Rethinking Islamic Fundamentalism
What we must understand
In September 1979, seven months after his
triumphant return to Iran to take the reigns of power from the deposed
shah, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called on Muslim pilgrims to Mecca
to "return to Islam."
"My Muslim brothers and sisters! You are aware that
the superpowers of East and West are plundering all our material and
other resources, and have placed us in a situation of political,
economic, cultural, and military dependence. Come to your senses;
rediscover your Islamic identity! Endure oppression no longer, and
vigilantly expose the criminal plans of the international bandits,
headed by America!"
It wasn't the first time that the West, or the
United States in particular, was vilified as an evil imperialist.
Throughout the 20th century, the undertones of nationalism and
fundamentalism have reverberated in the Arab world, where history has
been punctuated by foreign domination.
Today, Hamas in Palestine articulates nationalistic resentment of
foreign domination, as do other militant Islamic fundamentalists
elsewhere. Long before the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Osama
bin Laden was speaking out against what he saw as puppet regimes in the
Mideast supported by the West and lamenting the presence of American
forces in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, telling reporter Robert Fisk
in 1996 that "our country has become an American colony."
That year, bin Laden declared a jihad in the name of
Allah "to expel the occupying enemy from the country of the two holy
places," referring to his Saudi homeland.
Around the world, foreign policy experts and
scholars on the Middle East such as anthropologist Henry Munson, a
leading authority on Islamic fundamentalism, were all too familiar with
the rhetoric. In his 1988 book Islam and Revolution in the Middle
East, Munson observed that "unless American foreign policy becomes
more sensitive to the nationalist aspirations of third world peoples, it
will continue to strengthen the very forces it is designed to oppose."
Why has American foreign policy in the Middle East
failed? Part of the answer, says Munson, is the failure to understand
people who do not see the world as it is seen by most Americans. This,
in turn, is related to the failure to situate current events in their
broader historical context. American policymakers often have failed to
understand that the angry rhetoric reverberating in the Muslim world is
rooted not just in religion, but also in nationalistic and social
"We must understand how the other side thinks," says
Munson. "And that's not just an esoteric, anthropological, ivory tower
view, but a fundamental point in understanding international affairs.
Foreign policy is not just about natural resources or missiles, it's
about having a sense of others and why they do what they do. If we don't
understand others, we can't respond appropriately," a point that Sun
Tzu's The Art of War eloquently made more than 2,500 years ago.
Munson argues that fighting people whose motives one does not
understand is like fighting blindfolded. That's what we are doing in
Iraq, he says.
Munson emphasizes that it is a mistake to assume
that political movements have only one cause or distinctive feature. He
has argued in a series of recent articles that militant Islamic
movements definitely do have a fundamentalist dimension. They insist on
strict conformity to a sacred text and require that all aspects of life,
including the social and political, should conform to sacred scriptures
believed to be inerrant and immutable. But Islamic fundamentalism
usually also has a nationalist and anti-imperialist dimension. For many
Muslim fundamentalists, militant Islam is to some extent a means to an
end — overcoming foreign domination.
In the Quran, as well as in the minds of many
traditional Muslims today, there is but one explanation for the
subjugation of the believer by the unbeliever: God is using the latter
to punish the former for his sins, including deviating from his laws,
Munson says. Only a return to a strictly Islamic way of life will induce
God to free the faithful from the faithless. A return to Islam is thus
linked to overcoming foreign domination and a return to cultural
identity. In 1972, the Ayatollah Khomeini told followers:
If the Muslim states and peoples had relied on Islam
and its inherent capabilities and powers instead of depending on the
East (the Soviet Union) and the West, and if they had placed the
enlightened and liberating precepts of the Quran before their eyes and
put them into practice, then they would not today be captive slaves of
the Zionist aggressors, terrified victims of the American Phantoms, and
toys in the hands of the accommodating policies of the satanic Soviet
Union. It is the disregard of the noble Quran by the Islamic countries
that has brought the Islamic community to this difficult situation full
of misfortunes and reversals and placed its fate in the hands of the
imperialism of the left and the right.
Munson stresses that understanding such rhetoric
does not entail endorsing it. He notes that there are many aspects of
Islamic militancy that are outrageous and deserve condemnation, notably
the horrendous violence against civilians and the anti-Semitism. He
describes the Holocaust conference held in Tehran in December 2006 as
"sickening." But he stresses that "it is in the interest of the United
States to try to limit the appeal of militant Islamic movements.
