Islam's New Battle Cry

In April 1991 an unusual meeting was held in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. For four days, leading Islamic politicians and intellectuals from 55 countries and three continents met to draft a common strategy to establish Muslim states in their respective lands. It was an Islamic star-studded event.

Among the participants were Rashid al-Ghannoushi, the exiled leader and articulate spokesman of al-Nahda, Tunisia's Islamic opposition movement; Ibrahim Shukri, a chief of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt; Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the radical militant leader of Afghanistan's fundamentalist Hezb-i-Islami faction; Abassi Madani, then one of the two leaders of Algeria's ascendant Islamic Salvation Front (fis); and, of course, a high-ranking delegate from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Also present were prominent Arab leftist and nationalist figures, such as Georges Habash, the Christian head of the radical secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The host was Hassan al-Turabi, the spiritual chief and mastermind of Sudan's Islamic military government, who supervised the effort to draft a plan of action for "defying the tyrannical West."

The group ultimately approved a six-point manifesto intended to demonstrate that "whatever the strength of America and the West" in the aftermath of the Gulf War, "God is greater." The manifesto paid lip service to liberalism and democracy, asserting that they were "not incompatible" with shura, or Islamic government through consultation. Political pluralism was fine, provided it was not "unlimited" and was subordinate to the need for "unity and the shura." Cooperation with the West and existing non-Islamic governments was permissible, if such exchanges were based on new and more equitable principles. "Good regimes," the document states, "will benefit from popular will; bad regimes will be fought." Read in its entirety, the manifesto's underlying message was clear: in Islam's war against the West and the struggle to build Islamic states at home, the ends justified the means.

The gathering received almost no attention in the Western press. But many regard the Islamic Arab Popular Conference, as it was called, as an important event. It marked the first serious effort by an avowedly Islamic state to define with other leading figures of the movement their own vision of a new world order and a strategy for achieving it. The conference also made progress toward Turabi's long-stated goal of overcoming the historic rift between Sunni Muslim states, like Sudan, and a Shiite state, like Iran--that is, toward ending the bitter historic enmity that has separated these two wings of Islam since the seventh century. In addition, the gathering helped fuse formerly secular Arab nationalist movements, which have dominated Arab politics in the anticolonial struggles for independence and statehood for nearly 50 years, with the increasingly more seductive and influential groups espousing the new Islamic rhetoric.

What Is To Be Done?

How should the United States and its new administration view the rise of militant Islam in the Middle East? How should Americans react? What, if anything, can be done about the trend?

The Khartoum conference is merely one example of the growing power of militant Islam. Since Islamic revolutionaries led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini toppled the shah of Iran in 1979 and swept Islamic militants to power, an avowedly Islamic government has emerged only in impoverished, isolated Sudan. But everywhere, Arab governments are struggling to contain Islamic pressures and to respond to a widespread desire among their citizens for more "Islamic" government and society. Even in countries where there is little prospect that Islamic forces will rule in the near future, Islam has become the vocabulary of life, changing the language of politics, fundamental aspects of national culture and longstanding ethnic traditions.

Few serious analysts of militant Islam, or Islamic fundamentalism (an inappropriate but widely used term borrowed from American Protestantism to describe the phenomenon), argue that Islamic militant groups constitute a monolith. Fewer still see Islam, or argue that the West should see Islam, as the "Green Menace," a potential replacement for the often self-destructive East-West competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. Most sophisticated analysts know that militant Islam is as diverse as the Arabs themselves and the countries in which it is taking hold. They recognize that Islam is not inherently at odds with modernity; the two co-exist comfortably in Muslim societies from Indonesia to Bosnia. Nor do most foes of fundamentalism maintain that the Khartoum conference and other efforts by Islamists to enhance cooperation should be regarded as a new "Khomeintern"--a vast conspiracy led by Iran and Sudan.

However, radical political Islam placed atop the societies of the Middle East has created a combustible mixture. And those who believe in universal human rights (and women's rights in particular), democratic government, political tolerance and pluralism and in peace between the Arabs and Israelis cannot be complacent about the growing strength of militant Islamic movements in most Middle Eastern countries, or about the numerous and increasing ties among such movements and between Iran and Sudan. Western governments should be concerned about these movements and, more important, should oppose them. For despite their rhetorical commitment to democracy and pluralism, virtually all militant Islamists oppose both. They are, and are likely to remain, anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Israeli.

