Militant Islam facing backlash in Middle East

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Is the spread of fundamental Islam facing a secular backlash in the Middle East? The 2,500 miles between the Suez Canal and the Indian subcontinent is the most volatile in the Muslim world. In it are to be found societal upheaval and armed struggle in country after country: Lebanon, the West Bank, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and, most recently, Pakistan.

Two years ago, the wave washing the region -- and cresting most noticeably in Tehran -- was what jounalist Godfrey Jansen termed "militant Islam" in a book by the same name. In the historical action-reaction politics of this region, militant Islam was a pressure that was not new but that had recently surged through weakening societies, culminating in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution.

The shock of Iran caused political leaders who were Muslim to pay more attention to the Islamic ideal of Islamicizing the state. Islamic law and institutions were reaffirmed in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Pakistan. Double standards for the well-to-do and well-connected were eschewed.

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Muslim insurgents actively began to oppose the secular regimes in Afghanistan and Syria. Shiite Muslims became more active in Lebanon, Iraq and, of course, Iran. Socialists, communists, generally all nonfundamentalists, lowered their profiles.

Now, however, there are signs of an upswing in activity antithetical to the Islamic government. Socialists have recently achieved new strength in Egypt. The Syrian and Afghan regimes were matching Muslim insurgency with aggressive military force. In Iran, Islamic hard-liners face increasing opposition.

Forces opposed to Pakistani President Zia ul- Haq are becoming more bold. The March 2 hijacking of a Pakistani airline by members of the Al Zulfikar group has put considerable pressure on President Zia, whose four years in power have been spent in an attempt to make Pakistan more Islamic.

[Hijackers holding more than 100 passengers aboard a Pakistani airliner set a final deadline March 11 for Pakistan to meet their demands, Syria said, according to a Reuters report from Damascus.]

[As history's longest hijacking entered its 10th day, the three gunmen relented on an earlier deadline after hearing that a team of senior Pakistan envoys was flying to Damascus to negotiate with them, a Syrian government statement said.]

[The hijackers, who were demanding the release of 55 people from Pakistani jails, agreed to extend the deadline by 30 hours, until March 12, it said.]

The hijackers' violent methods have drawn attention to Zia's foes. The Pakistani leader probably is strong enough to weather the crisis, but it is noteworthy that on March 9 he announced his government would moderate "classical martial law" with elements of democracy.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the hijackers fled first to communist Kabul, Afghanistan, then more than 2,00 miles to Arab socialist Damascus, Syria, showing that they expected relatively more lenient treatment in nations with secular, pro-Soviet governments.

Still, if there is a backlash to fundamentalism, it is unlikely to constitute a single force. Secular causes in the Middle East are many in number, uncoordinated in activity, and still far from wielding great power.

But many Middle East watchers believe the newness of the Islamic revolution and its force have now passed. A British Islamic scholar in Egypt recently told the Monitor he believed the Iranian revolution and subsequent two years of Muslim fervor was stimulating for the region.

"This Islamic revolution was basically rooted in local socio-economic problems and had quite a lot of xenophobia about it," said the academician (who asked for anonymity).

"It is not new but it seems to occur when society loses its signposts. We see this with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, with wahhabism in saudi arabia, withj reaweakened Shiism in Lebanon and Iran. Most Muslims recognized the bizarre element in Khomeini but nevertheless sympathized with him."

But the "overchargedness" of the Iranian revolution naturally put supporters off, he maintained. And as the anarchy in Iran continued, it became apparent to nonfundamentalists that the Islamic state was neither an example for other nations nor an accomplished fact for Iran.

With t his realization comes the newfound boldness of secularists.

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