British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (1997), 24(l), 5-24
The New World Order and the Tempo of Militant Islam
ABSTRACT This paper assesses the social and political conditions that have led to the emergence of militant Islamic groups in the Arab world, especially since the 1967 Six Day War. However, the paper goes beyond the genesis of militant Islam to contest the hypothesis of state-sponsored terrorism by investigating two aspects of support that help keep the phenomenon alive; namely, their sources of funding and weapons. In turn, these aspects of support are broken down into international, regional, and local sources. The discussion shows that while the international and regional sources are significant, the local sources of support are decisive for the operations of the militant Islamic groups.
With the end of the Cold War, Islamic fundamentalism has emerged as a global security issue. It poses serious challenges to state authority in the Middle East, and creates threatening ramifications in many Western countries. It is a rare historical coincidence to observe that the security of the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean seem endangered by a common foe. In the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalism is the product of cultural and intellectual stagnation, Western colonialism, and the failure of the secular nationalist model of government. The West, in its desire to harass Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan, tinkered with the ecology of Islamic society and gave, unwittingly, a foundation of considerable strength to Islamic fundamentalism in the 1990s. Recent terror incidents attest to the gravity of the fundamentalist threat: these include the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York, the series of suicide missions in Israeli cities, the subway explosions in Paris, and the multinational slaughtering in Algeria. The destruction of a US military housing complex in Khubar, Saudi Arabia, a country often referred to as an oasis of order and stability in the troubled Middle East, is one demonstration of the speed with which Islamic militancy is spreading.
Statement of Objective
Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world grew in a region previously known both for religious tolerance and the prevalence of traditional religious practices. The emergence of zealous religious groups represents a curious departure from past trends. This paper seeks to address the question pertaining to the rise of militant Islamic groups by focusing on the modem Arab social and political environment which is believed to have bred religious militancy. Many scholars seem to agree that the failure of Arab ruling elites to modernize their countries created an institutional vacuum and enabled the radicals to present themselves as serious contenders for political authority. In this connection, Phebe Marr said the following:
The rise and sustenance of radical Islamic groups would not have been made possible without financial and military assets. In addition to discussing some of the salient factors responsible for the ascendancy of radical Islamic groups, this paper will also account for the sources of their funding and weaponry. This second component of the study is especially important, since without significant material resources the activities of the radicals would not have acquired breadth of scope, nor urgency in state efforts to contain them.
There are obviously many misconceptions about the birth and growth of radical Islam. Western media find it convenient to implicate a number of 'pariah' or 'mad' Middle Eastern states-Iran, Syria, Sudan-in stimulating radical Islam and, more important, in keeping it alive. These charges cannot be completely dismissed; however the impact of domestic variables in Arab-Muslim societies and-to a lesser extent-the catalytic role of the West in recent years, seem more relevant in explaining the fundamentalist threat than the unsubstantiated pariah states theory. The ensuing proposition argues in favour of treating Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world as an indigenous force resulting from societal decay (specifically its religious, political, social and economic components) and unpropitious interaction with the West.2 It follows that as long as the underlying factors that make the current cycle of Islamic militancy a compelling issue are not satisfactorily resolved, there is no reason to assume that its suppression is imminent, and even if it were, its future recurrence could easily be prevented. Furthermore, the paper intends to demonstrate the weaknesses of the selffulfilling hypothesis about state-sponsored fundamentalist terrorism. However, in view of the intense debate about the genesis of militant Islam and its future prospects, we have decided to begin the discussion by placing the issue in a proper analytical perspective.
The Elements of the Controversy
Shortly after the triumph of Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, radical Islam came into hostile contact with the West as members of the Revolutionary Guards stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took 49 American citizens as hostages for more than a year. Before the world forgot the episode, Iran's fundamentalist proxies in Lebanon launched, on 23 October 1983, two separate, but simultaneous, attacks against US Marines and French troops in Beirut, killing more than 300 of them. 3 In the aftermath of these two suicide attacks, a wave of Western hostage-taking and occasional murder preoccupied the West for nearly a decade. It is in this atmosphere of commotion that the first writings on militant Islam appeared in print. Western and like-minded scholars laboured in an attempt to explain the origins and motives of fundamentalist Islam. Bernard Lewis advocated the presence of an inherent disposition to militant opposition in Islam. He claimed that:
It is probably in this sense that some scholars saw in the Iranian Revolution a resurgence of pristine Islamic trends and practices. William Beeman assessed the Khomeini movement as an opposition to the Shah and his American backers. According to him, '... the United States ... was identified as the ultimate source of ... corruption ... [and] the ultimate supporter of illegitimate authority [the Shah]. '5Emmanuel Sivan's analysis focused on Islamic fundamentalists' loathing for their countries' secular elites who uncritically propagated Western concepts of territorial nationalism, socialism, and political and economic development. 6 In addition, Sivan was part of a scholarly drive that aimed at placing Islam on a collision course with the West. He highlighted the following declaration by the head of the Jama'a Islamiyya in Lebanon:
