US Officials Play Down Threat From Islamic Revival in Mideast

The issue, they say, is not religion but the tactic of terrorist violence

WILL a protracted struggle with radical Islam become the West's second cold war?

The Red menace may be dead, but the Jihad threat seems as alive as ever. The alleged Muslim conspirators uncovered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in its work on the World Trade Center bombing only feed fears of Middle East-style terrorism traveling to the United States.

Iran, with clandestine weapons programs and a capacity for meddling with its neighbors, has been branded a major threat to Western interests by US officials. The Islamic regime in Sudan is sometimes portrayed as Iran's sidekick, eager to export fundamentalist revolution throughout the Arab world.

But US officials and a wide range of experts insist that Islam and the Islamic religious revival sweeping through the Arab world are not in themselves inimical to the West. There is no organized "Islamic peril" that will confront the US and its allies in an arc of crisis from Afghanistan to Tunisia.

The threat to US interests comes instead from Islamist elements that engage in violence. "Even with Iran, the most effective state sponsor of terrorism, we have made clear that it is unacceptable behavior, not the religious nature of the regime, that is the source of our concerns," State Department counselor Tim Wirth told Congress earlier this month.

That Islam is changing is not in dispute. From Algeria to Egypt to Tajikistan Islamic revivalism is taking hold, particularly among the young, educated, and unemployed. These disparate revivalists, often misleadingly lumped together under the term "fundamentalists," typically propose restoring an idealized old Islamic order. To Western eyes they are driven by the confusion of the modern world. They often overtly reject Western values such as liberalism and secular law.

Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, whose followers have been linked to the World Trade Center bombing and other alleged terror plots, is among the most radical of the new Islamic leaders. But he is not the face of a new Tehran-centered world conspiracy. His hard core followers in Egypt number perhaps 10,000.

"The threat to US security from these groups is really minimal," says Leon Hadar, a professor at American University in Washington and author of a recent Foreign Affairs article on the perception of an Islamic peril.

The Islamic revival does present the US with policy problems. Mainstream groups, such as the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt, have a far-broader backing, and while they appear to work within the system, their ultimate political goals are far from certain.

THERE is a not-unfounded concern in the West that such groups could gain some measure of power legitimately, then abolish even the trappings of liberal democracy and impose some measure of Islamic law.

"We do not support one person, one vote, one time," said Edward Djerejian, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, last year in a speech pointed to by US officials as still defining US policy toward Islam.

Thus many in the Middle East say that the US was quietly relieved last year when Algeria's secular leaders suspended the results of parliamentary elections rather than hand power to the Islamic Salvation Front. Whether that is true or not, the US faces a dilemma in Egypt, where a pro-Western secular regime is increasingly embattled and striking back at Islamic terrorists with harsh police methods.

So as to not be connected with anti-Islamic repression "the US should link its assistance to Egypt to improvements in human rights," insists a Senate foreign policy aide recently returned from a trip to the region.

The US might also say explicitly that it rejects worldwide a connection between civil and religious authority.

As pressure from Islamists increases, regimes throughout the Middle East may become less responsive to US desires, say experts. Ironically, the US already supports a highly authoritarian Islamic regime: the Saudi Arabian monarchy. And US aid did much to create the Afghan mujahideen, some of whom are now training scattered Islamic terror cells around the world.

The US government does not see Islam as the next "ism" it will be forced to counter on a worldwide basis. But officials do see some terrorist links between Iran, Sudan, and violent groups such as the Lebanese Hizbullah and the Palestinian Hamas.

Old-fashioned nationalism may be a large factor in Iran's aggressive behavior. Mr. Hadar says religious concerns in Iranian foreign policy are usually outweighed by economic and military interests.

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