Islamic Fundamentalism and the United States’ Reaction
Section – Monday 1:15
Islamic fundamentalism has recently emerged as a potent force throughout several Muslim states across the globe. Engaged in a revealing power struggle with the ruling elites of the Arab world, Islamists have become the main source of political instability in many Middle Eastern and North African nations. While the threat of these movements has been portrayed as a consequence of their Islamic nature, their actual problematic characteristics concern insurgence. This seditious posture of fundamentalist groups is based on various political and social factors that are specific to their location within the vast Islamic world.
FUNDAMENTALISM AND CHRISTIAN ORIGINS
The term “Islamic fundamentalism” has become common in both the media and academia. However, it is a problematic comparative phrase, which promotes several cultural misconceptions. To understand the origin of the term “Islamic fundamentalism,” it is necessary to explore its contrasting basis in Christian fundamentalism. The term fundamentalism first gained notice in a series of pamphlets entitled “Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth”, published around 1910. It was at this time that Christian evangelical conservatives began to react to the ideologies of modernity. This group of conservatives dismissed modern interpretation of the bible and wanted people to start adhering to a set of core beliefs. These beliefs became known as the “five fundamentals”, and are the basis of Christian fundamentalism. These five fundamentals are the inerrancy of the bible, the virgin birth and deity of Christ, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the bodily second coming of Jesus Christ. It is these five beliefs that dictate the Christian fundamentalist view. An important early Christian fundamentalist was William Jennings Bryan, who was not only a three-time presidential candidate but also one of the most outspoken critics of the theory of evolution. He served as an instrumental prosecutor in the Scopes trial that forbade teaching evolution in school and brought to the forefront of society the fundamtelist movement. More modern fundamentalists include Hal Lindsey, Bob Jones, Sr. and more notably Jerry Falwell.
After gaining increasing amounts of support throughout the 50’s and 60’s, there are now an estimated 30 million Christian fundamentalists in the United States alone. Similar to the Mennonites, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals, the Christian fundamentalist follow a strict set of principals and beliefs that a prescribed by the Bible. They believe that the Bible is inspired by God and define their movement by its insistence on the inerrancy or infallibility of the scriptures. Christian fundamentals fervently dispel any modern analysis of the holy book because they see it as the “Word of God” and thus error free. Bruce Lawrence, writer of Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age, defines Fundamentalism as “antimodern but not antimodernist”, meaning that it rejects the philosophical rationalism that accompanies modernity, but at the same time it still takes advantage of the technological advances that define a modern age.
There are many different Christian fundamentalist bodies in the United States. The largest fundamentalist body is the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which boasts membership of over 16 million members as well as 42,000 churches across the country. Bob Jones University, founded in 1927, has remained one of the most conservative institutions in the U.S. and claims to have a fundamentalist archive of nearly 80,000 items. Other fundamentalist institutions include the Assemblies of God, General Association of Regular Baptists, and the Moody Bible Institute. These institutions are used to facilitate the teachings of ideals and ethics that fundamentalists hold true. Here people are taught the word of God as a literal translation from the Bible, without modernized contradictions.
Although there are many similarities to groups like Pentecostals and the Evangelicals, it is the Fundamentalists’ strong insistence on correct doctrine that divides them from the other similar movements. The Fundamentalists criticize the Evangelicals for their “lack of concern for doctrinal purity, for working cooperatively with other Christians, and for women in the ministry”. These claims may be broadly based but it shows the intensity with which the Fundamentalists carry out their mission. It is the “experimental emphasis” of the Pentecostals which clashes with the Fundamentalist strict interpretation of the Bible and assertion of separation. Although the intention of these groups is to follow the will of the Lord, it is obvious that the dedication of Christian fundamentalists, to the Bible, sets them apart from all others.
The plight of the Christian fundamentalist is like that of any other fundamentalist group. They oppose anyone who deviates from their religious policy. The main issues concerning the Fundamentalists are the teaching of evolution and creation in some states (Georgia schools still use a text that comes with a sticker labeling it as containing the “controversial theory of evolution”), and the legalization of abortion in Roe v Wade (Fundamentalist Christian). Many Fundamentalists believe that the public school system has been corrupted and as a result a large majority of Fundamentalist children are either home schooled or attend strict Christian institutions, such as the Moody Bible Institute. As for abortion, all Fundamentalists are strongly opposed but this is an area where Christians can be seen as “extremists”. These “extremists” use violence against the clinics, the doctors, their staff, and even the women who use the services (anti-abortion). One fundamentalist anti-abortion group is the Army of God who published “99 Covert Ways to Stop Abortion”. This anti-abortion literature is a guideline in eradicating abortion by any means necessary. While not all anti-abortionists are Christian fundamentalists many claim they are members of fundamentalist organizations (Blaker).
