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 it. Since 1989, for example, Islamists from diverse groups have run for parliament in Jordan and Algeria. Indonesia’s largest Muslim movement, which has support from up to 40 million people, has held peaceful rallies this year to urge democratic reforms in the authoritarian state. Since the dismemberment of the Soviet Union in 1991, Islamists in the former Central Asian republics have petitioned for legal recognition, to end years as underground movements, so they can run for public office.
Reasons for the new preference for ballots over bullets vary within each country and movement, but they generally reflect an acknowledgement that the costs of extremism in the 1980s proved too high. Iran’s isolation, for example, forced it backward economically, not forward. Also the demise of communism starkly illustrated the joint dangers of totalitarian rule and confrontation with the West. Islamists have not failed to recognize that pluralism and interdependence are the catchwords of the 1990s.
Cooperation has by no means fully replaced confrontation. But in key regions Islamists are no longer simply striking out angrily at what they do not like. After centuries marked mainly by dormancy, colonialism and failed experiments with Western ideologies, many Islamists feel they have a mandate to create constructive alternatives. Further pressed by the same factors that have led to political and economic transformations globally, a growing number of Islamists are now trying to reconcile moral and religious tenets with modern life, political competition and free markets. Few Islamists, as yet, have suitable or complete answers. The common campaign slogan, "Islam is the solution," remains simplistically inadequate.
Politicized Islam is not alone. At the end of the twentieth century, religion has become an energetic and dynamic force for change worldwide. Among the struggling societies attempting both to rid themselves of bankrupt or inefficient systems and to find viable alternatives, religion provides ideals, identity, legitimacy and an infrastructure during the search. In varying degrees, Buddhists in east Asia, Catholics in eastern Europe, Latin America and the Philippines, Sikhs and Hindus in India and even Jews in Israel have turned to their faith to define their goals and to mobilize.
The various attempts within Islam, however, also reflect a deeper quest—one that could make the Islamists’ impact broader or more lasting, because Islam is the only major monotheistic religion that offers not only a set of spiritual beliefs but a set of rules by which to govern society. Besides the challenge of finding a place in the new global order, Islam is now at a pivotal and profound moment of evolution, a juncture increasingly equated with the Protestant Reformation. The traditional role of the faith, its leadership, organization, priorities and interpretation, are also under scrutiny.
The changing focus is reflected even in the names. The first phase of the Islamic resurgence was often symbolized by a host of groups—in Lebanon, Egypt and Israel’s occupied territories—named Islamic Jihad, or Holy War, while the latest activism is most noted for groups—from Tunisia to Tajikistan—called the Islamic Renaissance Party. The challenge is as much within Islam as in the countries and systems in which Muslims live. In many ways Islamic societies now find themselves in the opening rounds of what the West went through in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in redefining both the relationship between God and man and between man and man.
The challenge for Islamists is all the greater because the political climate—at home and in the international arena—is hardly conducive to reforms or experimentation, much less full expression. The specter of Iran’s revolutionary excesses and Lebanon’s terrorist zealotry continues to color local and Western attitudes toward Islam. Despite the growing body of evidence to the contrary, Islam is still widely—and again wrongly—perceived as inherently extremist. Despite the many shades and shapes of Islamic activism, it is also still wrongly treated as a single or monolithic force.
The spectrum of new Islamist activism is reflected strikingly in two geographic extremes of the Muslim world: north Africa and Central Asia. In both areas since 1990 Islam has become one of the principal challenges to socialist rule. Both regions present a challenge as the West tries to define its relationship with Islam after years of tension.
Algeria has become the primary test case for the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Islamic activism emerged in Algeria when President Chandli Bendjedid ended socialist one?party rule after growing public discontent was capped in 1988 by riots in which at least 400 people were killed. In the first phase of a three?part transition the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won a stunning upset in the 1990 local elections, capturing more than 60 percent of regional assemblies and 55 percent of municipal councils. The National Liberation Front (FLN), which had ruled since leading Algeria’s eight?year war against French colonialism, came in an embarrassingly poor second.
