Prospects of the Islamic Revival

Martin Kramer delivered this address at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London on October 16, 1990.

In the organizer’s wisdom, I’ve been assigned the difficult “after-lunch” slot. I believe it was Mark Twain who determined that “to eat is human, to digest divine.”

And so I feel obligated to apologize in advance for any indigestion my remarks are likely to cause. My first point will be that the tentative steps toward democracy in the Arab world may in fact be leading the region closer to what fundamentalists call “the Islamic solution.” My second point will be that this “solution,” wherever it prevails, will work to resist the extension of any new international order to the Middle East. The present phase of the Islamic revival is perhaps more of a potential threat to the Arab state system, the emerging international order, and Arab-Israeli peace prospects than the “revolutionary” Islam of the 1980’s.

You will have probably read the contrary view, in Anthony Hyman’s piece in the last issue of The World Today entitled “The Islamic Bogeyman.” My purpose is not to frighten you with bogeymen. It is to suggest that Islamic fundamentalism, by riding the wave of democratic reform, is drawing closer to power—without having undergone any internal reform of its own. That combination should be a legitimate cause of concern.

I’d like to preface my remarks with a quote that originated in Chatham House:

If you looked in the right places, you could doubtless find some old fashioned Islamic Fundamentalists still lingering on. You would also find that their influence was negligible.

That was Arnold J. Toynbee, writing in 1929. The point of quoting these lines now is not to ridicule them as bad prophecy. Toynbee’s dismissal of the fundamentalists was on the mark, as a description of the situation that obtained in his half of the century. The point is rather to underline just how thoroughly the world has been turned upside down. One way or another, we all assume that Islamic fundamentalism is one of the genuinely vital forces of our own half of the century.

At the same time, this vital force has so far failed to capture the political center, to establish itself in power. The present “pro-democracy” phase, which I’ll discuss shortly, is a product of disillusionment with an earlier, “revolutionary” phase—a phase which began with the successful Islamic revolution in Iran in 1978. In that revolution, a movement led by a Muslim cleric raised the banner of Islam, and toppled a secular regime that had entrenched itself during half a century of rule. This success became the model for a host of other Islamic groupings, which tried to set off revolutions through acts of violence. The first landmarks in this effort were the seizure of the Great Mosque in Mecca in 1979; the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981; and the failed fundamentalist uprising in Syria in 1982.

The perpetrators of each of these acts assumed that their deeds would prompt spontaneous revolution. They were wrong. The masses remained impassive, while the threatened regimes employed ruthless force to isolate and stamp out the nests of Islamic “sedition.”

Another wave of “revolutionary” violence followed closely on the first, and was the work of the half-dozen Shiite movements which had emerged around the hub of Islamic revolution in Iran. These revolutionary movements, which enjoyed Iran’s active support, targeted their rage against the existing order in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, and the smaller Gulf states. All of them were predicated on revolution by the oppressed, who would rise up the moment Iran gained the upper hand in its struggle with Iraq. In the meantime, these movements engaged in campaigns of terror, from dozens of abductions of foreigners in Lebanon, to assassination attempts against the rulers of Kuwait and Iraq, to turbulent demonstrations during the Meccan pilgrimage.

But here, too, the pattern was repeated. The secret police identified the would-be revolutionaries and imprisoned, killed, or exiled them. Then, in 1988, the tide of war turned decisively against Iran, which sued for a cease-fire, and then for peace. Since then, Tehran has generally chosen the import of Western capital over the export of Islamic revolution. The Shiite movements it once so lavishly supported have collapsed. Only Lebanon remains an exception—there is no authority in Lebanon ready or willing to crush Hizballah. But on the whole, the Shiite wave has receded, leaving only disappointment and resignation in its wake.

Immediately following the 1988 Gulf War cease-fire, there were those who pronounced the Islamic revival dead. Analogies were drawn between 1967 and 1988: Just as pan-Arabism had been discredited by Nasser’s collapse, so political Islam had been discredited by Khomeini’s defeat. But there was a fundamental difference between the two situations. Nasser had come to personify pan-Arabism, but Khomeini could never monopolize Islam. Khomeini’s defeat merely burst the bubble of Iran’s Shiite clients. It did not discredit “the Islamic solution” for the masses of Sunni believers, who assumed as a matter of course that Iran’s revolution had deviated from Islam anyway.

The “Islamic solution” has not only remained valid, but has gained new adherents. The snowballing problems of unemployment, economic mismanagement, corruption, and inflation have continued to alienate millions of their victims. The sense of malaise and impotence vis-a-vis the West and Israel has continued to deepen. And the appeal of Islam, as an untried solution, has continued to grow.

