Courtesy Reuters

The Future of the Islamic Movement

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THE PROMISE OF AN AFTERLIFE

The Arab-Israeli conflict did not make the Islamic movement, and peace between Arabs and Israelis will not break it. From the time of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, onward, groups seeking to institute an Islamic moral, social and political order have used the conflict with Israel as an instrument for promoting their goals. They have piggybacked on the rage against Israel and sympathy for the Palestinians ceaselessly drummed up by nationalist governments. Unencumbered by the practical burdens of governing, these groups have often gone further than nationalist regimes in advocating violence to regain "Muslim" soil and the holy city of Jerusalem. They have doubtless gained a measure of popular support in this fashion, and they have gained it at very little cost since Israel's strongest supporter, the United States, remains deeply hostile toward what it terms "Muslim fundamentalism." But the actual objectives of the Islamic movement do not lie in Palestine. They lie at home.

Recruitment of Islamic activists at high schools and universities succeeds so well because the movement addresses issues like poverty and unemployment, the growing gulf between rich and poor, inadequate government services, political corruption, perceived government subservience to American demands, and the hedonistic or European lifestyles of the well-to-do. The Islamists deal with these issues through a comprehensive critique of modern life in the Islamic world and argue persuasively that a return to core religious values would bring social justice, good government and a higher level of moral life while putting Muslims in touch with their glorious past.

Responses to this message take various forms. Many people change their personal behavior and become more community-oriented but do not seek to change the government. Others, where constitutionally possible, organize politically. They see the ballot box as their instrument for achieving social and political change, and they see the rootless poor of the big cities-inclined by their village origins to turn to religion for solace-as their natural allies. An impatient and sociopathic few kill public officials and blow up buildings in the time-honored but futile belief that terrorism can bring about chaos and therefore the opportunity to seize power.

Sudden increases in prosperity, political liberalism, redistribution of wealth, and upper-class austerity would slow the growth of the Islamic movement, but not by much. The Islamic critique of the world has gained too much momentum to succumb to material blows. Secular Muslims, with their foreign cheering section, will be confronting religious Muslims long after an independent Palestinian state comes into being, and smart money will not be on the secularists.

FORCING A PEACE

Now consider reversing the opening proposition. Did the Islamic movement make Israel and the PLO come to terms? Can the Islamic movement break the peace process? It can be argued that without pressure from the Islamic movement, bloody stalemate would have continued for decades. On the Palestinian side, Hamas was progressively eating into the PLO's claim to represent Palestinians in the occupied territories. Hamas was the force behind the intifada. Hamas-oriented militants and the Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon escalated the shedding of Israeli blood, which produced a deep impact on Israeli public opinion, just when the PLO was tempering its own violence in a quest for international recognition. The Hamas advocacy of no compromises or negotiations implicitly accused Yasser Arafat of betraying the Palestinian cause. To be sure, secular Palestinian groups within and without the PLO have made the same accusation. But Hamas was actually resisting Israel with its own primitive resources while other Palestinian groups were fighting one another and eating from the hands of Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan dictators.

If the fall of the Soviet Union had not stripped the PLO of international diplomatic and military support, and if the defeat of Iraq in the Persian Gulf War had not made the PLO a pariah in the eyes of the Saudis and Kuwaitis who had financed it, Arafat's organization could have continued to confront Hamas from within the Palestinian movement. Thus even though the Islamic movement in Gaza and the West Bank did not by itself cause the PLO to make peace, its threat to a weakened PLO played an important part.

On the Israeli side, the prospect of being marooned in a sea of militant Islamic enemies seemed more horrifying than the long-standing reality of being marooned in a sea of militant secular enemies. This is true even though, since the end of the Cold War brought an end to Soviet assistance, Israel's future enemies will probably not be able to arm themselves as well as past foes could. The long, sad history of religious, primarily Christian, anti-Semitism, the inheritance of Europe's collective nightmare of religious government dating back to the wars of religion, the obduracy of some observant Jewish groups within the secular Israeli state, and an instinctive feeling that suicidal religious fanatics are more dangerous than suicidal secular fanatics (much of this century's violent history to the contrary) all contribute to this point of view.

Rational or not, such thinking in Tel Aviv (as well as in Washington) made the Islamic movement a weighty factor in entering negotiations with the PLO. Having spent years alternately or simultaneously bludgeoning, cozening, threatening and cajoling Arab adversaries into entering serious peace talks, Israel and the United States had no desire to see Islamic revolution in Egypt, an Islamic electoral victory in Jordan, Islamic anarchy in Lebanon, or an Islamic coup in Syria destroy all that those governments had worked for. The Islamic movement caused the time for peace to ripen.

COSTS AND BENEFITS OF PEACE

Having answered the first question with a qualified yes, what of the proposition that the Islamic movement can break the peace process? This question divides logically into two: Will the Islamic movement want to break the peace? And can it succeed?

The common tendency to view "Islamic fundamentalism" as a religious specter casting an ominous shadow over the Islamic world, or even over all of Western civilization, obscures the fact that the Islamic movement is not an international conspiracy operating out of a Kremlin in the center of Tehran. Rather, it is a loose assemblage of groups with more or less common goals but dramatically different strategies that depend on local conditions. There is no Islamic International orchestrating revolutionary acts of terror and bloodshed around the world.

