Political Islam: Beyond the Green Menace

by John Esposito

Originally published in the journal Current History, January 1994.

"To equate Islam and Islamic fundamentalism uncritically with extremism is to judge Islam only by those who wreak havoc--a standard not applied to Judaism and Christianity... There are lessons to be learned from a past in which fear of a monolithic Soviet threat often blinded the United States to the Soviet bloc's diversity, led to uncritical support for [anti-Communist] dictator-ships, and enabled the "free world" to tolerate the suppression of legitimate dissent and massive human rights violations by governments that labeled the opposition 'Communist' or 'socialist.' ''

It is the mightiest power in the Levant and North Africa. Governments tremble before it. Arabs everywhere turn to it for salvation from their various miseries. This power is not Egypt, Iraq,or indeed any nation, but the humble mosque (1).

From Ayatollah Khomeini to Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, from Iran to the World Trade Center, government leaders and opinion makers in the West and in the Middle East have warned of the dangers of militant Islam. If the 1980s were dominated by images of embassies under siege, American hostages, and hijackings, the 1990s bring prophecies of insurgent movements wielding nuclear weapons and employing urban terrorism. Headlines announce the possibility of a worldwide Islamic uprising and a clash of civilizations in which Islam may overwhelm the West. Television viewers see the bodies of Coptic Christians and tourists killed by Egyptian extremists and take in reports of Algerian militants' pitched battles with police. All fuel alarmist concerns reflected in publications and conferences with titles like "Roots of Muslim Rage," "Islam: Deadly Duel with Zealots," and "Awaiting God's Wrath: Islamic Fundamentalism and the West."

For more than four decades governments formulated policy in the midst of a superpower rivalry that defined the globe and the future in terms of the visible ideological and military threat posed by the Soviet Union. In the aftermath of the cold war, the fall of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of communism have created a "threat vacuum" that has given rise to a search for new enemies. For some Americans the enemy is the economic challenge the Japanese or the European Community represent. For others it is an Islamic world whose 1 billion Muslims form a majority in more than 48 countries and a rapidly growing minority in Europe and America. Some view Islam as the only ideological alternative to the West that can cut across national boundaries, and perceiving it as politically and culturally at odds with Western society, fear it; others consider it more a basic demographic threat (2).

The 1990s, however, reveal the diversity and complexity of political Islam and point to a twenty-first century that will shake the assumptions of many. While some Islamic organizations engage in terrorism, seeking to topple governments, others spread their message through preaching and social services and demand the right to gain legitimate power with ballots rather than bullets. But what of militant Islam? Is there an international Islamic threat? Will humanity witness the rise of a "new Comintern" led by "religious Stalinists" poised to challenge the free world and impose Iranian-style Islamic republics through violence, or through an electoral process that enables Islamic movements to "hijack democracy''?


Muslims vary as much in their interpretations of Islam as followers of other faiths with theirs. For the vast majority of believers, Islam, like other world religions, is a faith of peace and social justice, moving its adherents to worship God, obey His laws, and be socially responsible.

Indiscriminate use of the term "Islamic fundamentalism" and its identification with governments and movements have contributed to the sense of a monolithic menace when in actuality political Islam is far more diverse. Saudi Arabia, Libya, Pakistan, and Iran have been called fundamentalist states, but this tells us nothing about their nature: Saudi Arabia is a conservative monarchy, Libya a populist socialist state headed by a military dictator. Moreover, the label says nothing about the state's Islamic character or orientation. Pakistan under General Muhammad Zia ul- Haq embodied a conservative Islam, and Saudi Arabia still does; Islam in Libya is radical and revisionist; clerics dominate in Iran. Finally, although fundamentalism is popularly equated with anti-Americanism and extremism, and Libya and Iran have indeed often denounced America, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have been close allies of the United States and the mujahideen that resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan received support from Washington for years.

The Iranian revolution of 1978-1979 called attention to a reassertion of Islam in Muslim personal and public life that subsequently came to be referred to by many names: Islamic resurgence, Islamic revivalism, political Islam, and more commonly, Islamic fundamentalism. The totally unexpected ousting of the Shah of Iran by an Islamic revolution led by the charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the creation of an Islamic republic under the mullahs stunned the world. Fear that Iran would export Islamic revolution to other countries of the Middle East became the lens through which events in the Muslim world were viewed. When Khomeini spoke, the world listened--supporters with admiration, detractors with disdain and disgust or, often, anxiety.