But there has been one important reversal: in the strategy of the Islamic movements which organize this popular sentiment into political action. In brief, the concept of seizing power through revolution has been discarded after a decade of trial and repeated error. Entrenched regimes know how to put down violent jihad cells and Shiite schismatics. What they don’t know how to put down is the broader demand for political participation—a demand created in some Arab countries by domestic crisis and international change. Regimes have tried to contain this demand by limited measures of “democratization.”

What is important for our purposes is that the first to rush through the democratic door have not been liberal, democratic, free market parties. Where such parties exist, they are weak, and have limited followings. Instead, the push for democracy has been led by Islamic movements. These aren’t in any sense “democratic” movements; most of them are variations of the old Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has never celebrated democracy, or liberalism, or the free market. The values which we associate with democracy have no place in the Brethren’s hierarchy of values, which is dominated by God-given law and Muslim primacy. But these Islamic movements now see democracy as perhaps the straightest route to power. In that sense, then, while these movements are not “democratic,” they are very much “pro-democracy.” Wherever possible, they have demanded and participated in elections—and to date, the change in strategy has paid off handsomely.

The pioneers of this concept of Islamic participation in the democratic process were the Egyptian Muslim Brothers. The history of the Muslim Brethren in Egypt is a long one, of semi-clandestinity, violence and even more violent suppression. But especially under Mubarak, the Brethren shifted their emphasis to the peaceful creation of a social and economic base—at which point, it became impossible to exclude them from Egypt’s experiment in democracy.

They dipped a toe in the electoral waters back in 1984, and plunged in during the April 1987 elections for the People’s Assembly. Then, as today, the Muslim Brethren were not a legal political party in Egypt. The regime feared the movement’s clout. But the Brethren entered into a pre-election coalition agreement with two legal opposition parties. The Brethren ran a smooth, lavishly financed campaign, and the results were telling: their coalition won 17% of the valid votes, in an electoral game heavily loaded in favor of Mubarak’s own National Democratic Party. Today this opposition coalition is known as the Islamic Alliance, and the Muslim Brethren are chaffing to become a legal political party in their own right.

The next surprise came in the municipal elections in Israel, in February 1989. Israel’s Islamic movement had also gone through a violent phase—its leader, Shaykh Abdallah Nimr Darwish of Kafr Qasim, had launched his career as leader of a jihad cell which the police uncovered in 1981. Following Darwish’s release from prison, he redirected the movement toward social action, education, and public works. The movement made a very modest showing in the 1983 municipal elections, but in February 1989 it took off. In the twelve wholly Arab townships in which Islamic lists competed, these lists won 29% of the seats, and captured five mayoralities and local council chairmanships. Shaykh Darwish composed a congratulatory poem to the Islamic lists, in which he justified Islamic participation in electoral politics:

They said: politics is horse-trading and craftiness.
I replied: politics is responsibility and loyalty.

They said: politics is games and amusement.
I replied: politics is service and building.

They said: politics is spoils and ambitiousness.
I replied: politics is concern and sacrifice.

They said: politics is not fitting for a Muslim
I replied: politics is a banner for the pious.

Now Shaykh Darwish is considering the creation of a national political party, to stand in the next Knesset elections.

Two months later, elections for Tunisia’s Chamber of Deputies saw the debut of another Islamic party, îan-Nahdaï, “The Renaissance.” This was simply another name for an exisiting Muslim Brotherhood-type movement whose leaders had done prison time earlier in the decade. By 1989, the Islamic movement had gained hegemony on the campuses and beyond, and then fielded a new political party which demanded entry to elections.

President Ben Ali’s position, then and now, has been that there is no place for an Islamic political party, and îan-Nahdaï is not recognized. But in April 1989 the Islamists ran as independents, and got 13% of the popular vote, despite the fact that the elections were gerrymandered. This was a far better showing than any of the legal opposition parties, although in the winner-take-all system in Tunisia, every last seat in the Chamber went to Ben Ali’s ruling party. Ben Ali has clearly taken fright; in the municipal elections this past June, he created a situation which led to a total boycott by all the opposition parties. In these conditions, it’s difficult to say just where the Tunisian movement will go next. But it clearly stands to be the principal beneficiary of any move toward democracy.