Despite their propensity for prayer and reverence for religious tradition, Muslim political activists are rational human beings. They probably include a disproportionately large number of the best-educated and most intelligent young people in their respective populations. Scientists, engineers, agronomists, doctors and Western-style lawyers pray side by side with, and probably outnumber, formally trained mullahs and specialists on Islamic law. It should not be surprising, therefore, to find different groups calculating their position toward the Israel-PLO peace process in different ways. Islamic Salvation Front (fis) members in Algeria (many with plenty of time for thought in prison) can be expected to debate whether rejecting the peace process will help bring about an Islamic state, or whether by supporting the peace process they can soften European and American support for the junta, which had robbed them of a prospective electoral victory.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or of the Shiite resistance to Saddam Hussein in Iraq will arrive at their own calculus of advantage: Do they stand to gain more by openly supporting peace than they stand to lose by giving up hatred of Israel as a device for garnering popular support and for castigating governments that have failed to regain Palestine and Jerusalem? Though the Islamic Republic of Iran is often portrayed as the most intransigent of all Islamic groups, Tehran is questioning whether it makes sense-given that Iran made peace with Saddam Hussein after spilling an ocean of blood in an effort to fulfill Ayatollah Khomeini's dream of revenge-to nurture eternal hatred and animosity toward an Israel that the PLO leadership is willing to shake hands with.

It should come as no surprise if rejection of Israel gradually recedes from the rhetoric of some Islamic activists. For Iran to pursue the objective of wreaking nuclear destruction on Israel, as alarmist commentators with little understanding of Islamic politics portend, would be the stupidest political decision since Hitler invaded Russia. The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran are not stupid. Just as the outer ring of Arab states is holding itself aloof from recognizing Israel until the peace process makes more headway with the other front-line states, most components of the Islamic movement that are geographically remote from Israel will probably bide their time and ultimately go with the flow. Their struggle is elsewhere.

Assuming that Hezbollah in Lebanon lacks independence from Syria and Iran, this leaves Hamas. Which will bring the goals of Hamas closer to achievement: using violence to play the role of spoiler, or contesting elections with the PLO under the autonomy plan? A more militant ideological stance than that of the PLO can be maintained in either case. Addressing these policy options is tantamount to addressing the question of whether the Islamic movement can break the peace process.

A rash of assassinations, murders, riots and bombings carried out with inspiration from Hamas and sympathetic groups in other countries would horrify the world. But unless it prompted the Israeli government to renege on its commitments, it would fail politically and mark the end of Hamas. Given that the Rabin government has made it clear that fear of growing "Islamic fundamentalism" is one of the factors propelling Labor toward peace, it would be absurd for that government to withdraw its handshake precisely because of religiously based opposition. There is the alternative possibility that a Hamas campaign of violence could cause the Rabin government to fall and return the Likud Party to power. But that outcome seems unlikely since it would amount to Israel playing into the hands of the spoilers. Violence, therefore, will probably be deemed too great a risk by Hamas leaders.

THE ADVANTAGES OF LEGALITY

Going the electoral route could also further a rejectionist agenda, however. Hamas candidates might make substantial electoral gains, if an elected Palestinian autonomy authority dominated by the PLO can be made to look like a collaborationist government of quislings doing the Israelis' dirty work of suppressing dissent and protest against continuing Israeli occupation. Should this happen, the Rabin government might take fright at both the possibility of a religiously oriented independent Palestinian state west of the Jordan River and the prospect of the Likud opposition charging that the ill-considered peace agreement opened the door to Islamic extremism. A frightened government could become a hesitant government; the steps toward peace could again slow; and PLO political legitimacy could thereby be further undermined to the advantage of Hamas.

This is the best strategy for Hamas to follow and is the course intimated by reports that the PLO and Hamas have agreed not to enter into open conflict for the time being. At best, it will yield Hamas dominance of the Palestinian autonomy authority and movement without sacrificing too much ideological purity. At worst, it will preserve Hamas as a significant force in an independent Palestinian state whose nationalist government Hamas can then challenge according to the example of fraternal Islamic groups in other countries.

Though violent religious opposition to the peace process either in the occupied territories or farther afield is unlikely, an astute Hamas leadership should be able to maintain a strong voice for the Islamic movement in Palestinian affairs. Rapid progress on all peace agendas, massive financial support for the autonomy authority, conciliatory Israeli policies (e.g., removing trade barriers) and international encouragement of the PLO's transition from resistance movement to government will be required to mute that voice.

Against these trends will weigh the steady growth elsewhere in the Islamic world of forces that desire to see their societies reorganized according to Islamic morality, law and government. Events elsewhere in the region can still perturb the peace process. Israel, the PLO and Hamas are bound like mutually repulsive particles in an atom. Long-term stability depends not just on the forces that override repulsion and prevent internal fission, but on avoidance of stray neutrons from other events (no reference to nuclear proliferation intended).

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