The Bush administration seemed to understand this point, but this recognition was never fully apparent in its policy. The administration tried to draw a distinction between good and bad Islamists, and it wound up fudging a response to the challenge posed by radical Islam. In June 1992 Edward Djerejian, who has remained assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs in the Clinton administration, belatedly unveiled America's policy toward Islam in the now-famous speech given in Washington known as the "Meridian House" declaration. America, he said, had nothing against Islam, "one of the world's great faiths" and "a historic civilizing force among the many that have influenced and enriched our culture." He added that America had nothing against Islamists or, as he put it, "believers living in different countries placing renewed emphasis on Islamic principles." But Washington was opposed to those who used religion as a cover for extremism and violence. "Stated simply," Djerejian concluded, "religion is not a determinant--positive or negative--in the nature or quality of our relations with other countries. Our quarrel is with extremism, and the violence, denial, intolerance, intimidation, coercion and terror which too often accompany it."

Djerejian's distinction was politically useful for the administration. It enabled Washington, on the one hand, to oppose any Islamic group that espoused violence and challenged regimes that the United States either liked or needed to do business with, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and on the other, to resist the anti-American Islamic governments in power in Sudan and Iran, which met his criteria of being violent, intolerant and coercive. The doctrine, by extension, also justified American support for "good" Islamic groups--those seeking to overturn communist or tyrannical states (such as the Mujahedeen rebels in Afghanistan and the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, a militant Islamic group that is fighting Iran not only from inside Iraq but also from Washington).

A few analysts challenged the wisdom of America's support for these good Islamic groups. They warned ineffectively, but with keen foresight, that those Islamic factions supported by the West in their fight against Kabul would ultimately make Afghans nostalgic for the good old days of President Najibullah. And others labeled the American-tolerated, if not openly supported, Mujahedeen the "Khmer Rouge of Islamists."

Despite such reservations, the Bush administration's policy seemed fairly straightforward. Of course, the United States would oppose groups such as the violent wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), the Iranian-supported Hezbollah in Lebanon and the four--and still splitting--factions of the Islamic Jihad, all of which champion violence, terrorism and "holy war" to rid Muslims of the "un-Islamic" governments that oppress Arabs in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. But how would Washington view Islamic groups that pledged to create democratic rule, to respect human rights and pluralism? Specifically, how would Washington view such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, the Ghannoushi's al-Nahda movement in Tunisia and the fis ffin Algeria, all of which have vowed repeatedly to establish their Islamic states by playing by democratic rules?

The Djerejian doctrine hinted at a stance. What the United States wanted, he explained, was for Middle Eastern nations to broaden political participation in their societies. At the same time, he added, Washington would oppose those seeking to use the democratic process to come to power, only to destroy that very process in order to retain power and political dominance. "While we believe in the principle of 'one person, one vote'," he said, "we do not support 'one person, one vote, one time'."

But how would Washington know which Islamic groups were genuinely committed to democratic principles and peaceful coexistence with its own minorities, women and the West? Here, the statement was diplomatically silent. "We'll know 'em when we see 'em," quipped one American diplomat. But Washington's reluctance to spell out its criteria was a deliberate evasion. For the strongest Islamic groups in the Middle East today are not Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which can kill and terrorize but are not likely to be able to seize power and rule. Rather, the most formidable Islamic forces are, in fact, groups like the fis and the Muslim Brotherhood, all of which possess vast networks of charitable associations, health clinics, hospitals, schools and mosques. Most of these groups espouse democratic principles in theory. Some of them have willingly participated (most with impressive success) in elections and other democratic experiments being conducted by most Middle Eastern states, which are under internal pressure for more "Islamic" government as a result of their failure to deliver economically and pressure from the West to open up their autocratic systems.

Clerics in Civilian Clothes?

Why should one suspect the sincerity of the Islamists' commitment to truth, justice and the demo-cratic way? In short, because of Arab and Islamic history and the nature and evolution of these groups. Consider, for one, the fis. In Algeria the fis won a plurality of the electoral votes in national elections in December 1991, but the group was denied victory by a military coup and the installation of an emergency government that has banned the fis and ruthlessly hunted down its members ever since.

During parliamentary elections, fis leaders led a double linguistic life. They offered Algeria's poor and disenfranchised vague slogans of spiritual and, more important, economic salvation through Islam, and to Western journalists and its more Frenchified but politically frustrated middle class, they gave reassurances of their belief in democracy and human rights. Before the first round of voting, in sum, fis leaders were careful to stress their democratic intentions.

But their tone and message changed abruptly after the fis scored so well in the first round and seemed destined to secure an overwhelming parliamentary majority in the second voting round. Only then did the supposedly moderate fis leaders begin emphasizing the party's earlier slogan: "No law. No constitution. Only the laws of God and the Koran." While this linguistic double-talk may not justify the cancellation of elections and surely not the subsequent repression, it raises questions about what the fis would have done had it been permitted to assume power.