Another “extremist” who caused bloodshed under the guise of fundamentalism was Timothy McVay, the man responsible for the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal; building in Oklahoma City. McVay was heavily influenced by the Christian Identity movement which is widely acknowledged as a fundamentalist Christian group (Blaker). Many of the “extremists” work far outside the boundaries of strict fundamentalism and do not express the views of those who actually live and practice the word of God as in the Bible. If these “extremists” really were fundamentalists than they would not be compelled to act vehemently towards others but would show compassion and understanding as stressed by the Bible. It is more appropriate to label these people under a different title, such as radicals or fanatics, in order to not cloud the distinction between those who truly practice fundamentalism and others who use it as a shield to inflict harm on their fellow man.
CHRISTIAN AND ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISTS
There are some similarities and many distinctions that can be made between Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. The problem with making these distinctions involves the ambiguity of the word “fundamentalist”. If a person is a Muslim and identifies themselves as “fundamentalists”, they will have a much different view of themselves than a Christian who identifies himself as a fundamentalist. William Shepard argues that there are significant similarities and differences in the critical beliefs of both movements. Shepard begins his argument by stating that the two religions differ in scripturalism, and social and political orientation, but parallel each other in distinctiveness and views on modernity. He claims that the Islamic are different from Christians in that the Islamic interpretation of the Qur’an is viewed as the verbatim word of God beyond what the most extreme Christian would ever claim for the Bible. Shepard then contrasts the two views on social and political orientation. It is from the Qur’an that the Muslims can find comprehensive system for all areas of life including social, political, and economic life. By contrast, the Christian fundamentalist limits their scope to “public and private worship, personal ethics and possibly family law, leaving the rest of social life to be guided by secular ideologies such as nationalism or socialism.” However, Christian political involvement is not as clearly defined. There are many different degrees and types of political involvement that differ with Islam, such that Christians are also open to politically and morally likeminded people who adhere to other religions, whereas Islamic fundamentalists are not.
Shepard then begins to discuss the parallels between Christian and Islamic fundamentalism. He states there are few distinctions to be made between Islamic fundamentalists and Islamic “modernists”. While the former stress that Islam applies to all areas of life, the latter “modernists” tend to interpret social values based on ideals of the West. The incorporation of Western ideals gives Islam a more democratic face, but it is this look that keeps Islamic fundamentalists rejecting Western social terms. This is tangent to Christian views “in stressing not only the authority of the ChristianScriptures but also such doctrines as the deity of Christ and the substitutionary atonement, they are stressing those elements that most obviously distinguish Christianity (and in particular certain forms of Protestant Christianity) from other religions.” Any deviation from the doctrine, such as the Islamic “modernists”, constitutes a loss of identity and is therefore no longer considered as part of Christian fundamentalism. A person who accepts the Bible as the ultimate voice of God may seem like a Christian fundamentalist but if they do not practice everything set forth in the Bible they cannot be true fundamentalists.
The last similarity is the respective views on modernity. It is apparent that both fundamentalisms are modern in many ways. They both embrace modernity but at the same time they do not consider technological rationalization as the answer to modernity. These answers to modernity have to be found in the respective books of worship. As for the Christians, as well as the Muslims, ideas like evolution and creation cannot be explained by any modern science and technology but only through the word of their creator, as in the Bible and Qur’an.
Another likeness of these groups is misuse of the word “fundamentalism” as well as the extremists who label themselves as such. As can be seen daily in the media, Islamic fundamentalists are associated with terrorism and attacks on civilians as well as the government. These radicals are similar to the anti-abortionist Christians who create destruction in the name of the God. Although both factions create violence and destruction they differ on the frequency to carry out violent acts. Christian radicals do not appear as militant as Islamic radicals in that they have not carried out terrorist acts to the same degree as other militant fundamentalists. Karen Armstrong, author of The Battle for God, believes that Christian extremists are less violent because of the relatively peaceful land they live on, mainly the United States, and also they believe “with God on their side, US democracy will give way to a theocracy on its own” (Blaker). So while both groups have similar patterns of violence they may be no more alike than how the media portrays them.
