Courtesy Reuters

Fundamentalist Muslims Between America and Russia

America is worse than Britain; Britain is worse than America. The Soviet Union is worse than both of them. They are all worse and more unclean than each other! But today it is America that we are concerned with.

—Ayatollah Khomeini, October 1964

When President Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met in Geneva last November, the fundamentalist Muslim rulers of Iran devised their own interpretation of the summit conference. "The biggest worry of the two superpowers," Radio Teheran announced, "is neither the ‘star wars’ nor the speedy buildup of nuclear weapons, but the revolutionary uprising of the world’s Muslims and the oppressed." Iran’s President Sayed Ali Khamenei asserted that the two leaders, fearful of revolutionary Islamic ideology and the disturbing effect it has across the Third World, met to figure out "how to confront Islam."

The rulers of Iran are convinced that the United States and the Soviet Union conspire together to keep Third World peoples in line. President Khamenei believes that the superpowers have already divided the world between them and disagree only on the exact disposition of territories. The summit, in this view, provided a convenient occasion for them to negotiate their small differences.

Muslim fundamentalists offer a most peculiar interpretation of superpower relationships, derived from an awareness of what many in the West overlook: cultural similarities between the United States and the Soviet Union far outweigh the differences between them. By looking beyond political disagreements, fundamentalist Muslims see how much the two share. If American and Soviet citizens alike have difficulty recognizing themselves—or, for that matter, each other—as they are portrayed by fundamentalist Muslims, this eccentric assessment motivates a significant body of opinion through the Muslim world.

One might expect the fundamentalists’ views to imply equal antipathy to the two superpowers. But this is not the case: even a cursory review of their news reports, commentaries, speeches and sermons reveals a preoccupation with America that borders on the obsessive. Although a good word is

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