A similar pattern of events occured in the Sudan. Islam was brought to power there not by the ballot box, but by a military coup. Sudan's leaders now parrot the Islamic values and principles enunciated by the Svengali of the Islamic movement--Hassan Turabi, a Western-trained jurist who is spellbinding in at least three languages. On paper, it was hard to find fault with Turabi. He favored "Islamic" emancipation of women and respect for individual dignity and property. Islam, he said, did not believe in coercion. But the reality of life in his new Islamic state belies these sentiments and reassurances. Since coming to power, the military government has canceled freedom of assembly and the press, banned all non-Islamic parties, forced women to wear Islamic dress or lose their jobs and, according to Amnesty International and other human rights groups, tortured suspected heretics and other political dissidents in what the Sudanese call "ghost houses," which are sprinkled throughout the capital.

Minorities have fared even worse. Catholic bishops have accused the Sudanese government of waging a holy war against the state's Christians (almost ten percent of the population) and those who follow African religions. Sharia, or Islamic law, has been reimposed with new vigor: lashings of women for inappropriate dress are now common; so are other corporal punishments, such as amputations for repeated theft, stoning for adultery; the law even allows crucifixion.

Iran is often cited as another example of Islamic "pragmatism" and growing "moderation." While Tehran allows greater freedom of debate and political participation than was permitted under the shah, and surely more than is allowed in most Arab countries, no individual or group that questions the basic tenets of the Islamic revolution and theocratic rule is permitted to participate. Iran, while desperately courting Western investment and assistance to bail out its failed Islamic economic experiment, remains nonetheless rhetorically and to some extent genuinely hostile to the West, the United States in particular. Finally, its refusal to retract the disgraceful religious ruling--or the bounty on his head--against Salman Rushdie for writing an allegedly blasphemous book, The Satanic Verses, reflects more vividly than any other single action Iran's total disregard for basic human rights and international law. "Murder," The New York Times editorialized recently, "is not an acceptable form of literary criticism."

John Esposito, a longtime student of Islamic groups, maintains that the West should not brand Islamists as pariahs simply because initial efforts to create enlightened Islamic entities and movements in the Middle East have not succeeded. The tolerant, moderate Islamists of the future hold the key to progressive change in a region that has steadfastly resisted it so far. But that argument would be far more persuasive if any of the ostensibly enlightened new leaders of the Islamic camp were willing to denounce publicly the religious ruling against Rushdie, or even what is happening in Iran or Sudan in the name of Islam. To date, few have. Even the leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which seems tame and law-abiding compared with its Islamic counterparts (whose attacks on tourists have crippled Egypt's single largest source of foreign currency), is unwilling to criticize many Islamic excesses or challenge fundamentalist orthodoxy. In an interview last year, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood spokesman said that if Egypt were to become an Islamic state, alcohol would have to be banned and perhaps the Camp David peace accords with Israel reconsidered.

A new, more moderate political Islam may evolve and take root in the region. But many believe that this is unlikely. "Islam is today the language of opposition," says A. Abu Zayd, a Sudanese educator. "To attract the young, Islam must be fierce and militant, opposed to the existing order. So to speak of a moderate political Islam is a contradiction in terms."

Others analysts, such as Martin Kramer, associate director of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, argue that militant Islamic groups, by nature, cannot be democratic, pluralistic, egalitarian or pro-Western. In a recent Commentary article, Kramer notes that Islamic law is not legislated but divinely revealed. It is, therefore, perfect law, which as such is beyond reform, abrogation or alteration. "While it is not above some reinterpretation," Kramer observes, "neither is it infinitely elastic." That law, he continues, stands in stark opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the freedom to choose, among other things, one's religion and spouse, both of which are restricted in Islamic law. While Islam over the centuries has proven far more tolerant toward minorities and diversity than Christianity (sectarian strife and religious persecution having been atypical and hardly ever as intense as the great persecutions that occurred under Christianity), minorities under Islamic law are given protected, not equal, status.

Bernard Lewis, a noted historian of the Middle East, argues in a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly that the nature and history of Islam and the relationship between Islam and temporal power do not make liberal democracy and Islam natural bedfellows. Islam, he explains, has been characterized throughout history by the absence of any legal recognition of corporate persons or the legal person, which is at the heart of the representative institutions embodied in Roman law. The Islamic state was in principle a theocracy, Lewis argues, "not in the Western sense of a state ruled by the church and the clergy, since neither existed in the Islamic world, but in the more literal sense of a polity ruled by God." Therefore, devout Muslims believe that legitimate authority comes from God alone. And since the ruler derives his power from God and the holy law, and not from the people, defying authority has been tantamount to defying God. "Disobedience was a sin as well as a crime," Lewis concludes. Against such a backdrop, autocracy has been the norm, and the notions of plurality, self-criticism and disagreement--all essential features of liberal democracy--face an uphill, though not impossible, battle in winning widespread cultural acceptance.