Bernard Lewis interpreted this 'irrational'8 admiration as a '... historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both'.9 John Voll suggested, although less emphatically than Lewis, that the intrusion of Western political concepts upon the Muslim way of governance did not cause the latter's demise. In holding to their purpose, he said that '... the ideals of the cosmopolitan Islamic community ... have had to share the stage with the interests of the nation and the state'.10 On the other hand, Nikki Keddie found no connection between pre-colonial Islamic trends and the belligerent notions propagated by the militant groups today. She insisted that past Islamic practices 'tended to be conservative rather than militant or exclusivist'.11
Impact of Regional and Global Developments on Islamic Militancy
Apart from local and regional factors, changes in the international system spurred the further growth of radical Islam. In December 1979 the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan upon the request of its new communist government. The Soviet move in Afghanistan angered the United States, and put severe strains on detente. The US reacted in a variety of ways; for the purposes of this study, the role of the CIA in supporting the Islamic resistance movement against Soviet occupation is particularly relevant. It is widely believed in the Arab world that Afghanistan was 'the melting pot which produced, under CIA leadership, members of terror groups from different Arab countries'.12 Thousands of Arabs went to fight in Afghanistan at the expense of Usama Bin Ladin, a Saudi Arabian construction tycoon (now denaturalized) who had strong CIA connections.13Following the completion of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, many Arab Mujahideen (or Arab-Afghans) began returning back to their countries of origin, and gave weight to militant Islamic groups there. The role of the Arab-Afghans in increasing the pace of Islamic militancy in the Middle East cannot be overestimated. In response to United States' demands that the government in Islamabad take more drastic measures to control Arab militants taking refuge in Pakistan, the Pakistani Prime Minister Sher Mazari reacted strongly. He said that:
The Gulf conflict, precipitated by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, intensified the acuity of concern about the potential of the Islamic fundamentalist threat to the West. From Algeria to Jordan, Saddam Hussein received sweeping public support from most Arab publics, especially Islamic fundamentalist groups. Outside the Arab world, demonstrators in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia, expressed vehement opposition to the military coalition organized by the United States against Iraq, and demanded a peaceful resolution of the crisis. James Piscatori observed that the crisis in the Gulf '... not only challenged the region's interstate stability, but also emphasized the central importance that religion has in the political crises of the Muslim world'.15
The collapse of the Soviet Union contributed to Islamic militancy in at least three ways. First, the radicals saw in the fall of communist ideology a clear proof of the unworkability of man-made laws and the limits of authoritarian oppression. If the Soviet Union, one of the two superpowers, disintegrated without a fight, then the Middle Eastern states, most of which have no real foundations, are ultimately bound to succumb to determined Islamic fundamentalist groups.
Second, the breakup of Yugoslavia, a by-product of Soviet collapse, triggered an ethnoreligious war in Bosnia- Herzegovina which attracted a few thousand Arab-Afghans to fight on the side of Bosnian Muslims. Serb atrocities and ethnic cleansing of the Muslims did not seem to move Western governments to take sufficient action to deter the increasingly aggressive Serbs. Muslims everywhere watched in horror at the Serbian excesses while the West did very little to stop them. The entrenched notion that the West is irreconcilably hostile towards the Muslim world received a tremendous boost among Arab Muslims. The Bosnian War came in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991 which resulted in a devastation of Iraq and subjecting its people to severe UN sanctions. Many Arabs believe the Gulf conflict was engineered by the United States who wanted to control Arab oil fields in the Gulf region. The Bosnian and Gulf Wars brought anti-Western feelings among Arabs to an unprecedented level. The pervasive feeling among them is that Westerners are constitutionally incapable of being friendly towards Muslims. Hence, combatting them is not just to be tolerated, but to be urged as well.
Third, the end of East-West ideological rivalry created a vacuum in international relations whose balance hinged on sustaining balanced conflict. The United States found itself, quite unexpectedly, without a major enemy. Scholars saw in the end of the Cold War a severe blow to historical progress. For example, Francis Fukuyama considered history to have ended, and lamented the termination of '... the struggle for recognition [and] the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal'.16 In this atmosphere in which the conflict between I good' and 'evil' has ceased to inspire American policy makers, playing up the militant Islamic threat seemed a useful way to revive the East-West confrontation. According to Samuel Huntington, Islam and other so-called Eastern religions stand in sharp contrast to 'Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law [and] democracy ...17 He asserts that Islam is central to the fault lines that separate the West from the rest, and argues, rather emphatically, that the 'centuries-old military interaction between the West and Islam is unlikely to decline. It could become more virulent'.18
There is merit to Huntington's analysis, for Muslim radicals seem prompted by the idea of historical determinism which considers the ultimate triumph of Islam as prescribed by God. They base their claim on the assumption that '... Islam possesses a workable model for the righteous and just state more advanced than the imported Western model'.19 Hafiz Salih, a fundamentalist writer, exhorted all Muslims to join ranks and fight for recreating the Islamic state.20 He did not submit a plan for accomplishing the task, and seemed content to limit his advocacy to a few Quranic exhortations for Jihad.21Olivier Roy dismissed the possibility of the rise of Islamic state outside Iran, whose Islamic revolutionaries succeeded in developing a viable constitution. He noticed that '... the poverty of Islamist thought on political institutions is striking, considering the emphasis Islamism places on politics'.22 Even though it is plausible to accept Roy's statement as objective, it is prudent to remember that the militants have their own modus operandi. The march of political Islam seems unstoppable, not because of the inherent strengths of the politicized Islamic groups, but simply as a result of the political decay of the Middle Eastern environments in which they thrive. The next section reviews the underlying current of political Islam.