Considering that it must be recognized that “the term ‘fundamentalism’ has an obvious Protestant origin denoting the literal yet creative interpretation of the Bible” (Choueiri), “political Islam” is a more accurate term as the primary concerns of these movements are temporal and political. They simply utilize the Qur’an, the sharia (Islamic law), the hadiths (reports about the words and deeds of Muhammad and his companions), and other scriptures to validate their extreme positions and actions. Islamist leaders and activists of today are “creatively deploying selected elements of the Islamic tradition, combined with ideas, techniques, and institutions of the present and recent past, to cope with specifically modern predicaments” (Barsalou). Such issues include political, social, economic, and cultural concerns that recently emerged in the Islamic world as a result of the “expansion of the world capitalist market, the formation of new territorial nation-states, the rise and decline of secular nationalist movements, the frustrations and failures of economic development, the reformation of gender relations” (Hitata). While such modern issues serve as the impetus for the formation of Islamist movements, these groups mask themselves under the appearance of being advocates of a glorious past.
Yet at the same time Islamists are unable to uncritically reject modernity. Rather they are attempting to control and regulate it by using their Islamic heritage as validation. The reality of the present situation is that “Many of the solutions political Islam offers have no specific historical precedent in Islamic tradition. The organizational and mobilizational forms of political Islam—high-speed international communications using faxes, cassette tapes, and posters—rely on modern technology” (Stork). Several movements are financially supported by wealthy individuals or regimes whose wealth depends on petroleum markets and other modern, international sources of capital. While political Islam is a relatively more precise term, it is still a broad characterization which identifies movements which themselves present contradictory ideology and practices. The terms, political Islam, Islamic fundamentalism, and Islamist have become interchangeable in current discourse, each offering particular advantages and disadvantages.
U.S. POLICY AND ISLAMISTS
Presently, the most visible and prominent movements of political Islam are characterized by insurgence. These movements either challenge existing regimes or disrupt the political order, which has, for the most part, served the interests of the United States. It is “This insurgent character, not their Islamic demeanor, underlies the generally adversarial relations between the United States and these movements” (Stork). With growing attention being drawn to U.S. interaction with political Islam, American policy spokespersons have “recently taken great pains to stress that the United States has no inherent differences with Islam, or even with regimes that identify themselves as Islamic. This is to a large extent true” (Pinto). U.S. policy concerning these extremist organizations can be characterized as instrumentalism. Such instrumentalism involves interacting with Islamist movements in a manner that is constructive to greater objectives. For example, fundamentalist regimes of Pakistan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia have been key strategic allies of the U.S. in their respective regions. The militant Islamist group in Sudan became viewed as an enemy primarily when it shifted its relations from the Saudis and associated itself with Iran, already a U.S. adversary. This evidence verifies the assertion that America opposes specifically radical extremists and not fundamentalists in general.
The United States simply monitored the Saudi funding of Islamic fundamentalists since the 1960s as this support promoted the interests of conservative figures like King Husain of Jordan while restraining radical nationalistic groups such as the Ba’th in Syria and Egypt’s ‘Abd al-Nasir. Likewise, the U.S. did not prohibit Egypt from encouraging the Muslim Brothers and other extremists to coordinate the suppression of leftists and nationalists. French scholar Olivier Roy writes that “[t]he notion of a radical opposition between fundamentalism and the West is typically French […] Americans have never seen Islamism as an ideological enemy. They have favored neoconservative fundamentalism […] in order to take the wind out of the radicals’ sail.” The United States position against political Islam has been constructed relatively recently which has allowed for more creativity under less scrutiny.
FILLING THE COLD WAR VOID
The timing and features of political Islam has allowed the United States to conveniently use these movements to facilitate related policy objectives. The self-reciprocating relationship between policy and perceptions has forced the U.S. to stray from it historically instrumentalist approach to political Islam. The fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War only exacerbated the situation. The United States government has advocated a consistent approach to fundamentalists over the past two decades by rhetorically acknowledging the diversity of Islamist political structures. Robert Pelletreau, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Easter Affairs during the Clinton administration, wisely distinguishes between such movements that “choose to participate in their countries’ electoral processes, hoping to affect change within existing political structure [and those that] have opted for the use of violence against existing governments, indigenous minorities, and foreigners.” While such public articulations by diplomats portray the situation in terms of this simple differentiation, the actual policy implementation concerning political Islam is far more complex and uncertain.
The 1980s brought about the end of the Cold War which left the U.S. as the lone world superpower. The absence of the Soviet Union forced the U.S. to find a new policy guide for the first time in decades. “Scanning the post-Cold War policy landscape, we find that the former focus of the instrumentalist approach, the Soviet Union, which served as a policy compass or gyroscope for three-quarters of a century, is no more. An instrumentalist orientation now must take its bearings from the impact of Islamist politics in particular societies and the consequences for U.S. interests in those countries” (Davidson). This political ideology is particularly appealing and convenient as virtually all political Islamist groups have established popular oppositional sentiment towards the United States.
