A populist ferment is surging across Islam, from Yugoslavia and Morocco on the West to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines on the East. Fragmented in form, cohesive in ideology, this Islamic reassertion has been reflected in the 1978-79 Iranian revolution, the occupation of the Great Mosque in Mecca in Saudi Arabia in November 1979, the four-year war in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat in Egypt in October 1981, and violent resistance in Lebanon through 1983 and 1984.

Often described as "Islamic fundamentalism," this popular force cuts across geographical boundaries, transcending political ideologies and national regimes. Radical governments such as in Algeria and Syria, and traditional monarchical regimes such as in Morocco, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a growing Islamic political activism. Scattered incidents in Soviet Central Asia, the home of an estimated 60 million Muslims, as well as the Muslim guerrilla war of resistance against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan demonstrate that communist systems are no more immune to the challenge of this Populist Islam than are the pro-Western conservative states in the region.

The fundamental impulse for resurgent Islam comes from the grassroots of society. Hence the designation "Populist."1 It is a force generated by the mass citizenry, those referred to as the downtrodden and the deprived. Sweeping upward from the angry, alienated and frustrated, Populist Islam has now penetrated the middle classes. It is called al-Islam al-Sha'bi, and it directly confronts the various ruling elites in the Muslim world, the Islam of Sadat, of the Al-Saud family of Saudi Arabia, and of Mohammad Zia ul-Haq and Gaafar Nimeiri of Pakistan and Sudan. These leaders represent al-Islam al-Rasmi, or Establishment Islam, which seeks to preserve the political status quo.

Even the largely secular Palestinian movement-badly battered in both regional and international politics and deeply divided against itself-is showing clear signs of interest in Islam. On the Jordan West Bank, in its 17th year of Israeli occupation, the younger generation of stateless Palestinians are forming Islamic organizations of all kinds, alongside their own nationalist associations. The formation of new mosques, kindergartens, and university associations is especially notable. Bethlehem mayor Elias Friej and former Gaza mayor Rashad Shawa have recently emphasized that "increasingly, young Palestinians in the occupied territories are turning to Islamic fundamentalism-some call it reformism-as an outlet for their frustrations."2 The growing import of Islam within the Palestinian movement has concerned many modern secular Palestinians who hold very mixed feelings about it. In the words of one Palestinian professional in Kuwait: "This Islamic fundamentalism is affecting our people; it is bound to be a more successful ideology than any we have tried in the past. In this sense, it has a better chance of meeting the desperate needs of our people. But, when it takes control, we, the best educated, secular Palestinians will undoubtedly suffer."3


As all Muslim believers will assert, there is only one Islam. There are, however, many manifestations and interpretations. In the words of one leading scholar, the basic division now is between "radical fundamentalism" on the one hand and "traditional fundamentalism" on the other.4 Both Populist Islam and Establishment Islam compete to demonstrate their greater commitment to the faith and the law. Each attempts to discredit the beliefs and practices of the other.

The growing power of Populist Islam in the Persian Gulf region is not monolithic in character. There are Sunni as well as Shi'i dimensions, and the important Sunni movement is itself divided. Three major Sunni fundamentalist movements rest at the core of Populist Islam: the most extreme is the al-Salafi (traditional/ancestral) movement; slightly less dogmatic is al-Islah (reform) fundamentalism; and even more accommodating to traditional fundamentalism are the new al-Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) groups.5 All three Sunni movements share a strong antipathy for the Shi'i component of Populist Islam. In the words of a leading Sunni fundamentalist theoretician in Kuwait: "Although the Shi'is do share some of our social and political goals, they have distorted Islam beyond imagination. We cannot and will not communicate and cooperate with them."6

The Sunni al-Salafi movement engages completely committed, fervent members who seek to transform today's society into a replica of the Muslim society of 1,400 years ago, as directed by the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors. They are the Populist Islamic equivalent of the Wahhabi segment of Establishment Islam. The members of these groups are not interested in any form of discussion and dialogue with those who do not share their particular perspective. The individuals involved in the seizure of the Great Mosque of Mecca in the fall of 1979 are examples of those who embrace this form of extremism.

The al-Islah societies, by contrast, tend to adhere to the basic fundamentalist goals, but as "reformists" they are willing to enter into discussions both with other Populist Islamic groups and with the guardians of Establishment Islam. The principal al-Islah societies are located in Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, and they cooperate, at least temporarily, with the governments in power from whom they accept financial assistance.

The new Ikhwan movement is a contemporary, more flexible variant of the old Muslim Brotherhood born in Egypt half a century ago. It attempts to appeal to the educated, professional intelligentsia and stresses the need to interpret the changing world in view of immutable and enduring Islamic principles. The new Ikhwan movement receives its inspiration from Egypt and other North African countries and its ideas are spread by Egyptians and Sudanese who hold critically important positions throughout the educational and administrative systems of the Gulf states.

