Fundamentalism increasingly directs global politics. Is compromise going to be a thing of the past?

By Kevin Phillips

Los Angeles Times Sunday May 10, 1998

THE MENACE OF RELIGIOUS ZEALOTRY Fundamentalism increasingly directs global politics. Is compromise going to be a thing of the past? By Kevin Phillips, Kevin Phillips, publisher of American Political Report, is author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His most recent book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustrations of American Politics."

Los Angeles Times Sunday May 10, 1998 Home Edition Opinion, Page 1 Type of Material: Top Story; Opinion

WASHINGTON--Fifty years have passed since Winston Churchill made his speech observing that, from Stettin on the Baltic to Fiume on the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain was dividing Europe. Not any more. But now a new potential divide is becoming visible in Europe and Asia.

Religious zealotry is one hallmark of the escalating confrontation between the West and a number of Muslim nations along a line from North Africa to Malaysia and Indonesia. Radicalism in many religions is as obvious in parts of Brooklyn, Chicago and South Carolina as in Turkey and Algeria, but Islamic fundamentalism is growing the fastest and has the best prospect of intrafaith gains.

Like crusading Catholicism in the Middle Ages and the aggressive Protestantism of the Reformation, militant Islam is not simply aroused by its own cause, but also is responding to the hostility of the existing Muslim power structure--from old-guard Persian Gulf emirs to progressive secular Turks--and the all-too-frequent cultural and economic arrogance of the West. Throw in evidence of China and the overseas Chinese being frequent Muslim allies, and the looming 21st century geography is as powerful as the cultural fit and the population numbers.

The Chinese and Muslims together now have double the West's share of world military manpower, after trailing at the end of World War II. Though the West currently has twice their combined economic strength, its key remaining bulwark, some Chinese-growth projections suggest that could fade by 2020.

Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington has predicted that culture and religion will shape the new century's clash of civilizations. If so, forget the Maginot Line of World War II. To paraphrase the great battle hymn of Reformation Lutheranism: The new mighty fortresses may be our gods. By 2009, we may have to worry about whether World War III could start along the Minaret Line.

Just consider the Middle East. As recently as 30 or 40 years ago, rivalries there were a mix of Arab-Israeli enmity, the legacies of colonialism--for example, the British and French invasion of Suez in 1956--and U.S.-Soviet Cold War jousting.

Since then, religious commitment and activism have surged. Fundamentalism is gaining in most Muslim nations, save for Iran, mullah-driven for so long that there seems a slight thaw now. Israel, in turn, has a government dominated by the Jewish equivalent of America' s religious right: Greenville, S.C., in yarmulkes.

Russian activism in the Mideast also seems increasingly influenced by the old Orthodox nationalism of the czars. One academic expert, Edward L. Keenan, has compared the rise of the religious right in Russia to that of Israel: In both, it consists mostly of the poor and young reacting against Westernized elites.

In the United States, members of the Southern Baptist Church, the most fundamentalist of the major denominations, dominate Washington politics: President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) for the Democrats; House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for the GOP.

None of these men takes the Bible literally, even if many fellow Baptists do. Several have even whittled the 10 Commandments down to five or six. Nonetheless, they're well aware of the importance of the biblical lands in the Middle East to U.S. voters: George Bush won 90% job approval with a successful war against a regional tyrant. Through such calculations, religion is a powerful force in U.S. Mideast policy.

What's unnerving is the possibility that the biblical lands are part of a larger zone of potential West-versus-Islam conflict that stretches almost 10,000 miles, from the Atlantic beaches of Casablanca to the South China Sea.

A cook's tour could begin in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Moammar Kadafi's radical Libya. But the front-line hot spots, where Islam and the West are already developing mutual bitterness, are big urban centers like Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin. Of the 12 million to 14 million Muslim immigrants in Europe--Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians and Turks--most crowd into these cities, nurturing radicalism on both sides.

Further east, the 6 million to 8 million Muslims of the Balkans, a legacy from the centuries of Ottoman rule, dominate Albania, as well as much of Bosnia and Kosovo and part of Macedonia in the former Yugoslavia, along with parts of Bulgaria. Fighting between Orthodox Christian Serbs and Muslims is already widespread in Bosnia and Kosovo. A wider Balkan war with essentially religious battle lines is quite possible. Cyprus, too, has again emerged as a possible battleground between Greek Orthodox Christians and Turkish Muslims.

In and around the Holy Land, the secular Muslim states of Egypt and Turkey are also in danger of being taken over by Islamic radicals. Either transformation could set the region ablaze. Politics in Turkey is particularly sensitive to how Turks and other Muslim immigrants face discrimination in the ethnic ghettos of Western Europe, and how the European Community is perceived as rejecting Turkish membership for ethnic and religious reasons. The Persian Gulf is already incendiary, with the recent U.S. saber-rattling against Iraq being taken in some quarters for hostility to all Muslims.

An additional stop on Islam's armed frontier would be the Caucasus region, where Muslim Chechens are fighting Orthodox Russians, and Christian Armenians are at sword's point with Muslim Azerbaijanis. Another problem area is in the largely Muslim republics of what used to be Soviet Central Asia.

Several thousand miles across India and the Bay of Bengal, three Muslim-influenced republics of Southeast Asia--Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines--have their political and economic noses out of joint from the recent financial collapses. Some local leaders, including Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, blame the West for using the currency crisis to erode local economic sovereignty. It is not a baseless charge.

In Indonesia, with 200 million people the most populous Muslim nation, President Suharto has been obliged to accept International Monetary Fund reforms. The resulting fuel, electricity and transportation increases have led to riots.

Washington policy-makers, who are caught up in "Wag the Dog" threats and policing Southeast Asian economies through IMF bureaucrats and mutual-fund managers, should take another look. The West is on five distinct collision courses with Islam: the explosive Muslim immigrant ghettos could disrupt half the major cities in Europe; U.S. troops have been put in the line of ancient hatreds in Bosnia; war threats in the biblical lands smack of fire drills for Armageddon; the suppression of oil prices to 25-year lows strikes at Muslim economies from Nigeria to Indonesia, and financial colonialism is a provocation.

Should any of these problems escalate, Islam isn't likely to stand alone. China, Asia's other demographic Goliath, has been a frequent ally in areas such as nuclear nonproliferation, and the two cultures make a good fit: Chinese commercial and financial skills with the fervent radicalism of the Muslims.

Practical proof abounds. In recent decades, countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have shown how an overseas Chinese commercial elite can build prosperity within a largely Muslim national population. China itself has tens of millions of Muslims; even in Hong Kong, half the small Muslim minority is ethnic Chinese.

Together, the two groups are predicted to have 30% of the world' s population in 2010, with just 12% for the West. Compare that to 1920, when the West had 48% and the Sino-Muslim nations 20%.

A 21st-century U.S. confrontation with this axis could be disastrous. New York and California have large segments of the Chinese diaspora. Of the 5 million Muslims in the United States, the Harvard Pluralism Project advised in 1997, "The Islamic World is no longer somewhere else . . . instead, Chicago, with its 50 mosques and nearly half a million Muslims, is part of the Islamic world."

Not quite. Yet, the average American of 1998 has little idea of what global geopolitics could be like in 2010 or 2020.