Political and Economic Precursors to the Fundamentalist Phenomenon
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 put an end to Arab liberalism, a trend that had dominated Arab cultural and political change since the third quarter of the nineteenth century, and stimulated the emergence of radical Arab nationalism. Young and politically inexperienced army officers took charge of the political system in key Arab countries such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The conservative monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Jordan proved impervious to military coups, but they adopted, nevertheless, the draconian security measures of the repressive regimes in neighbouring countries. The new political elites in the so-called 'revolutionary states' navigated in the turbulence of the Cold War between East and West, and opted to court the former Soviet bloc in exchange for military and economic aid. In fact, both secular and traditional Arab elites convinced their people that their two most important objectives were to eliminate the state of Israel, and to achieve economic prosperity. The masses went along with the declared objectives of the leaders, only to suffer from one frustration after another.
The Arabs lost every major military confrontation with Israel which emerged-owing both to Arab leaders' unwillingness to fight, and unconditional American support of Israeli policies-as the region's military superpower. Also, Israel succeeded in becoming the Middle East's technological powerhouse and leading economy. The Arabs' ineffective handling of the conflict with Israel jolted the masses who expected the use of a forthright military approach to recover Palestine. Instead of concentrating on Israel, Arab elites focused attention on other issues that included eliminating domestic opposition, violating the basic human rights of their populations, and involvement in inter-Arab disputes. The Arab leaders' record on the developmental front was equally dismal. Some regimes toyed with socialism and adopted the single-party apparatus to propel modernization. Others, such as the Gulf rentier states, adopted the welfare state approach. In the second, apparently more successful, approach, only a veneer of modernity was accomplished. Resources were squandered on weapons and grandiose projects of little economic utility. Corruption and nepotism prevailed, and the concept of the state, never fully understood in the modern Middle East as a guardian and representative of individual and community interests, soon lost its lustre.
Instead of the city acting to transform the village, it was invaded by the latter. Arab cities swelled to become sprawling living quarters. Due to internal migration, which has intensified since the early 1970s, the population of Arab cities such as Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Khartoum has more than doubled in proportion to the total population.23 It is in this atmosphere of ideological and developmental failure that radical Islamic groups emerged, who sought to transform the ailing political systems into ones of their own creation. The ascendancy of radical Islam in many parts of the Middle East and its virtual monopoly of serious political opposition, suggests that the present state system in the Middle East is not working adequately.
Terror by Prescription
Organized political terror in the Middle East precedes the era of Islamic militancy. The first incident on record goes back to 23 July 1968 when members of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an Israeli airliner en route to Algiers airport. From that date until June 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon with the declared aim of ousting the Palestine Liberation Organization fighters from the country, nationalist and leftist groups-mainly associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict-took responsibility for almost all terrorist activities. In the wake of the Israeli invasion, Hizbullah appeared in Lebanon. With this development, the centre of terrorist activity shifted from the discredited leftists to the rising Islamists. It would be erroneous to explain the use of violence in terms of protest; the radicals, be they leftists or fundamentalists, have a political programme that they seek to accomplish. The fundamentalists began where the leftists stopped. Radical Islamic groups believe they launch terror missions for a holy cause. They claim that their aim is to reinstate the Islamic state which Kamal Ataturk, the founder of secular Turkey, formally abrogated in 1924. According to the fundamentalists, it is completely unacceptable for Muslims to be ruled by any system of government unless it is based on Shari'a. Western-inspired secular laws, now applied in most Islamic states, contradict Islamic tenets, and most fundamentalists wholeheartedly reject the application of these laws. The fact that radical Islamic groups constitute mainly domestic movements operating against state authority within the boundaries drawn by Western colonial powers does not mean that they necessarily accept the existing Middle Eastern state order. The fundamentalists realize that they remain some way from the ultimate construction of a universal Islamic state. Even the non-violent Muslim Brethren movement expresses commitment to the accomplishment of the Islamic state, although it advocates a moderate approach. The primary aim of the movement is to contribute to Muslim awakening by revitalizing religious values and eliminating Western cultural influences, which they regard as a major threat to the Arab-Islamic culture. The Muslim Brethren's eschewal of militant activities emanates from their empirical conviction that they cannot possibly win against the state which commands a formidable machinery of coercion. The operating motto of the Muslim Brethren depends on 'moulding an ideal Muslim brother to set an example to be followed by other coreligionists'. 24
Other fundamentalist groups do not commit themselves to peaceful tactics. They employ violence as a recipe for change towards the 'right path'. Moreover, in their view, fighting the state represents a duty that binds all able Muslims; without it, the concretization of the Muslim state remains wishful thinking. Radical Muslims view militancy as a means to topple their countries' corrupt and illegitimate regimes, which they also conceive of as Western lackeys. They argue that Jihad is sanctioned by God, and consider it as the only means to resurrect the Islamic state. Hrair Dekmejian contends that '... confrontation is an important part of the world view of Islamic fundamentalists and many conventional Muslims'. 25 Muhammad 'Abd Al-Salam Faraj, an Egyptian fundamentalist ideologue, carries the idea of Jihad to the point of regarding it an absent obligation, or a forgotten pillar of Islam. 26Clearly motivated by messianic projections, Faraj believes that Jihad is an absolute Muslim duty for reinstating rule by Shari'a. Jihad is so central to Faraj's thinking that he calls it the sixth pillar of Islam.27
The fundamentalists capitalize on the crisis of identity which plagues all Arab political systems, and benefit from the ruling elites' invariable failure to convince the populations that they embody their cherished goals and aspirations. To be sure, Arabs do not accept the consequences of the collapse of the Ottoman empire which resulted in the formation of arbitrary political units. Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon provide living examples of the fragility of Middle Eastern states. It is worth noting that the Arab-Islamic mind remains essentially unionist, a reality not missed by the radicals who capitalize on it to find young and frustrated recruits.