There is constant tension between the al-Salafi movement on the one hand, the al-Islah society and new Muslim Brotherhood on the other. The latter two Sunni groups enjoy a relatively close relationship; indeed, many of the leading theoreticians of the al-Islah society were once members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The al-Salafi movement, however, considers both of these groups too compromising and is especially critical of their relationships with Establishment Islam.

Populist Sunni Islam is a potent force in the Gulf countries, representing a particularly strong challenge to the social and political status quo. Yet unlike the Shi'i movement (to be discussed below), it is viewed with tolerance by the ruling governments who are reluctant to embark on any form of confrontation.

Across their organizational divisions, all members of Populist Islamic movements share the following four important ideas: (1) a fundamentalist faith in the Quran, the Prophet Mohammed, and the Sunna (tradition); (2) a strong opposition to corrupt and oppressive government; (3) a commitment to the related principles of human equality and social justice; and (4) a condemnation of external, imperialist intervention in the Middle East.

The first principle is what sets this framework of goals apart from those presented by other revolutionary ideologies, i.e., the Populist Islamic belief that solutions to the accumulating social, economic, and political problems are to be found only within the context of Islam. Islam carries a special strength; it can reasonably expect to receive from its adherents an unwavering commitment and deep dedication to the goals of its leaders. The Iranian revolution and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan demonstrate that the adherents of Populist Islam are willing to make a total commitment to their beliefs and, when necessary, to die for them. The leaders of Establishment Islam understand this point full well: one astute ruler of a Gulf state remarked to his advisers, "I would rather deal with 10 communists than with one Muslim fundamentalist."7

To meet this growing challenge, ruling elites in the region are taking unprecedented action to demonstrate their own fidelity to Islam. The Establishment has sought to co-opt the power of Islam by pouring huge sums of money into Islamic projects and by reinforcing fundamentalist rules and regulations of extreme rigidity. But the practitioners of Establishment Islam suffer from disadvantages that weaken their appeal and credibility. Their response to Populist Islam's four areas of concern is found wanting. As supporters of Islam, they have done much to promote the practice of the faith and have poured huge resources into this goal. But much of this emphasis has been placed on the externalities such as buildings, bureaucracies, and literature. The emphasis of Populist Islam upon probity, austere living and equality, by contrast, runs against the freer lifestyles of many guardians of Establishment Islam.

More serious, perhaps, is the fact that Establishment Islam is weakened by its close association with external superpowers, most notably the United States, which is viewed as inseparable from Israel. This association badly damages the credibility of pro-American governments, and Establishment Islam loses strength and appeal in the process.

The competing positions of Populist, as opposed to Establishment, Islam have greatly affected the foreign policies of the Gulf states. The former position decries close relations with the superpowers and is extremely critical of all forms of external influence in the affairs of these states. Establishment Islam is somewhat more willing to cooperate with the superpowers, especially the United States. Both Islamic worldviews are strongly opposed to the policies of the state of Israel. At one level, this conflict divides the Gulf countries against one another, with Saudi Arabia and the other five Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states now representing the forces of Establishment Islam, and Iran attempting to fly the banner of Populist Islam. At another level, this division helps bind the GCC countries closer together as they increasingly confront the internal challenge of Populist Islam and the external challenge of revolutionary Iran.


The gathering power and deepening reaffirmation of the faith have causes internal and external to Islam. The Populist Islamic movements are partly a reaction against corruption and repression which, in the minds of many citizens, have reached intolerable levels in their societies. Issues of inequality and injustice are discussed across the Middle East by those who contrast the sometimes unpleasant realities of everyday life with the Quranic ideals of equality, justice, and almsgiving. Despite great economic gains in many oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, the benefits have been unevenly distributed, making material inequities and social imbalances greater and more visible than ever before. The distressed, dispossessed, and alienated have chosen Populist Islam as a means to express discontent.

Looking at the world around, millions in Islam feel besieged. The intervention of both superpowers in the Middle East has alienated the peoples of the area. The Soviet Union has a well-known historical record of activities down toward the Persian Gulf. Its presence in Afghanistan today is a vivid reminder of an old imperialistic policy. Even in countries such as Algeria, Libya and Syria where Moscow provides substantial economic and military assistance, the Russians find themselves extremely unpopular.

The United States, which long had an excellent reputation in the region, increasingly finds itself the object of criticism and condemnation. The American military presence in Lebanon was seen less as a "peacekeeping" mission than a partisan maneuver to support the minority Maronite Christians who dominated Lebanese politics for years preceding the civil war, and whose victims were mainly Muslim. Muslim distrust of America is increasingly shared by many Middle Eastern Christians as well, largely because of the link with Israel. American policymakers voice disapproval of Israeli actions, and then go on to increase economic, military, and diplomatic support to those just criticized. The image of U.S.-Israeli collusion becomes graven in the Arab mind.

