NICOSIA, CYPRUS — `SINCE 95 percent of Egyptians are Muslims, it is natural that they should want an Islamic state," the speaker on the platform declared, to a roar of approval from the crowd.
The scene was the Cairo International Book Fair last January. The speaker at a debate on the fringes of the exhibition was Ma'amoun el-Hodeiba, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, the main Islamic fundamentalist group in Egypt. A few days earlier, Muslim fundamentalists in Algeria had delivered a crushing defeat at the polls to the ruling National Liberation Front. Feelings were running high.
When the meeting ended, hundreds of fundamentalist supporters, chanting "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great"), surged through the fairground. An Egyptian living in London who was visiting Cairo for the book fair came into an exhibition hall looking shaken. "They're crazy," he said. "If democracy means fundamentalism, then forget democracy."
Opponents of the Islamic movement in the Middle East are alarmed by the way in which Arabs of all classes are increasingly returning to their "fundamental" Islamic roots. But many Muslims argue that - contrary to the popular view outside the region of fundamentalism as a sinister force threatening the West - the current Islamic revival is a positive development.
Prof. Aziz Shukri, head of the law faculty at Damascus University, says the Islamic movement is simply seeking a system of life that is compatible with the region's religious and social roots. Fundamentalism, he says, "is going back to the roots of Islam, to the Holy Koran, to the traditions of the Prophet ... to see if they can provide a good response to the problems we face. Islam might not be complete, it might need updating. But it is definitely more likely to suit my life than any imported ideology. "
Throughout the Middle East, Muslims cite the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 as an important source of inspiration in rediscovering their roots. This does not mean, however, that there is overwhelming support for the policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Most Iranians belong to the Shiite sect of Islam, while more than 80 percent of Muslims are part of the Sunni movement. Even within Iran there are major differences over the interpretation of Islamic doctrine. This is seen in the tension between the relatively pragmatic view of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - who apparently seeks better relations with the West - and the uncompromising policies of hard-liners like Ali Akbar Mohtashemi. These rivalries have surfaced in the run-up to the April 10 p arliamentary elections.
Similar tensions are seen in Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed Shiite group Hizbullah has been trying to increase its influence. The killing by the Israelis last month of Hizbullah leader Sheikh Abbas Musawi led to a surge of support for the fundamentalists. But according to a businessman from a prominent Lebanese Shiite family, "Most Muslims in the country do not want to see fundamentalism destroy the fabric of Lebanon. They may be happy to fast for the month of Ramadan, for example. But they do not acc ept Hizbullah threatening reprisals if they fail to fast."
Most Arab regimes, while professing allegiance to Islam, are unsympathetic, if not hostile, to some fundamentalists. Saudi Arabia is founded on the strict interpretation of Islam advocated by the puritanical Wahhabi movement. The sacred cities of Mecca and Medina lie on Saudi soil. Yet in recent months, for example, Saudi authorities have curbed the activities of fundamentalist leaders who say the country is coming too much under Western sway.
Cairo has watched with growing alarm the way fundamentalism - with open support from Iran - has been taking hold in Sudan and Algeria. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was banned in 1954 by President Gamal Abdel Nasser and only taken off the proscribed list in the mid-1970s. Members are now free to play a part in politics, but the Brotherhood is still not allowed to contest elections under its own banner. Courts have turned down more than 40 applications by the group to be granted legal status.
Much of the Brotherhood's support in Egypt derives from social services it provides to the poor. In Jordan too, where fundamentalists have a strong presence in parliament, the Brotherhood offers social services to the needy.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is another powerful tool in the hand of the fundamentalists, Arab observers say. Should the US-sponsored peace process fail, observers expect a surge in support for fundamentalist Muslim groups.
In the view of Michael Hamarneh, a Christian professor of history at Amman University, "Islamic fundamentalism is the only organized force as such that can lead the masses to take an anti-Western stand. The rest of the groups are discredited."