Promote Human Rights, Not Elections

The United States' record of supporting authoritarian and autocratic governments in the Middle East to further narrowly defined national interests might make it unseemly now for Washington, citing human rights and concerns for democracy, to oppose the popular and populist Islamic movements that might seem to be the only way of ousting existing governments. But arguing that America has for far too long supported autocratic, oppressive governments in the Middle East because they were pro-Western does not justify now supporting Islamic alternatives that are definitely anti-Western simply because they happen not to be the current regimes or the devil that is known.

American officials formulating new policies toward Islam and the Arabs should be skeptical of those who seek to liberate Arabs through Islam. First, they should understand that no matter how often and fervently Islamic groups assert their commitment to democracy and pluralism, their basic ideological covenants and tracts, published declarations and interviews (especially in Arabic) appear to make these pledges incompatible with their stated goals of establishing societies under Islamic laws and according to Islamic values. Far too many Middle Easterners, and Islamists in particular, have learned how to mollify the West (and deceive their own potential adherents, many of whom genuinely crave democracy, greater political expression and an end to political repression) by manipulating the words of democracy.

Moreover, to most Islamists, and to many Arabs today, democracy translates as majority rule. There is an almost total disregard for minority rights, an essential component of liberal democracy. If the majority want an Islamic state, Islamists maintain, then the minority or minorities--be they religious, ethnic or female--who do not will have to put up or shut up, or accept a far worse fate.

As it begins to chart its course in foreign policy, the new Clinton administration is likely to feel obliged to promote democracy in the Middle East. It must recognize, however, that the promotion of free elections immediately is likely to lead to the triumph of Islamic groups that have no commitment to democracy in any recognizable, meaningful form. In other words, there seems to be a paradox in America's relentless rhetorical (if not actual) promotion of democracy and pluralism in the Middle East. Because Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are currently the best organized opposition and, in some countries, the only organized opposition, given Arab reluctance to openly oppose associations that call themselves Islamic, free elections seem more likely than any other route to produce militant Islamic regimes that are, in fact, inherently anti-democratic. "The pressure for premature democratization," as Bernard Lewis has argued, can fatally weaken existing regimes, with all their flaws, "and lead to their overthrow, not by democratic opposition, but by other forces that then proceed to establish a more ferocious and determined dictatorship."

What the Clinton administration should say is that the establishment of avowedly "Islamic states" risks jeopardizing the principles espoused in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and codified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The iccpr declaration is not a new form of cultural imperialism, as Islamists argue, but rather a code of values that constitutes the basis of decent and humane government and has been approved by 117 countries. The fact that leading Islamic militants felt obliged to meet in Paris in 1981 to draft an Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, which omitted all freedoms that contradicted sharia, should give any policymaker pause about what can be expected from the Islamic radicals, should they come to power.

Consider women. While Islamists speak of the need to honor women and prevent their degradation, the governments most Islamists are promoting would, in accordance with their interpretation of sharia, deny women work in many sectors of the economy and deny them equal rights and equal legal standing. In Iran, the government in the name of Islam restored polygamy and child marriage, which the shah had earlier outlawed. This is not simply a different, and hence morally acceptable, way of organizing society. Rather, the systematic denial of women's rights is like binding female children's feet in China--a barbaric practice impeding economic and social development that should be denounced by any self-confident American government. No one is recommending that the United States invade Sudan or Saudi Arabia to liberate women. But neither should the alternative be official American silence about such practices. While there will always be a difficult balance between realpolitik and idealistic values in foreign policy, American administrations should strive toward the latter.

The Bush administration should have said that America would promote elections tomorrow and civil society today--increased participation in public life by a growing number of individuals, groups and associations who genuinely crave liberal democracy--so that the concepts and traditions upon which democracy depends have time to take root, and so that countries that have known little else but one-party authoritarian rule will stand a better chance of developing truly democratic governments. It should have articulated openly the conundrum that is whispered about in the corridors of Foggy Bottom: that America's mindless, relentless promotion of elections immediately is likely for now to bring to power through the ballot box those who would extinguish democracy in the name of Allah. It should have stressed instead more modest goals: increased political participation in government and the need for a freer press and freer public debate in all countries in the region.