There are other problems as well. In the eyes of many Muslims, the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 was a victory of popular forces against the corrupt and repressive regime of the Shah-a regime supported by outside powers led by the United States. The Khomeini government's policy of condemning and excising the influence of superpowers has also stimulated Islamic renewal. Western cultural penetration in general is often seen as eroding the traditional Islamic social system. Although this influence has sometimes involved a liberalizing trend, it is also blamed for the breakup of the family and the emphasis on the mechanical and the material over the personal and the human.

The Muslim peoples of the Middle East have not always responded well to external challenges. They have often become defensive and self-righteous, blaming everyone but themselves for their problems. They have failed to cooperate with one another and have spent more time bickering among themselves than addressing their common problems and foes. They have not used their great newfound wealth nearly as effectively as they might in attempting to confront their internal and external problems. As a result, Arabs and other Middle Eastern Muslims of all classes are beginning to reassess their positions and strategies.

This reassessment, born perhaps out of desperation, has resulted in an increasing rejection of ideologies adopted in the recent past. It has become clear to growing numbers of Muslims that these ideologies, most of which were imported, have failed miserably when adopted and adapted to local conditions. Socialism, Marxism, liberalism and Western capitalism, along with their local manifestations, Baathism and Nasserism, have not provided the necessary answers. As a result, Middle Eastern peoples are returning to the all-encompassing ideological system of Islam, which permeates all aspects of their lives and rests at the existential roots of their history and being.


The Persian Gulf is a shallow arm of the Arabian Sea; its waters, speckled with drilling platforms and oil rigs, touch the shores of eight countries: Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. These eight countries possess approximately 370 billion barrels of proven reserves of petroleum-60 percent of the world's reserves.

But the Gulf is more than a giant oil field or an arena for superpower competition. It is the home of ancient tribal civilizations, of peoples deeply involved with their own customs and cultures, their own successes and failures. Modern issues of political participation, governmental legitimacy, citizenship definitions, and social justice remain to be successfully resolved. But the three decades past have seen only two revolutions in the Gulf, Iraq in 1958 and Iran in 1978-79. The other six countries are governed by ruling families who exercise power according to traditional modes of tribal democracy.8

Taken together, the Gulf countries have a total population of nearly 69 million people, 61 million of whom are citizens, the others immigrant laborers. With a combined total population of over 56 million people, Iran and Iraq account for over 80 percent of the population of all the Gulf states.

All was relatively placid around the Gulf through the century and a half of British political dominance. With the British withdrawal from the region east of Suez in 1971 and the newfound wealth of the 1970s, the Gulf states took the fast track to modernization. This subjected the traditional system of social life to enormous strain, resulting in unprecedented personal tensions, economic imbalance, and political alienation. Extravagant luxury hotels mushroomed in the midst of nomadic tents; skating rinks and bowling alleys appeared in the lands of deserts and palm groves; and cinemas, discotheques, and even gambling casinos appeared to challenge mosques as social centers. In the Gulf, perhaps more than in any other part of the world, modernization and economic growth raced far ahead of social and political development. As the socio-cultural fabric began to unravel, the ensuing disaffection gave rise to a quest for the familiar traditional values. Both the champions of Establishment Islam and Populist Islam-those who defend the system and those who challenge the system-justify their policies and their demands in terms of the Islamic faith.

Mosques proliferate everywhere in the Gulf; governments and opposition groups alike are creating new Islamic organizations; ministries of Islamic affairs and endowments are acquiring more power and responsibility; college and university students are enrolling in increasing numbers in Islamic studies; Islamic banks are cutting into the financial holdings of the standard banking systems; Islamic legal codes are being debated and reintroduced; Gulf citizens of all social classes are increasingly and fervently embracing tenets of Islam.

The boom in mosque construction is particularly vivid evidence of the trend of priorities, if not proof of the depth of religious conviction. The number of mosques has tripled in the past decade, to a total of nearly 4,000 in the smaller Gulf states: Kuwait has 560, the United Arab Emirates 1,769. Bahrain, a tiny nation of less than 250,000 citizens, has over 1,000 mosques while Qatar, with no more than 70,000 citizens, has over 600. Beyond this, Saudi Arabia currently has at least 20,000 mosques and recently announced plans to construct more than 2,000 more.9

Although most of the mosque construction is being planned and financed by governments, much of the impetus comes from Populist Islamic movements, which have sponsored the development of private mosques without any support from Establishment Islam.

