Radical Islam

April 21, 1995|By Leon T. Hadar

FROM HOME and abroad voices have begun to counsel America that with communism's death, the world must prepare for a new threat -- radical Islam.

This threat is symbolized by the Middle Eastern Muslim fundamentalist, a Khomeini-like creature armed with a radical ideology and nuclear weapons, intent on launching a violent jihad, or holy war, against Western civilization.

The image has been magnified by the trial of a group of Muslim terrorists from the Middle East in the bombing of New York's World Trade Center.

But if anything, an attempt to build up Islam as the new enemy of the West plays into the hands of isolated groups who want to create a sense of a coming world war between Christianity and Islam -- groups such as the one allegedly involved in the World Trade Center bombing.

Like the Red Menace of the Cold War era, the Green Peril -- green being the color of Islam -- is now being described as a cancer spreading around the globe, undermining the legitimacy of Western values and threatening U.S. national security.

In short, all the instability in the post-Cold War Middle East and its peripheries is described as part of a grand scheme perpetrated by "Islam International."

ZTC But far from being a unified power, Islam is, in fact, currently on the defensive against militant anti-Muslim fundamentalists.

In the former Yugoslavia, the Westernized and secular Muslim is threatened with extinction by Serbian nationalism, with its strong connection to the Eastern Orthodox Church.

In Central Asia, the old communist guard, with support from Russian nationalists, has campaigned against both Westernized and Islamic opposition groups, sending a wave of Muslim refugees from Tajikistan into Afghanistan.

In France and Germany, racist and neo-Nazi groups have tried to violently eject large Muslim immigrant populations. These developments do not reflect a war between Western and Islamic civilizations.

Ironically, the most militant and successful Islamic fundamentalist offensive was led and financed by the United States.

The broad coalition of Mujahadeen freedom fighters, trained by Washington and the Pakistani government, successfully ousted the Moscow-backed regime in Afghanistan in April 1992.

Sheik Rahman and the World Trade Center bombing suspects had been involved in recruiting volunteers to fight with the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan.

The Islamic movement -- unlike communism in its heyday -- is not a powerful global ideology competing with democracy.

Rather, as an umbrella for diverse and disorganized political ideologies, political Islam is only one of the many and multifaceted elements in the colorful Middle Eastern tapestry.

The political clout the Islamists now have is due not to the desire of Arabs and others to live under strict Islamic rule, but to the perceived failure of Western models of political and economic order, including nationalism and socialism, to solve the Middle East's problems.

The Islamic groups combine a strange mix of atavism, romanticism and a respect for certain free-market ideas and for Western technology.

The mosque and the audiocassette have become their two major propaganda tools, reflecting the love-hate prism through which they view the West.

The greatest hypocrisy in the debate over political Islam is the fact that Americans have fought a war and committed their military and diplomatic power to secure the survival of the most fundamentalist state of all -- Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government is actually more rigid in its application of Islamic law and more repressive in many respects than the one in Tehran.

Saudi Arabia has no form of popular representation. Political rights are totally denied to women and non-Muslims. The regime has consistently applied sharia to criminal justice. It has financed a variety of Islamic groups worldwide, including the Hamas.

Its ruler, King Fahd, has publicly stated that the "democratic system that is predominant in the world is not a suitable system for the peoples of our region" and that "the system of free elections is not suitable to our country."

Indeed, Saudi Arabia, like all the other Arab oil-exporting states of the Persian Gulf, is an absolute monarchy that does not recognize the concepts of civil rights or civil liberties.

The United States should take a cue from one of President Clinton's predecessors at the White House, John Quincy Adams, and resist the pressures to go "abroad in search of monsters to destroy."

Indeed, looking for the imaginary Muslim monsters will involve major costs for the United States, including a possible rise in terrorist activity in the United States.

Leon T. Hadar teaches at the American University School of International Service and is an adjunct scholar in foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute. This article is adapted from a longer version in Foreign Affairs magazine.

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