Islam conferred upon the Muslims a sense of attachment to the umma of believers (the Islamic community). The fall of the Ottoman empire finally shifted the focus of affinity from Islam to Arabism.28 Similarly, community orientation -not comparable to Western definitions in terms of rigour and strength of attachment-drifted some way from religion, in the direction of nationalism. Arab nationalism reached it peak in the mid-1950s, but received a severe blow as a consequence of the 1967 Six Day War. The demise of the idea of Arab nationalism led to an instant rise of militant Islam. A three-dimensional perspective governs, at this stage, the ensuing political environment in the countries gripped by the fundamentalist surge: overthrowing the existing ruling elite, eliminating Western cultural and political influences, and reintroducing Shari'a based, Islamic rule. Many radicals have prescribed unmitigated violence to achieve these stated objectives.
Despite the vociferousness of Islamic militants and their unwavering pledge to combat the West, one must bear in mind that most acts of international terrorism take place outside the Middle East, and by movements other than Islamic militants. In 1995, 441 terrorist acts occurred in 51 different countries. 29 There are at least three reasons for the current Western fixation on Islamic-inspired terrorism: geographic proximity to Europe; fundamentalist rhetoric, and Western hostility. First, the southern shores of the Mediterranean are exclusively Muslim, and include some of the most active fundamentalist groups. In addition, there are millions of north African Muslims living in Europe of whom many support, or at least empathize with, the mission of their fundamentalist coreligionists. Second, fundamentalist spokesmen never miss an opportunity to remind the world that 'Islam and the West are locked in an ongoing battle, dating back to the early days of Islam ... and which today is the product of a Judaeo-Christian conspiracy' .30 Third, Daniel Pipes admitted that there has been considerable historical hostility by Christians towards Muslims. He explained it in terms of the rapid Muslim conquests in the early days of Islam which threatened31European culture and its Christian faith.
Sources of Funding and Weaponry
Terrorist activities depend on two major factors: money which provides the budget of death; and guns and explosives which supply the weapons for inflicting death. The nature of such activities by militant Islamic groups suggests that they do not require large sums of money and sophisticated arms to carry out their operations. Of course, the militants' terror disturbs international peace and exposes the weaknesses of several Middle Eastern regimes. There is a tendency, however, to exaggerate the strength of the radical groups, as well as the resources available at their disposal. The United States and beleaguered Middle Eastern states find it expedient to implicate countries like Iran, Syria and the Sudan in arming, providing training facilities, and giving funds to militant Islamic groups. There is indeed some truth to these charges; but to say that outside support is decisive in the formation and operation of the radical groups misses the entire issue of Islamic militancy. It also points either to a weak understanding of Middle Eastern people's aspirations, or a deliberate avoidance of the issue's complexity. The beginnings of fundamentalist terror go back to 1975 when a small Egyptian group known as Jama'at at-Takfir wa-l-Hijra (Movement of Repentance and Holy Flight) began a series of limited antigovernment activities. There is nothing on record to suggest that the movement received any foreign assistance.
Before analysis proceeds, we need to make a distinction between the rise of radical groups and the support they receive from abroad. Radical Islamic groups have emerged for purely indigenous reasons. Outside support only became possible due to the rise of radical Islam as a primary source of domestic opposition. Radical Islamic groups receive support from different foreign sources, including countries that are vociferous in their demand for an end to terrorist activities. Foreign supporters have different reasons for dealing with radical Islamic groups. For the sake of simplicity, the main sources of radical groups' support will be divided into three categories: regional (Middle Eastern), international (Western and Asian), and local.
The architects of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran believed they were in a unique position to export their version of militancy to other Muslim countries. Their Muslim neighbours proved them wrong. Sunni Muslims viewed sceptically the generous offers of material aid made by Iran's Shiite leadership. This explains why Iran's only spectacular breakthrough was among Lebanese Shiite. Iran established itself as the patron of Hizbullah, whose principal military activities target Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon. Iran's ability to influence radical Islamic groups derived legitimacy in Arab eyes to the extent that it concentrated on promoting anti-Israeli operations. Beyond this, Iran had little influence on militants in the Arab East. The two Palestinian radical Islamic groups, al-Jihad al-Islami and Hamas, cooperate with Iran in view of the latter's willingness to support their operations against the Hebrew state. Unconfirmed accounts assert that they receive about $10 million a year from Iran.32 In fact, conservative and staunchly pro-American Arab states have given substantial material support to Palestinian fundamentalist groups. 33 Even Israel seemed to have tolerated the rise of Islamic militancy in the occupied Territories, at least during the 1980S.34 Hizbullah does not launch or promote militant activities against the Lebanese government; instead, it seeks a niche in national politics. This fundamentalist movement won eight seats in the 1992 parliamentary elections, and has succeeded in acquiring national recognition. Hizbullah leaders do not conceal that they receive military and financial aid from Iran; in fact, this aid, which is undenied by Tehran, is known to have been worth $100 million in a good year.35This aid is normally channelled through Hizbullah's Resistance Support Authority. Iranian military aid to Hizbullah passes through Syria, which is not generally known as a supplier of material aid to any radical Islamic group, but it clearly provides liaison facilities to radical groups fighting against Israel.
