Islam, Democracy and the West

Courtesy Reuters

Thirteen years after the Iranian Revolution wrought the world’s first modern theocracy, Islam is once again emerging as a powerful political idiom. Not only in the Middle East, but from north and west Africa to the former Asian republics of the Soviet Union, from India to western China, Islam is increasingly a defining force in evolving political agendas. The new burst of activism has reached such proportions that, with the demise of communism, Islam is increasingly—and erroneously—being perceived as one of the future ideological rivals to the West.

The latest phase began in the late 1980s. It varies distinctly from the Islamic experience in Iran in 1979, in Lebanon after 1982 and among a host of smaller cells in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria and elsewhere during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The two most conspicuous differences are the constituency and tactics of the new Islamists.


The first phase was more often associated with Shiite Muslims, Islam’s so?called second sect. Besides the Iranian Revolution, groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraq’s Dawa, which also operated on the Shiite?populated eastern shores of the Arabian peninsula, accounted for the most visible and enduring activism. The recent resurgence of Islam, however, is more prevalent among the mainstream Sunni, who account for at least 85 percent of the world’s one billion Muslims. The Sunni are also spread more widely through the 75 nations that constitute Dar al Islam, or House of Islam. With the exceptions of Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Yemen, the Sunni dominate countries stretching from Africa to the Levant, the Arabian peninsula, across the southern tier of the new Commonwealth of Independent States, into western China, south Asia and as far east as Indonesia, the most populous Muslim state.

Unlike the extremism that typified the first resurgence—in political upheavals as well as suicide bombings, hijackings and hostage seizures—the new Islamic activism is now characterized by attempts to work within the system rather than outside

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