Invading Muslim countries has precisely the opposite effect, as we can
see in Iraq."
A major misconception in the U.S. is that the Muslim
religion is inherently violent, says Munson. The reality is that all
religions are shaped by the changing societies in which they are
embedded. Any religion can be used to justify violence against the
"Other." Christian persecution of the Jews for two millennia is a prime
What's important to understand in the Mideast conflict, says Munson,
is that the words of Islamic fundamentalists ring true even for
moderates in the Arab world because of the widespread resentment of
Take the 1977–78 revolution that overthrew the
American-backed Shah of Iran, a turning point in the Mideast, Munson
says. "While many university students and other educated Iranians
revered Khomeini as a symbol of cultural authenticity, they also revered
him as a symbol of Iranian resistance to foreign domination," wrote
Munson of the charismatic Islamic leader, named by Time magazine
as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. "He
articulated the widespread resentment of American domination in all its
Today, bin Laden's focus on the suffering of the
Palestinians and Iraqis, and his criticism of Muslim governments that
fail to speak out about these issues, have made him a hero in the eyes
of many Muslims. Even young Arab girls who have abandoned traditional
Islamic dress for blue jeans praise bin Laden as an anti-imperialist
hero. A young Iraqi woman and her Palestinian friends told French
scholar Gilles Kepel that the man behind the Sept. 11 attacks "stood up
to defend us. He is the only one."
"In the Middle East, there is a pervasive sense of
impotence and subjugation," Munson says. "When bin Laden engages in
counter attacks, culminating in Sept. 11, he signals that someone is
fighting back. Even Muslims who despise bin Laden, who don't ever want
to be governed by him and who are shocked at the slaughter of 3,000
human beings, admire him for defying the United States, which most
Muslims hold responsible for the suffering of the Palestinians, the
Iraqis, and other predominantly Muslim peoples."
A 2003 survey by the Pew Research Center for the
People and the Press found a significant increase in Muslim hostility
toward the U.S. as a result of the Iraq invasion. Out of the 16,000
people in 21 countries surveyed, only 15 percent of Indonesians and
Turks held a favorable view of America. In Jordan, that favorable view
was held by only 1 per-cent. The survey also found that more than half
those polled in Indonesia, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, and
almost half in Morocco and Pakistan, listed bin Laden as one of the
three world figures in whom they had the most confidence "to do the
Munson stresses that American foreign policy often has been crippled by
the failure to recognize nationalistic resentment of foreign domination.
"Many Americans seem to think that patriotism is a
uniquely American sentiment. It is not." He argues that the Bush
administration's failure to understand the nationalistic and social
grievances that fuel militant Islamic movements is reminiscent of a
similar myopia regarding communist movements during the Cold War.
"Robert McNamara (secretary of defense in the
Kennedy and Johnson administrations) has acknowledged that the U.S.
didn't perceive the Vietnam conflict as it was seen by most Vietnamese.
In the United States, the Vietnam situation was seen in terms of a
global war against communism," Munson says. "We failed to recognize the
local context in Vietnam, where communists articulated nationalistic
resentment of foreign occupation and poor social conditions. Most
Vietnamese saw the United States as just another imperialist power
occupying their land."
In both Vietnam and Iraq, a U.S. focus on military
responses to what was perceived as a global struggle against a
monolithic enemy obscured the local grievances that drove people to
support specific movements, Munson says. When the Bush administration
invaded Iraq, it reinforced bin Laden's message that the U.S. sought to
subjugate the Islamic world in order to control its oil and protect
Israel. That general perception in the Islamic world generates recruits
for militant Islamic movements.
Michael Scheuer, the conservative intelligence
analyst who headed the CIA's center responsible for tracking bin Laden,
has said that if bin Laden believed in Christmas, the Iraq War would
have been what he wanted as a present. Munson says Scheuer is right.
Moreover, by invading Iraq, the U.S. became
embroiled in local sectarian and ethnic tensions that had nothing to do
with the effort to fight al Qaeda terrorists. The Iraqi government is
now controlled by Shiite fundamentalists, whose worldview is much closer
to that of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon than it
is to that of the U.S. And the bloody civil war between Sunnis and
Shiites has now spun out of control.