The struggle for position in regional politics, not ideology, explains why Iran gives material aid to the radicals, while Syria provides their leaders with shelter. Tehran aspires to convince the sceptical United States, which seeks to contain Iran, and weary Gulf Cooperation Council states, that its regional interests threaten none of theirs. Iranian support for the radicals serves as a retaliatory message to those who attempt to block what Iran regards as its vital regional interests. Similarly, Syria attempts to use the radicals as bargaining chips in peace negotiations with Israel, and to reserve a place for Damascus in Middle Eastern affairs. Recently, the Jordanian Prime Minister 'Abd al-Karim al-Kabariti, whose country is at odds with Syria, said: 'Syria has no right to protect groups and organizations that use violence and terror to erode security and stability in the region'.36 It is important to observe that al-Kaba riti charged Syria with protecting, not arming the radicals.
Iran, in collaboration with Sudan, has extended its support for Islamic militants to North African groups. An undocumented report cited in a Lebanese magazine charges the Iranians with transporting large quantities of high explosives to border areas between Libya and Algeria. The same report claims that ,recent successes by Algerian security forces in preventing the arrival of foreign supplies to the armed groups caused a setback to Iran'.37 The possible role of the Sudanese government, controlled by Hasan al-Turabi's National Islamic Front (NIF), in fomenting radicalism attracts considerable attention. Rhetorical statements from Khartoum reinforce the charges of the regime's many foreign opponents about Sudan's role in regional terror. For example, during the Popular Arab and Islamic Conference held in Khartoum in March 1996, al-Turabi called for 'mobilizing all Muslim efforts against the new world order' .38 Having failed to suppress fully the country's intractable Jama'at Islamiyya, Egyptian officials, along with state-controlled mass media, direct their wrath against Sudan's Islamic regime. Thus, an Egyptian magazine implicates Sudan for allegedly harbouring about fifty Arab fundamentalist and nationalist groups .39 The shock of the assassination attempt on Egyptian President Husni Mubarak in Addis Ababa, on 26 June 1995, seems to have unleashed an unrestrained campaign in Cairo against the Sudanese leadership. There are claims that the would-be assassins received their training in Suba, near Khartourn.40
Arab scholars tend to undermine Egyptian officials' foreign conspiracy cries. In this connection, Hasanayn Tawfiq Ibrahim dismisses the significance of material and military aid given to Egypt's Islamic militants by some Middle Eastern countries. Ibrahim cites the following compelling example to make his point:
In Egypt, security forces say they have confiscated Israeli weapons earmarked for the country's militant Islamic groups.42 The Egyptian government has also suspected Saudi Arabia of possible involvement in some aspects of the country's wave of terrorism. According to a Lebanese daily, Egyptian officials, who wished to remain anonymous, implicated Saudi intelligence with providing arms. in the early 1990s to a little known militant group called Tala'i' al-Fath al-Islami (Vanguard of the Islamic conquest).43There is no independent verification for these charges. Nevertheless, it is on record that the Israeli authorities-in addition to similar efforts by the Saudis and Jordanians- financed the construction of many mosques in Gaza and the West Bank, which later became the focus for the proliferation of militant Islam in the occupied territories. Between 1967 and 1985, the number of mosques in the territories nearly tripled.
In addition to blaming foreign countries for facilitating terrorist activities, the embarrassed Egyptian government resorts to propaganda to discredit the militants. The authorities interpret personal vendettas, which are commonplace in Upper Egypt's traditional society and totally unrelated to the militants' activities, as evidence of the security problem posed by the radical Islamists. Furthermore, the government uses the local clashes between Muslims and Christian Coptsmainly over land and building rights-as evidence of the militants' attempts to instigate sectarian strife in Egypt.44
Radical Islamic groups receive, no doubt, limited logistic support from a few Middle Eastern countries. But there is a tendency to magnify unduly the implications of this aid on the rhythm of regional violence. Conversely, contributions from countries outside the Middle East seem to have more influence on the march of Islamic radicalism.
Supplies to the militants from Western and Asiatic countries are quite significant. The war in Afghanistan provided a stepping stone for escalating violence in the Middle East. An earlier part of this paper referred to the role of the CIA, and the then Saudi businessman Usama Bin Ladin in recruiting thousands of Arabs to fight alongside the Mujahideen. In Afghanistan, Arab fighters acquired high-level martial skills suitable for the kind of irregular terrorist activities they currently launch against the state. Apart from the Afghan episode, direct Western aid proved vital for the escalation of the militants' operations. A Lebanese daily describes the evolving relationship between Islamic fundamentalists and the West as 'yesterday's allies and today's enemies'.45 Writing in an Arab daily published in London, Salah-al-Din Hafiz -drawing upon previous Western support of Islamic militants' involvement in the Afghan war-draws a parallel between enmity to Islamic radicals and the end of their utility to Western interests. William Saffire, a Western columnist, does not look at the issue from the alliance and enmity syndrome. Instead, he believes that the Islamic extremists have exploited the 'West's havens and forums'.46
Whatever the motive or outlet for providing material aid to Muslim radicals, the fact remains that it came, and will probably continue to come, from Western points of origin. A report by an Arab magazine claims that at least fifty radical Islamic leaders sought and obtained political asylum in Europe, twelve in England alone .47 For Muslim radicals, Europe is not just a refuge from Arab states' intelligence and security officers, but an important source of money, training, and weapon supplies. In January 1995, German authorities revealed that some Arabs train in mountain camps on its territory. This announcement came after the discovery of traditional training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan. Similarly, in March 1994, Algerian security forces seized a large shipment of military hardware loaded in a cargo ship originating from the Netherlands.48 Some shipments destined for certain Arab countries were intercepted at the French-German borders; Swiss authorities discovered other shipments bound to the Middle East. Arrested Muslim radicals have admitted receiving weapons from the West through several mafia-type connections. Observers seem to believe that wealthy Arabs living in Europe, who are sympathetic to the objectives of Islamic militants, contribute generous funds for clandestine arms purchases in the black market. For several years, Bin Ladin, a private financier of terrorism who is currently based in Khartoum, provided funds to numerous radical organizations in the Arab world through the Human Concern Agency, which he founded in Afghanistan in 1982.49 Shadow philanthropic groups such as the Sudanese, NIF-associated Muwaffaq organization provide liaison services for the militants. Some argue that this group planned the assassination attempt of President Mubarak in Ethiopia.50
