Arab Leaders Stumped By Rise of Militant Islam

In states where Islamists have a political outlet, militancy is at a minimum

THE rise of Islamic militancy is sparking new alliances in the Arab world, challenging Europe's and NATO's security, and threatening to alter the framework for a comprehensive Middle East peace.

The ascendancy of Islamism as a political ideology appears closely linked with the failure of secular leaders to reduce levels of poverty and unemployment and the growing perception of Islamists that Arab regimes are corrupt, authoritarian, and remote from their citizens.

As the Islamic revolution gains momentum in the Middle East and North Africa, moderate Arab states, Israel, and the West are facing two alternatives: Do you clamp down and try to obliterate Islamic fundamentalism through repression?

Or do you acknowledge the positive aspects of the Islamic revival, allow freedom of expression, and work with moderate elements of the Islamic movement to see if Islam and democracy are compatible?

In some Arab countries, the network of Islamic influence is offering its adherents a more meaningful community life by providing an efficient social-welfare structure, health clinics, and youth clubs.

``Tremendous tensions have arisen between Arab states over how to deal with the Islamic movement,'' says Mamoun Fandy, political science professor at Mt. Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

In countries that allow Islamic movements a political outlet - such as Jordan - the threat of Islamic violence is minimal. In countries that use repression to deal with Islamic militancy - Algeria, Egypt, and the Israeli-occupied territories - violence from armed Islamic groups feeds a spiraling conflict.

``But the conflicts in Algeria and Egypt are different,'' says Fahmy Howeidy, a moderate Islamist and columnist for the Cairo daily Al-Ahram. ``In Egypt, the radical Islamists are not fighting for power. It is more about revenge and resistance ... about families and tribes seeking revenge against the government.''

The rapid deterioration of security in Algeria - where an estimated 30,000 people have died since Islamists were denied victory at the polls in 1992 - is contributing to an escalating conflict.

Algerian pressure cooker

An Islamic revolution in Algeria could spark instability in Morocco and Tunisia and feed the Islamic rebellion in Egypt - already under pressure from Islamic insurgents and the Islamic stronghold of Sudan.

European countries - particularly France, Italy, and Spain - say a violent seizure of power by Islamists in Algeria could spark a mass exodus of Algerians to those countries and ignite Islamic militancy in Europe.

In recognition of this threat, NATO decided last month to open talks with five North African and Middle Eastern states to develop a strategy to counter the security threat posed by the Islamists.

NATO Secretary-General Willy Claes said at the security conference in Germany that since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Islamic militancy has emerged as the most serious threat to Western security.

But some Western diplomats and political analysts question whether NATO is the most appropriate vehicle to respond to the rise of Islam.

The European Union has proposed a security conference that will bring together North African, Middle Eastern, and European states at a security conference in Barcelona, Spain, in November to discuss how to promote stability in the region.

The rise of Islamic militancy also is increasing intraregional tensions and is forging new alliances between governments over the challenge posed by it.

Egypt held a conference last year attended by 18 Arab countries to discuss how to counter the growing security threat.

The 52-nation Organization of Islamic Conference held a December meeting in Morocco to discuss solutions to the mounting problems of the Islamic world.

A less-publicized meeting of the Islamic movements in Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Algeria, Egypt, and the Israeli-occupied territories, held in Sudan around the same time, made unpublicized decisions to coordinate activities.

``But I don't think one can talk about an international Islamist movement.... There is no organized Islamist movement with one leadership,'' Mr. Fandy says.

Militant Islamists in the Gaza Strip and West Bank - elevating their cause to a holy war because of continued Israeli occupation -

have stalled the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The failure of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to deliver benefits has fueled a resurgence of militancy and helped the Islamists set a political agenda.

``Hamas will not take part in the PA ..., but we are in favor of participating in any work in service of the Palestinian people ... and this would include local councils,'' says Sheik Ahmed Bahar, a spiritual leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, which is opposed to peace with Israel.

``If Hamas takes part in and wins an election, we would ask the Palestinian people how to solve the situation. We would demand our rights in Palestine and in Islamic Jerusalem,'' he adds.

No benefits, no peace

PLO official Faisal Husseini says any further delays in implementing the 1993 Israel-PLO accord will drive Palestinians to join radical Islamists in the hope of achieving an independent Palestinian state.

``If they [the Israelis] let the Palestine Liberation Organization down ... the PLO will lose...,'' Mr. Husseini says.

Many Arab intellectuals believe that the Islamists have already won the political debate, and the issue now is how they will exercise increasing influence in government and community life.

``I am convinced that the Islamists have won,'' Fandy says. ``The whole debate in the Arab world now is Islamic.''

Fandy says the rise of Islamism is both good and bad. ``The upside is that Islamist governments will be accountable within a frame of reference that will be culturally acceptable,'' he says. ``This could limit corruption.

``On the downside, one must bear in mind that Islamism is developing in an environment which has never known democracy, so what emerges is likely to be a mirror image of the dictatorial systems which prevail....

``Islamism of this nature is also likely to feed xenophobia in relation to the outside world and will not be helpful for international relations,'' he says.

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