Meanwhile the Kurds in northern Iraq have a de facto
state, which causes major concerns in Turkey and Iran with restive
Tip O'Neill once said that all politics is local. Similarly, most
terror is local, Munson says. At the time of the first Gulf War,
1990–91, George H.W. Bush, Jim Baker, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell all
concurred that marching to Baghdad was a bad idea because it would
inflame public opinion in Iraq and the Islamic world. They knew Muslims
would see it as an imperialist act of aggression.
Sept. 11, says Munson, induced George W. Bush to do
what his father had not done in 1991. "9-11 induced a panic that
undermined normal, rational decision-making and led to the use of unwise
military options," he says. "Neoconservatives were pushing for an
invasion of Iraq, and Bush listened to them."
Criticism of the war is now commonplace, but whereas
many people focus on the inadequacy of the way the war has been
conducted, Munson stresses that the very idea of invading Iraq was
misguided from the outset. And contrary to the conventional wisdom that
conservatives supported the war and liberals opposed it, many of the
most prescient warnings that the war would strengthen Islamic militants
were voiced by conservatives like Gen. Anthony Zinni and the foreign
policy experts of the libertarian Cato Institute, not to mention Gen.
Brent Scowcroft, the first President Bush's national security advisor,
and Gen. William Odom, the director of the National Security Council
during the Reagan administration. President George W. Bush ignored such
"The country that gained the most from the overthrow
of Saddam Hussein was Iran," Munson says. "Thanks to the American
invasion, the government of Iraq is controlled by Shiite fundamentalists
with close ties to Iran. This gives the Iranian government a great deal
of leverage. Iran, if provoked, could make the U.S. position in Iraq
even worse than it already is."
Iraq will go down in history as one of the worst
failures in American foreign policy. The question at this point is how
to minimize the magnitude of the failure, Munson says. The catch-22,
says Munson, is that the presence of American troops fuels hostility
toward the U.S. in Iraq and most of the Islamic world, yet a precipitous
withdrawal would lead to even more horrendous bloodshed, which would be
blamed on America.
Going after al Qaeda was a natural response to 9-11, Munson says.
But in lieu of military solutions to political problems, there should
have been more police work — tracking down the people responsible and
dealing with some of the grievances that induce people to support such
"Trying to eliminate training camps in Afghanistan
was sensible," he says. "We could have done it without invading. Going
after the leadership of al Qaeda to prevent it from engaging in further
acts of terror is a more effective strategy."
In Afghanistan, which has been overshadowed by the
Iraq conflict, President Hamid Karzai's influence does not extend much
beyond Kabul. The countryside continues to be home to warlords and a
booming opium crop. Here, too, internal ethnic tensions have nothing to
do with Bush's global war on terrorism.
"The best way to discredit anything in the Mideast
is to have it endorsed or imposed by the USA. This includes
democratization," says Munson. "Too much emphasis on democratization in
a time of instability is not wise. Democracy is good, but it should not
be forced on societies by an external power."
It is in America's national interest to strengthen
moderates in the Muslim world, Munson says, and that entails stepping
back from the reliance on military power and addressing social and
nationalistic grievances. One obvious way would be to focus more
attention on the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank
and Gaza. This would not resolve the Iraqi conflict, Munson says, but it
would dilute hostility toward the U.S. in the Islamic world as a whole.
"After Arafat died, the U.S. and Israel could have
strengthened the hand of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
and the moderates, making life easier through concessions like the
elimination of some of the checkpoints that make daily life miserable
for the Palestinians. But there were no concessions, thus encouraging
Palestinians to vote for Hamas."
Munson notes that Israel also could have organized
its withdrawal from Gaza in such a way as to strengthen the Palestinian
Authority. Instead, it withdrew unilaterally, making the evacuation of
Israeli settlements appear to be the result of Hamas terrorism, without
helping the Palestinian Authority improve the living conditions in Gaza.
The first President Bush understood the importance
of the Palestinian issue, as did President Clinton, Munson says. At the
end of the Clinton administration, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators
were on the verge of producing an agreement. No matter how difficult
further negotiations may be, they are essential, says Munson.
"The establishment of a viable Palestinian state is
essential. Trying to dilute the appeal of militant Islamic groups
without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is like trying to run
on quicksand. It exhausts you and gets you nowhere."
by Margaret Nagle
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