Nicosia, Cyprus — For the past three years, Islamic fundamentalism has been a powerful force in the Middle East, threatening to turn upside down the precarious semi-Islamic, semisecular societies in this part of the world.
But now, with the manifest violence and anarchy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, leaders in the Middle East are seizing the moment to counterattack.
When Iran's theocracy burst on the scene early in 1979, it sent shock waves throughout the region, bringing many Muslims back to the mosque.
Leaders of basically secular regimes were quick to be photographed at prayers. Islamic banking and laws based on the Koran were adopted from Egypt to Pakistan. Moving against the clergy was considered political suicide.
Egypt is the most dramatic case in point. There are two reasons criticism of President Anwar Sadat's current political clampdown has been relatively mild, says one Arab intellectual in Cyprus:
* The clampdown is aimed at Muslim militants, with which most Arab regimes have their own problems.
* The Iranian example shows what the consequences of a takeover by fervent but politically naive fundamentalists can mean to the mercantile Muslim middle classes.
Mr. Sadat was continuing to constrain political activity this week, with his main thrust still against Muslim leaders who have used the pulpit for attacks on the regime. The Egyptian leader has promised to follow up his campaign of arrests with moves to "crush laxity" in all phases of society and to stop the use of religion to pursue political ends.
Egyptian policemen have clashed with Muslim demonstrators after Friday religious services for three weeks, though the protests are declining in size and intensity.
Other examples of direct government moves against fundamentalists in the Arab world:
* In Tunisia, the government has imprisoned 100 members of the Islamic Trend organization, seen as a threat to the Westernized, secular regime of Habib Bourguiba.
* In Syria, President Hafez Assad's government continues to battle the Muslim Brotherhood. Diplomats say that despite recent bombings in Syria, presumably by the brotherhood, the government still has the upper hand.
* The same is true in Iraq, where the Dawaa al Islamiya party of Shiite Muslims is outlawed and where Iranian-inspired antigovernment activity by Shiites has been stemmed by President Saddam Hussein. An Arab source says Mr. Hussein is considering a further crackdown on opponents along the lines of Mr. Sadat's.
And Arab political observers believe Sudan, Algeria, and Morocco also are contemplating moves to check the influence of the mosque in political affairs.
Even in Israel, curiously enough, the state is attempting to rein in the clergy. The increasing influence of orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the government has become a major concern to socially liberal Israelis.
The Israeli Supreme Court and the attorney general in recent days have asserted that the government is not subject to the rulings of Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren in a case involving controversial archeological excavations. The attorney general said Israel is "not a theocratic state."
Political observers believe a governmental crisis could ensue since Orthodox political parties make up a vital segment of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's majority.
But if religio-politics is under attack in the Middle East, it still remains a strong force. Islam, especially, has served to give the Middle East an alternative to ideologies of the East and West. The goal of Islamic Iran -- and the stated goal of Col. Muammar Qaddafi's Libya -- has been to pioneer this "neither East nor West" alternative.
With the prospect of failure of the Iranian experiment, however, the old East-West polarization seems to be returning. In the past few weeks, a pro-Soviet bloc has jelled among Libya, South Yemen, Syria, Algeria, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Similarly, Israel, Egypt, Oman, and Sudan have strengthened their US ties. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf regimes continue to lean Westward.
Although Muslims argue to the contrary, Islam, like most religions, is subject to a myriad of interpretations. Thus Egypt's Sadat can see Islam as a religion that must support the government, no matter how controversial the government's dealings with Washington or Tel Aviv.
Colonel Qaddafi, however, sees Islam as having a natural ally in the Soviet Union. As putative head of the faithful in Libya, Colonel Qaddafi has been able to co-opt Islamic activities for his own purposes.
"What we're seeing [in the Iranian anarchy]," says a Christian Arab political specialist, "is the demise of Islam as a viable alternative."
What remains, however, may be an unprecedented East-West struggle in the Middle East.