Islamic Fundamentalism

Martin Kramer delivered these remarks at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, on November 8, 1994.

Let me begin with my own working definition of Islamism. In most dictionaries, you’ll find it defined as a synonym for Islam. In contemporary usage, however, it’s come to mean Islam conceived as politics, or what you call in the State Department “political Islam.” But Islamism is rather more than just political Islam, which may be a tautology. After all, what Islam is not political? A more precise definition would be ideological Islam: Islamism is the creed of Islam transformed into a total ideology, a modern ideology, an “ism.”

This ideology is above all an ideology of power. It arises from the sense among many Muslims that history has gone astray. Those who believe in Islam have only a fraction of the power of those who do not. The weakness of Islam is manifested in its dependence. From food to cars to weapons, Muslims depend upon others. Islamism is an ideology of turning the world upside down—of drawing on the inner strength of belief, in order to reclaim power for Muslims. It’s not at all about restoring tradition. It’s about reworking tradition in revolutionary ways.

Because the empowerment of Islam must come at the expense of the West, Islamism is inherently anti-Western. Because of its sense of siege and its insistence on unity at any price, Islamism is fundamentally anti-democratic. In short, Islamism is a variety of nationalism—a hyper-nationalism, analogous to the extreme nationalism that has emerged among other aggrieved peoples in troubled times. The idea that Islamist movements are somehow democratic reform movements is a Western ethnocentric illusion—what happens when Western democracy theory looks into murky waters and thinks it sees its own reflection. If you insist on an analogy, I suggest you search the darker side of contemporary European and Russian politics, where religious militance and national chauvinism mingle in a volatile mix of atavism.

In the Middle East, the emergence of this Islamism can be traced back to the 1930’s, and its basic tenets were set down in the 1950’s and 1960’s. But it has posed a serious challenge only since the late 1970’s, when its ideologues began to find a following. There was, of course, the Israel factor, especially after 1967. This opened a gap between promise and performance. It’s relevant to the core of the Middle East, but of course not to the places where Islamism itself has performed strongest: Iran, Sudan, and Algeria, all on the periphery of the Middle East. Perhaps more important, then, have been two other gaps that have widened in this period: one, economic, the other, political. Populations have grown rapidly, but resources have not, and this has left part of a generation despairing of its prospects. At the same time, the rapidly expanding population of the Middle East grows ever younger, while the rulers grow one year older with each passing year.

Islamism has entered into these gaps, appealing disproportionately to the disaffected young. Suddenly the old pied pipers found followings: frustrated young people, with no vested interest in the established order, susceptible to populist slogans. Islamism is a generational surge. In a population distributed more evenly by age, its impact would have been limited. Not so in the Middle East. The Islamists, many of them who once looked to revolution, have thought to ride this generational surge to power. They rushed through the door of liberalization several years ago, by posing as political parties. In some places, they have a foothold in legitimate politics; elsewhere they have been effectively excluded.

There are some who argue that Islamist movements thrive on such repression, and that the only way to “moderate” them is to integrate them into political systems, to the point of allowing them to share or even hold power. The evidence is a good deal more contrary. Faced with determined opposition, Islamist movements bend or break. The policies of Syria, both at home and in Lebanon, are the best examples of this. In 1982, the Syrian regime faced an armed insurrection of the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime broke its Islamist opposition by the ruthless use of counter-force, and Syria’s Islamists have hardly been heard from since. In 1987, Syria began to enforce its order in Lebanon, and encountered an extreme movement, the Shiite Hezbollah, which had grown like a radical shoot in an abandoned garden. Since then, the mere threat of Syrian force has forced Hezbollah to abandon its slogan of “Islamic revolution in Lebanon” and play politics. Saddam Husayn’s Iraq also eradicated his Shiite opposition movement, executing its leaders and driving many of its activists into exile.

Sometimes the proven determination of a regime to rule is enough to restrain the rhetoric and action of an Islamic opposition. This is the case in Jordan: a monarchy whose king makes it clear to all his subjects that he will broke no disobedience to his policy, will share no power, and will continue to set the rules of politics. Beneath King Hussein’s gentlemanly manners is the resolve he showed against the Palestinian resistance during Black September in 1970. It is interesting that he took the opportunity of his speech to his parliament on his decision for peace, to issue a rare, explicit reminder of his resort to the iron fist. The message: don’t dare to cross me on this peace.

Where the counter-force is insufficient, Islamist movements invariably press their advantage, pushing for total power. Iran is of course the best example: the Shah did not kill his Islamist opponents, but exiled them or imprisoned them or tried to conciliate them. His lack of resolve, his perceived and real weakness, and the failure of his American ally to stand behind him, invited radical revolution. In the first decade after the revolution, Iran’s radicalism flourished in power vacuums, not just in Iran but in ungoverned Lebanon. In the last few years, the application of countervailing power has led some in Iran to reassess, but the process is far from complete.

In the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad also defied the ineffective counter-force Israel could bring to bear. Israel was never free to employ the techniques used so effectively by Arab neighbors to suppress their Islamist opponents. The worldwide reaction to the deportation of Hamas activists two years ago was an example of the constraints Israel faces. This may have contributed to Israel’s decision to cut a deal with the PLO, on the assumption the PLO could do that which Israel could not in a direct confrontation with the Islamists. In the meantime, however, the PLO has been too weak on the ground to confront, and so seeks instead to conciliate. This has only emboldened the Islamists. Their recent violence is a clear consequence of the combined weakness of Israel and the PLO, who cannot cooperate because they remained divided on the nature of an ultimate settlement. The Islamists flourish in the gap between them, and as that gap has opened, the violence has become more random, and more destructive.