In the Gulf today Populist Islam, carrying an ideology of protest, confronts an Establishment Islam on the defensive to preserve a tenuous status quo. The conflict was joined with the dramatic political events that took place in Iran beginning in 1978-79 that ultimately produced an actual model of Populist Islamic rule.


The Islamic Republic of Iran is a government dominated by the principles of Populist Islam in general and of revolutionary Shi'ism in particular. Here the Populists have become the Establishment.

The revolutionary message radiating from Iran has three major drawbacks, as viewed by the other peoples of the Gulf. First, a long history of tension has separated Arabs and Persians, diluting to some extent the appeal of the Iranian revolution to Arab populations throughout the region. Gulf residents of Persian origin are referred to as Ajam, and they have been distrusted in varying degrees over the years by much of the Arab population, especially by the ruling families. Saddam Hussein of Iraq has used this traditional ethnic tension as a means to rally Arab support behind his cause in the ongoing Iran-Iraq war.

Second, the style of rule in Iran is predominantly Shi'i in nature. This poses a major problem for the Sunni-dominated fundamentalist groups which make up the core of the Populist Islamic movement. The distrust and tension between fundamentalist Sunni and Shi'i was demonstrated in September 1983 in Kuwait when a band of Sunni fundamentalists attacked and burned a Shi'i mosque construction site in the al-Bayan district.

The third difficulty is the violence and extremism, the social and political upheaval in Iran since the fall of the monarchy. Populist Islamic political rule in Iran is tarnished, especially in the eyes of the better educated and growing professional classes of the other Gulf states.

This is the negative side. The Islamic Republic of Iran nevertheless has appeal for the lower and middle classes of the Gulf states. The revolution was, after all, a movement carried out by the masses. They succeeded in the face of one of the most powerful military/security forces in the entire Third World and against the will of a regime supported by outside superpowers. This revolution resulted in a government that cut its outside ties and strongly declared its own autonomy and independence; the Islamic Republic's central slogan "Neither East nor West" is a constant reminder of this stance. Finally, the revolution in Iran represented a rare victory for Islam in the modern world. Over the past two centuries, Islamic countries have consistently been defeated in their confrontations with the West-until the advent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Iran's credibility among the Gulf citizens of Iranian extraction and/or Shi'i beliefs increased greatly upon its success in defending itself against the surprise Iraqi invasion of September 1980. The Iranian successes, however, frightened the Sunni leadership of the conservative Gulf states who now fear an ultimate Iranian victory against Iraq and the prospect of a Persian/Shi'i empire across the region. Not that all Gulf Sunnis have rallied behind the Iraqi cause; many regard the regime of Saddam Hussein with distaste. The Kuwaitis, for example, well remember Iraqi attempts in the 1960s and 1970s to annex pieces of their territory. Saddam's repressive policies at home, his continued use of Soviet-supplied missiles in attacks upon Iranian cities, his resort to nerve gas and other chemical weapons, and his escalation of attacks upon oil tankers in the Gulf in 1984 are privately deplored and condemned by many Gulf citizens. Finally, when the United States in late 1983 began to tilt toward Iraq, both superpowers found themselves on the same side. Gulf citizens who have been critical of Khomeini's style of rule are nonetheless impressed by Iran's ability to survive against such international pressure. Although the governments of the Gulf states are deeply fearful of an Iranian victory, the total dedication of the Iranian population and the resulting successes against increasingly heavy odds have earned respect.

Iran further gained popular stature following the 1982 Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon with the important symbolic act of support for the besieged Palestinians: an estimated 1,500 members of its Revolutionary Guards were sent to Syria and Lebanon. Except for the Saudis who did what they could to convince the United States to slow the Israeli aggression, and the Syrians who crumbled in the face of superior Israeli air power, Iran was the only Muslim country that made any visible, concrete moves to assist the embattled Palestinians.

The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran have set their sights on exporting their revolution throughout the Gulf. They have made their methodology clear: force is considered unnecessary, counterproductive, and antithetical to the tenets of Islam. In September 1982, Ayatollah Khomeini summarized this position: "By exportation of Islam we mean that Islam be spread everywhere. We have no intention of interfering militarily in any part of the world."10

Instead, Iran has devised a sophisticated system of information dissemination involving extensive radio and television programming beamed throughout the Gulf. Special attention is reserved for Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The presence of Gulf citizens of Iranian origin composes a large human communication grid across the Gulf states through which information passes continually concerning the politics and ideals of revolutionary Iran. Of special appeal to the poorer citizens of the Gulf, the Iranian message has some attraction to Sunni inhabitants who live relatively deprived lives in the midst of plenty.

