US Foreign Policy Should Make Room For Islamic Voices

A GROWING Islamic insurgency currently threatens to overthrow the military-backed secular government of Algeria. If its government falls, Algeria will join Sudan as the second fundamentalist regime openly hostile to the West to emerge in North Africa since the end of the cold war.

Egypt, a longtime key ally of the United States in this region, is threatened by its own violent Islamic insurgency. It is essential, therefore, that the US develop a new approach to Islamic political leaders before a large number of violently anti-Western revolutions produces a bloc of fundamentalist regimes engaged in civilizational conflict. Islamic voices, long silenced by the colonial structure of the Ottoman and various European empires, and later by the bipolar cold-war structure, are asserting themselves.

If Islamic actors are not given an opportunity to participate in the governments of their countries, more extremism, more destabilizing revolutions, and more hostile fundamentalist states will inevitably emerge. US policymakers can resort to the old, cold-war approach of trying to contain an ideology that is seen as hostile, or they can initiate a bold, new approach that seeks a working partnership with political Islam.

So far, the Clinton administration has preferred the containment approach. In fact, in the spring of 1993, the White House launched what it called the ``Dual Containment'' initiative, which seeks to revive the cold-war approach of building alliances among ``friendly'' forces, posed in opposition to ``radical'' or ``extremist'' forces in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, North Africa, and Asia. In launching the initiative, Martin Indyk, special assistant to the president for Near East and South Asian Affairs, outlined a plan in which an informal alliance of ``friends'' - Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and Turkey - would be recruited to ``protect American interests from radical regimes'' such as Iraq, Iran, and Sudan. Mr. Indyk asserted that just as cold-war strategy sought to ``contain'' the spread of communist ideas, the US must recruit allies to ``contain extremism throughout the region.'' And just as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was seen as the agent of radical political movements threatening to destabilize capitalist governments across the globe during the cold war, Iran and Sudan were identified by Indyk as the agents of ``extremist'' groups.

The ``containment'' approach to dealing with the revival of the political expression of Islam is based on the idea that Islamic states and political parties are hostile to Western concepts of pluralist democracy, human rights, and the operation of the world capitalist system of economics. The US, since the end of the cold war, has been reluctant to press secular authoritarian and military regimes that it supported as agents in the fight against communist forces to open their political systems to include Islamic actors. Instead of pressing for political reforms, the US is essentially offering to continue to prop up repressive authoritarian regimes in return for assistance in fighting radicals.

In fact, in cases where democratic elections have taken place, the US has proved reluctant to endorse the results if Islamic political parties emerge victorious. The problem with this approach is clearly demonstrated in the Algerian case. In 1991 an election was held, in which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) soundly defeated the governing party in the first round of parliamentary elections. Rather than allow the Islamic party to form a government, the military removed President Chandli Benjedid in January, 1992, and canceled elections that would have given the FIS control of parliament. The US and other Western powers failed to put pressure on the generals to respect the results of the election. Now the US is on the wrong side of a revolutionary movement that has become far more radical than the FIS was when it was constituted as a political party.

As we have seen in Jordan, competitive politics will bring to the forefront more moderate Islamic leaders because it forces them to make a reasonable case as they present programs of reform and economic development to voters. When Islamic actors are not permitted to compete and participate in the governing of states, radical leaders emerge to lead violent rebellions against the legitimate expression of Islamic voices.

The US cannot allow its fear of Islamic culture to prevent it from being consistent in its support for inclusive politics and national self-determination.

If steps are taken now to engage ``political Islam'' and encourage moderate Islamic parties to compete and contribute to governing in pluralist states, then a stable, peaceful, and productive relationship can be built with Islamic peoples and governments. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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