly in danger in Algeria are Algerians. Hundreds of Algerian teachers, intellectuals, editors and journalists, soldiers and policemen, and ordinary people in the street have been murdered in the course of this struggle. The European victims of the affair are an afterthought.

The idea that the West is the target of Islamic fundamentalism incorporates a gross error. It is true that fundamentalism opposes Western culture as well as the West's political influence.

But the aim of the fundamentalist movement is to drive the West and all of its works and pomps out of the Islamic world, so that its totalitarian version of godliness can reign there unimpeded. No sane fundamentalist wants to conquer a Western country -- filled with those he considers infidels and pagans.

The attacks on the West by Islamic fundamentalists fall into one or the other of two categories. The first is punishment of the West for alleged crimes against Islam. That is the reason American diplomats were taken hostage in Iran in 1979; the United States had sponsored the Shah of Iran's misconceived efforts to westernize Iran. The United States is also the ally of Israel and supports moderate Muslim governments. That is why New York's World Trade Center was bombed.

The other motive for terrorism has been to win release of Islamic fundamentalists held prisoner in the West (or elsewhere, notably in Kuwait) because of earlier acts of terrorism. Most of the Beirut kidnappings were blackmail for prisoner releases. Blackmail was the motive for the 1986 bomb attacks in Paris.

The next thing to understand about fundamentalism is that in the long run it will fail. The turning point may even have been reached last week. The movement will fail because its attempt to recreate a utopian version of the past simply won't work. History can't be reversed. Algeria has no more chance of recreating a theocentric society than the West has of recreating the integrally religious Christendom of the 13th century.

The turning point conceivably occurred last week with the announcement by one of the Algerian terrorist groups that it intends to kill students and teachers when secondary schools and universities resume this fall. The only schooling it wants to permit is that conducted in strict Islamic religious institutions. This threat was accompanied by the murder of the director of the Agricultural Institute of the University of Blida, just south of Algiers. It was the latest in more than 15 recent murders of teachers -- some carried out inside the classroom itself.

Islamic fundamentalism has made progress because it promises improvement in the lives of ordinary people, after the abject failure of nationalism and ''Arab Socialism.'' Those mostly produced impoverished economies and military government, as in Algeria, or sordid personal dictatorships, as in Iraq, Syria and Libya. The Islamic fundamentalists say that a return to strict religious observance will better peoples' lives.

But people know that their children have no hope at all if they cannot be educated in the subjects that make the world go around. They know that agricultural research and education is essential to their countries' futures. They understand that their children have to learn engineering, science, accounting, foreign languages and a variety of other practical subjects if they are to have any chance of betterment.

Possibly this attack, and this threat, were provocations. More plausible is that they were real, and that the Islamic revolution in Algeria is being taken over by its most extreme elements. If that happens, the future actually looks brighter. After extremism, the Terror, comes rational reaction and practicality, the Thermidor. It is just possible -- admittedly, only possible -- that the Algerian crisis approaches the beginning of its end.

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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