ONE of the ironies of the current world scene is that the Christian West, including the United States, despite fears expressed over the spread of Islam, is exerting major efforts to protect Muslim populations. In some cases the actions are against nominally Christian governments.
The bulk of the people of Bosnia to whom relief supplies are being flown are Muslim, under heavy attack by forces who claim allegiance to the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Somalis, also being aided by a largely Western relief effort, are Muslim. The action to establish a "no fly" zone over southern Iraq is intended to protect people adhering to one branch of Islam, Shia, from the Sunni government in Baghdad. But the Kurds in the North, also being protected against Baghdad, are Sunni Muslims.
The current situation suggests that religious categories do not accurately reflect the nature of a regime nor the degree to which that regime's policies are friendly or unfriendly to other countries.
The "ethnic cleansing" of Greater Serbia is plainly identified with the Serbian Orthodox Church, but the true motivation is the effort to maintain a former communist leadership structure in place.
In southern Iraq, the Shia revolt arises from opposition to a repressive government in Baghdad inattentive to the needs and interests of the peoples of the south. These Shia do not seek to join their fellow religionists in Iran. They did not rise to support Tehran when the Iraq-Iran war broke out in 1980. They are Arabs, by tradition, ethnic origin, and language. It is that orientation - not their religious faith - that has determined their politics.
In recent years, concerns in the US over developments in the Middle East have been expressed in terms of a fear of "Islamic fundamentalism," related to America's experience with the revolution in Iran. The angry anti-American and anti-Western tones of that Shia-led movement, however, had as much to do with Western governments' identity with the deposed shah as they did with religion.
The directions of countries that are often seen as "fundamentalist," including Iran, grow out of secular circumstances: mass unemployment, the disorientation of a young population, anger at corruption, or fear of outside influences on the social structure. Religious zealots may exploit dissatisfaction, but the roots are social and economic, not theological.
Similarly, Washington's concerns over the activities and policies of groups and governments that espouse a traditional form of religion do not stem from theology. They stem from the assessment of the impact of such activities and policies on US interests and, as in the case of Somalia, from humanitarian sympathy.
Observers of the Middle East would characterize the Wahabi Sunni branch of Islam that is practiced in Saudi Arabia as fundamentalist. Yet the US has worked effectively with that country over many decades. Neither did the US back off from cooperation with Pakistan when that country introduced a number of fundamentalist Islamic measures.
US apprehensions about the current drift of events under fundamentalist leadership elsewhere stem from political concerns. In Sudan it is that government's relations with Libya. Washington's ambivalence toward the crushing of Islamic parties in Algeria arises from fears of what those parties, in power, would mean for neighbors Tunisia and Morocco, longtime friends of America. Similarly, conservative Muslim movements in some parts of Egypt, fueled by economic and social conditions, are watched for signs t hat they may threaten that country's stability.
Recent history also suggests that even the most solidly traditionalist Islamic regimes will change policies to fit circumstances. Iran, despite its pronounced determination to see the elimination of the state of Israel, found it expedient to deal with that government during the war with Iraq.
The current world situation makes dramatically clear that religious labels do not clearly define friends and enemies for Washington and the West. Sound policies will be those based not on rhetorical opposition to "fundamentalism," of whatever faith, but on accurate understandings of the basically secular ambitions, fears, and interests that are exploited by religious extremism.