The 1979 takeover of the United States embassy in Teheran and Khomeini's expansionist designs, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's posturing and promotion of a third world revolution, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination by Muslim extremists supported the projection of a militant Islamic fundamentalism. Hostage- taking, hijackings, and attacks on foreign and government installations by groups such as the Islamic Liberation Organization, Jihad, and Takfir wal Hijra (Excommunication and Flight) in Egypt and by the Iranian-funded Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad in Lebanon received enormous publicity. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s the prevailing picture of the Islamic world in the West was of militants bent on undermining countries' stability, overthrowing governments, and imposing their version of an Islamic state. The result was the facile equation: Islam = fundamentalism = terrorism and extremism.


The reality is that Islamic revivalism was not the product of the Iranian revolution but of a global reassertion of Islam that had already been under way and that extended from Libya to Malaysia.

The causes of the resurgence are many and differ from country to country, but common catalysts and concerns are identifiable. Secular nationalism (whether in the form of liberal nationalism, Arab nationalism, or socialism) has not provided a sense of national identity or produced strong and prosperous societies. The governments in Muslim countries-- mostly nonelected, authoritarian, and dependent on security forces--have been unable to establish their political legitimacy. They have been blamed for the failure to achieve economic self-sufficiency, to stem the widening gap between rich and poor, to halt widespread corruption, to liberate Palestine, to resist Western political and cultural hegemony. Both the political and the religious establishments have come under criticism, the former as a westernized, secular elite overly concerned with power and privilege, and the latter (in Sunni Muslim nations) as leaders of the faithful who have been co-opted by governments that often control mosques and religious universities and other institutions.

The disastrous defeat of Arab forces by Israel in the 1967 war discredited Arab nationalism and triggered soul-searching in the Arab world. In South Asia, the 1971 civil war in Pakistan leading to the creation of Bangladesh undermined the idea that Islam and Muslim nationalism could act as the glue to hold together an ethnically and linguistically diverse Muslim population. One finds similar catalytic events or conditions in Lebanon, Iran, Malaysia (the riots of 1969), and many other countries.

Islamic revivalism is in many ways the successor to failed nationalist programs. The founders of many Islamic movements were formerly participants in nationalist movements: Hasan al-Banna of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Rashid Ghannoushi of Tunisia's Renaissance party, and Abbasi Madani of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria. Islamic movements have offered an Islamic alternative or solution, a third way distinct from capitalism and communism. Islamists argue that secularism, a modern bias toward the West, and dependence on Western models of development have proved politically inadequate and socially corrosive, undermining the identity and moral fabric of Muslim societies. Asserting that Islam is not just a collection of beliefs and ritual actions but a comprehensive ideology embracing public as well as personal life, they call for the implementation of Sharia, or Islamic law, as a social blueprint. While the majority within the Muslim world seek to work within the system, a small but significant minority believes that the rulers in their countries are anti-Islamic and that they have a divine mandate to unseat them and impose their vision.

In general, the movements are urban-based, drawing heavily from the lower middle and middle classes. They have gained particular support among recent university graduates and young professionals, male and female. The movements recruit from the mosques and on campuses where, contrary to popular assumptions, their strength is not so much in the religious faculties and the humanities as in science, engineering, education, law, and medicine. Organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Jordan, and Sudan as well as South Asia's Jamaat-i- Islami consist in great part of university graduates and professionals. The Islamic Salvation Front's Abbasi Madani, for example, earned his doctorate in education from a British university, while his younger colleague Abdelqader Hachani is a petrochemical engineer and a doctoral candidate at a French university. Seventy-six percent of the Front's candidates in municipal and parliamentary elections in 1990 and 1991 held postgraduate degrees, and a significant portion of the leadership and membership can be described as middle-class professionals.

In many Muslim countries an alternative elite exists, its members with modern educations but self-consciously oriented toward Islam and committed to social and political activism as a means of bringing about a more Islamic society or system of government. This phenomenon is reflected in the presence--and often dominance--of Islamists in professional associations of lawyers, engineers, professors, and physicians. Where permitted to participate in society, Islamists are found in all sectors, including government and even the military.


Demonization of Islam proceeded throughout the 1980s, but by late in the decade a more nuanced, broad-based, diverse Islamic world was increasingly evident. Beneath the radical faade, apart from the small, marginalized extremist groups, a quiet revolution had taken place. While a rejectionist minority had sought to impose change from above through holy wars, many others reaffirmed their faith and pursued a bottom-up approach, seeking a gradual Islamization of society through words, preaching, and social and political activity. In many Muslim countries Islamic organizations had become energetic in social reform, establishing much-needed schools, hospitals, clinics, legal societies, family assistance programs, Islamic banks and insurance companies, and publishing houses. These Islamically oriented groups offered social welfare services cheaply and constituted an implicit critique of the failure of the regimes in the countries to provide adequate services.

