Islamic Fundamentalism

Andrew Bilski

from Maclean's, April 17, 1995

The phrase "Islamic fundamentalism" conjures frightful images: rabid crowds, death threats, kidnappings and hijackings. It strikes fear in Western leaders, particularly those in southern Europe who worry that crises like the one in Algeria, where a vicious war rages between Muslim militants and the military government, could bring terrorism to their doorstep. In February, NATO Secretary General Willy Claes warned that Islamic fundamentalism is as much a threat to the Western alliance as communism once was. His undiplomatic remark ruffled alliance members and angered Arab leaders, who accused NATO of launching a new crusade against Islam. Claes quickly retracted his statement, but to wary Muslims it was a call to arms. Indeed, at a four-day conference in Khartoum, Sudan, that ended last week, Islamic fundamentalists from 80 countries appealed to fellow Muslims to break free from a military, economic and cultural stranglehold they said the West is imposing on them. Declared Mustafa Mashhour, a delegate from Egypt' s Muslim Brotherhood: "Our enemies think they will be able to annihilate Islam. But no people can eliminate the light of the sun."

Certainly, Muslim militancy is seen as a destabilizing force by some governments, particularly that of Israel. But most Islamic experts argue that the perception of a new Muslim threat to the West is based largely on misunderstandings. They say that Islam is essentially a peace-loving religion based on respect for others, a view embraced by the vast majority of the world's 1.2-billion Muslims. The idea of a monolithic Islamic threat is a myth, they say, because the Muslim world is deeply divided and most of its countries are poor. Even Iran, accused by the West of exporting terrorism, is limited by its modest means. "Militant Islam doesn't present the kind of strategic threat that we associated with communism," says Rosemary Hollis, an expert at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs. "We are talking about a range of cultural and social problems in countries which are largely Muslim. There is no overall trend."

Still, some perceptions die hard. And a rash of recent incidents-- from North Africa and the Mideast to Asia and even the United States- -reinforce Western concerns that Islamic militancy, whatever its target, is on the rise.

ALGERIA: Muslim militants stormed a state-run television facility last week and broadcast a propaganda tape by the country's Armed Islamic Group, which has targeted foreigners, journalists and celebrities in its three-year war to transform Algeria into an Islamic state. Meanwhile, Algerian forces attacked a militants' convoy transporting arms into the country, apparently smuggled from Libya and Sudan. As many as 40,000 people have been killed since Muslim groups took up arms against the government after it cancelled 1992 elections that an Islamic party was poised to win.

SUDAN: At a recent international conference aimed at rallying Muslims against perceived Western domination, Hassan al-Tourabi, believed to be the power behind Sudan's military government, accused the West of trying to wipe out Muslim independence. "[For the West] Islamists have no right to existence," Tourabi told the opening session of the third Popular Arab and Islamic Conference. "Only one culture is acceptable [to the West]."

Aid workers estimate that more than 500,000 people have died in a 12-year war between Sudan's Muslim government and southern rebels who are mainly Christian or animist.

EGYPT: Police killed four suspected Muslim militants last week and detained at least 84 others in the southern Nile valley after three policemen and a woman were killed in separate weekend attacks. The attacks followed the hanging of two Muslim militants for the attempted murder of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz, whom fundamentalists had declared an "infidel" because of his portrayal of God in one of his books. More than 700 people have died during three years of battles between police and militants fighting to make Egypt an Islamic state.

PHILIPPINES: Rival Muslim rebel groups joined forces last week to attack the southern town of Ipil, killing at least 45 people and leaving the town centre in ruins. The mainly Christian Philippines has been plagued for decades by insurgency among its Muslim minority in the south--some 50,000 people were killed in the 1970s in a period of virtual open warfare--but the Ipil attack was by far the most serious for several years.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in Manila filed charges of illegal possession of guns and explosives against six Muslim fundamentalists suspected of links to radicals on trial in New York City. Police said the six "are believed to be affiliated" with Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian cleric accused with 14 other radicals of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that killed six people and injured about 1,000. The Manila arrests came three months after police raided an apartment in the capital and uncovered an alleged plot by Islamic extremists to kill Pope John Paul II during a January visit, and to blow up two United Airlines jumbo jets.

GAZA: Leaders of the militant Islamic Hamas group led more than 5, 000 supporters in a march last week from Gaza City's al-Omari mosque to a cemetery, blaming Israel and the Palestinian self-rule authority for an April 1 blast that killed two senior Hamas guerrillas. Israeli and Palestinian authorities claimed the victims were making bombs, which blew up accidentally. Hamas, which opposes the 1993 Israel- PLO peace deal, is believed to be behind a series of suicide bombings and other violence that has killed some 60 people in Israel in the past 18 months.

IRAN: The only full-blown Islamic state besides Saudi Arabia, Iran has been accused by Western governments of exporting terrorism and, according to U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, has embarked on a "crash effort" to develop nuclear arms. Under a deal strenuously opposed by Washington, Russia signed a $1.1-billion contract in January to complete Iran's first nuclear power plant. In Moscow last week, U.S. Defence Secretary William Perry pressed Russian officials to cancel the contract. "It is entirely clear, even to the casual observer, that Iran does not need nuclear reactors to generate electricity, " said Perry. "The country is awash with oil."

Meanwhile, British officials suggested that Tehran was still urging the assassination of author Salman Rushdie. Rushdie has been in hiding under British police protection since 1989, when then-Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned him to death for blasphemy against Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses.

SAUDI ARABIA: The government last week warned all Muslims not to carry banned political books, pictures or leaflets during next month's haj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. In 1987, some 400 people were killed in clashes in Mecca between security forces and Iranian pilgrims who were holding a political rally to condemn the United States and Israel, which they call the main enemies of Islam.

Experts say that Islamic militancy is fuelled by long-standing resentment against Western colonialism, by poverty and by anger towards inefficient or corrupt regimes. Muslims, according to this view, are turning in greater numbers to the certainties of the word of God, traditional values of the Koran and the Islamist promise of social justice, because everything else seems to have failed.

Such is certainly the case in Egypt, where thousands of frustrated youth have been drawn to the militant Gama'a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group). Members say they see no future for themselves in the Western- leaning country's struggling economy, beset by overpopulation and high unemployment, or within its stagnant political system, dominated by aging politicians and characterized by weak opposition parties, a highly centralized state and rampant corruption.

The Gama'a began as a social movement in the hotbed of 1970s student activism, eventually turning to violent protest against the state. The group mainly targets policemen, although members have also attacked tourists and Coptic Christians. Its amateur methods grew increasingly sophisticated in the early 1990s with the return of Egyptian volunteers who had fought in Afghanistan against the former Soviet Union.

Egypt's government, like other besieged administrations in the Muslim world, has fought back with mass arrests, executions and closures of militants' mosques. But analysts say that such tactics are doomed to failure, since they serve to fuel rather than dampen the ardor of angry Muslims. "A man like President Hosni Mubarak pretends to have a democratic government, but it's not true," says Hussein Ahmed Amin, who writes about Islamic politics in Cairo. "People in government are only trying to enrich themselves. They do not care for the masses. This will only encourage Islamic elements and enable them to widen their bases." And, he might have added, make them even more militant.