In Algeria, we have the same phenomenon. The Islamist opposition, the FIS, actually radicalized as it gained momentum in the late 1980’s: its ever-shriller promises to effect total Islamic control led the regime and elite to stiffen at the last moment before surrendering real power. But Algeria’s regime has not had sufficient countervailing force: Algeria’s army at the time of the coup was even smaller than the force Syria dispatched to tame little Lebanon. From the outset, Algeria’s government did not control large swatches of the country, even in the capital. Lately it’s shown signs of flagging resolve, by offering a dialogue with the Islamists, perhaps as a prelude to power-sharing. The Islamist response was predictable: more violence in an all-out drive for power.

All of which is to say that it is well understood in the Middle East that Islamist movements do not thrive on repression, and that power does not “moderate” them. They bend under repression, and sometimes break. It is when they are weak that they permit themselves to be co-opted—never their first choice, but sometimes the only way to assure survival. And it is when regimes are weak—when they are compelled to “moderate”—that Islamists press their advantage without compromise.

You may say that the outcome of this struggle for power should be a matter of supreme indifference to the outside world. But of course the Middle East, and even North Africa, do not exist in a laboratory vacuum. The region has oil, on which the West depends. Its governments have weapons, whose proliferation in certain directions could affect Western security. It has burgeoning populations which are leaking into the West, either to escape poverty or political repression. And it contains Israel, a small but powerful state intimately tied to the West politically, militarily, and emotionally. All these mean that the West has an interest in the outcome of the present struggle for the region. These include the free flow of oil at reasonable prices; the prevention of nuclear and missile proliferation; economic growth and population policies to create a balance between population and resources; a level of respect for human rights commensurate with the preservation of order; and a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I would submit that on most of these points, the agenda of the Islamists in the Middle East is inimical to the interests of the West, whereas the agenda of many of the existing regimes does accommodate some if not most of these interests. I could go into considerable detail comparing the positions of Islamists, governments, and the West on all of these issues. Perhaps the discussion will allow me to do this at length. Let me just focus on one issue where the contrast is most vivid, and where the government of this country and its presidents have invested immense efforts and prestige: the Arab-Israeli peace process.

I need not tell this group that ever since Israel’s establishment nearly 50 years ago, the U.S. has been deeply involved in efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Over the last 15 years, those efforts have begun to yield fruit, never more so than over the past few years. The reasons are many and complex, and I won’t enumerate them here. For our purposes this morning, it’s enough to say that the rise in America’s prestige as the sole great power has accelerated this process, and that the peace now being concluded is between the government of Israel and the powers-that-be in the Arab world. I believe there is much popular support in the Arab world for peace with Israel, and where there isn’t active support, there is at least a desire to move on. But this is an issue on which Arab opinion has been formed before, and can be reformed again, by Arab governments. This is precisely what each Arab government has been doing, each in its own way.

The opposition here is clear. For Islamists of all stripes, the idea of peace with Israel is anathema. This is a core issue, that goes to the very heart of Islamist ideology. For the Islamists, Israel is a manifestation of Islam’s present weakness. It is utterly irreconcilable with the Islamist idea of power, which must come in the first instance at the expense of Israel. It’s quite impossible for Islamists to envision that Israel and Islam could grow stronger together through peace: through relief from the burden of war, through economic cooperation. The Islamist view of power, like their view of religious truth, is zero-sum. They’ve persuaded themselves, and their followers, that peace is really an Israeli victory, which will ensure Israeli domination in perpetuity. Their answer has been to reject any peace, and to call for an open-ended struggle against it. This involves everything from the escalating violence of Hamas and Hezbollah, to the systematic preaching against “normalization” of relations with Israel. Here and there, you’ll find tactical debates in front-line movements like Hamas and Hezbollah. But the Islamist position is remarkably coherent. You can sometimes find light between Islamist views on the true Islamic form of government, or what constitutes Islamic economics. But you’ll find no such light on the question of peace with Israel. The Islamists would reengage Israel, transforming the Israeli-Arab conflict into a Jewish-Muslim war of religion—a conflict between absolute evil and truth, not subject to compromise.

The United States has made a choice in the Middle East: to see this process through. I have to say that on the level of high policy in the Middle East, the U.S. eye hasn’t strayed from the ball for a moment. Here and there one finds persons, some within government, who have suggested that the U.S. should join in a dialogue with the Islamists, in order to hedge American bets. Why the U.S. should ever bet against itself, is not at all clear, and at least in the Middle East, the U.S. has been careful not to do so.

There is some fiddling about in Algeria, where the U.S. interest is foggy at best, and where France has the most to fear and far more influence. There the U.S. is talking to the Islamists through at least one channel, and one of the FIS leaders is here in Washington. It reminds me of when the French fiddled in Iran, giving refuge to Khomeini and making friends among the mullahs. Within a few years, Khomeini had repaid the favor by dispatching bombers and assassins to Paris. You heard it here first: the U.S. dialogue with the FIS will do the United States no good in the long run, and if it cuts into French resolve, it might do some small harm now. But the more serious people at work in the Middle East itself have no illusions about dialoguing with Islamists, and that’s been a great boon to the peace process.

Of course no one can offer ironclad assurances as to who will ultimately prevail in this troubled Middle East, the promoters and opponents of peace. But that is not a reason to avoid making an unequivocal choice—and by making that choice, perhaps affect the outcome. There are peacemakers and belligerents in this region, those who have at least the potential to foster freedom and reconciliation and those who can only produce tyranny and more war. The policy of the broker and guarantor of peace has been clear, and should remain so: to choose peace.