Fundamentalism in Conflict
Mideast experts at the University of Maine look at the undercurrents
of unrest and prospects for peace
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"If you want to defeat terrorism, you need to dilute the rage that
fuels it. The United States, Israel and the governments of
predominately Muslim countries of the world have a common interest
in demonstrating to all Muslims that political moderation is not
futile and that terrorism is." — Henry Munson
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The United States again has the might
of its military focused on the Middle East, this time on the premise of
eliminating weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When added to the
ongoing tensions in the region, such intervention makes the prospects
for peace in the Middle East seem distant, if not intangible.
Rather than a single dictator or weapons cache, the region's
long-standing conflicts should be of concern to the American government,
say two University of Maine professors with expertise on the region. The
focus should be on the misery, despair and rage felt by many of the 200
million people who live in the Middle East. Such feelings give rise to
militant fundamentalism, or extremism, which frequently advocates
violence to achieve its goals. A primary goal of fundamentalist groups
is ending foreign domination, most often by the United States.
"In the Middle East, misery, despair, a sense of hopelessness and
impotence fuel fundamentalism. The frustration is fed by the fact
that much of the Muslim world is plagued by serious social and
economic problems, is ruled by corrupt and undemocratic regimes, and
is held in contempt by many in the West." — Alexander Grab
Despite the downfall of the Taliban in
Afghanistan and the dispersion of al Qaeda — the terrorist network
behind the Sept. 11 attacks — fundamentalist groups are alive and well
in the Middle East, says Henry Munson, chair of the UMaine Anthropology
Department, who has written three books on Islam. There is a tendency to
dismiss fundamentalists as "bigoted, hateful extremists" ready to shed
blood based on religious ideals, Munson says. However, the militant
Islamic groups — while they are indeed bigoted, hateful and xenophobic —
appeal to a broader swath of people who are angered by America's
dominance in Middle Eastern affairs and its perceived pro-Israel bias.
These groups articulate a rage that is felt by many Middle Eastern
Muslims with no sympathy for Islamic extremism per se, the professors
"I don't believe there is a cultural war between Islam and the West,"
says University of Maine Professor of History Alexander Grab. Most
Muslims, including several million who live in the United States, are
not fundamentalists and reject extremism.
However, in the Middle East, misery, despair, a sense of hopelessness
and impotence fuel fundamentalism. The frustration is fed by the fact
that much of the Muslim world is plagued by serious social and economic
problems, is ruled by corrupt and undemocratic regimes, and is held in
contempt by many in the West, Grab says.
ENDING ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT ESSENTIAL
An important part of the appeal of fundamentalist movements is their
strong opposition to intervention by and influence of foreign powers,
especially the United States. Fundamentalists denounce the ties between
Muslim regimes in countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and the U.S.
They are especially upset by the American military presence in these
While the U.S. has not created Islamic fundamentalism, its imperialist
policies and military presence have helped to galvanize that movement,
Further intensifying anti-American sentiments in the Middle East is the
United States' unequivocal support for Israel in its long- simmering
conflict with the Palestinians. "This conflict exemplifies more than
anything Arab impotence and frustration with U.S. policies," says Grab.
"Peace and stability will not be achieved in the Middle East as long as
this dispute remains unsolved."
Grab, who was born and grew up in Israel, and maintains dual
U.S.-Israeli citizenship, has been an outspoken critic of that country's
35-year occupation of the Palestinian territories. He is particularly
critical of the Israeli settlement policy, which has established nearly
200 settlements with a population of 400,000 inhabitants on Palestinian
land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The absence of a peaceful solution has been disastrous for both the
Palestinians and Israelis, says Grab, who spent a month in Israel
earlier this year. Normal daily life for most Palestinians has become
nearly impossible with Israeli roadblocks that impede their free
movement, leading to rampant unemployment. Long curfews, massive arrests
and destruction of property by the Israeli army also are commonplace.
These desperate conditions have pushed young Palestinians to carry out
numerous terrorist attacks in Israeli cities, murdering hundreds of
Israeli civilians and causing much insecurity in Israel.
Israelis pay a heavy price in other ways as well. Ongoing violence has
had adverse effects on the Israeli economy; tourism has plummeted and
unemployment has been rising. Considerable amounts of money are invested
in defending the settlements, leaving various programs in Israel without
sufficient resources. The trampling of Palestinians' human rights
corrupts Israeli society and undermines Israeli democracy, says Grab.
While the American government has officially opposed the Israeli
settlement policy, the U.S. has continued to support Israel
economically, militarily and politically. Israel receives $3 billion
annually, making it the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid for the
last 30 years.
For its part, Israel has been a staunch American ally, and has fully
cooperated with and supported U.S. policies in the Middle East and other
parts of the world. Clearly, the U.S. government has determined American
interests in the Middle East will be better served by maintaining a
powerful Israel rather than by helping Palestinians achieve their goals,
Arab regimes also say they support the Palestinian cause but, in
practice, do next to nothing to help them, he adds. Many Arabs despise
their governments' inaction and corruption. Many also resent the double
standard of U.S. policies, namely supporting Israel despite its long
occupation of Palestinian lands while moving fast to dislodge Saddam
Hussein's forces from Kuwait in the Gulf War in 1991.
In the current conflict with Iraq, Grab does not believe that Saddam
Hussein's brutal dictatorship or possession of weapons of mass
destruction sparked American plans to invade Iraq and change its
"Let's not forget that in the 1980s, the U.S. supported Saddam despite
his brutality and use of gas, which killed thousands of Kurds," he says.