With its active example of Populist Islam in power, Iran has placed external pressures upon Gulf governments who promote Establishment Islam. Internally, the forces of Populist Islam continue to criticize the regimes and organize their cadres. Establishment Islam, therefore, today finds itself caught in the tightening vise of its domestic Populist Islam on the one side and the revolutionary Populist-turned-Establishment Islam of Iran on the other side. Cutting across both jaws of this vise is the important force of Shi'ism.


Shi'ism is the practice of Islam that places a special emphasis upon the family of the Prophet. Although Shi'is, like the more dominant Sunnis, believe in the Quran, the Prophet, and the Sunna, they stress the role of Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. Shi'i Muslims believe that Ali should have succeeded the Prophet Mohammed as leader of the Muslim community and that Ali's chosen descendents (known as Imams) carry a special spiritual power and charisma. In the Gulf version of Shi'ism, the twelfth and last Imam is considered to have disappeared in the ninth century but is to return on judgment day. In the meantime, the chain of Imams is represented by mujtahids, learned clerics who possess the capacity to interpret events until the return of the Hidden Imam. Ayatollah Khomeini is the best-known example of a leading mujtahid.

Of central significance to Shi'i Islam is the martyrdom of Ali's son, Imam Hussein, at Karbala (in present-day Iraq) in A.D. 680. Badly outnumbered, Hussein's tiny band was massacred by the military forces of Yazid, the recognized political head of the major Muslim community of the day. This incident is commemorated every year during Muharram (the first month of the Muslim calendar) by Shi'is throughout the Middle East. It is a major social, political and religious event of deep emotional meaning and has come to symbolize the Shi'i experience-that of a suffering minority group long oppressed for its beliefs by an unjust and unbelieving establishment.

Shi'ism is a powerful force in the Gulf, across sovereign frontiers. With the sole exception of Iran, all of the Gulf states are governed by Sunni political elites. Yet 46 million of the 61 million Gulf citizens, over 75 percent are Shi'is; they are the majority in Bahrain and Iraq, as well as Iran.


(in thousands)

Percentage of

Total Citizen Number of Shi'i

Country Population Population Shi'is Citizens

Qatar 255 70 11 16

Oman 950 700 28 4

U.A.E. 1,100 250 45 18

Kuwait 1,370 570 137 24

Bahrain 360 240 168 70

Saudi Arabia 8,500 5,500 440 8

Iraq 14,400 13,500 8,100 60

Iran 42,000 40,000 36,800 92

Totals 68,935 60,830 45,729 75

Besides the citizen Shi'is, there are today an estimated 300,000 non-citizen Shi'i immigrants, largely from Iran, who reside in the Gulf states of Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Although most governments have tightened restrictions on this kind of immigration, there is still considerable movement between Iran and these other Gulf states.

Except in Iran, the Gulf Shi'i communities remain largely locked out of the corridors of political power. Bahrain, where the Shi'is make up 70 percent of the population, has five Shi'i ministers, but their work is closely monitored and the ministries they head are the least significant politically in the country. In Kuwait, the government's policies of gerrymandering and of promoting Bedouin citizenship have cost the Shi'is seats in the National Assembly. Saudi Arabia, with nearly a half-million Shi'is, has never had a Shi'i minister in its government.

Shi'i power rests, not on government position, but on four mutually reinforcing pillars: geography, ideology, economics and organization. Geographically, the Shi'is are concentrated in particularly critical areas, for example, around the major oil fields. The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia has a Shi'i population of approximately 450,000 citizens. The world's largest oil field, the Ghawar field, is situated in al-Hasa, a district 55-60 percent Shi'i Muslim. The sizable Qatif field is also in an area dominantly Shi'i in composition. Shi'is continue to play an important role in the petroleum business in the Eastern Province where they are an integral part of the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO).

The Shi'i ideology is a particularly potent form of the Islamic belief system. There is in Shi'ism a historical mindset of martyrdom. Gulf Shi'is are deeply committed to their ideas and have revealed a determined willingness to give their lives for these beliefs. Their faith is renewed and reinforced every year during the month of Muharram in moving ceremonies of grief. Thus, Shi'ism remains a strong, living ideology with roots that delve deeply into the past and which give nourishment to the community today.

Economically, the Shi'is have influence at two levels. The Gulf countries have small cadres of Shi'i merchant families who are among the most dominant and dynamic financial forces in their respective states. Such families have proven their loyalty to their countries and to the leaders of these countries over many decades. They also provide a high-level protective umbrella beneath which the majority of Shi'i residents are able to live with some modicum of economic and political security. Then, down at the core of the traditional economies of the Gulf, the Shi'i merchants dominate the markets and bazaars. In Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, they control the sale of meats, fruits, vegetables, textiles, and jewelry.

A great strength of the Gulf Shi'is is their sturdy but flexible organizational network which binds the members of the various Shi'i communities together. This network, informal and highly personalistic in nature, crisscrosses the Gulf, having as its nodes Shi'i homes, shops, diwaniyyahs (places of assembly), mosques, and mourning centers.