Any American policy is likely to be only marginal in affecting developments in the Middle East, given the enormity of economic and political problems facing most Arab governments (though this argument is rarely made when the Arab-Israeli conflict is discussed). But influencing events at the margin is better than not attempting to influence them at all. It is surely better than despairing and saying that nothing can or should be done about the trend toward fundamentalism. Ultimately, the triumph of militant Islam in the Middle East may say as much about the West as about the Arabs and the failure of their existing systems. Islamists, by and large, have come to power when no one is willing to oppose them at home and abroad. In any new world order, Americans should not be ashamed to say that they favor pluralism, tolerance and diversity, and that they reject the notion that God is on anyone's side.

Fighting Radical Islam With Words

The Clinton administration has an opportunity to speak in direct terms about the prospects for democracy and Islamic government. It can say what is suggested by so many specialists but rarely articulated--that the United States supports as a matter of principle the separation of temporal from spiritual power in government. It should seize the moment not to draw a line in the sand, as Bush did, but to make a firm commitment to democratic, pluralistic values.

Washington, under President Bush, did not take this position. It never said that the West believes that Islam is a great religion, which produced an inspired culture from which the West learned much, but that in the 21st century in the Middle East, in nation states that are ethnically, tribally and religiously heterogeneous, an Islamic state as espoused by most of its proponents is simply incompatible with values and truths that Americans and most Westerners today hold to be self-evident. Perhaps an American government that defines its interests along narrow strategic lines--that is, along access to oil at a steady and acceptable price--cannot afford to say such things. Such statements would surely antagonize American allies such as Saudi Arabia, an avowedly Islamic state that denies basic human rights to half its population and all religious minorities but is dependably pro-Western, considerably less harsh and repressive than many of the states that surround it, and also America's major source of foreign oil.

While the American government cannot and perhaps, from a strict definition of national interest, should not say such things, there are individual Americans who can speak out. In the past decade, human rights activists have addressed many of these concerns. In the Arab world itself, human rights groups and activists are beginning to find their own voices, despite great risks and staunch government opposition.

Islamic militancy presents the West with a paradox. While liberals speak of the need for diversity with equality, Islamists see this as a sign of weakness. Liberalism tends not to teach its proponents to fight effectively. What is needed, rather, is almost a contradiction in terms: a liberal militancy, or a militant liberalism that is unapologetic and unabashed.

The administration can signal its commitment to these principles in many symbolic and practical ways. It can, for example, welcome at the State Department not the Turabis of the region, as the Bush administration did, but rather those who share a commitment to the dignity of individuals and their inherent right to speak out and disagree, such as the Sudanese scholar-in-exile in Washington, Mohammed Khalil, who practically wept when he learned that Turabi was being welcomed on Capitol Hill and at the State Department.

It should reject the assumption that seemed to underlie President Bush's policy toward Islamic forces-namely that such groups are destined to come to power in the region anyway, so the United States should have a dialogue with them now to avoid a repetition of what occurred in Iran in the future.

Washington can also say that the governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are, for all their many, well-publicized failings, still more tolerant and less repressive than those that the Islamists would most probably establish in their stead. If Washington said this openly, those same governments might well be more receptive to American criticism of practices that Washington finds unacceptable-such as torture in Egypt and the repression of minorities and women in Saudi Arabia.

The Clinton administration should not seek to wage an American or Western secular war against the Islamists. But it should not be embarrassed to call attention to America's accomplishments, or afraid to discuss candidly the failings of an Islamic theocracy. Too often, American administrations, fearful of being accused of cultural imperialism, have remained silent about denials of basic human freedom in the Middle East.

It has been argued that America will not be strategically affected by the triumph of militant Islamic governments in the region. Given America's military might, Islamic governments would probably be reluctant to attack this country openly and directly. And Middle Eastern oil producers, no matter what their political orientation, will always need to sell oil.

But the proliferation of state-sponsored or assisted terrorist groups and of weapons of mass destruction in the region threatens the United States, as well as Israel, Egypt and other allies. The United States would be hard pressed, given American domestic politics and its long-standing commitment to Israel, to remain aloof from a conflict that endangered the Jewish state. Moreover, a nuclearized Iran might prove to be more than simply a strategic nuisance to the United States. Even without nuclear weapons, Tehran managed to affect an election in this country through its ruthless manipulation of U.S. hostages. Moreover, in the aftermath of the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, the United States must acknowledge now that Islamic fervor nurtured overseas is bound to come home.

Finally, even what might be little more than a nuisance for Americans would be a catastrophe for democrats and Western-minded Arabs in the region. How sad it would be for a world emerging from the shackles of communism and a debilitating Cold War to accept a new era of darkness and autocratic rule for the Arabs, who have enjoyed far too little freedom and security.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now