"Then, however, Saddam was fighting against Iran, which was viewed by
the American administration as a major threat to American hegemony in
the Gulf area. When, in 1990, Saddam attacked Kuwait, a major U.S. ally,
President (George H.) Bush denounced him as a Hitler and mobilized a
huge coalition against him."
In Grab's opinion, what recently motivated the George W. Bush
administration to prepare to invade Iraq was the wish to control huge
oil reserves. Only Saudi Arabia possesses larger oil resources than
Iraq. Moreover, by establishing a pro-American regime in Baghdad, the
Bush administration aims at strengthening U.S. control over the Middle
East. Finally, focusing on Iraq also distracts the American public from
discussing economic problems, rising unemployment, and stock market
scandals in the United States.
American leaders speak frequently about the U.S. as the leader of the
free world and about the need to spread democracy and justice. Indeed,
Grab says, the U.S. should pursue those ideals in the Middle East and
stop viewing the region simply as a source of cheap oil.
The U.S. should also cease its support — including arms sales — for
corrupt dictators, remove its military bases in the region, support
democratic movements, and work hard to bring about a peace agreement
between Israelis and Palestinians. By pursuing such policies, the U.S.
will gain much respect and admiration in that part of the world.
AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY MUST ADDRESS THE RAGE
Henry Munson's anthropological perspective on American foreign policy
differs somewhat from historian Grab's. He says it is perfectly natural
for the United States to be concerned with maintaining the flow of oil
from the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world. Munson does not accept
the argument that American foreign policy toward Iraq is based primarily
on the desire to control the country's oil supply, although he concedes
that many Middle Eastern Muslims believe this. He argues that the Bush
administration's policy toward Iraq is based primarily on concerns about
Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction.
However, Munson does agree with Grab that resolving the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict is essential to peace in the region. He
also agrees that the perception that the United States does not care
about Arab or Muslim interests drives some to support militant Islamic
"The Israeli-Palestinian conflict crystallizes the sense of
hopelessness, despair, impotence and frustration that America can do
anything it wants to do and that the Arabs can do nothing about it,"
says Munson. "We need to dilute the despair and the rage that fuel
fundamentalism and terrorism in the Middle East."
Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a step in this direction.
Munson notes that American commitment to Israel's security is a
non-negotiable pillar of American policy, but enabling the Palestinians
to create a viable state in which they can live their lives with dignity
and security will, in fact, enhance rather than undermine Israel's
Munson contends that the U.S. must strengthen the moderates in the
Middle East so as to weaken the extremists. He suggests that American
foreign policy often has had precisely the opposite effect.
"Making people's lives unlivable," he says, "is not an especially
effective way of making them embrace moderation over militancy."
Helping moderates does not mean installing handpicked governments loyal
to American wishes, Munson warns. Such actions are widely viewed as
imperialist. While many in the Middle East despise their brutal
governments, this doesn't mean they would support foreigners
overthrowing these regimes.
The same thing could happen in Iraq. While it is important to ensure
Saddam Hussein has not obtained nuclear weapons, a regime change raises
"Replacing Saddam Hussein with an American-controlled regime runs the
risk of stirring up tremendous nationalistic resentment," Munson says,
and it could be only a matter of time before terrorist attacks against
U.S. forces begin.
He harkens to the Shi'ites of southern Lebanon who initially welcomed
Israeli forces in 1982. But the welcome turned to rage when the Israeli
army rounded up Shi'ite men, took over homes and disrupted a major
religious holiday. Frustrated Shi'ites coalesced into the Hezbollah
movement and the Israeli occupation engendered a far more lethal
terrorism than the terrorism it was intended to eliminate.
Munson also points out that it was the presence of American troops in
Saudi Arabia that triggered Osama bin Laden's campaign of terror against
the United States. As a rule, people do not like to see their countries
occupied by foreign forces, he says. If they cannot fight the foreign
occupiers by conventional military means, they often resort to terror.
In addition to being more sensitive to nationalistic sentiments, the
U.S. should focus more on economic development. Jobs and economic
opportunities are critical in a region where the population is growing
and vast numbers of young people are not employed.
Munson acknowledges that many terrorists come from well-to-do families
and are motivated more by resentment of foreign domination than by
poverty. However, economic stagnation in the Middle East creates a
volatile situation that extremists can exploit.
As for the United State's changing allegiances in the region, they make
sense given the historical context, Munson says. It made sense to
support Saddam Hussein in his fight against the revolutionary regime in
Iran. It also made sense to support the mujahideen in Afghanistan as
they tried to oust the Russian occupiers.
The problem came when the United States prematurely left Afghanistan
before the country and its government were rebuilt.
Munson says that many Muslims contend that the difference between
American policy toward Iraq and North Korea is based on American
hostility toward Islam and indifference to Muslim deaths. This stance
overlooks the fact that North Korea may already have nuclear weapons,
whereas Iraq does not.
American policy in the Middle East should focus less on military force
and more on addressing the grievances that induce Muslims to support
extremists. "If you want to defeat terrorism, you need to dilute the
rage that fuels it," Munson says.
"The United States, Israel and the governments of predominantly Muslim
countries of the world have a common interest in demonstrating to all
Muslims that political moderation is not futile and that terrorism is."
by Susan Young
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.