Thus, the replacement for the Soviet Union in terms of policy and spending became the mysterious and menacing threat of Islamic fundamentalism. “Most Western representations stress the similarities—including a vociferous anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism—rather than the differences and rivalries among these different movements” (Choueriri). Analysis of U.S. policy and practices towards various Islamic nations and extremist movements reveals how America has utilized and distorted Islamic fundamentalism to accommodate a number of dissimilar political circumstances.
Islamic fundamentalism and the United States actions in Afghanistan have had major implications in the last few decades. In 1979, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in an effort to spread communism throughout Central Asia. By 1980, over one hundred thousand Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan and were assisted by the Soviet-backed Afghan government under President Babrak Karmal. Groups of rebel guerillas opposed these communist forces; these rebels called themselves the mujahidin (Muslim warriors) and invoked sentiments of a Holy War.
The United States saw the mujahidin not as a religious following but as a military instrument that could be used to combat the Soviet Union and the spread of communism. In order to achieve political objectives, the U.S. began a major covert aid program to fund and train the Afghan mujahidin, and “By 1983, the CIA was purchasing assault rifles, grenade launchers, mines, and SA-7 light antiaircraft weapons, totaling 10,000 tons, mainly from China” (Huang). Pakistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor, was conveniently a close ally of the U.S. at the time and was able to join efforts to assist the mujahidin. The United States shipped supplies and arms to Pakistan, as well as directives, while Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) would conduct the direct training and operations with the mujahidin in Afghanistan.
While the United States was significant resources were allocated to the mujahidin at this time, American involvement, though indirect, would be intensely amplified. In 1985, the Reagan Administration secretly decided to increase covert aid to the rebel Afghan forces. This marked a turning point in the unrelenting war, as the CIA began to supply an extensive array of intelligence, military expertise and advanced weapons to the mujahidin:
They included satellite reconnaissance data of Soviet targets in Afghanistan; Soviet plans for military operations based on satellite intelligence and intercepts of Soviet communications; covert communication technology for the rebels; detonating devices for tons of C-4 explosives for urban targets; long-range sniper rifles; a targeting system linked to a U.S. Navy satellite; and wire-guided anti-tank missiles. Furthermore, amidst intensifying debate within the CIA over the extent of U.S. involvement in the war, Reagan made the decision to equip the mujahidin with sophisticated U.S.-made Stinger antiaircraft missiles. American-trained Pakistani officers were sent to Afghanistan to set up a secret mujahidin Stinger training facility, which was complete with a U.S.-made electronic simulator. By 1987, the CIA was sending a steady supply of 65,000 tons of arms to the mujahidin. In all, the United States provided over $2 billion in weapons and money to seven Islamic mujahidin factions in the 1980s, making this last Cold War battle the largest covert action program since World War II.
Such extreme tactics by the United would prove to be successful. By 1988, the Soviets, under President Mikhail Gorbachev, withdrew from Afghanistan. Although the mujahidin won their war, the Afghan government was still controlled by a communist—Mohammad Najibullah (replaced Karmal in 1986). The mujahidin forces eventually overthrew Najibullah in 1992 when they captured the capital of Kabul. The multiple factions of the mujahidin, however, were unable to unite and thus Afghanistan was then lead into a civil war.
The mujahidin in Afghanistan had come a long way from 1978 to 1992. They were able to significantly change from an insignificant group of Islamist fighters desperate to protect their homeland to a formidable, though disunited, military force. However, this progress has been overshadowed by negativity as since 1992, when communist Kabul was taken by the mujahidin, the disorder and division among the mujahidin, and throughout Afghanistan, has become inescapable. The country and its civilians have been the primary victims of the mujahidin’s constant fighting among its own factions and has “destroyed urban areas, especially Kabul, broken down normal trade and agriculture, and diminished the luster once attached to the term ‘holy warrior.’” (Magnus) While the Afghan mujahidin were lauded for their miraculous (though, at the time, covertly and drastically aided) victory over the invasive, communist Soviets and considerably impacted and inspired other Islamist movements around the globe, their inability to unite and organize resulted in their eventual demise.