Along with social activism went increased political participation. In the late 1980s economic failures led to mass demonstrations and food riots in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Jordan. Moreover, the demand for democratization that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Eastern Europe touched the Middle East as well. Throughout the decade many governments in the Muslim world charged that the Islamic activists were merely violent revolutionaries whose lack of popular support would be evident if elections were held, but few governments showed themselves willing to put this claim to the test. When political systems were opened up and Islamic organizations were able to participate in elections, the results stunned many in the Muslim world and in the West. Although Islamists were not allowed to organize separate official political parties, in Egypt and Tunisia they emerged as the leading opposition. In the November 1989 elections in Jordan they captured 32 of 80 seats in the lower house of parliament and held five cabinet-level positions and the office of speaker of the lower house. Algeria, however, was the turning point.

Algeria had been dominated for decades by a one-party dictatorship under the National Liberation Front (FLN). Because the FLN was socialist and had a strong secular elite and feminist movement, few took the Islamic movement seriously; moreover, the movement had been among the least well known of the country's groups outside its borders, even among Islamists. The stunning victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an umbrella group, in 1990 municipal elections sent a shock wave around the globe.

Despite the arrest of front leaders Abbasi Madani and Ali Belhadj; the cutoff of state funds to municipalities, often crippling FIS officials' ability to provide services; and gerrymandering to create districts more favorable to itself, the ruling party failed to prevent an even more stunning sweep by the FIS in parliamentary elections held in December 1991. As Islamists at home and across the Muslim world celebrated, the military intervened, forcing the resignation of Algeria's president, arresting FIS leaders, imprisoning more than 10,000 people in desert camps, and outlawing the front, and seizing its assets.

In the face of the repression much of the world stood silent. The conventional wisdom had been blind-sided. While most feared and were on their guard against "other Irans," the Islamic Salvation Front's victory in Algeria raised the specter of an Islamic movement coming to power through democratic elections and ballots worried many world leaders even more than bullets. The justification for accepting the Algerian military's seizure of power was the charge that the FIS really only believed in "One man, one vote, one time." The perceived threat from revolutionary Islam was intensified by the fear that it would capture power from within the political system by democratic means.


In contrast to other parts of the world, calls for greater political participation and democratization in the Middle East have been met by empty rhetoric and repression at home and by ambivalence or silence in the West. Middle Eastern governments have used the danger posed by Islamic fundamentalism as the excuse for increasing authoritarianism and violations of human rights and the indiscriminate suppression of Islamic opposition, as well as for the West's silence about these actions.

Fear of fundamentalism, like fear of communism, has made strange bedfellows. Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt join Israel in warning of a regional and international Islamic threat in their bids to win Western aid and justify their repression of Islamists. "Israel, which for years won American and European backing as a bulwark against the spread of communism through the Middle East, is now projecting itself as the West's defense against militant Islam, a movement it is portraying as an even greater danger'' (3). Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin justified the expulsion of 415 Palestinians in December 1992 by saying that "Our struggle against murderous Islamic terror is also meant to awaken the world, which is lying in slumber... We call on all nations, all peoples to devote their attention to the greater danger inherent in Islamic fundamentalism[, which]...threatens world peace in future years... [W]e stand on the line of fire against the danger of fundamentalist Islam."

Israel and its Arab neighbors have warned that a resurgent Iran is exporting revolution throughout much of the Muslim world, including Sudan, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Algeria, and Central Asia, as well as to Europe and America; indeed, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has urged the formation of a "global alliance" against this menace.

Islam is often portrayed as a triple threat: political, civilizational, and demographic. The fear in the 1980s that Iran would export its revolution has been superseded by the larger fear of an international pan- Islamic movement with Iran and Sudan at its heart. In this decade, despite Iran's relative failure in fomenting revolution abroad, visions of a global Islamic threat have proliferated, combining fear of violent revolution and of Algerian-style electoral victories. French writer Raymond Aron's warning of an Islamic revolutionary wave generated by the fanaticism of the Prophet and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's concern over the possibility of an Islamic-Western war have been succeeded by columnist Charles Krauthammer's assertion of a global Islamic threat of "fundamentalist Koran-waving Khomeniism" led by Iran.