The election, the first free multiparty poll since independence in 1962, was as much a rejection of the FLN as a vote of support for the Islamists. Almost three decades of inefficient and increasingly corrupt rule had finally caught up with the FLN. By 1992 at least 14 million of Algeria’s 25 million population were estimated to live below the poverty line. With a $25 billion foreign debt that consumed almost 70 percent of its oil revenues, the government had little left to address mass grievances over chronic housing shortages, unemployment, substandard education and social services and limited development. And with 65 percent of the population under the age of 30, the majority had no memory of, much less nostalgia for, the Algerian revolution.
In contrast the energetic Islamists offered a legitimate and familiar alternative, if not a very detailed program. Their appeal was also reflected in their response to a strike called during the election by gas stations, newspapers and even trash collectors. After mounds of garbage accumulated on the streets of the Mediterranean capital, Islamists mobilized supporters to clean up the refuse with their hands. The Islamists’ commitment was in stark contrast to the malaise within the FLN.
Because of the large rejectionist vote in local elections, the second phase of the transition, elections for parliament, was expected to be a more accurate reading of the public’s political will. In the first round in December 1991, which fielded more than fifty parties, FIS captured 188 of the 231 seats decided, only 28 short of a majority. This time the FLN came in third, with only 15 seats, trailing after the Berber?dominated party, the Socialist Forces Front, which won 25. Hamas, another Islamic party, came in fourth. Although the FIS total was a million less than during the local elections, it appeared set to win a decisive parliamentary majority in the second round for 199 undecided seats scheduled for January 16, 1992.
The two elections represented a political milestone. No Islamic party since the Iranian Revolution had won such an overwhelming victory, and no Islamic party had ever definitively defeated a long?dominant power through democratic means.
But the world’s first Islamic democracy never had a chance to prove itself. Five days before the second round of elections, a "white coup" led by Defense Minister Khaled Nezzar forced Bendjedid to resign. He was replaced with a five?man High State Council, and elections were then suspended. Over the following weeks, the FIS leadership was detained and the party banned. At least 8,800 sympathizers or supporters of both FIS and Hamas—some claimed the figure was as high as 30,000—were also rounded up by late March and dispatched to detention camps in the southern Sahara desert. In an attempt to revoke the results of the 1990 local elections, dozens of mayors and many regional assembly leaders who had won power on the FIS ticket were also arrested; the assemblies were dissolved.
Islamists were the target, but democracy was the ultimate victim. The Algerian junta has hinted that it might follow through with the final phase of the transition, presidential elections, due in late 1993; but FIS is unlikely to be included. Indeed the new government’s strategy is to use the interim—with the help of foreign aid and loans and by selling off oil and gas rights—to address the grievances that led the electorate to vote for FIS. The council also reportedly favors rewriting the constitution to prevent future attempts by Islamists to enter politics. On April 29, Algeria’s Supreme Court ordered the FIS dissolved.
The junta, however, is unlikely to survive. The Algerian coup was in many ways like the abortive Moscow putsch in 1991; although the process may take longer, it will fail for similar reasons. Bendjedid’s phased transition to pluralism produced more than just multiple parties. From a handful of newspapers under state control, Algeria’s press soared to dozens of diverse and increasingly outspoken publications. Once?cloistered debate moved into open forums, while public interest groups, including a human rights movement, began to flourish. Most of all, Algerians, particularly the disaffected, tasted empowerment and liked it; its indefinite suppression will eventually produce a backlash.