Thus a new brand of Afghan fighters would emerge by 1994 and seize the attention and control of the country. Known as the Taliban, these radical Islamists were indoctrinated by the extreme, militant beliefs of the refugee orphanages and schools in Pakistan. “To distinguish themselves from the previous generation of religious fighters, they apply to themselves the term taliban, meaning students in general but more specifically students of Islamic religious schools. It may well be that the Taliban represent not only Pakistani attempts to pacify Afghanistan but also a synthesis of the Islamists and traditional Islamic goals that has been tentatively called neofundamentalism.” (Magnus) Many members of the Taliban had actually been trained by the CIA-supported mujahidin forces, including the most prominent Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. The Taliban were able to take advantage of a time when military and political division was at its height and in 1996 they captured Kabul to assert themselves as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. The Taliban made promises of peace and progress, which appealed to several Afghans and caused many more trained mujahidin fighters to join the movement. These promises, however, proved to be false as the armed and zealous Taliban intensified violence to display their Islamic extremism. “The training grounds that the CIA maintained and operated during the anti-Soviet war soon became camps and safe havens for militant terrorists, among whom was Osama bin Laden. Indeed, when the U.S. launched cruise missile attacks at a camp near Khost in 1998, it was discovered that the training camps were being occupied by Pakistani military intelligence to train the Harakat-ul-Ansar, an Islamic guerrilla organization identified as a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department.” (Newberg, Huang)
In addition, the Afghan people under the Taliban rule were subjected to overly stringent enforcement of Islamic laws that have been widely determined by other countries to be violations of human rights. The United States, several other countries, and the United Nations had all removed their interests in Afghanistan when the oppressive nature of the Taliban was eventually noticed. While the U.S. had provided the country with immense funding and political assistance during its war against the Soviets, America virtually abandoned Afghanistan after Soviet withdrawal in 1988. Without assistance to reorganize their government, establish leadership, ensure economic stability, or foster foreign relations, Afghanistan was considerably susceptible to the rule of such extreme and violent forces such as the Taliban. The events in Afghanistan would ironically and tragically affect the United States through the attacks of September 11, 2001 as terrorist regimes harbored in Afghanistan under Taliban rule have been confirmed as the organizers of those acts.
In response, the United States and its allies used military force to end the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. The United States has learned from the past and is now prepared to maintain commitment to the rebuilding of Afghanistan and see that democracy and peace are established in the tumultuous country.
Indonesia has been an increasingly important stronghold for Islamic fundamentalists in recent history. Indonesia is not only a crucial location for fundamentalists to develop their movement but it is also the target of many terrorist attacks. In the months following September 11 terrorist attacks by fundamentals was a daily crisis for Indonesia. On Christmas Eve of 2001 as well as many times in July of 2002, Indonesia was the stage of a series of bomb attacks on churches, shopping malls, and crowded streets. These attacks intensified after the U.S. attack on Afghanistan and bombings became a regular occurrence. The Laskar Jihad is a fundamentalist group that has been linked to many of the attacks on Indonesia. The aim of this organization “is to recruit fighters and collect money to support the Holy War against the Christians in the Moluccas” (Boon). Their leader is Jaffar Umar Thalib, who trained by being a mujahideen fighter in Afghanistan (Boon). In 1999 and in 2000 the mujahideen network, made up of former fighters such as Jaffar Umar Thalib as well others from Chechnya, Kashmir, the southern Philippines, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, met in Malaysia to discuss future of their fundamentalist network. They concluded that Indonesia was ideal location to carry forward their movement because they felt it was the best country in terms of looseness, corruption, and instability (Boon).
Indonesia is now the largest Muslim country in the world. Of the 206 million people residing in Indonesia 95% are Muslim (CIA). With such a large population of Muslims it is a large interest of the United States to ensure that Islamic fundamentalists do not seize control of the state. Of the entire Muslim population in the world, there is an estimated 10%-15% that are believed to be fundamentalist in the sense of extremist actions (Tolin). This figure is believed to be much higher in predominantly Muslim populated states such as Indonesia. This dense Muslim population has led many fundamentalist groups to seek a unified Muslim state. The Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) is a fundamentalist group aimed at setting up a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia, (Behrend). The leader of this movement, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, had been suspected of connections to terrorist activities both in the U.S. as well as in the Middle East. When United States officials tried to pressure the Indonesian government to take action against the JI and their leader Ba’asyir, the Indonesian government declined stating that “was no basis in Indonesian law to act on these requests,” (Behrend). It wasn’t until the attacks on Kuta nightclubs that the Indonesian government first realized that Ba’asyir may be a threat. Ba’asyir is not the only Islamic fundamentalist who sought refuge in Indonesia. Reports were made that Osama Bin Laden may have sought asylum or planned on seeking asylum in the rebellious province of Aceh (Boon). This shielding of Islamic fundamentalists by Indonesia is the reason why fundamentalists view it as a haven for terrorist activity and hatred.