The Ayatollah Khomeini's condemning of novelist Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy for his Satanic Verses, combined with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's call for a holy war against the West during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, reinforce fears of a political and cultural confrontation. This is magnified by some who, like Krauthammer, reduce contemporary realities to the playing out of ancient rivalries: "It should now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations--a perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both." (4)

Muslim-Western relations are placed in the context of a confrontation in which Islam is again pitted against the West--"our Judaeo-Christian and secular West"--rather than specific political and socioeconomic grievances. Thus the assault on the West is seen as "irrational," mounted by peoples peculiarly driven by their passions and hatred; how can Western countries really respond to this?

The politics of the Middle East refutes theories of a monolithic threat. Despite a common "Islamic" orientation, the governments of the region reveal little unity of purpose in interstate or international relations because of conflicting national interests and priorities. Qaddafi was a bitter enemy of Anwar Sadat and Sudanese leader Gaafar Nimeiry at the very time that all were projecting their "Islamic images." Khomeini's Islamic republic consistently called for the overthrow of Saudi Arabia's Islamic state on Islamic grounds. Islamically identified governments also differ in their stance toward the West. Libya's and Iran's relationships with the West, and the United States in particular, were often confrontational; at the same time, the United States has had strong allies in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, and Bahrain. National interest and regional politics rather than ideology or religion remain the major determinants in the formulation of foreign policy.

The World Trade Center bombing last year gave impetus to a third current, the portrayal of Islam as a demographic threat. The growth of Muslim populations in Europe and the United States has made Islam the second-largest religion in Germany and France and the third-largest in Britain and America. Disputes over Muslim minority rights, demonstrations and clashes during the Salman Rushdie affair, and the Trade Center bombing have been exploited by strident voices of the right-- politicians such as France's Jean-Marie LePen, neo-Nazi youth in Germany, and right-wing political commentators in the United States.


For Western leaders, democracy in the Middle East raises the prospect of old and reliable friends or client states transformed into more independent and less predictable nations, which generates worries that Western access to oil could become less secure. Thus stability in the Middle East has often been defined in terms of preserving the status quo.

Lack of enthusiasm for political liberalization in the region has been rationalized by the assertion that Arab culture and Islam are antidemocratic (an issue never raised to a comparable degree with regard to the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, or Africa). The proof offered is the lack of a democratic tradition, and more specifically, the glaring absence of democracies in the Muslim world.

The history of that world has not been conducive to the development of democratic traditions and institutions. European colonial rule and postindependence governments headed by military officers, ex-military men, and monarchs have contributed to a legacy in which political participation and the building of strong democratic institutions are of little concern. National unity and stability as well as the political legitimacy of governments have been undermined by the artificial nature of modern states whose national boundaries were often determined by colonial powers and whose rulers were either put in place by Europe or simply seized power. Weak economies, illiteracy, and high unemployment, especially among the younger generation, aggravate the situation, undermining confidence in governments and increasing the appeal of "Islamic fundamentalism.''

Experts and policymakers who question whether Islamic movements will use electoral politics to "hijack democracy" often do not appear equally disturbed that few rulers in the region have been democratically elected and that many who speak of democracy believe only in the risk- free variety: political liberalization so long as there is no danger of a strong opposition (secular or religious) and loss of power. Failure to appreciate that the issue of hijacking democracy is a two-way street was reflected in the West's responses to the Algerian military's intervention and cancellation of the election results.

Perception of a global Islamic threat can contribute to support for repressive governments in the Muslim world, and thus to the creation of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thwarting participatory politics by canceling elections or repressing populist Islamic movements fosters radicalization. Many of the Islamists harassed, imprisoned, or tortured by the regime, will conclude that seeking democracy is a dead end and become convinced that force is their only recourse. Official silence or economic and political backing for regimes by the United States and other Western powers is read as complicity and a sign that there is a double standard for the implementation of democracy. This can create the conditions that lead to political violence that seemingly validates contentions that Islamic movements are inherently violent, antidemocratic, and a threat to national and regional stability.

More constructive and democratic strategies are possible. The strength of Islamic organizations and parties is also due to the fact that they constitute the only viable voice and vehicle for opposition in relatively closed political systems. The strength at the polls of Tunisia's Renaissance party, the Islamic Salvation Front, and Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood derived not only from a hard core of dedicated followers who backed the groups' Islamic agendas but from the many who wished simply to cast their vote against the government. Opening up the political system could foster competing opposition groups and thus weaken the monopoly Islamic parties have on opposition voters. (It must be remembered that the membership of Islamic organizations does not generally constitute a majority of the population.) Finally, the realities of a more open political marketplace--having to compete for votes, and once gaining power having to govern amid diverse interests--could force Islamic groups to adapt or broaden their ideology and programs.