The junta’s tactics have also been crass. To lead the new ruling council, the military brought back Mohammed Boudiaf, an aging revolutionary hero who fell out with his cohorts in 1963 and has lived in exile ever since. The detentions were ruthless. When security forces were unable to find a wanted Islamist, they merely picked up another family member. Many detainees have undergone summary trials and have been sentenced to two to twenty years in prison. The government also banned all public gatherings around mosques and even moved to replace 40 percent of the leaders of Algeria’s 9,000 mosques; scores of imams (Islamic religious leaders) were among those detained. Algerians have not experienced such repression since the war for independence.
But the junta is most likely to fail because it has given new legitimacy to the very force it sought to suppress—Islam. After the coup, the FLN fragmented into factions for and against the putsch, while opposition parties were unable to mobilize effectively against the junta. In the disarray, FIS was left as the force pushing hardest for democracy.
The movement’s remarkable discipline after the coup helped. Despite the riot police and army cordons around key mosques, FIS leaders repeatedly urged restraint. "The army has a scenario for us, but it is a role we will not play. We will not respond to provocation," acting FIS leader Abdelkader Hachani told thousands of the faithful at Friday prayers. Although FIS is a multifaceted movement with factions that favor different levels of activism, as well as differing versions of Islamic democracy, it was visibly united in trying to prevent bloodshed.
Even after the mass arrests, FIS demands two months after the coup were limited to release of political detainees, an end to persecution of Islamists, a dialogue with all political parties and resumption of elections. Notably it did not call for jihad. Most of the sporadic hit?and?run attacks, particularly against Algerian security forces, were linked to a host of small and loosely organized Islamic extremist cells not under FIS control. Among them were Hijra wa Takfir, or Sin and Atonement, and the Afghans, so?named for their participation in the Afghan war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s; many were reportedly trained by the CIA in Pakistan. Despite the temptation, FIS did not abandon democracy to achieve its goals.
For the Arab and Muslim worlds, Algeria is not simply a test case of the affinity of Islam and democracy. It is also a test of whether the West can reconcile with Islam. On that count the West’s record is only marginally better than the junta’s.
After the Algerian coup, Western reaction was notable largely for its passivity. The U.S. State Department officially "regretted" the suspension of the democratic process in Algeria and then fell silent. Several Western governments allowed the junta’s representatives to pay official visits to explain their plans and goals. Some even considered aid. A consortium of European and American banks provided $1.45 billion to help Algeria spread out the servicing of its debt.
Before the U.N. General Assembly last fall, President Bush said: "People everywhere seek government of and by the people. And they want to enjoy their inalienable rights to freedom and property and person." The United States, he added, supported those rights globally. If Algeria is any example, however, there is an implicit exception: any country where Islam is the winner of a democratic election.
The lack of U.S. response, at a time when the Bush administration is active and outspoken in advocating political pluralism, makes it appear that the White House prefers a police state to an Islamic democracy. Indeed the absence of an international outcry or Western condemnation—as there was, for example, after Peru’s president suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament in April—has encouraged the junta to pursue its course, a fact FIS has publicly noted. The FIS platform remains uncomfortably vague. Its achievements in Algeria’s municipalities during 18 months in power were mixed, in no small part because of disputes with FLN governors over budget allocations and priorities. Despite FIS reassurances, other Algerian parties feared the Islamists would eventually ban them and declare a theocracy, as happened in Iran.
Yet Algeria was arguably one of the best places to experiment with Islamic democracy. First, as a Mediterranean country, it is still strongly influenced by the nearby West, unlike Iran where the West had a strong arm but was physically distant. Algerian Islamists have, so far, been unusually sensitive to the West’s fears.
Second, the core issue in Islamicizing societies is implementation of sharia, Islamic law, as either a source or the source of law—a step not necessarily incompatible with Western interests. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both of which have close ties with the West, are but two of many Islamic countries where sharia holds sway.
Third, with presidential elections not scheduled until 1993, the transition had a built?in restraint. Whatever majority FIS won in parliament, Bendjedid still would have had veto power over any drastic changes to the constitution for the first two years.