The most important source of weapon supplies to Islamic militants is probably local. On this matter Nassar says that 'the dependence of these "revolutionaries" on local sources for logistic supplies discredits the Egyptian government's accusation of Sudan and Iran for standing behind terrorism'.51 Investigations by Egyptian police point to the Islamic militants' ability to manufacture homemade bombs and Molotov cocktails, and install explosive devices. Egyptian security forces have recently succeeded in locating arms factories owned by the militants, and managed by a sympathetic army officer, near Cairo, Asyut, and Banha.52One source asserts that the Egyptian army itself, whose ranks purportedly include many fundamentalists, provides light weapons to the country's militant Islamic groups.53 A Lebanese journalist familiar with Egyptian affairs claims that the militants secure some of their weapons from government troops who have been ambushed and killed in armed confrontations.54
Abu Amr sheds light on the local sources of support for the Hamas movement in the occupied territories. He observes that:
Although Hamas denies it, Abu Amr insists that Hamas has its own profitmaking investment projects .56 It is very possible that other radical Islamic groups elsewhere in the Arab world receive funds from the proliferating Islamic banks and commercial enterprises. Islamic financial institutions apply Islamic principles in their transactions, i.e., interest-free operations. In lieu of interest, they share in the borrowers' profits, and divide their share of the profits with the investors, many of whom are Islamic fundamentalist groups. Such banks control a significant share of the industry's deposits in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and the Sudan.57
Three of the most widely used military tactics by the radicals depend exclusively on local resources: suicide missions, stabbings, and setting boobytraps in vehicles. These tactics, first begun by Hizbullah fighters in southern Lebanon, have spread among Islamic militants in the Arab world, especially in Algeria. The stabbing of Israelis in the territories is not unusual nowadays. Similar terrorist activities occur in Egypt against policemen, Copts, and Western tourists. Of equal concern is the radicals' increasing dependence on suicide operations. These tend to inflict heavy human losses, and exceed in efficiency all previously used tactics. Yusuf al-Qardawi, an Islamic militant preacher, approves of suicide activities. He says emphatically: 'If the Jews possess the atomic bomb ... we possess the human bomb ...'58 Such operations are difficult to contain since the logic of their execution seems unbounded by conventional behaviour. They are, therefore, extremely difficult to deal with for the state security forces who are attempting to suppress the militants.
An Uncertain Future
The security forces in Egypt and Algeria have scored important successes. Recent Israeli reprisals against suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the Palestinian Authority's punitive measures seem to have inflicted serious infrastructural damage on Hamas and al-Jihad movements. In Lebanon, Hizbullah faces a new Israeli government fully determined to stem its operations against the Hebrew state and an unsympathetic Lebanese government bent on stabilizing the country and reconstruction. Thus, government officials and a few analysts have predicted the imminent collapse of Islamic militancy in the Middle East. Although the successes are of some importance, these predictions are almost unwarranted.
Religiosity is increasing throughout the Middle East. The liberalization impact of the first half of the twentieth century on Arab society, in addition to the secularization efforts by ruling military elites during the 1950s and 1960s, lost its impetus after the Six Day War which revealed the extent of Arab political decay. Since then, Islamic radicalism has developed gradually, and has adopted religious alternatives to secular failures. Continued mismanagement of public assets by the existing elites, eschewal of serious political reform, and marginality in the new world order all strengthen the raison d'être of Islamic radicalism. As a result, Islamic nationalism is supplanting territorial nationalism and becoming the basis of political opposition and future promise. Using the examples of Iran and Sudan, Juergensmeyer fears that this process is contagious since '... Islamic nationalism in one country can encourage the growth of Islamic nationalism in other countries' .59 The long-term objectives of militant Muslims seek to unite the Islamic countries and spread the word of Allah throughout the world.
The fundamentalist threat is indeed real to both Middle Eastern and Western countries. Islamic militants have unquestionably demonstrated their ability to disturb not just the peace of their countries, but that of the world as well. Given the significance of the problem, it is surprising that the parties concerned have done little to understand the nature of the issue, let alone to defuse it. Middle Eastern officials reduce the phenomenon of militant Islam to a mere security issue, and their Western counterparts downgrade it to the status of international terrorism. In both cases oversimplification gives way to scapegoating and scheming. Notwithstanding the militants' capacity to shed blood, instil awe, and generate instability, the achievement of their political and socio-economic objectives seems improbable. A fundamentalist takeover of political control in one or more Middle Eastern countries is not out of the question. There is no guarantee, however, that the achievements of an Islamic regime will surpass those of the one it seeks to replace. The experiences of Islamic rule in Iran and the Sudan do not testify to the resolution of outstanding social, economic, and political problems. Forcible state-mergers by militant groups are not feasible in the Middle East. The West-the architect of the existing regional system of states-does not allow mergers in the core countries. The lessons learned from Iraq's ill-fated attempt to annex Kuwait are all too evident.