Known as husseiniyyahs, these centers are designated structures where the Shi'is congregate during Muharram. They are also often used for funerals and for other religious and even social purposes throughout the year. It is in the husseiniyyah, even more than in the mosque, that the Shi'i community builds consensus, perhaps because it is here where the faithful gather in remembrance of a shared suffering. Both mosques and husseiniyyahs serve as institutional places of refuge for the Shi'i population. Many are built, financed, and operated by the community itself and not by the governments. This provides independence and security for the Shi'is who live in countries with sometimes hostile political systems and Sunni majorities. External political pressure is absorbed and dissipated in this situation because the faith system exists in a private domain highly resistant to outside manipulation. It is in this unofficial, personal domain that the Shi'i community meets and makes its key decisions.

The Shi'i communities of the Gulf states share all the goals of Populist Islam and have a faith system similar to that of the Muslims in power in today's Iran. Furthermore, very large numbers of Gulf citizens (both Shi'i and Sunni) are Persian in origin. In this sense, they are an especially potent part of the Populist Islamic movement.


The ruling families of the six traditional Gulf states (all Sunnis) are deeply concerned about the issues of social and political stability involved in the Populist Islamic challenge. Until now, these political elites have managed to maintain the stability of their systems for two major reasons. First, petroleum resources have enabled them to meet many of the social and economic demands of their populations. Since the actual size of the indigenous populations is very small, it has been possible to upgrade the lifestyles of citizens enormously as a result of the distribution and redistribution of wealth. Although gaps and imbalances are still present and do breed discontent, the abundance of financial wealth has provided the capacity for improving the lives of the citizenry.

A second factor is the high sensitivity of the political leadership. Traditional and tribal, the leaders have managed to remain in close contact with their people. A major institution facilitating this contact is the majlis, a gathering or assembly where all citizens have the recognized right to meet their leaders, present petitions, make demands, and receive redress and assistance on an individual basis.

In Abu Dhabi and Dubai (the two leading units of the United Arab Emirates), Sheikhs Zayid and Rashid have established especially impressive records as leaders. Leaders of their sheikhdoms since 1966 and 1958 respectively, they have repeatedly demonstrated their skills as political negotiators and mediators. Sheikh Isa of Bahrain is also an able leader consistently underrated by outsiders.

In spite of these strengths, the problems of corruption, inequality, political development, social justice and association with the Western powers are all thorny issues that persist and fuel the growing forces of Populist Islam. The leaders of the region have not found consensus on the best way to confront these challenges; so far, their policies have been at times a product of panic, at other times of reasoned calculation.

The most positive general action taken in response to the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and Populist Islam in general was the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981. The six traditional member states, led by Saudi Arabia, seek to cooperate on matters of mutual security and economic and educational ventures. The GCC is not an experiment in political unification, but rather a flexibly organized council of states whose members remain in constant communication with one another. It is designed to stand independent of the two warring Gulf powers, Iran and Iraq, and to develop enough credibility and strength to deter superpower intervention into the region.

A specific tactical response of the six traditional states has been to reinforce institutions of Establishment Islam while attempting to divide and co-opt the forces of Populist Islam. Sunni fundamentalist groups have been courted and encouraged. Saudi Arabia has poured large sums of money into the al-Islah organizations active in Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Gulf officials have also helped finance and promote Islamic education.

At the same time, Shi'i groups have been increasingly pressured. Iraq and Saudi Arabia have strongly urged that a hard line be adopted toward the Shi'is, and in 1983 this policy began to take hold slowly in the other Gulf states as well. Some Establishment spokesmen are emphasizing the differences between Sunnis and Shi'is and pressing the argument that the Shi'is give their first loyalty to Iran rather than to the governments of the countries in which they reside. Gulf leaders had previously argued that Shi'i Muslims had a historical record of proven loyalty to their governments, believing that it would be politically unwise to set Sunni against Shi'i and to develop a policy of confrontation.

There are many indications that the Iraq/Saudi position has begun to take hold. In Kuwait, Shi'i officials are being eased out of higher positions in the bureaucracy, and it is also becoming extremely difficult for them to obtain permits to build their mosques and their husseiniyyahs. Bahraini government leaders have recently begun to tighten controls through heavier reliance upon their security forces. The same is true in the United Arab Emirates.

The emerging policy of encouraging Sunni fundamentalism while applying increasing pressure on the Shi'is carries a number of serious risks. First, it is a policy of negative reaction rather than positive initiative. Such attitudes only focus upon smothering and controlling the effects of the problems, without confronting the causes. More attention needs to be paid to increasing social benefits, building political participation, controlling corruption and stressing national autonomy.

