Monday, August 4, 2008

A New and More Dangerous Era Part I


By Anthony J. Dennis

1st part of 3

In the 1990s, fundamentalist Islam began to emerge as the only coherent ideology to pose a credible threat to the West. Islamic fundamentalism is clearly a global phenomenon. Its adherents can be found in an almost unbroken line from the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines to the Armed Islamic Group in North Africa. This article will discuss the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in the post-Cold War era and will explain why this ideology represents a threat to the safety and security of the West in particular, and all non-Muslims generally, as demonstrated by the words and deeds of the fundamentalists themselves. Recent attempts by President Khatami of Iran to establish a more moderate and less confrontational brand of Islamic rule will also be addressed. This article will conclude with several recommendations for Western governments faced with the challenge of dealing with the Muslim fundamentalists in the international political arena today.

To understand the extent of the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism to the non-Muslim world, it is important to understand the impact the end of the Cold War has had on the political landscape, and to carefully consider the political agenda and salient characteristics of the transnational fundamentalist movement itself.



The end of the Cold War left the world with a more mixed legacy than is generally admitted. While the defeat of communism and the peaceful annihilation of the Soviet Empire represented a tremendous moral as well as political victory for the West, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite empire also meant the extinction of a tremendous restraining influence on scores of ethnic and religious rivalries. One of the stabilizing facts of the Cold War competition was that both East and West kept their client states in check. While some rivalries were fueled during the Cold War, others clearly were suppressed by it. With communism’s collapse, many nations forged in the crucible of communism died with it. The people of the former Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia, for example, have found that there is no longer anything that commonly defines and therefore unites them. As a result, nations have fragmented or have disappeared entirely with astonishing swiftness. Cut loose by the failed ideology of communism, many have fallen back on their long suppressed religious identity as a principle of political organization and as a means of understanding themselves and their world. We should not be overly surprised to see new countries and even new empires arise from the ashes of the old.1

One can say that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union have had at least three major effects. These watershed events created 1) an ideological vacuum, 2) a power vacuum, and 3) the largest weapons bazaar and black market in world history. Islamic fundamentalism as a political movement and as an ideology has benefited from each of these effects.

Ideological Vacuum

The collapse of the Soviet empire discredited communism as a viable ideology, especially in the eyes of developing nations. As a consequence, communism is no longer viewed as worthy of emulation. Yet, while communism was defeated, democratic ideals have not necessarily triumphed. Democracy, like communism before it, is essentially a non-indigenous ideology imported into Muslim territories only in the last one hundred years or so. By contrast, the notion of governance according to traditional Islamic principles is a familiar and appealing concept in these regions. Islam clearly has what one might call the “home-field advantage”.

The post-Cold War ideological vacuum has been filled by Islam as many leaders in the Muslim Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia have fallen back on their “Muslim roots” for models of governance and as a way to remain politically relevant in the eyes of their largely Muslim populace. By the early 1990s, the language of socialism, with all its references to the liberation of the masses, the exploitation of capitalists, and the misdeeds of various imperialist powers, had become outdated. The language of fundamentalist Islam, with its disturbingly violent references to jihad, its moral and religious endorsement of terrorism against civilians, and its glorification of martyrdom, had taken its place.

Power Vacuum

The political universe, like the natural one, abhors a vacuum. At its height, the Cold War generally worked to suppress other political ideologies and movements as both the Americans and the Soviets (and their respective allies) committed tremendous resources to either democratic or communist parties and leaders in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Anyone not aligned with one or the other political camp was, at best, unfunded and ignored and, at worst, ruthlessly suppressed. Now that the superpowers have largely withdrawn from many of these areas, Islamic fundamentalism has had a chance to “break out” and evolve from being a relatively marginal political movement to a mainstream movement.

The increased popularity of Islamic rule in the post-Cold War era was eloquently demonstrated in Turkey, an economically advanced and Westernized nation and a longtime member of NATO. In 1996, for the first time in modern Turkish history, the Islamic party’s candidate for prime minister won in a stunning electoral upset, beating out candidates from the two mainstream parties, True Path and Motherland. The elevation of Necmettin Erbakan to the office of prime minister that year demonstrates that parties calling for a rejection of the West (including termination of military and diplomatic alliances with Western nations) and a return to traditional Islamic rule have substantial electoral clout, even in relatively wealthy and developed nations like Turkey. These parties are serious contenders for political power and should not be dismissed out of hand. Nor should their popularity be ascribed solely to poor economic conditions. Those who assert that Islamic parties are popular solely or principally because of poor economic conditions are able to make such declarations only by studiously ignoring the facts.