Finally, it would have been preferable to have the Islamists accountable in public office rather than operating as clandestine cells outside the system. The coup has encouraged violence, ironically, much as French repression against Algerian demands for independence ignited one of the longest and bloodiest wars in the Third World.
Unfortunately too much time has now passed to go back. In Algeria the Islamists are virtually certain to prevail. The question is what will happen to FIS along the way. Over time the junta’s draconian tactics may polarize, even divide, the dominant Islamist movement, giving the upper hand to fiery young preachers like Ali Benhaj rather than thoughtful and temperate FIS leaders like Hachani, a petrochemical engineer, and philosophy professor Abassi Madani. In late March a FIS statement said the government’s refusal to engage in dialogue and its repressive tactics could lead supporters to respond with force to "return the right of the people to choose those who will govern them." The formal order to dissolve FIS virtually ensures a more militant response. And what happens in Algeria is certain to influence other parts of the Islamic world.
For the West the danger is that its reluctance to pressure the junta, or even to speak out against it, will be seen as an inherently anti?Islamic sentiment even when Islamists work through the democratic process. That perception could have long?term consequences beyond Algeria. The end result of the Algerian coup is likely to be costly for virtually everyone but the military junta.
Another vital new region of growing Islamist sentiment is in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Five predominately Muslim states have become independent since the August 1991 Moscow putsch: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Four of the five are the last bastions of strict communist rule. The exception is Kyrgyzstan although, like its neighbors, communists still control its parliament.
Islam is not new to Central Asian politics. It was one of the unifying forces in the region as far back as the eighth century. During the medieval reigns of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane in Turkestan, Islam reached its glory with contributions in science and the arts that still account for many of the region’s greatest accomplishments and monuments. Although its influence varied widely among the largely nomadic tribes and clans of the mountains and steppes, Islam thrived until tsarist Russia absorbed Turkestan in the nineteenth century and began denigrating the religion.
After Bolshevik revolutionaries refused to grant the region autonomy, Islam was still sufficiently strong to be one of two mobilizing forces in the subsequent six?year civil war. In 1920 Basmachi rebels secretly declared a new state, the Turkestan Independent Islamic Republic. It never had a chance, however, against Russian troops. To prevent further pan?Islamic and pan?Turkic nationalist movements, Stalin then carved up old Turkestan, rather arbitrarily, into the five current states and flooded Central Asia with Russian settlers in the 1920s and 1930s.
Despite seven decades of religious repression, many of the 60 million Soviet Muslims managed to keep the faith alive by teaching and practicing it in homes and illegal mosques. And since the Soviet "freedom of conscience" law was passed in 1990 Central Asia has undergone a stunning Islamic resurgence. Some estimates claim that up to ten new mosques open daily in the mineral?rich region, which shares strategic borders with Russia, China, Iran and Afghanistan. The number of madrasahs, or seminaries, is also mushrooming, as is enrollment. More important to the region’s political evolution are the various branches of the Islamic Renaissance Party. Although it finally managed to register in Moscow as a legal party in 1991, its activities were banned in four of the five Central Asian states because of communist fear of Islam as a political force.
Over the next three years Central Asia—the most conservative region during Soviet rule—faces the challenge of major political change, particularly when it comes time to vote for the first post?Soviet parliaments. The contest will pit the stalwart communists, most now renamed, against the new democrats and emerging Islamists in all five states. Despite the precedents set in the European republics, the communists in Central Asia’s parliaments show little sincere interest in opening up political systems. And despite more eager promises of economic liberalization, few have allowed the sale of valuable state properties that provide them with power, patronage and funds.
Unlike other Muslim societies, however, the Central Asians have never had direct or indirect exposure to democracy. Even in Kyrgyzstan, which has the only genuine communist?turned?democratic president, democracy remains an alien concept tied, in most people’s minds, more to economic than political freedom. Leaders of Kyrgyzstan’s Democratic Movement believe it will take at least another generation before democracy is fully understood and takes root. Elsewhere, prodemocracy groups, such as Uzbekistan’s Birlik and Tajikistan’s Democratic Party, have so far attracted mainly the small intelligentsia.