The United States should not in principle object to the involvement of Islamic activists in government if they have been duly elected. Islamically oriented politicians and groups should be evaluated by the same criteria as any other potential leaders or opposition parties. While some are rejectionists, most will be critical and selective in their relations with the United States, generally operating on the basis of national interests and showing a flexibility that reflects understanding of the globally interdependent world. The United States should demonstrate by word and action its belief that the right to self-determination and representative government extends to an Islamically oriented state and society, if these reflect the popular will and do not directly threaten United States interests. American policy should accept the ideological differences between the West and Islam to the greatest extent possible, or at least tolerate them.

All should bear in mind that democratization in the Muslim world proceeds by experimentation, and necessarily involves both success and failure. The transformation of Western feudal monarchies to democratic nation states took time, and trial and error, and was accompanied by political as well as intellectual revolutions that rocked state and church. It was a long, drawn-out process among contending factions with competing interests and visions.

Today we are witnessing a historic transformation in the Muslim world. Risks exist, for there can be no risk-free democracy. Those who fear the unknown, wondering how specific Islamic movements will act once in power, have legitimate reasons to do so. However, if one worries that these movements might suppress opposition, lack tolerance, deny pluralism, and violate human rights, the same concern must apply equally to the plight of those Islamists who have shown a willingness to participate in the political process in Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria.

Governments in the Muslim world that espouse political liberalization and democracy are challenged to promote the development of civil society--the institutions, values, and culture that are the foundation of true participatory government. Islamic movements, for their part, are challenged to move beyond slogans to programs. They must become more self-critical, and speak out not only against local government abuses but against those of Islamic regimes in Iran and Sudan, for example, as well as acts of terrorism by extremists. They are urged to present an Islamic rationale and policy that extend to their opposition and to minorities the principles of pluralism and political participation they demand for themselves. The extent to which the growth of Islamic revivalism has been accompanied in some countries by attempts to restrict women's rights and public roles; the record of discrimination against the Bahai in Iran, the Ahmadi in Pakistan, and Christians in Sudan; and sectarian conflict between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, Sudan, and Nigeria pose serious questions about religious pluralism, respect for human rights, and tolerance in general.

Islamic revivalism has run counter to many of the presuppositions of Western liberal secularism and development theory, among them the belief that modernization means the inexorable or progressive secularization and Westernization of society. Too often analysis and policymaking have been shaped by a liberal secularism that fails to recognize it too represents a world view, not the paradigm for modern society, and can easily degenerate into a "secularist fundamentalism" that treats alternative views as irrational, extremist, and deviant.

A focus on "Islamic fundamentalism" as a global threat has reinforced the tendency to equate violence with Islam, to fail to distinguish between illegitimate use of religion by individuals and the faith and practice of the majority of the world's Muslims who, like adherents of other religious traditions, wish to live in peace. To equate Islam and Islamic fundamentalism uncritically with extremism is to judge Islam only by those who wreak havoc--a standard not applied to Judaism and Christianity. The danger is that heinous actions may be attributed to Islam rather than to a twisted or distorted interpretation of Islam. Thus despite the track record of Christianity and Western countries when it comes to making war, developing weapons of mass destruction, and imposing their imperialist designs, Islam and Muslim culture are portrayed as somehow peculiarly and inherently expansionist and prone to violence and warfare.

There are lessons to be learned from a past in which fear of a monolithic Soviet threat often blinded the United States to the Soviet bloc's diversity, led to uncritical support for (anti-Communist) dictatorships, and enabled the "free world" to tolerate the suppression of legitimate dissent and massive human rights violations by governments that labeled the opposition "Communist" or "socialist." The risk today is that exaggerated fears will lead to a double standard in the promotion of democracy and human rights in the Muslim world as can be witnessed by the Western concern about and action to support democracy in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe but the muted or ineffective response to the promotion of democracy in the Middle East and the defense of Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Support for democracy and human rights is more effective if it is consistent around the world. Treating Islamic experiences as exceptional is an invitation to long-term conflict.

John L. Esposito is a professor of religion and international affairs and director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Among his books are The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), Islam: The Straight Path (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), and Islam and Politics (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991).

1 "The Islamic Threat," _The Economist_, March 13, 1993, p. 25.

2 See John L. Esposito, _The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), which I have drawn on for this study.

3 Emad El Din Shahid, "The Limits of Democracy," _Middle East Insight_, vol. 8, no. 6 (1992), p. 12.

4 Charles Krauthammer, "The New Crescent of Crisis: Global Intifada," _Washington Post_, January 1, 1993.

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