Secondly, by encouraging and supporting the Sunni fundamentalist component of Populist Islam, the governing elites may be strengthening those very forces quietly but explicitly committed to their demise. Ironically, the schools and colleges supported by the Establishment are the breeding grounds of Populist Islamic ideas and ideals.

This is precisely what happened to President Sadat. In 1971, he had helped encourage a Muslim fundamentalist movement in Egypt in order to assist him in destroying the left. A decade later it destroyed him. In the words of Mohamed Heikal, Sadat and his team "did not know the sort of religion with which they were dealing. In fact the new strain of Moslem fundamentalism which was so recklessly being encouraged was largely superficial, concentrating on the visible attributes of religion and the letter of the law but ignoring the real lessons of history." Heikal concludes that this was not a genuine attempt to resuscitate Islam, "but a rough and ready attempt to mask political and social problems beneath the galabiyeh and the chador. Other strains of fundamentalism were at work elsewhere, unseen and uncontrolled by the authorities."12

Finally, it is a dubious proposition that a hard-line policy can succeed as a method of control over the Shi'is. The Shi'i mindset does not respond well to frontal attacks and intimidation. The organizational system of Shi'i communities provides them with endless avenues of retreat. The fact that their religious and social institutions are independent from government control and supervision is a major consideration. A policy of destroying or prohibiting the construction of Shi'i mosques and husseiniyyahs risks sealing off the safety valves whereby that community releases pent-up emotion and frustration. Confrontation also closes down important channels of communication between the Sunni officialdom and the Shi'i community leaders who have played a key mediating role over the years. In the end, repressive policies can force the Shi'i population into quiet resistance and ultimately even into rebellion.

The ruling elites of the six traditional Gulf countries face a difficult and challenging future. Both internal social forces and external political pressures constantly threaten to explode the delicate dialectic between tradition and modernity that is at work. This confrontation has to a large extent been responsible for the struggle between Establishment Islam and Populist Islam. Bahrain and Kuwait would seem to be the most exposed and vulnerable of the Gulf states. If their leaders should abandon their time-proven techniques of flexible rule and instead adopt a repressive policy, major upheaval could ensue.

The Iran-Iraq war is an ongoing threat to the stability of all Gulf states. Since both warring regimes took power in revolutionary coups, and since both pose threats to other states in the region, a clearcut victory by either side could result in a serious challenge to the six other Gulf governments. At the same time, the continuation of the war has become increasingly debilitating to all the countries of the region who now find themselves hemorrhaging economically and psychologically. The inability of these countries to exert influence over either protagonist became very evident in 1984 and the resultant sense of powerlessness and insecurity is clearly present. Thus, in 1983-84, growing segments of the populations of these states quietly began to blame their own leaders for Saddam Hussein's rash aggression and for Ayatollah Khomeini's continuing intransigence.


The United States would seem to be on a collision course with the forces of Populist Islam. Two separate but related issues plague America's Middle East policy.

First is a seemingly uncritical support for regimes that promote Establishment Islam. The American relationship with former Egyptian president Sadat is the best example both of this policy and of its outcome. The results were disastrous for Sadat, while the final results for America of its alliance with Egyptian Establishment Islam are yet to be determined.

Second, the American-Israeli connection is making Muslims everywhere increasingly critical of the United States. This attitude pervades Establishment as well as Populist Islam. The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for instance, have repeatedly expressed their deep misgivings about this U.S. position. Israeli actions, sometimes taken against the express wishes of Washington, have reinforced the ideology of Populist Islam. The lack of will and/or capacity of the United States to prevent the Israeli invasion of Lebanon crippled the already weakening legitimacy of pro-American Arab regimes. In this situation, the Populist Islamic position carries more popular credibility than an Establishment Islam tarnished by outside associations.

The regimes of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan, already under great pressure at home from Populist Islam, respond to the American-Israeli relationship not only on its merits but also on the basis of their own self-interest. Political survival is the issue. They in fact have little alternative but to intensify their criticism of American support for Israeli policies. They allow their newspapers to be strongly and consistently critical of the United States. But such a message also reinforces the appeal of Populist Islam, which intensifies its own pressure on the political establishment. A vicious circle of anti-Americanism ensues, threatening both the United States and the Arab regimes which have been most friendly to American interests. Growing numbers of Middle Easterners are criticizing what they perceive to be America's one-sided association with Establishment Islam. In the words of one Kuwaiti intellectual leader, "We often refer to al-Islam al-Rasmi as al-Islam al-Amriki."13 In the United Arab Emirates, an influential Palestinian government adviser criticized what he termed "Islam Americana."14

Estrangement between the United States and Islam occurs against a backdrop of many centuries of tension between the Muslim world and the West. There is nothing inherently anti-American about Islam. It is the policies of governments that have converted Muslims into critics and opponents. When these policies have been perceived to be supportive of corruption, oppression, and colonial or imperial interventionism, there has been criticism and resistance. This applies to the policies of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc as well. In fact, Islam has much more in common with the West than it has with communist ideologies of the East.