In contrast, Central Asians are quite naturally returning to their cultural roots after more than 150 years of Russian colonialism. They are reverting to their Turkic and Persian languages and abandoning the Cyrillic alphabets imposed on both tongues by Moscow. The life?cycle rituals are being restored. In this context, Islam is certain to be a major factor in shaping the future.
Islam, however, is undergoing its own upheaval, pitting "official" leaders against "unofficial" Islam. During communist rule the new imams and a handful of mosques allowed to operate in Central Asia were approved, and therefore controlled, by the state. Since the late 1970s, dissident Muslims have been operating underground, mobilizing opposition to atheistic communist rule and practicing the faith in clandestine mosques. Most of the new mosques have been privately built by local populations; most are also more closely aligned with unofficial Islam. The changes have also been reflected in attempts to remove the leadership at Tashkent’s Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Central Asia, which was the Kremlin’s mechanism of control.
At this stage the mainstream branches of the Islamic Renaissance Party have moderate goals. Most center around ending communist domination of the political, economic and religious hierarchies, restoring Islamic culture and outlawing alcohol, drugs and prostitution. Many have no objection to the relations Israel is now establishing with Central Asia.
While most favor adoption of sharia as a source of law, virtually none envision a theocracy run by the clergy or an Iranian?style Islamic republic in which other parties would be outlawed. The Islamic leader in Tajikistan, the only Farsi?speaking state in Central Asia, made a point of rejecting the Iranian model, pointing out differences between the Shia and the Sunni as well as Western and Russian fears of radical Islamic states.
In a series of interviews over the past year, Islamists throughout Central Asia and in north Africa have talked convincingly about crafting their own models of an Islamic democracy. Their versions, even within a single group, vary widely. Some suggest borrowing democratic aspects from secular Turkey and Islamic government practices from Pakistan, although they say neither country provides an ideal model. Few want to borrow anything except financial support from Saudi Arabia, the "Guardian of Islam" and site of its holiest shrines. All claim their versions of Islamic democracy would allow other parties and free speech, but would impose strict penalties on unIslamic practices such as alcohol, prostitution and drugs.
Many Islamists, in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for example, also now coordinate with the new democrats. The most visible challenge to communist rule in Central Asia took place in Tajikistan last September when the new democrats and Islamists mobilized thousands of supporters for a peaceful vigil in Dushanbe to demand democratic elections. They pledged not to take down their tent city across from the parliament until the acting president resigned. Facilitated by the Islamists, the rally was the largest and most effective protest against communist rule since the Basmachi uprising, and the communist government eventually agreed to hold democratic elections. This spring the Islamists and pro?democracy groups again cooperated in a prolonged but peaceful sit?in that forced the communist president to agree to form a national coalition government.
As in Algeria the test ahead plays out at both the local and international levels. The longer the Central Asian regimes delay real pluralism—allowing all parties to work within the system rather than outside it—the greater the danger of a more embittered, strident Islam emerging to challenge the ancien regimes.
Some are already tempting fate. The Uzbek leadership has restored religious holidays and returned religious property nationalized by the Soviets. Simultaneously, however, it has banned all religious parties from politics and the clergy from running for public office. In Kazakhstan, secular opposition parties have been legalized. In contrast, the first political detainees since independence were seven members of Alash, the local Islamic party named after the mythical leader of the Kazakhs. They were charged with "insulting the honor and dignity" of the president and holding unauthorized rallies. And throughout Central Asia, renamed communists are arguing that they should retain power to block politicized Islam.
