The Wrong Threat

The misnamed "Ground-Zero Mosque" debate continues with verbal religious attacks from all sides. Responding to claims that Political Islam is the new communism, Zachary Karabell offers a pre-9/11 American view of Islamic fundamentalism. Reprinted from our Summer 1995 issue.

By Zachary Karabell

As communism has dwindled to insignificance in the post- Cold War world, greater attention has been paid to the potential of Islamic fundamentalism. The United States and its western European allies have closely monitored the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the past years, and it is possible that the next decade will see the emergence of several Islamic fundamentalist governments in the Middle East.

In general, the "West" views the possibility of fundamentalist governments with considerable apprehension. Though fundamentalism is in fact an umbrella term embracing extremists as well as pietists, it is extremist groups in Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran that concern the Western powers. And insofar as these extremists acting in the name of Islam champion an ideology explicitly hostile to the West, and to the United States in particular, these concerns are not surprising.

However, there is as yet little consensus over how best to approach Islamic fundamentalism. Within the U.S. government and the policy community, there are multiple divisions. In theory, it is possible to isolate two distinct views. On one side, there is a belief that Islamic fundamentalism is the new communism and consequently must be opposed with whatever means are necessary to contain the fundamentalist threat. An adjunct of this view is that Islamic fundamentalism is the vanguard of a coming civilizational clash between the West and the Muslim world and between the Muslim world and the Hindu-Confucian-Buddhist powers of Asia. On the other side, however, the issue is not Islamic fundamentalism, but violence and extremism. Islamic fundamentalism itself is seen as a cultural phenomenon and hence beyond the scope of the U.S. government.

These two positions are something like Platonic ideals. In practice, individual policymakers and commentators can and do give voice to a combination of the two. Until recently, the argument was dominated, in public policy statements and published writings, by those who believe that Islamic fundamentalism is a primary security concern for the United States. However, there are ample signs that the Clinton ad-ministration is gravitating toward a more nuanced approach in which extremism, rather than Islam, is the security problem. Still, the issue is far from settled, and there is, for example, more discernible nuance in policy toward Algeria than in policy toward Egypt.

The following is an attempt to describe the two contrasting approaches and then assess which makes most sense given U.S. interests in the region and the current realities of the Middle East. Recognizing the constraints of past policy and the current range of options in countries such as Algeria and Egypt, I believe that not only can the United States afford to adopt a more neutral stance toward Islamic fundamentalism, but that it is in its interest to do so.

The New Communism

In recent years, there has been a steady growth in the rather startling belief that Islamic fundamentalism is the new communism. Adherents to this position claim that fundamentalist Islam is a force as potent and as dangerous as communism was in its heyday. Islamic fundamentalism, they say, resembles communism as an ideology that explicitly rejects the social, economic, and political views characteristic of the secular West. Just as communism thrived as an international movement fostered by a revolutionary regime in the Soviet Union, Islamic fundamentalism thrives as an international movement fostered by a revolutionary regime in Iran. Finally, just as Marxist- Leninists viewed the capitalist world as a degenerate and aggressive enemy, so, too, Islamic fundamentalists see the West as their primary adversary. And they bring to that struggle not simply the ideological zealotry that was one of the characteristics of Soviet communism, but also the religious zealotry of jihad that in part characterizes Islam itself.

The equation of Islamic fundamentalism with communism has been made most force-fully by Daniel Pipes in the pages of his journal, The Middle East Quarterly, as well as in Commentary, at various forums, and during numerous television interviews. Others who express similar views include Peter Rodman, a former staff member of Reagan's National Security Council, and, to a lesser degree, Bernard Lewis, doyen of Middle East studies at Princeton University.

A related interpretation has been developed by Harvard's Samuel Huntington in an article in Foreign Affairs and in a forthcoming book. According to Huntington, security problems will henceforth parallel the fundamental divides between the world's civilizations. With opposed and competitive ideologies, the Judeo-Christian West is destined to conflict with the Muslim Near East and, perhaps, with the Muslim world in general. This is only one of the great civilizational clashes that the future holds, says Huntington, but it is the most relevant one here.