Even though Islamic groups agree on the fundamentals of religion, they articulate competing religious persuasions, pertaining to Islamic jurisprudence, that impose limitations on the scope of their cooperation. In accounting for the Muslims' lack of consensus on the meaning of religious law, Roberson stresses that '... there are subgroups among Muslims, each of which represents a differing interpretation or understanding of Islam There is not only religious pluralism, but there is also legal pluralism'.60Apart from regional realities, differences in religious interpretation and involvement in local politics impede the ability of transnational fundamentalist groups to work closely together. The bloody confrontations among Afghanistan's fundamentalist groups illustrate the point. In fact, John Esposito refers to the so-called pan-Islamic drive as a myth.61In this respect, Islamic fundamentalism does not constitute a strategic threat to the West's vital regional interests in the region.
It would be futile to try to defeat Muslim militants without dealing with the underlying factors that made their appearance possible. Authorities in Cairo say they are aware of sixty-nine radical Islamic groups that have emerged in Egypt during the past few years. This demonstrates unequivocally that crushing one militant group may lead to the rise of several others. The strength of Islam in Middle Eastern societies is likely to replenish the ranks of the militant groups. In this connection, it is worth noting that in Egypt alone the Islamic groups control 20,000 mosques and 6000 private schools. 62
Militant Islamic groups loom as potent forces of domestic opposition in the Middle East, and threaten to replace some of the region's existing political elites. The fundamentalists have chosen to challenge, head-on, the regimes in a number of states in the region. Encouraged by the successful anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Islamic revolution in Iran, would-be pacifist Islamic groups have turned to militancy. They have found financial supporters and weapon providers in different parts of the world, but the truth is that they depend heavily on the internal political environment in which they operate.
Although these militant groups are not likely to change national boundaries, they are a source of instability within several states. This is facilitated by the United States' application of a double-standard to its relations with the Arabs and Israelis, and Europe's apparent reluctance to assume an active, countervailing, role in the Middle East. In addition, the performance of most Arab regimes continues to falter; economies are in retreat, government spending is decreasing, and the quality of life is receding. To exacerbate the problem, a Likud government with no desire to compromise on the issue of security has assumed power in Israel. Optimism about completing the final phases of the Oslo Accord with the Palestinians, and imminent peace with Syria and Lebanon, is giving way to pessimism as a result of the new Israeli government's tougher negotiation position. Needless to say, the renewal of the Arab-Israeli conflict gives weight to the fundamentalists' claim that armed struggle is the Arabs' best strategy towards Israel. It is worth noting here that Arab publics have reluctantly approved their countries' drives towards peace with Israel .63
Middle Eastern countries attempt to eradicate the militant groups, not to amend their policies. Policy amendment here implies two things: first, understanding the socio-economic and political factors that facilitated the rise of militant groups; second, defusing militancy by improving the performance of the political system. Success in these efforts requires alleviating economic difficulties and allowing amenable factions of the opposition to operate freely according to acceptable political rules. Turkey appears to be the one Middle Eastern State to have admitted religious groups into its political system. Unfortunately, the inability of ruling elites to expand the base of their political systems by recruiting more participants into the realm of decision makers gives the rising social forces no alternative but to organize illegal, sometimes militant, opposition. Genuine participatory governments have not developed anywhere in the Arab world. To the contrary, the slow transition towards democracy in the 1980s- particularly in Egypt, Jordan and Algeria-beat a hasty retreat in the 1990s. The incidence of political repression is accelerating in most parts of the region, thereby forcing larger segments of the population to seek refuge in religious groupings, fundamentalist and otherwise. Voll was fully aware of the increasing religious appeal to the rank and file in Muslim societies when he wrote:
The United States, angered by the arrival of militant Islamic terror at its front door, appears to have little interest in accommodating political Islam, even in a disarmed form. Hence, it pursues an aggressive policy of containing the Islamic republics of Iran and the Sudan, while incriminating Syria and Libya for allegedly supporting terrorism. There are no guarantees that this approach will achieve the desired objectives since it ignores the dynamics of the fundamentalist current. Jahangir Amuzegar attempted to alert the politicians in Washington to the shortcomings of their understanding of the fundamentalist threat. He said that 'the most Tehran can do in ... foreign adventures, if any, is to ignite the fuse on the powder keg; it can neither plant the seeds of internal discontent nor initiate the causes of local grievance'. 65 Before him, Mehdi Noorbaksh sent an unsuccessful warning to American policy makers to avoid a confrontation with the Muslim world. In a call for understanding and restraint, he urged the United States to:
As long as Middle Eastern countries and the West, particularly the United States, continue to deny the phenomenon of Islamic revivalism, the situation will become ever more difficult to deal with. The ritual, cultural, and economic aspects of this revivalism are still more pronounced than the violent outbursts of militancy. Most Islamic groups focus their attention on peaceful societal transformation and involve themselves in numerous public oriented activities. These activities include promoting observance of Islamic tenets, running of inexpensive private schools, and managing business projects in accordance with the Shari'a. Even fundamentalist groups seem to realize the importance of social programmes to gain public support. A recent study on Islamic fundamentalist groups in Lebanon found that their popularity depends more on providing welfare services than launching raids against Israel.67
The containment of terrorism can be best achieved by recognizing and appreciating the benign elements of this widespread revivalist trend. Opting for a showdown carries the risk of politicizing-hence radicalizing -increasing numbers of the pacifist Islamic multitude. The Summit of Peacemakers, held in Sharm al-Shaykh on 13 March 1996, called for promoting security and stability in the Middle East, and pledged to stop all acts of terrorism.68 Similarly, the member states of the seven industrial nations issued, during their meeting in Lyon on 27 June 1996, a declaration that considered the fight against terrorism to be their absolute priority. 69It is quite legitimate to confront terrorism, especially when it becomes an international threat. However, it is extremely important for counterterrorism plans to avoid confusing the Muslims' efforts to reassert the role of religion in their lives, and the aberrant militant phenomenon. It is equally important that in their bid to contain the Islamic militant threat, Western countries should not sanction state repression in the Middle East, which has been responsible in no small way for generating the current militant upsurge.