The Muslim Brethren faced fewer obstacles to participation in Jordan’s National Assembly elections in November 1989—the first general parliamentary election in Jordan since April 1967. In Jordan, there are no legal political parties, and virtually all of the candidates stood as independents for the 80 seats. But the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan does have the standing of a legal charitable organization, and the Brethren used that apparatus to mount a well-oiled campaign for a slate of 26 candidates. Twenty of these candidates were elected, along with another 14 independent Islamists, for a total of 34 seats, or 27% of the National Assembly. The results were especially impressive because the Jordanian electoral system is loaded in favor of the Beduin heartland, which is overrepresented. I think it would be accurate to say that the secular middle classes in Jordan, and even the King himself, were surprised and a bit appalled at this outcome of the electoral contest.

But the greatest triumph was yet to come—in the Algerian municipal elections four months ago. Algeria under Chadhli Benjedid has moved farther than any other Arab country toward a full-fledged multi-party system. The reason: the ruling FLN has gone politically bankrupt, for having mismanaged oil-rich Algeria into poverty. In March 1989, Algeria’s Islamic movement, again in the Muslim Brotherhood mold, established the Islamic Salvation Front under the leadership of Abbas Madani. And one year ago, Chadhli did something that Mubarak still refuses to do: he legalized the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In last June’s municipal elections, the Islamic Salvation Front trounced the FLN. In the fairest of Arab elections so far, the Islamic Front won majorities in 55% of Algeria’s local councils; the FLN, only 32%. Two-thirds of the country’s wilayas (regions) went to the Islamic Salvation Front. In Algiers, the Islamic Front made a clean sweep, and came close to it in Oran and Constantine. Now the Islamic Salvation Front is pressing for early parliamentary elections, which had been scheduled for 1992. It looks as though they will have their way.

The Islamic movements, flush with these stunning results, have become the foremost champions of one-man one-vote in the Arab world. A particularly remarkable instance came to light when elections in the West Bank and Gaza came onto the peace process table again this past year. The Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, which goes under the local trade-name of Hamas, was more eager to go to the polls than the “sole representative” of the Palestinians, the PLO. Hamas feels its strength has grown at the expense of the PLO, and wants an election to prove its appeal. In the meantime, Hamas has been demanding 50% of the seats in the Palestine National Council. This estimate of Hamas’s strength seems excessive. But before every other election in the region, the strength of Muslim Brotherhood parties has been underestimated. It isn’t certain that the PLO or Israel wants to risk confirming Hamas’s strength in a free election.

Finally I might add that even Lebanon’s Hizballah, whose official slogan is “Islamic îrevolutionï in Lebanon,” is becoming “pro-democracy.” Hizballah’s dreams of imminent revolution collapsed with Iran’s retreat from the Gulf. The movement’s evolving position is that the Lebanese people must be allowed to decide their own form of government, perhaps through a referendum. Many in Hizballah are confident that if there were open debate and free elections in Lebanon, an “Islamic solution” would be endorsed by a majority of Lebanese. That solution, of course, would give priority to Islam over democracy, but this doesn’t mean it can’t be implemented by democratic means. Needless to say, Hizballah’s new call for democracy brings the opportunism of “pro-democracy” Islam into sharpest relief.

Now we can argue in circles about whether the strength of these Islamic movements is more or less than indicated in the polls. We don’t know. One view holds that the Islamic vote is really a general protest vote against unemployment, inflation, corruption, and not for an “Islamic solution.” I’d find it easier to accept this interpretation if there weren’t other opposition parties in the race, especially those of the left. Why haven’t they been the beneficiaries of this generic protest? Furthermore, one could argue that the results of these first elections under-represent the Islamic parties, since the electoral groundrules have usually been loaded against them. Again, we don’t know. But the electoral results as they stand already establish that Islamic parties have been the principal beneficiaries of “democratization” in every setting. And that was my first point: that the tentative steps toward democracy in the Arab world may be leading the region closer to “an Islamic solution.”

My second point was that this “solution,” wherever it prevails, is likely to block the extension of any new international order to the Middle East. Why? While on a tactical level, the Islamic movements are “pro-democracy,” in every other respect, they are fundamentally “anti-West.” This world-view has not changed since Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Brethren, first articulated it in the 1930’s. The most recent evidence for its persistence has been the reaction of the “pro-democracy” Islamic movements to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the deployment of foreign forces in Saudi Arabia.

As you know, Iraq cloaked its actions in Islamic garb from the very beginning of the present crisis. Saddam has repeatedly called upon the Muslims to raise the standard of jihad. He has cast himself as liberator of holy Mecca, and Medina, and Jerusalem, from Crusader-Zionist control. Not a few of us thought that when Saddam played these notes, they sounded hollow. After all, hadn’t Saddam suppressed all manifestations of political Islam at home? Hadn’t dozens of men of God disappeared under his reign? Didn’t he personify the kind of secular dictatorship which the “pro-democracy” Islamic movements denounced at home?