The Threat of Extremism

An alternate position – that there is no Islamic threat – has been cogently argued by John Esposito of Georgetown University. According to Esposito, there are great differences among those labeled as "fundamentalists" by observers in the West. Esposito concedes that armed, violent groups such as the Gamaa al-Islamiyah in Egypt, Hizbollah in Lebanon, and the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria jeopardize stability and human rights in the Middle East. But he points out that such groups are only the extremist fringe of Islamic movements and that "political Islam" (a term that he and others find preferable to the value-laden "fundamental-ism") is a multifaceted and dynamic force.

Rather than attacking political Islam, he says, the governments of the West ought to be nurturing Islamic moderates.
He argues further that there is an inherent harmony between Islam and democracy. Rather than attacking political Islam, he says, the governments of the West ought to be nurturing Islamic moderates. If Islamists (the term preferred by Middle East specialists over "Islamic fundamentalists") enter coalition governments with the military and elected officials, they will be forced to com-promise and abandon some of the rigidity that characterizes them in opposition.

Within the U.S. government, echoes of this tack can be found in intermittent statements made by President Clinton, his national security adviser, Anthony Lake, and leading officials in the State Department. After restrictions were announced on permissible donations from American citizens to "terrorist" groups, Clinton publicly tried to reassure American Muslims that the target was extremism, not Islam. Robert Pelletreau, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, has repeatedly stressed that in cases such as Algeria, Islam is not an issue for U.S. foreign policy. Violence and extremism, perpetrated by both the military government and the insurgents, are. He has often refuted the notion that Islam is viewed by the United States as the next great "ism" confronting the West or threatening world peace. And his sentiments have been echoed by Lake in statements of policy toward Iran.

The Cultural Trap

At other times, Pelletreau has made statements that suggest a greater degree of ambivalence on the issue of Islam and extremism. For instance, in describing U.S. policy toward Algeria at the end of 1994, he declared:

“Those who say that the United States is resigned to – or is willing to condone – a victory of extremism in Algeria are wrong. They clearly are not listening to what we are saying. Beyond the most far-reaching consequences for Algeria itself, further gains by the most radical Islamists could embolden extremists in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco – countries on which NATO has long relied as stabilizing factors in the region. Algeria's cri-sis could provoke an influx of refugees into France and elsewhere in Western Europe. The goal of U.S. policy toward Algeria is to avoid such developments.”

While in other remarks Pelletreau has appeared to reject the extremism of all parties in the Algerian civil war, here he made a clear one-to-one parallel between extremism and Islamist radicals. In this iteration, Pelletreau is closer to Pipes than he is to Esposito.

And that is precisely the problem. There is a good deal of ambiguity in current U.S. policy toward the Middle East and the conundrum of Islamic fundamentalism. The same officials make conflicting statements, and have been doing so since the Carter administration. It is not yet clear which Platonic ideal the U.S. government is gravitating toward, but there is no doubt that the "new communism" model fits in neatly with cultural attitudes toward Islam in America. As a result, it would appear to have the advantage over the positions articulated by Esposito or, at times, by Pelletreau and other officials.

Ask American college students, in the elite universities or elsewhere, what they think of when the word "Muslim" is mentioned. The response is inevitably the same: "gun-toting, bearded, fanatic terrorists hell-bent on destroying the great enemy, the United States." This is not a caricature of what students say; when I have asked them to free-associate after hearing the word "Muslim," that is precisely their gut response, even though they often recognize that these images are stereotypical and per-haps unfair.

Ask American college students what they think of when the word "Muslim" is mentioned. The response is: 'gun-toting, bearded, fanatic terrorists hell-bent on destroying the great enemy, the United States.'

One source of the stereotype is the mass media. Television news programs such as 20/20, 60 Minutes, the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, Frontline, the network news, and, of course, the tabloid shows, such as Inside Edition and A Current Affair, reach tens of millions of Americans, and over the past decade each has reflected the crass stereotype described above. 20/20 has broadcast several segments discussing Islam as a crusading religion inculcating warriors of God; Frontline sponsored an investigation of the tentacles of Muslim terrorists around the world. Whenever radical Arab groups attack Israel, they are described as "Muslim gunmen," whether they are fighting in the name of God or of a secular, political cause.

The same can be said of the print media. Stories on the Middle East are often accompanied by a picture of a mosque or of large crowds praying. These images are intended to be somewhat sinister. Imagine a picture of midnight mass at St. Peter's in Rome, with the caption, "The Next Crusaders." The imagery is even crasser in Hollywood films. The recent blockbuster, True Lies, had as its villains classic Arab terrorists, complete with glinty eyes and a passionate de-sire to kill Americans.