At first, the United States supported fundamentalism as a force against the socialist regimes of the past, but now that fundamentalists do not want to follow in any U.S. type rule they are forced to change policy. With over 197 million Muslims living in Indonesia it is not surprising that the United States fervently tries to maintain stability within the state. With increasing numbers of Muslims seeking refuge in the region coupled with the soft policies of the Indonesian government, the United States has increased its aid and support to Indonesia over the past decade. In a meeting in 2002 with Indonesian President Megawati, President Bush promised Indonesia a restoration of military aid and a total of $647 million in financial aid (Boon). He then lifted the embargo on “commercial sales of non-lethal defence equipment to Indonesia,” (Boon). The aim of U.S. support is not to eradicate Muslim thought or implement strict democracy (Indonesia is already a democratic nation), but to “strengthen the state apparatus as well as indoctrinating the masses,” (Behrend). Bush wants to increase civilian participation in defense and national security by increasing spending on educating Indonesian citizens on defense matters. Bush also plans on lending $10 million to help train the Indonesian police force in order to strengthen their law enforcement capabilities. Finally Bush has promised to work with Congress in order to secure at least $130 million for spending on Indonesia’s legal and judicial reform (Boon). As far as social spending on behalf of the United States it’s obvious that reformation of the police force and judicial system are they main objectives, since social aid for refugees was a paltry $17 million (Boon).
Indonesia is a pivotal region in terms of fundamentalists and extremists. With many seeking refuge from international prosecution there is a need for a more stable government that is willing to work with a world view of anti-terrorism. This is the justification used by the United States in helping reform Indonesia into a more steady state.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was another landmark event for the United States concerning political Islam. This event involved a fundamentalist group led by Khomeini which violently seized state power from the U.S.-supported Shah. Yet even the hostility demonstrated by the U.S. against Iran’s fundamentalist movement has been mitigated by instrumentalism as America has used Iran as a pawn against Soviet communism. In 1983, the CIA gave Khomeini an extensive list of Iranian government workers that were known to participate in communist affairs. The official Tower Commission inquiry into the Iran-contra scandal observed that “Using this information, the Khomeini government took measures, including mass executions, that virtually eliminated the pro-Soviet infrastructure in Iran” (Ehteshami, Sidahmed). The U.S. supported Iraq in its war with Iran, yet was concerned that the Soviet Union would benefit from the collapse of Khomeini’s regime. Thus the Reagan administration collaborated with Israel later to coordinate the arms shipments that spawned the Iran-contra affair. Similar to other U.S. interactions with Islamic fundamentalism, the Iranian revolution involved considerable secrecy (as well as possible misconduct).
With the Shah being ousted in Iran, the U.S. lost its primary regional ally and military surrogate in the Persian Gulf. From its beginning, this conflict also possessed an inherent anti-American sentiment as the U.S. was instrumental in establishing and sustaining the Shah’s power since 1953. Popular perceptions were also polarized in both America and Iran when the U.S. embassy was seized. “President Jimmy Carter’s public dismissal of the events of 1953 as ‘ancient history’ captured this polarization on the American side” (Pipes). This polarization has since been amplified by similar media and government influence.
In addition to the divisive nature of the conflict, the Iranian Revolution also seemed to inspire militant Islamist insurgence throughout the globe. The capture of the grand mosque in Mecca by Islamic extremists in Saudi Arabia was the first of such rebellions beyond Iran. Conflict in Afghanistan as well as the assassination of Egyptian leader Anwar al-Sadat also concerned U.S. officials of a growing trend.
Also, the war in Iran actually had an extremely short effect on the world oil market, however, it was “popularly associated with the oil embargo triggered by the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the enormous increase in oil prices that accompanied the embargo” (Davidson). It was irrelevant to the public that Iran was not an Arab country; negative perceptions were based on Iran being a “Muslim Middle Eastern country that had visibly profited from the increase in oil revenues.” These perceptions were further complicated as conservative American political forces involved the Soviet Union and Cold War sentiments into this episode:
Part of this campaign to scuttle détente with the Soviet Union and increase US military spending involved portraying the United States and its one reliable ally in the region. Israel, as beset by an Arab-Soviet axis, the Arab component threatening Israel and gouging the wallets of ordinary Americans while the Soviet Union exploited détente to expand its global power.
By distorting the events in Iran to fit the established perceptual framework of the Cold War, the American right was able to characterize political Islam as an adversary in a way that was convenient for the public to comprehend.
In fact, it only seemed appropriate to associate Islam with communism as Muslims already had a history of playing an adversarial role. The historical bases of the Crusades and Christian-Muslim rivalry in Europe, along with modern confrontations with militant American Black Muslims and the constant conflict between Israel and its hostile Islamic neighbors, have all been responsible for crystallization of negative American attitudes towards Islam, and extreme Islam in particular. The Iranian Revolution simply provided another opportunity to simultaneously reinforce and take advantage of these public perceptions.