With the exception of South Yemen, no Muslim Middle Eastern country has accepted communism as its ruling ideology. In Afghanistan, the outgunned guerrilla groups struggling with Soviet occupation forces are Muslims motivated by a vibrant ideology of Sunni Islam. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, known for its virulent anti-Americanism, the revolutionary government has also instituted a long and intensive campaign against the communist left.

Over the years, communist organizations in countries such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria have been destroyed. Today, those countries that accept Soviet military assistance (e.g., Algeria, Iraq, Syria, and Libya) do so for political advantage and have largely resisted accompanying ideological messages. Russian advisers are intensely disliked and have been the objects of personal violence in countries like Syria.15 The ideology of atheistic communism must inevitably swim against the tide of resurgent Islam.

American officials must attempt to understand the Middle East as the Middle East and not primarily as a battleground in the East-West conflict. A preoccupation with the Soviet Union to the exclusion of the internal social forces at work in the Middle East promotes a distorted view of the realities of the region. Policy based on such misunderstanding is then unlikely to be successful. The Iranian revolution, the assassination of Sadat, the Lebanese civil war, and all the problems associated with the Palestinian issue cannot be explained in terms of Soviet or communist involvement.

America has commitments to the state of Israel which must be honored, even as U.S. long-term interests in the region require effective resistance to expansionist policies of Israeli governments.

The United States must be wary of involvement in regional conflicts and resist the urge to respond to complex social and political problems with a policy of military intervention. Creative diplomacy should take precedence over military methods. The United States might attempt to work with the forces of constructive change rather than buttressing a weakening status quo. Specifically, America could encourage the leaders of friendly, moderate states to develop more constructive policies toward their constituents. Force, corruption, and arbitrary decision-making need to give way to programs of reform that will build stability and legitimacy.

Given the realities of politics and the momentum of the U.S. foreign policy-making system, these new attitudes toward Islamic unrest will not come easily. Supporting the state of Israel while at the same time criticizing and restraining Israeli policies considered ill-founded is a subtle task. Also, American diplomacy will require special skills and ingenuity to encourage the reform essential to the long-term stability of U.S. friends in the Gulf without damaging our official relations with these governments. The difficulties involved in the implementation of new policy attitudes should not be an excuse to downplay their central relevance. The alternative is an eventual foreign policy failure.


1 I use the term "Populist Islam" rather than "Popular Islam" since the latter has long been used by scholars to refer to local, mystical and syncretist practices involving saint worship, tomb visitation, and other activities that sometimes border on the superstitious. While "Popular Islam" then is a form of folk Islam defined on the basis of local religious beliefs and practices, "Populist Islam" refers to a general social and political movement generated from below rather than a movement sponsored by governments and their supporting bureaucratic apparatus.

2 The Christian Science Monitor, March 29, 1984, p. 1.

3 Personal interview, Kuwait, October 5, 1983.

5 There is also a fourth Sunni group that is part of resurgent Populist Islam in the Gulf. This is Populist Sufism represented by the mystical movements such as the al-Rifa'i brotherhood in Kuwait. This mystical component of Sunni Populist Islam is especially strong in North Africa but has only a limited presence in the Gulf at this time. The Sufi groups that do exist are sharply opposed both to the al-Salafi movement and to Shi'ism.

6 Personal interview, Kuwait, October 3, 1983.

7 Personal interview with adviser to the ruler, Gulf emirate, August 17, 1982.

8 Iran will only be discussed in terms of the relevance of its revolution and the subsequent establishment of the Islamic Republic to the politics and stability of the other Gulf countries. Iraq will not be discussed at all in this context since its Baathist political system controlled by Saddam Hussein has de-emphasized Islam and has suppressed the Shi'i element in particular. These policies along with the traumatic Iran-Iraq war have stunted the growth both of Establishment Islam and Populist Islam in Iraq.

10 Teheran Times, September 30, 1982.

11 The figures in Table I are drawn from the sources cited in footnote 9.

12 Mohamed Heikal, Autumn of Fury, New York: Random House, 1983, p. 135.

13 Personal interview, Kuwait, October, 1983.

14 Personal interview, Abu Dhabi, October 20, 1983.

15 Over a dozen Soviet advisers were assassinated in 1980-1981 in Syria. See The New York Times, May 27, 1981, and The Christian Science Monitor, June 19, 1981.

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  • James A. Bill is Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Politics of Iran, and co-author of Politics in the Middle East. He made four research trips to the Gulf states in 1982-1983.
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