These images simplify and distort. They make it seem as if the Middle East is driven by an irrational God and an irrational religion. In contrast, in the rational secular United States, when David Koresh and his followers were holed up in Waco, Texas, they were not described as "Christian gun-men" or "Christian fanatics." They were portrayed as aberrant products of American society and Christianity, not representative of either. The equivalents of Koresh in the Middle East, however, are routinely described as typical products of their culture and religion.

A Legacy of Antagonism

There is a long history of mutual antagonism between the West and the Middle East. From the early Arab conquests, through the Crusades, into the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the fall of Constantinople, down through the imperial expansion of Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is a history of conflict and conquest. There is also the legacy of religious competition, with Muhammad and Islam claiming to be the last and most true revelation given by the God of Moses, Abraham, and Jesus to mankind. With the creation of Israel and the end of European colonialism, the peoples of the Middle East became that much more disillusioned with the West and, subsequently, with the leader of the West, the United States. America, in turn, came to see the Middle East as a strategic interest because of oil and as a perilous trap because of conflicts between Arab nations and Israel.

While the legacy of this antagonism is shared by Americans and Europeans alike, Americans seem to have a harder time dealing with Islamic fundamentalism than the Europeans do. The current wave of concern about Islam stems from the 1979 Iranian revolution and the resultant hostage crisis. The image of U.S. citizens held hostage for 444 days was seared into the public mind. Americans listened as Ayatollah Khomeini called the United States the Great Satan, and they watched as a succession of terrorist attacks targeted U.S. citizens.

While most of the various Palestinian and Libyan factions, for example, had little to do with Iran, in public debate, terrorism and Iranian fundamentalism became inseparable. The fact that the Khomeini regime sponsored the Lebanese Party of God, which in turn took several American citizens hostage and murdered the CIA station chief in Beirut, demonstrated that terrorism and the Iranian revolution were indeed linked. How-ever, while some terrorists may have been succored by the Teheran regime, many others were not.

In 1983, after several hundred Marines were killed in a suicide attack on their bar-racks in Beirut, Reagan reaffirmed his commitment not to negotiate with terrorists. This public refusal to deal with hostage-takers, hijackers, and assassins led directly to the Iran-contra back-channel dealings with the mullahs in Iran.

At the same time that the Reagan ad-ministration was getting itself into the legal and ethical mess of Iran-contra, the French were making deals with terrorists who had taken French citizens hostage. It is not that the French had less cause for grievance. After all, the French embassy in Beirut was bombed at the same time the U.S. Marine barracks were. The French simply approached terrorism as a security problem, not as a moral challenge to their civilization. Their interest was in protecting their citizens, and with that as the primary goal, pragmatism demanded that the hostage-takers' demands be met. If the only goal is to saves the lives of citizens and a terrorist is asking for 1 million francs, then 1 million francs it is.

Not sensitive to the great differences among Muslims, most Americans tend to see Islam in terms of its extremists. The connection between culture and foreign policy is never certain. Many officials claim that once in government, they almost never gauge their actions based on popular opinion or what the media says. Nonetheless, all American officials are a product of American culture. In their pre-government lives, they were subject to the same tide of images and analyses that we all are, and these unquestionably lead to a distorted image of Islam and Muslim extremism. That image may not determine policy, but it lends inchoate support to those who argue for Islam as the new communism or as the next clash of civilizations.

American Interests, American Commitments

In assessing how best to deal with the issue of Islamic fundamentalism, today's policy-makers are also constrained by the decisions of their predecessors. The Clinton administration must address Algeria in the context of how the Bush administration handled Algeria, just as Bush's policy toward Iraq prior to 1990 was in part conditioned by Reagan's policy toward Baghdad during the 1980s. Because of prior policy choices, Clinton faces a limited number of options. His administration can only place so much pres-sure on Egypt to liberalize because past decisions have transformed Egypt into a bulwark of American policy toward the Middle East and Israel. It is simply not an option to break with Egypt over the issue of how President Hosni Mubarak deals with the Islamic opposition. Similarly, while the Bush administration might have made common cause with quasi-democratic Algerian moderates in 1991, its decision to go along with the French and support the military's cancellation of elections a year later was one factor contributing to the extreme polarization of the conflict in Algeria today. Since whatever moderate bloc existed then has now been largely destroyed, the Clinton administration no longer has that bloc to turn to.

