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Rethinking Islamic Fundamentalism

Rethinking Islamic Fundamentalism
What we must understand

Henry Munson
Henry Munson

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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 grievances.

"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 example.

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 foreign domination.

Take the 197778 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 forms."

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 right thing."

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 Kurdish populations.

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, 199091, 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 warnings.

"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 movements.

"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
March-April, 2007

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