Wed, 31 Aug 1994

Does West have to fear Islamic fundamentalism?

By Jonathan Power

LONDON (JP): Pardon my French, but the government of France barely cares a damn about the future of Rwanda. If its arrival in Rwanda was not a cynical ploy, its recent withdrawal certainly is. When it comes to foreign policy France cares first and foremost about Algeria. It seems intent on husbanding its political energies for that volcano about to erupt. Algeria, once the jewel of the worldwide French empire, was the scene of a vicious war of independence in the 1950s that spilled over into France, nearly bringing about a right wing dictatorship. Today it is the cradle of a North African fundamentalist revival that is likewise overflowing into French domestic politics with consequences that could polarize French society once again.

Edouard Balladur, prime minister of France's moderately rightist government, describes the fundamentalist revolution in Algeria as France's "greatest threat". In the U.S., influential intellectuals beat the same drum, echoing Samuel Huntington's much talked about Foreign Affairs article in which he foresees "a clash of civilizations".

Scare talk always simplifies and there is a danger with the speeches and articles now going the rounds that perspective is the first casualty of what has become, in historical terms, an over emotive debate.

One thing the West quickly needs to be honest with itself about is that if there is a crisis, and this is by no means certain, it has made its own sizable contribution to it. For decades the western powers have rallied behind oil rich governments in the Islamic world that were, on the one hand, totally uninterested in any opinion other than their own. And, on the other hand, were unpopular, inefficient, wasteful, self- servingly corrupt and unwilling to embark on the reforms that would have used wealth more efficiently and equitably to build a farsighted pattern of development. Even today, having backed and failed with the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein, they are now backing the generals in Algiers. Following the French lead, all the major western powers supported the Algerian government when it canceled the election's second round in early 1992 (the first free elections since independence) after it saw the Islamic fundamentalist win the first round. It was a shortsighted decision, presently being compounded by a French led financial rescue operation for the beleaguered Algerian government. A government now under siege from an Islamic movement which has seen, in a short two years, its non-violent, pro-democracy leadership taken over by quite ruthless political killers.

But Algeria does not have to be the first domino that then knocks on throughout North Africa, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and even on to that stalwart of Islamic rectitude, Saudi Arabia, producing militant anti-Western states, able to arm themselves with anything the ex-Soviet black market will provide. Some fundamentalists indeed may have a rough agenda of this sort. Most do not. Most fundamentalist are moved by a down-to-earth search for values in a world that appears to have lost its bearings -- the essential and timeless qualities of family life, integrity, probity and individual responsibility. It is often the fundamentalists in these countries who offer free medical treatment, clean the streets and distribute cheap photocopies of textbooks. Many of its ranks, compared with those that rule, are highly educated people and often prominent in the professions.

Fundamentalist movements, despite their public image, are in a number of countries democratically inclined. In Algeria two and a half years ago the movement was certainly democratic. In Tunisia it still is. In Egypt, the principal fundamentalist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, works within the law and has built a wide electoral appeal even though the government puts a lid on how many seats they are allowed to win in parliament.

Yet it is the secretive and violent groups, the gamaat, that we most hear about and are taught to fear. Certainly they are strong and getting stronger. In Iran and Algeria they have the upper hand.

There is battle for the mind underway, but the West while having little direct influence can encourage the democratic seed wherever it sprouts. This means uncoupling itself from the economically satisfying but spiritually corrupting working relationship with the great arms buyers of the old order.

The West, moreover, must more clearly recall its own history. Christian culture for its first millennium and a half had no other tradition than autocracy. Islam will engage before long, if it hasn't started already, in its own political reformation and discover democracy for itself. But first it probably has to be purged by a spiritual reformation. Fundamentalism is probably an unavoidable step along the way.

The Islamic world need not take as long over it as the West did. Education is much more widely available in the present day Islamic world than it was in 15th and 16th century Europe and the communication of ideas moves a thousand times faster.

The West can choose to help or hinder this process. At the moment it appears to be making all the wrong decisions. The French, for their own pathological reasons that lie deep in their tortured history with Algeria, may be making a terrible mistake. But there is no good argument why the rest of the West has to follow them.