There Are No Moderates: Dealing with Fundamentalist Islam

In early February 1995, newspapers around the world featured a photograph taken in Cairo, which showed, for the first time ever, the prime minister of Israel standing side-by-side with the king of Jordan, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the president of Egypt.

These gentlemen ostensibly met to discuss the faltering peace process between the Arabs and Israel. Yet this unprecedented event of an Israeli leader in conclave with Arab colleagues sent another signal too: four leaders who share a common problem--fundamentalist Islam--are ready to work together. According to the Jerusalem Post's account of the meeting, Rabin said that Israelis are the target of the fundamentalist attacks. Arafat jumped in and said, "Me too. They have threatened my life." At that point, Mubarak and Hussein both nodded their heads and said they too had personally been threatened by the radicals.

The photograph neatly symbolizes a great shift now taking place in Middle Eastern politics. Arab-Israeli issues remain formally the main item on the agenda but fundamentalist violence has become the greatest worry of nearly every government in the region. This shift marks a deep transformation for the Middle East. Through six decades, a politician's stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict defined more than anything else his standing in Middle East politics. No longer. Now, his position on fundamentalism, the single greatest threat to the region, primarily determines his allies and his enemies.

Why do Middle Eastern leaders feel so threatened by fundamentalist movements? Are they perhaps exaggerating the threat? And how is the U.S. government dealing with this novel issue?

A Variety of Threats

Though anchored in a religious creed, fundamentalist Islam is a radical utopian movement closer in spirit to other such movements (communism, fascism) than to traditional religion. By nature anti-democratic and aggressive, anti-Semitic and anti-Western, it has great plans. Indeed, spokesmen for fundamentalist Islam see their movement standing in direct competition to Western civilization and challenging it for global supremacy. Let's look at each of these elements in more detail.

Radical utopian schema

Outside their own movement, fundamentalists see every existing political system in the Muslim world as deeply compromised, corrupt, and mendacious. As one of their spokesmen put it as long ago as 1951, "there is no [sic] one town in the whole world where Islam is observed as enjoined by Allah, whether in politics, economics or social matters." Implied here is that Muslims true to God's message must reject the status quo and build wholly new institutions.

To build a new Muslim society, fundamentalists proclaim their intent to do whatever they must; they openly flaunt an extremist sensibility. "There are no such terms as compromise and surrender in the Islamic cultural lexicon," a Hamas spokesman declares. If that means destruction and death for the enemies of true Islam, so be it. Hizbullah's spiritual leader, Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, concurs: "As Islamists we seek to revive the Islamic inclination by all means possible."
Seeing Islam as the basis of a political system touching every aspect of life, fundamentalists are totalitarian. Whatever the problem, "Islam is the solution." In their hands, Islam is transformed from a personal faith into a ruling system that knows no constraints. They scrutinize the Koran and other texts for hints about Islamic medicine, Islamic economics, and Islamic statecraft, all with an eye to creating a total system for adherents and corresponding total power for leaders. Fundamentalists are revolutionary in outlook, extremist in behavior, totalitarian in ambition.

Revealingly, they vaunt Islam as the best ideology, not the best religion--thereby exposing their focus on power. Whereas a traditional Muslim would say something like, "We are not Jewish, we are not Christian, we are Muslim," the Malaysian Islamist leader Anwar Ibrahim made a very different comparison: "We are not socialist, we are not capitalist, we are Islamic." While fundamentalist Islam differs in its details from other utopian ideologies, it closely resembles them in scope and ambition. Like communism and fascism, it offers a vanguard ideology; a complete program to improve man and create a new society; complete control over that society; and cadres ready, even eager, to spill blood.


Like Hitler and Allende, dictators who exploited the democratic process to reach power, the fundamentalists actively take part in elections; like the earlier figures, too, they have done dismayingly well. Fundamentalists swept municipal elections in Algeria in 1990 and won the mayoralties of Istanbul and Ankara in 1994. They have had successes in Lebanese and Jordanian elections and should win a substantial vote in the West Bank and Gaza should Palestinian elections be held.

Once in power, would fundamentalists remain democrats? There is not much hard evidence on this point, Iran being the only case at hand where fundamentalists in power have made promises about democracy. (In all other fundamentalist regimes--Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Sudan--military leaders have dominated.) Ayatollah Khomeini promised real democracy (an assembly "based on the votes of the people") as he took power. Once in charge, he partially fulfilled this pledge: Iran's elections are hotly disputed and parliament does have real authority. But there's an important catch: parliamentarians must subscribe to the principles of the Islamic revolution. Only candidates (including non-Muslims) who subscribe to the official ideology may run for office. The regime in Tehran thus fails the key test of democracy, for it cannot be voted out of power.


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