The Islamist ideology that concealed this Iranian radical opposition was a secondary factor as the true issue concerning the U.S. was not Islam, but Iran. Rather Iran’s posture was conducive to a policy of confrontation and containment that was merely incidentally related to its Islamic nature. By the 1980s, the images and attitudes of fundamentalist movements established by the Iranian conflict allowed the U.S. to apply this vague Islamist label to several disparate regions.
Islam was first introduced into the Philippines in the 14th century by Arab merchants and Islamic missionaries (Gov.ph). At first Islam dominated the coastal regions and spread quickly throughout the land. It wasn’t until the appearance of Christianity in the early 16th century that Islam began to take a backseat in religious life (Gov.ph). While only an estimate 5%-6% of the total population is Muslim the desire for a pure Muslim state is on minds of many citizens. This desire stems from long resistances to Spanish and American Colonialism and a want for a separatist Muslim movement.
Muslim fundamentalists are less like others in different Muslim states because they have an element of nationalism in their strife. They will fight for their country almost as much as they will for their beliefs. The four chief organizations are the Moro National Libertarian Front (MNLF), Moro Islamic Libertarian Front (MILF), Abu Sayyaf, and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). The core group in the beginning was the MNLF, off which the MILF and Abu Sayyaf split (Gershman). These groups gained power after an explosion of violence in 1969-1971 when the President Ferdinand Marcos declared marshal law (Gershman). These separatists’ movements fought the Philippine army until the negotiation of the Tripoli Agreement that granted a cease-fire (Gershman). It was in 1996 when the MNLF entered the political arena and tried to create a peace agreement with the government as well as the other separatist groups. However, the Abu Sayyaf did not agree with the terms because these they wanted an Islamic state based on Islamic law in the Southern Philippines (Gershman). This idea did not receive much political support and was therefore not included in the peace agreement. The Abu Sayyaf has since split from the other Muslim nationalist groups and continually terrorizes the country with bombings and kidnappings.
Due in part to the role the U.S. had in colonizing the Philippines, they have continually given support to the country. Today, however, the U.S. views the Philippines as an ally of defense and continues to aid in their struggle to manage the Abu Sayyaf. This is why primarily the aid from the United States comes in the form of defense spending. There has been a steady increase, over the last few years, in defense aid from $4 million in 1999 to $14 million in 2002 (Gershman). Also, the U.S. government has authorized a team of civilian and military officials to go to the Philippines and help train soldiers. This type of spending, although on a smaller scale, is similar to the aid given to countries such as Indonesia. It may be apparent that they are trying to stop the radicals but without the help from outside sources these countries may have soon be overtaken by extremists.
REGIONAL U.S. POLICY COMPARISON
United States policy and rhetoric towards political Islam varies greatly depending on the specific circumstances of the region involved. It can be verified that U.S. policy and its public expression becomes “more nuanced and situationally specific with increasing distance from the Persian Gulf” (Davidson). This fact is evident when exploring U.S. interaction with Algeria, Tunisia, and Palestine.
The U.S. treats Algeria with contradictory measures by reprimanding violence against radical groups, yet taking no concrete action to achieve this. In November 1994, Assistant Secretary of State Pelletreau asserted that a solution to Algeria’s political crisis “lies not in a strategy of repression, but one of inclusion and reconciliation,” and expressed concern over “the growing influence of hardliners in the military leadership who reject compromise with the opposition and intend to step up efforts to crush the armed insurgency by force.” He claims that the U.S. government has “repeatedly stressed to Algerian leaders at the highest levels the need for concrete steps to establish dialogue with opposition elements—secular and Islamist—willing to work towards a non-violent solution.” While the U.S. is quick to publicly advocate such a position in favor of peaceful compromise between the Algerian government and radical opposition, it refrains from any concrete action against the Algeria in terms of sanctions or proposals to the United Nations or International Monetary Fund.
The U.S. is more concerned with the ends of repressing extremist power in Algeria than it is with prohibiting the violent means of such repression. A similar position was taken in January 1992 when the U.S. did not interfere as the Algerian military cancelled elections that would have most probably given power to the radical Islamic Salvation Front. Former Secretary of State James Barker recently acknowledged that “[w]hen I was at the State Department, we pursued a policy of excluding the radical fundamentalists in Algeria, even though we recognized that this was somewhat at odds with our support of democracy.” These events with Algeria illustrate the primary American objective of maintaining the political stability of governments that cooperate with the U.S., even if such efforts clash with other American ideology.