In conclusion, several factors suggest that militant Islam will continue to be a major force in the region for the following reasons: first, Islamic revivalism, although not entirely radical, is expected to continue to replenish the militant groups. Second, it is not evident that most ruling elites in the region are ready to liberalize their policies, tolerate the opposition, and unleash serious developmental programmes. Third, Middle Eastern regimes and the West continue to treat militant Islam merely as a security issue isolated from the dynamics of domestic and interstate politics in the region. Fourth, there is no evidence that the complete resolution of the Arab- Israeli conflict is within reach. While none of the above factors is sufficient by itself to explain Islamic militancy, their combined weight is considerable.
* Associate Professor, American University of Beirut. This is a revised version of a paper originally presented at the 18th Summer ISODARCO Course, Certosa di Pontignano, Italy, 29 July-8 August 1996. The author would like to thank Mr Andrew Haber for providing him with excellent research material. He is also grateful to the editor of BJMES and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on earlier versions of this paper. Back
2 Academics generally support a statement of this nature. For example, Tareq and Jacqueline Ismael give a similar argument about the phenomenon of contemporary Islamic political activism. They say it is 'a product of the socio-economic, socio-political and socio-cultural conditions of the Islamic world', and the result of the failure of the state 'to safeguard the community against foreign domination and exploitation'. In Tareq Y. Ismael and Jacqueline S. Ismael, Government and Politics in Islam (New York: St Martin's Press, 1985), p. 139. Back
3 These troops were part of a multinational peacekeeping force (including American, French, Italian and British units). They came to Beirut following the Sabra and Shatila massacres committed by the Israeli- supported Christian Phalangists against Palestinian refugees in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Back
5 William 0. Beeman, 'Images of the Great Satan: Representations of the United States in the Iranian Revolution', in Nikki R. Keddie (ed.), Religion and Politics in Iran: Shi'ism from Quietism to Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 216. Back
6 Emmanuel Sivan, 'Islamic Radicalism: Sunni and Shi'ite', in Emmanuel Sivan and Menachem Friedman (eds), Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East (New York State University of New York Press, 1990), pp. 39-75. Back
11 Nikki R. Keddie, 'Ideology, Society and the State in Post-Colonial Muslim Societies', in Fred Halliday and Hamza Alavi (eds) State and Ideology in the Middle East and Pakistan (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1988),p.10. Back
15 James Piscatori, 'Religion and Realpolitik: Islamic Responses to the Gulf War', in James Piscatori (ed.), Islamic Fundamentalisms and the Gulf Crisis, (Chicago: The American Academy of Arts and Sciences-The Fundamentalist Project, 1991), p. 1. Back
21 This is just one Qur'anic verse cited by Salih: 'Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks; at length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind (the captives) firmly Sura XLVII, vs. 4. Back
28 This doesn't mean that Islam as a belief system was contested. In fact, religion continued to dominate personal matters and social activities throughout Arab lands. However, the idea of an all-encompassing Islamic state lost its lustre, and was replaced by pan-Arabism. Back
33 It is on record that Arab states in the Gulf region have given considerable financial support to the Hamas and Jihad movements, especially since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. One reason for this was these governments' efforts to appease their own rising fundamentalist groups. For more on this, see Saqr Abu Fakhr, 'Hamas wa-l-Jihad: al-Quwatan al-Filastiniyyatan al-Mu'ajjalatan', in Hasan al-Sabi et al. (eds), Al-Harakat al- Islamiyya fi Filastin, (Beirut, Al-Markaz al-Arabi-li-I-Ma'lumat, 1996), p. 73; see also Clive Jones, 'Saudi Arabia After the Gulf War: The Internal- External Security Dilemma', International Relations, 12 (1995), p. 49. Back
34 It is ironic that Israel, wishing to weaken the Palestine Liberation Organization in the occupied territories, tolerated the rise of the Hamas movement. Its acquisition of large amounts of firearms, in view of Israel's exceptional security measures, invokes exclamation. Back
60 B. A. Roberson, 'Islam and Europe: An Enigma or Myth?', Middle East Journal, 48 (1994), p. 292. In general, legal pluralism refers to the four teachings of Sunnism (Hanbali, Maliki, Vanaft and Shafi'i and the Ja'fari teaching of Shi'ism. In recent years, the term has been extended to apply to the divisions among different fundamentalist groups concerning what method should be used to recreate the Islamic state. Back
62 John 0. Voll, 'Fundamentalism in the Sunni Arab World: Egypt and the Sudan', in Fundamentalisms Observed, Martin S. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (eds), Vol. 1, (Chicago: The University Press, 1991), p. 346. Back
Created by the Digital Documentation Center at AUB in collaboration with Al Mashriq of Høgskolen i Østfold, Norway.
981125 PN- Email: email@example.com