The West has also taken a confrontational stand on Islam in Central Asia. Western officials, including Secretary of State James A. Baker, have recently toured the new Central Asian states to urge them to emulate secular Turkey rather than neighboring Islamic Iran during the transition to post?Soviet rule. Baker met with fledgling democrats in only one republic, Uzbekistan; in three visits he never met with a single Islamic leader. Although the United States stressed human rights and pluralism in its talks with Central Asian leaders, the real message appears to be as much anti?Islam as pro?democracy.
The Bush administration is making the same mistakes in Central Asia and Algeria that the Carter administration made in Iran by backing away from the unknown Islamists before even trying to deal with them. Generally the West is not applying the most important lesson of the Cold War: co?option is far more effective than confrontation in undermining a rival, in this case one perceived rather than real. As in Algeria, the West would also be far better served by encouraging real democratic openings that include Islamists rather than tolerating authoritarian systems that exclude them.
Western alarm over Islamic activism also appears to be premature. Iran and Pakistan were the first two countries to heighten their presence in Central Asia; both opened diplomatic missions and discussed new cooperation and cultural ties. And Iran’s Ali Akbar Velayati was the first foreign minister to tour the entire region last fall.
Rather than compete for influence, however, Iran has so far preferred cooperation, even with the current Central Asian leadership. At a Tehran summit in February, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey revived the Economic Cooperation Organization and expanded it to include Central Asia and Azerbaijan. Iran’s economy is also now so deeply troubled that the post?Khomeini leadership is increasingly looking inward rather than to regional expansion. Its only direct intervention in the former Soviet republics has so far been limited to peace efforts in nearby Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Central Asian Islamists are not interested in imitating Iran. Iran, in turn, does not have the resources or even the will to meddle significantly in Central Asia. After two wars in the Persian Gulf and another in neighboring Afghanistan, its interests are very specifically focused on economic development to prevent the whole region from becoming a backwater.
Indeed Iran’s elections for majlis, or parliament, in April 1992 revealed the depth of change in even the Islamist movement’s most fanatic proponent. To end opposition against opening up Iran’s economy and foreign policy, the regime of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani introduced a screening process that disqualified one?third of the more than 3,000 candidates, including 40 incumbents. Most were revolutionary hard?liners blocking economic reforms, such as privatization, foreign investment and overtures to the West; several were associated with the revolution’s early judicial excesses and the 1979?81 takeover of the American embassy. Not surprisingly, the new majlis is filled with supporters of market reforms and diplomatic initiatives.
Iran’s revolution still has a long way to go in rectifying human rights abuses at home and extremist tactics abroad. But Tehran’s assistance last year in helping win the release of American and British hostages in Lebanon and its neutrality during Operation Desert Storm are further indications that Iran is willing to compromise, even occasionally concede, in order to reenter the community of nations. Although Iran is far from being an Islamic democracy, the example it is setting today differs significantly from the revolution’s early years.
The West and Islam have reached a crossroad in their relationship. The clash of the past 13 years—epitomized by the antagonism between the United States and Iran—need no longer serve as the paradigm. Unfortunately, despite the strong evidence of Islam’s political appeal and its future potential, the United States and its Western allies still have no more tangible strategy to contend with Islam than they did after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini forced the shah of Iran from the Peacock throne in 1979.
As Islamist sentiment grows, the West has two stark alternatives: one is to use this important juncture—when both democracy and Islam are growing—to press Muslim?dominated countries toward political pluralism and then to accept the results of free and fair democratic elections. By having sided with democracy from an early stage, the West will then be in a stronger position to hold new Islamic governments accountable if they abuse or abandon democratic principles—without being seen as anti?Islamic.
The incentive is to ease tensions between Western and Eastern cultures and countries. The next few years will be as important for democracy’s evolution as for Islam’s. For two millennia democracy has taken root only in Western cultures. One of the next major global challenges will be determining whether democracy is adaptable to Eastern countries, including Islamic and Confucian societies, and vice versa. This is a moment to encourage, rather that obstruct, Islam’s expression in pluralist forms.