AMERICAN policymakers and their Middle Eastern friends have become preoccupied with radical, political Islam as the latest threat to regional order. To them, Islamic "fundamentalism" has replaced communism and pan-Arab nationalism as a formidable anti-Western, subversive force in the area.
A number of militant Islamist groups are using violence to undermine the authority and security of secular Arab regimes, which in turn feel trapped and under siege. Witness the bloody and costly confrontation between the Egyptian government and the outlawed Gamaa al-Islamiya (the Islamic Group), which has killed some 200 people, including tourists. By targeting the tourist industry, a vital source of foreign currency for Egypt, the militants hope to choke President Hosni Mubarak's efforts at improving th e economy, and ultimately to topple his pro-Western government.
In Algeria, hundreds of people have been killed in a slow-paced civil war between the military-backed regime and extremist elements of the Islamic Salvation Front. Tunisia has not escaped this onslaught; members of the Al-Nahda Islamic group are on trial for plotting the assassination of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Small wonder that alarm bells are ringing in Washington and Middle Eastern capitals for an all out war against Islamic "fundamentalism." Calls are being issued for isolation of the Isla mic Republic of Iran, but this response will produce results contrary to those intended.
"Fundamentalists" who use force as an instrument of political action form one of the smallest sub-factions within the Islamic movement. But because of their visibility and militancy, observers have tended to overestimate their importance. The extremists' violent deeds reflect their isolation, desperation, and alienation. Far from winning friends and gaining influence, these senseless criminal acts have outraged the majority of people in the Middle East and turned public opinion against the fundamentalist s.
The militants' actions seem to be designed to destabilize the inter-Arab state system by forcing it into a costly fight. This would supposedly enable them to monopolize opposition to the existing unpopular, authoritarian regimes and increase their legitimacy.
It is true that if Arab rulers escalate the confrontation they will fall into this trap and inadvertently strengthen the militants' position. They should, therefore, recognize the inherent limits and risks of using repressive methods to crush the extremists. The solution lies in politics not in brute force.
It is misleading to credit Iran with the rise of political Islam in the Arab world. Israel's crushing 1967 defeat of the Arab nationalists marked a watershed in the history of Islamic revivalism. The failure and humiliation of the secular pan-Arabists left an ideological vacuum that the Islamists readily filled. Although Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution in 1979 fired the passions of Arab Islamists, he did not succeed in exporting his ideology to the Arab states. The dominant Sunni culture of the Arabs pro ved to be inhospitable - and even hostile - to ideas emanating from Shi'ite Iran.
Iran is much less capable now of spreading its ideology, given its fragmented political system and the deep-seated rivalries among its ruling elite. Tehran undoubtedly does assist and incite extremist Islamist elements throughout the Middle East, but it is not the driving force behind the latest outbursts of religious militancy.
The genesis of Islamic militancy lies in the internal dynamics of Arab society, which is undergoing a major political transformation. The influence of mass higher education and mass communication has created new constituencies that resent the existing authority structures and aspire to play an active role in politics.
On the other hand, the Arab authoritarian state, by monopolizing all legitimate political activity, has weakened civil society and left a vacuum in the political field. This repression and the failure to tackle the pressing socioeconomic problems has enabled these dissatisfied Islamist groups to appropriate all effective forms of resistance and to present themselves as the only viable alternative to the present autocratic order.
WHAT can be done about this extremist phenomenon? Fanaticism flourishes in a closed and despotic environment. Nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East. There, because tyrants tolerate no political dissent or diversity, "fundamentalism" has been nourished and has grown.
To stem its proliferation, the Arab ruling elite must grant a wider play of freedom and strengthening of civil society. As a first line of defense against religious extremism. They need to mobilize all sectors of society and incorporate the moderate but important Islamist groups into the political system. The participation of these Islamists in government will teach them that politics is the art of the possible.
As the predominant "outside" power, the United States can do much to shore up the democratic process in the Middle East - not by intervening in the region's internal affairs, but by helping to resolve its festering problems, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and economic underdevelopment.
Ultimately, however, prospects for democracy depend most of all on the determination of people in the Middle East to become more actively involved in politics and to resist xenophobia, bigotry, and other enemies of an open society.