Elsewhere in the world, the absence of Soviet authority in places like Central Asia has given native leaders and local religious heads in these areas a golden opportunity to politically organize. As predicted, we have seen parties calling for Islamic forms of government rise to some prominence throughout the former Soviet Central Asian Republics in the last ten years. The Islamic Renaissance Party, for example, was active in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Soviet rule. In 1991, four of the former Soviet Asian Republics banned all activities of this party out of concern over its growing strength.2 Where were the budding democratic parties at this time? They were, comparatively speaking, non-existent.

Black Market Weaponry

On the military front, the disintegration of the Soviet Empire and the concomitant loss of centralized control over its vast military arsenal have given the fundamentalist Muslims unprecedented access to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capable of making relatively small terrorist groups or nations into world military powers literally overnight. In fact, there have been a number of detailed reports concerning the ease with which Soviet-made nuclear weaponry or other sophisticated military technology can be smuggled out of the country and purchased in the black market.3 This is the world into which Osama bin Laden and others have stepped, with ready cash in hand, and it is the reason why the fundamentalist movement represents such a grave threat to world peace in the present age.



Before proceeding any further, let me state here as I have stated previously in other contexts that my remarks are limited to one politically active and politically radical segment of the vast Muslim world, and that I do not mean to suggest or imply that all 850 million to 1 billion of the world’s Muslims are terrorists or necessarily supportive of terrorism of any kind. In fact I consistently use the modifier “fundamentalist” in connection with the term “Muslim” in order to make evident that I am referring specifically to this radical segment. If Islam is an issue in the current political debate, it is not because of anything I or others have written or said but because fundamentalist governments (e.g., Iran, Sudan), political parties (e.g., Islamic Salvation Front), terrorist groups (e.g., Hizbullah, al-Qa`idah, Vanguards of Conquest) and guerrilla organizations (e.g., Armed Islamic Group, Taliban) have themselves made Islam a central issue by pointing to that ancient monotheistic faith as the justification and inspiration for their violent words and deeds. Unfortunately, these groups have essentially hijacked and appropriated the language of Islam in explaining and justifying their actions and by purporting to act for expressly religious reasons.

The term “Islamic fundamentalist” is not a theological term but a politically descriptive one which describes persons or parties that have a very specific and defined domestic and foreign policy agenda. I tend to favor the foregoing term over the terms “Islamist” or “political Islam”. “Islamist” is a colorless term that does not convey the return to the early days of the Prophet’s rule and the fundamentals of the early faith to which the modern day fundamentalists aspire. The term “political Islam” strikes me as similarly unedifying and even redundant since Islam is, by definition, a faith that has been intimately and inextricably involved in politics from the very beginning.

Domestic Policy

The Muslim fundamentalists seek on the domestic front the establishment of an Islamic theocracy or religious dictatorship (including, if necessary, the violent overthrow of the existing government), the adoption and strict application of the shari`ah, Islam’s traditional legal code, and the eradication and expulsion of all non-Muslim influences on their society and way of life.

Foreign Policy

In terms of foreign policy, these groups adopt an implacably hostile and adversarial posture toward the West, with talk of military and terrorist strikes against it, the desirability of killing Western citizens, and the necessity (indeed the religious duty) of undertaking a jihad against America and other nations, including Israel. As incredible and unrealistic as it sounds, the ultimate foreign policy objective of these groups is the conversion or extermination of all non-Muslim peoples including those living in Europe and North America. Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Egyptian cleric who was later convicted of involvement in the World Trade Center bombing in New York City, was quoted on the front page of The Wall Street Journal one month before that bombing as saying that his goal was to “show all Americans that they’ll never be happy if they don’t follow Islam.”4 The Islamic Republic of Iran, in fact, has a clause in its constitution calling for spreading the Islamic revolution to other lands.5

Both Iran and Sudan have found that preaching jihad against America is a useful centerpiece around which to organize their foreign policy, and in Sudan’s case – even their military and local militia.6 Iranian government officials have been quite honest about their rhetorical and literal war against America. In 1991, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi openly admitted that “[i]t is necessary to target all US objectives throughout the world,” and stated that “Iranians are ready for sacrifice and Holy War.”7 Needless to say, normal diplomatic relations with such governments or groups in the face of these homicidal intentions are highly problematic at best.

Fundamentalist groups can be Shi`ites like the Islamic Republic of Iran or Sunnis like the regime in Sudan or the Taliban in Afghanistan. It should be noted that religious differences have not prevented Shi`a and Sunni groups or regimes, including Iran and Sudan, from working together against a common perceived enemy and do not present an insurmountable hurdle to transnational cooperation.8

Anthony J. Dennis

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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