One might have expected, then, that these “pro-democracy” movements would have censured the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. And if Saddam’s record on religion wasn’t enough to repell them, there was also the fact that many of these movements were being bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Emirates. Money from Gulf kings and emirs had greased the wheels of their electoral triumphs. Of course, the Gulf potentates were not out to promote democracy either; they wanted to push their conservative vision of Islam, and buy up a controlling share in the leadership of these movements. Still, Gulf money financed the campaigns of the “pro-democracy” Islamic movements, and financed a lot of their welfare and educational activities as well. The sense of Islamic solidarity could just as well have bound the fundamentalists to the Saudis.

Yet after the Iraqi tanks rolled, it did not take much more than a week for these movements to come down on Saddam’s side. The subsequent American deployment made their stand virtually unanimous. Saddam’s appeal to Islam was not just a whistle in the dark; in short order, the leaders of these movements were amplifying Saddam’s Islamic rhetoric. They generally took the position that Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait paled in comparison to the sin committed by the Saudi royal house, in summoning the forces of unbelief into Arabia.

As might be expected, the Jordanian Muslim Brethren were the first to fall in line with Saddam. Initially they issued a statement expressing solidarity with the Kuwaiti people—who, along with the Saudis, had bankrolled them for decades. But once the Saudis called in the Americans, the Jordanian Muslim Brethren did a rapid turn-around. As one spokesman put it, “Regardless of our opinion of Saddam Husayn, King Fahd’s invitation of American troops to the Holy Land was utterly unacceptable.” Islam now faced a “new Crusade”—a phrase that has become the Islamic rallying cry against the international coalition. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan began to organize demonstration after demonstration against the Saudis for allowing “the armies of a Zionist-imperialist America to rule Mecca and Medina.” For that crime, the Saudis had to go; in the words of a recent Brethren statement, “Any Arab regime that accepts foreign protection places itself among those hostile to the Arab and Muslim nation and looses any justification for its existence.”

This reaction wasn’t unique to the Jordanian setting. Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front took an identical position. Its leader, Abbas Madani, paid his respects personally to Saddam in Baghdad last month. On his return, he told a rally:

What is taking place in the Gulf is a new form of Crusades. In addition, it is a violation of Islamic sovereignty and an aggression against the sanctity of the two holy mosques, given the flagrant U.S. presence and the Saudi regime’s hasty permission for it to be there. This regime has allowed itself to interfere in God’s will and manage the country as if it owned it. It does not. It is God’s land, the land of Islam, the land of all Muslims. The Islamic nation cannot endure such regimes anymore, regimes which are trading in their countries. Therefore, the Islamic Salvation Front is calling upon the Islamic nation as a whole to prepare itself as one to abolish such borders and topple such regimes, whose collusion with colonialism has become flagrant.

Madani’s movement, by the way, had received important financial support from the very same Saudis he now denounced. One should note, too, that Ahmad Ben Bella, who is now contesting Madani for
the same Islamic consituency, wouldn’t be outdone: He also visited Baghdad, and then on his return to Algeria from exile, he endorsed Saddam’s call for jihad.

Even the Egyptian Muslim Brethren tilted, then leaned, toward Saddam. The situation here was considerably more delicate, given Egypt’s leading role in the international coalition. The position of the Egyptian Muslim Brethren has been that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was wrong, but that the West, by its deployment, has committed a crime against Islam. Saddam is wrong, but the West is criminal. Last month, the leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brethren tried to fly off to Baghdad via Amman, to “mediate.” The Egyptian authorities saw through this “mediation,” and prevented the delegation from leaving.

Of all the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, in the West Bank and Gaza, stood the longest against Saddam. There were two reasons. First, Hamas had been funded directly by the Kuwaitis, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. Second, Saddam was too much a patron of the PLO for the rival Hamas to feel comfortable in his camp. The position of Hamas, as far as one can tell from statements by its leaders, is that Iraqi forces should withdraw from Kuwait. But the nuances of the most recent Hamas flyers show the movement falling more in line with the Muslim Brotherhood in general—and, for the time being, with the PLO. (One might note parenthetically that the more extreme Palestinian Islamists, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Liberation Party, have gone completely over to Saddam, although the Jihad would like him to ally himself with Iran to drive out the Americans.)

