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March / April 2003

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Fundamentalism in Conflict

Henry Munson, Photo by Margaret Nagle

Fundamentalism in Conflict
Mideast experts at the University of Maine look at the undercurrents of unrest and prospects for peace

About the Photo: "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.

Alexander Grab
"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 say.

"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.


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 countries.

While the U.S. has not created Islamic fundamentalism, its imperialist policies and military presence have helped to galvanize that movement, Grab says.

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, says Grab.

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 government.

"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.


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 groups.

"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 security.

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 serious problems.

"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
March-April, 2003

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