NEWS that the government in Egypt is arresting members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's moderate Islamic opposition, highlights the problem secular governments face in opposing political movements based on religious beliefs. This political confrontation poses serious problems for United States policy in the region.
A full appreciation of why religion-based politics threatens the existing political structure requires an understanding of the fear, anger, and frustration that ambitious movement leaders exploit. The rise of these religious movements has been fueled by a broad decline in respect for existing governments. Especially in Egypt and Algeria, many people see their economic and social needs unmet. Islamic groups have stepped in, particularly in times of crisis, to provide social services.
Among the more militant, faith is often expressed in the most literal and conservative interpretation of scriptures, further aggravating the confrontation with secular elements. Followers are vulnerable to the charismatic leader's skill in using the language of faith. Such rhetoric may not be strong on the specifics of governing, but if the disaffected accept its emotional appeal, it succeeds.
Each movement is also a reaction to perceived threats to traditional ways of life. Global communications, through explicit music and films that represent an increasingly permissive age, challenge accepted mores in clans, villages, and families. Deeply concerned parents and elders see the greatest influence on youths.
The declared aim of the religion-based parties to create a new regime makes enemies of the existing rulers and their friends. Such enmity generates in the people a determined antagonism toward those with whom they identify their economic plight and the cultural threat. In Algeria and Egypt, this means the West, particularly the US. Comments and attacks from outside - even if they contain elements of truth - are dismissed or cited as further proof of the evil nature of ``godless'' opponents.
Internal opposition to such groups comes from those seeking to retain power and from those hoping for a democratic alternative. Minorities and secular intellectuals particularly fear the imposition of confining rules and customs. Proponents of democracy fear that even elected leaders, once in power, would pay little heed to opposing views.
The issue poses special problems for the US, especially in Egypt. The continuation of a sympathetic government in Cairo is vital to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Western interests in the region. Yet the Egyptian government appears increasingly unpopular and threatened. Any US effort to anticipate change and reach out to the religious opposition would risk endangering an important friend. The only realistic policy is continued support for the regime in Egypt and encouragement of greater consideration for democracy and human rights. But that entails the risks that brought disaster to US interests in Iran, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere.
The religion-based political groups in the Middle East and beyond are today by no means all extreme ``fundamentalists'' or bomb throwers. Many are serious groups responding to genuine social and economic grievances. This may not be the moment to reach out to them, but the time may come when Washington has little choice.