The only major Islamic movement in the arena which hasn’t succumbed to the temptations of Saddamism is Hizballah. This is because the clerical leaders of Hizballah bear personal scars from past battles with Saddam. Most of them were expelled by Saddam’s police from the Shiite shrine-academies in Iraq before they could complete their religious studies. Many of their family members in Iraq were persecuted and tortured. For Hizballah’s clerics, Saddam is immanent in a way he can’t be for an Algerian. Not surprisingly, then, Hizballah’s position in the present crisis has been to curse both houses with equal invective. Hizballah has strongly condemned Saddam for “all the harm and risks” to which he has exposed the Muslims, and for providing an entree to the Americans. It now calls upon the Muslims to confront Saddam andthe “colonial U.S. invasion” at the same time. Hizballah’s patron Iran may have buried the hatchet with Saddam, but Hizballah has assigned itself the task of remembering where the hatchet is buried.

Hizballah’s deep-rooted antipathy to Saddam is exceptional among Islamic movements. Their abandonment of the Saudis for Saddam became final last month when the Saudis called upon their foreign Muslim clients to line up on their side in an international Islamic conference. The Saudis last did this in 1987, to sanction their shooting to death of 400 rioting Iranian pilgrims. On that occasion, their clients dutifully appeared, praised the Saudis, and collected their handout. But this time, many of the Saudis’ long-standing clients preferred to risk their stipends, than attend a conference which blessed the deployment of “non-Islamic” forces in the Gulf.Why? The answer lies in part in the statements issued by the movements themselves. True, the timing and wording of these statements tell us that these movements haven’t bought the notion of Saddam as savior of Islam, at least not yet. Saddam has too long a record as a secularizer to win unqualified allegiance here. There have been no words of glorification for Saddam in these statements, no signs that his personality cult has gripped the leaders of Islamic movements.

But these movements also rest upon the conviction that the West is out to destroy Islam—that the West has not ended history, but is moving to achieve what it failed to achieve during the Crusades. In this longer perspective, the disapperance of Kuwait is a minor border adjustment, an epi-phenomenon. But the introduction of armies of unbelievers into Arabia is a mortal threat of meta-historical significance. In such crises, the besieged domain of Sunni Islam has historically been saved by Saddam-like strongmen, who made up in militancy what they lacked in piety. It is but a short step from seeing the Americans as Crusaders, to seeing Saddam as Saladin—as God’s witting or unwitting instrument.

Even so, the pro-Saddam tilt of these movements would have been less pronounced had they not become political parties in search of voters. As half-suppressed factions, they couldn’t do without Gulf money. These handouts had strings attached, which kept their recipients in the Saudi camp. But now these same movements control a few ministries, and many more municipalities and local councils. In other words, they command public resources, and are less dependent on Gulf largesse. And since the advent of elections, semi-clandestine groups have become populist parties. Their new priority is electoral clout.

This is something that the Saudis can’t buy them, but that their pro-Saddam stand could guarantee, if the Gulf crisis continues to stir anti-Western passions. In almost any conceivable outcome of the crisis, the Islamic movements can broaden their present constituencies, without having to develop their positive program. All they need do is express the widening resentment against unbelievers—a talent for which they have no rivals. And so as the crisis unfolds in the Gulf, the principal beneficiaries of “democratization” may also become the principal beneficiaries of “Saddamization.”

Whether this process will produce an Islamic government in a major Arab country is impossible to say. Nothing is quite as unpredictable as the future, and I think we can agree with orthodox Muslim opinion on at least one point: that there can’t be prophecy after Muhammad. This is true especially now, when we must factor in the wild variables of the Gulf crisis and the the decolonization of Soviet Muslims, a subject I know too little about even to speculate. All we can say is that at this moment in time, the region is not being swept under an irresistible wave of Islam. There are powerful countervailing forces at work in the Arab world. The Islamic movements I have discussed are still some distance away from power, and some will probably never attain it.

But we can be absolutely certain that some of these “pro-democracy” Islamic movements will become foremost blocs of parliamentary opposition—a goal some have already achieved. Those parliamentary Islamic oppositions will reduce the latitude of regimes in foreign as well as domestic policy. They’ll systematically work to undercut the legitimacy of conservative Arab states. They will put up obstacles to efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict on terms short of Israel’s elimination. While they abstain from violence at home, they will extend moral and material support to violence against Islam’s perceived enemies abroad.

Above all, they will push for the transformation of Islam into a united, nuclear-armed bloc. And they will insist that this bloc be independent of any international security framework or new order. If they achieve even partial success, they are likely to take the lead of the spoilers at the end-of-history bash.