Islamic fundamentalism: currently on the wane

When the Islamic revolution occurred in Iran seven years ago, it was feared that Islamic fundamentalism would spread to the rest of the Middle East like a brush fire. For several reasons, the first countries expected to catch fire were the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. These countries are geographically close to Iran; most of them have significant Shia populations, including some of Iranian origin; and all of them are experiencing many of the same stresses as Iran did, caused by rapid development, ec onomic change, and social dislocation. During 1980, in fact, riots and protests, largly involving Shias, broke out in the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. Yet the Shias were not alone in agitating. The same year a group of Sunni fundamentalists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca. In 1981, a coup attempt allegedly sponsored by Iran was discovered and foiled in Bahrain. These events were followed by bombings in Kuwait in 1983 and 1985 and an assassination attempt against the Emir of Kuwait in 1985.

Despite these events, however, indications are that the Islamic fundamentalist movement has reached its peak and may even be declining. Observers in the Gulf attribute this development to several factors. The most important is disillusionment with the Iranian revolution. It has not only failed to achieve the goals of economic prosperity and political liberty that it promised the Iranian masses, but it has exceeded even the Shah's regime in political repression and the harsh treatment of its opponents.

Iran's inability to win the war against Iraq has also tarnished the Islamic regime's image. When Islamic forces wrested power from the Shah, they acquired an aura of invincibility, and Ayatollah Khomeini came to be seen as the Muslims' savior. But after five years and nearly a million dead and wounded, Iran has not won the war, and its hopes of victory are growing dimmer every day. And, because nothing fails like failure, just as nothing succeeds like success, Iran's appeal is fading. In the Gulf there is still considerable sympathy for the Iranian revolution, and many ordinary people believe that Iran has failed because all Arab states and the great powers have ganged up against it in support of the Iraqi government of President Saddam Hussein. But sympathy notwithstanding, the Iranian magic has worn out.

The other important factor has been the increasing schism and divisions within the fundamentalist movement. Most significant is the division between the Sunnis and the Shias. Their common commitment to the goal of establishing Islamic rule has intensified their age-old animosity, instead of uniting them. Some Sunni fundamentalists in the Gulf even openly accuse the Shias of heresy.

Nevertheless, division does not take place only along Sunni-Shia lines, but within each group as well. The Sunnis are divided into the more traditional Muslim Brethren and the Salafiun, the latter being particularly anti-Shia. The Shias are divided mostly along ethnic lines, especially in Kuwait, where tensions have been rising between Shias of Iranian origin and those of Arab origin, especially from Iraq.

These divisions have significantly reduced the appeal of the fundamentalist movement. As one Gulf observer has put it, the fundamentalist movement was appealing because it looked as though it presented a coherent, unified, harmonious, and culturally indigenous alternative to a variety of nationalist, socialist, and other ideologies. It also appeared able to provide a common sense of identity, based on Islam, that could eliminate ethnic and other divisions among Muslims and thus strengthen them against t heir enemies. Now, however, doctrinal schisms and ethnic divisions within the fundamentalist movement have disabused many of the movement's enthusiasts of their early illusions.

The fundamentalist movement's appeal has eroded for a further reason: It has again raised old questions regarding Islam's treatment of certain political issues, without providing definite answers that are acceptable to all. Paramount among these questions are those related to the issue of political participation, the role of an elected body, and the accountability of the government to the governed. For example, there is no agreement on what the nature and function should be of an elected body in an Islm aic context. Should this body be legislative, with powers of decisionmaking, or should it just be consultative, based on the Islamic principle of ``shoura'' or consultation? Yet if the former proposition were accepted how can such a body legislate, since all the laws are already set by the Koran and the Shari'a?

There is the question of the accountability of an Islamic government to the people. How can an Islamic government be answerable to anybody but God, since such a government will be a government of God?

Still, it should not be concluded that the fundamentalist movement in the Persian Gulf is a thing fo the past or that the Islamic message has lost all its appeal. Quite the contrary, there is still considerable sympathy for the movement, which is indicated, among other things, by the large number of young Gulf women who wear Islamic garb at universities and offices. Further, government manipulation and foreign intrigues are blamed for some of the divisions and problems faced by the movement. Also, the i dentity crisis persists, along with social and political problems -- including whether the Gulf ruling elites can achieve the aspirations of their peoples. Nor has any other new and viable alternative to Islamic fundamentalism been developed, although there has been some revitalization of the old theme of Arab nationalism.

Under these circumstances, if the Islamic movement were to succeed in another country, or if Iran were to achieve a breakthrough in its war with Iraq, the movement would no doubt be revitalized in the Persian Gulf. But even if the movement were to fade away, the problems that contributed to its emergence will not disappear, nor the questions that the movement has raised. Indeed, so long as the questions are not answered and the problems are not resolved, political stability in the Persian Gulf will, at best, remain uncertain.

Shireen T. Hunter, deputey director of the Middle East Project at the Center for Strategic and International Sudies, Georgetown University, recently visited the Persian Gulf.

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