The Fundamentalist Phenomenon
A briefing by Judith Miller
April 23, 1996
At a recent launching party for her new book, God Has Ninety-Nine Names (Simon & Schuster, excerpted in the June issue of the Middle East Quarterly), Judith Miller of The New York Times talked to the Middle East Forum about the fundamentalist Islamic movement, a phenomenon she has closely observed during a twenty-year career of covering the Middle East.
Ms Miller described four important dimensions of the movement:
Hatred of Americans. She began by noting the importance of advice she received from a Lebanese journalist: to understand fundamentalist Islam, go to its stronghold, the countryside. Visiting the Lebanese countryside shortly after the October 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Ms Miller saw a kindergarten class cavorting during recess and noticed a strange regimentation to their play. The class's grim, Iranian-trained teacher explained that the class was marching in military formation, learning to be martyrs, so that they could one day follow in the footsteps of the suicide bomber who killed almost 250 Marines. This class was by no means atypical, Ms Miller noted. Therein lies a key to understanding Islamic militants; they have an enmity toward the United States that few Americans fathom. Being cognizant of this enmity, however unpleasant it may be, is essential for devising an effective American policy.
Lack of coordination. If fundamentalist Muslims loath the United States, they share little else in common. There is no central group to coordinate actions and ideology, no "Khomeintern" on the pattern of Moscow's Comintern. The Iranian government would love to play such a role, but it is hampered by being comprised of Shi'is and Persians, severely limiting their appeal to Sunnis or Arabs.
Homegrown fundamentalism. The ideology of Islamic militancy varies in each country and is shaped by each country's particular history and ethnic makeup. The title of Ms Miller's book, God has Ninety-Nine Names, points out that leaders of fundamentalist groups modify, even distort, their religion into the political ideology that best serves their ends. This implies that for the U.S. government to adopt an overarching doctrine toward these groups is counterproductive.
Hypocrisy. Before Hasan at-Turabi came to power in the Sudan, he said, from a Western perspective, all the right things. Unlike many leaders in the Muslim world, he strongly favored women's rights and insisted that the Shari'a (Islamic law) protects Christian rights. But on coming to power he repressed women and non-Muslims.
Hypocrisy has its benefits, however, for it permits flexibility in otherwise implacable fundamentalist positions. When founding Hizbullah in Lebanon, Sheikh Fadlallah explicitly talked of destroying Israel and transforming Lebanon into a fundamentalist state. Now, seeing that his original vision was too grandiose, Fadlallah insists that he is a multiculturalist who believes in parliamentary democracy and seeks little more than to remove the Israelis from Lebanon. This is a welcome modification, but it is irreconcilable with his original position.
The U.S. record. Ms Miller assesses U.S. policy as shrewd in some ways. She applauds the essential vagueness of Washington's position toward fundamentalist Islam--the lack of blanket statements issued, the fact that no doctrines have been codified. This allows the U.S. government flexibility in dealing with specific fundamentalist challenges.
She warns, however, against equating elections with the development of full-fledged democracy. The latter requires the rule of law, respect for minority rights, and respect for private property. Fundamentalist leaders, like Sudan's Turabi, tend to see elections only as an avenue to power, not as a method of governance. American interests coincide with those of most residents in the region: to see functioning democracies formed, not would-be tyrants elected.
This report was prepared by Nick Beckwith, a research assistant at the Middle East Forum.
Related Topics: Radical Islam | Judith Miller
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