This former U.S. policy toward Algeria is similar to the policy later implemented in its neighbor Tunisia. Here the regime of Zayn al-‘Abidin Ben ‘Ali had successfully suppressed all Islamist and secular forms of political opposition at the expense of intense violence and human rights violations. While such unlawful methods of establishing stability would regularly warrant U.S. reprimand or interference, Tunisia actually received praise for its participation in the Arab-Israeli “peace process” and its “GDP growth in excess of 5 percent per year for the past five years,” with only the faintest plea for “a corresponding openness in the political system together with greater emphasis on human rights” (Ehteshami, Sidahmed). Once again, according to U.S. interests, the end justifies the means in distant political arenas.
American policy regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict represents an entirely different ideology that becomes far more complex due to the numerous opposing factors that must be resolved. While the U.S. promotes a line of pacifism and inclusion in Algeria and Tunisia, it has openly supported an Israeli policy of eradication concerning Palestine. Yet the U.S. has been careful to avoid acknowledging the Israeli government’s support of Palestinian Islamist forces as a counterbalance to the secularist Palestine Liberation Organization. Rather, “Washington has not restrained, even rhetorically, Israel’s subsequent efforts to wipe out those same Islamist forces. The label of terrorist, once reserved for the PLO, is now deployed against Hamas and Hizb Allah, even when they target not civilians but troops and armored patrols” (Lee). Rhetorical strategies utilizing the threat of “Islamic fundamentalism” and “terrorism” have been a major feature of U.S. policy in Israel. Such methods allow America to remain removed from this conflict yet still assert strong positions in support of Israel by condemning these inaccurately labeled groups.
Israel has chosen to justify its actions by almost glorifying itself, promoting the country as an advocate of Western civilization that must constantly confront the threat of a potent Islamist force. In December 1992, soon after Israel expelled over four hundred alleged Hamas activists across the Lebanese border, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told The Knesset that Israel was “stand[ing] first today in the line of fire against extremist Islam” (Hitata). During the subsequent weeks and months, Israel and Israeli supporters in America “peppered U.S. media with provocative but typically unverifiable sketches of Hamas funding networks and ‘command centers’ in the United States, inferring that Israel’s policies of expulsion, mass arrests, house demolitions, and extrajudicial killings were also defending America” (Pipes). Such popular manipulation in turn supported U.S. involvement with the Israeli conflict.
While Israel and its U.S. supporters have explicitly promoted the view that Islamic fundamentalism is a major adversary of the U.S., this mutually self-serving and self-reinforcing exercise in threat construction finds many influential proponents in U.S. policy circles as well. The February 1993 Joint Chiefs of Staff report on “Roles, Missions, and Functions of the Armed Forces of the US,” for instance, observes that “[i]n the Middle East and Southwest Asia radical political Islam and a politically and militarily resurgent Iran threaten regional stability and directly challenge a number of US interests, including access to Gulf oil, political reform, democratic development and settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute.” The domestic basis of this ideology is the American desire to preserve the institutions, privileges, and circuits of military capital present during the Cold War era. Political Islam thus serves as the new “evil empire” for the powerful conservative U.S. interests urging high military spending. Also, Islamic fundamentalism resonates with pervasive negative attitudes of the American public formed by historic rivalry, domestic discomfort, xenophobia, and terrorism. Ultimately, by promoting the Islamist threat the U.S. justifies its growing military presence in the Persian Gulf and other crucial Muslim regions. (Stork)
PRESENT CRITICAL JUNCTURE
The September 11th terrorist attacks against America have only amplified the negative perceptions of Islamic fundamentalist and intensified the U.S. relationship with political Islam. As stringent Islamist groups, particularly the Taliban of Afghanistan, were linked to these events, fundamentalism has become virtually synonymous with terrorism. Major U.S. military strikes against Iraq and Afghanistan have also been attributed to the eradication of similar militant Muslim regimes. While the U.S. interaction with political Islam has heightened over the last two years, the ultimate goal remains the same: political stability and occupancy of the Middle East to protect American interests. While recent occurrences involving Islamic terrorists have reinforced the stigma of fundamentalism, increased globalization and awareness of the Muslim world has actually begun to clarify Western misconceptions of Islamist movements. Elevated media attention has allowed the public to gain the exposure to Islam that is necessary for developing an accurate understanding of a foreign culture.
As American relationships with Muslim nations become increasingly vital, the U.S. must realize that vague generalizations and careless characterizations, promoted by the use of misleading terms such as “fundamentalism,” can no longer be tolerated. While U.S. policy has for the most part been responsible and sensible, its articulations and rhetorical stances have not. The time has come for the U.S. to openly express what it has recognized and acted upon for the past two decades: that the true identity of political Islam is uncertain and undefined, varying across the different regions of the Muslim world due to distinct political and social factors. This would allow the American public to realize that Islamic fundamentalism is merely a meaningless guise concealing the reality of disparate Muslim regimes that must be assessed and dealt with according to their specific political circumstances.
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