The U.S. government does not want to see any potential competitors to its status as the great power in the Middle East

The real constraints on policy have the unfortunate effect of clouding what is and is not important to the United States in the region. Prior policy commitments may be binding, but they ought not replace primary interests as a rationale for policy. Recognizing the constraints that prior policy imposes, it is still important to ask what exactly are U.S. interests in the Middle East and why political Islam threatens them. Just as Descartes arrived at general principles by trying to construct them from the bottom up, tabula rasa, we should do the same for U.S. foreign policy.

Not all American interests in the region are equal, of course. Let's say that the primary focus of American policy in the Middle East is oil. Ensuring the continued flow of this oil to the West has been a priority of the U.S. government since the Second World War. For most of the past 50 years, the oil was vital not to the United States, but to our European allies and the Japanese. Recently, as American oil production has declined, we have become increasingly de-pendent on foreign oil imports. Middle Eastern oil has thus become central to the domestic American market as well. If the oil of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf were somehow placed outside the reach of the West or stopped being produced altogether, it would pose a serious long-term problem for the United States.

If the primary interest is oil, then it really does not matter who controls the oil so long as they will sell it. Like any other commodity, oil has an international market value. Middle Eastern oil reserves account for nearly 70 percent of the world's total (though Persian Gulf oil represents only slightly more than 40 percent of the world's daily crude oil production), and one of the fears at the time of the Gulf War was that Saddam Hussein would invade Saudi Arabia and thereby corner the world's oil market. But there was less substance to those fears than is commonly supposed. Even if Saddam had seized the Saudi oil fields, what then? Would he have refused to sell the oil? No, because the only point in seizing the oil was to be able to sell it. Would he have raised the price dramatically in order to squeeze the West and the Japanese? Perhaps, but there are clear limits to how much he could raise the price and still hope to sell oil.

For example, one of the lessons of the 1973 oil crisis is that once the price of oil passes a certain point, it actually becomes cheaper for advanced industrial economies to shift to alternate sources of fuel: coal, solar energy, natural gas. In the interim, it is possible for producers outside of the Middle East to increase production. After OPEC placed a limit on oil sales to the West in 1973, within three months there was actually more oil on the world market than there had been before the embargo. Increased production by Mexico, Venezuela, Indonesia, Nigeria, and the United States more than compensated for the lack of Middle Eastern oil, and excess supply soon drove the price down and ultimately weakened the OPEC cartel.

The lesson is that even a dictator with a powerful army and a strong centralized state is limited by international economics and the constraints of the energy market. Whether Middle Eastern oil were under the aegis of Saddam Hussein or a multinational coalition of Muslim fundamentalists taking guidance from Teheran, it would still have to be sold to be of any benefit to its owners. And given Middle Eastern economics, it is not as if those prospective owners would have anywhere else to turn for hard currency. The Middle East has no other commodity of significant value, so oil revenue is vital. Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran is desperate for oil income, as shown by its re-cent deal with the U.S. company, Conoco, that was terminated by the Clinton administration. Fundamentalists the Iranians may be, but they want to sell oil to the West as desperately as any Saudi prince, Venezuelan businessman, or Mexican bureaucrat.

Power and Principle

Given the alacrity of the American response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, it may be said that a secondary interest of the United States is power. In short, the U.S. government does not want to see any potential competitors to its status as the great power in the Middle East. For much of the Cold War, the United States tried, with varying levels of success, to keep the Soviets from exercising influence in the region. In his negotiations with the Egyptians, Syrians, and Israelis after the 1973 war, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger effectively excluded the Soviets and made the warring parties dependent almost exclusively on the U.S. government. From then on, the Soviet Union had a harder time exerting influence in the region, though it continued to be a presence through its client states Iraq and Syria and through its sponsorship of fringe groups.

Saddam Hussein became a threat when he invaded Kuwait because his perceived military might, combined with the income from Kuwaiti oil revenues, would have made Iraq a competitor with the United States for hegemony in the Persian Gulf. Oil was certainly a factor, and it was oil that made hegemony in the Gulf important to the United States. But as several high-ranking members of the Bush administration privately admitted, if the United States were to maintain its position as a great power in the post-Cold War world, it had to face down "wannabes" like Iraq.

Great-power status demanded a response, and it will continue to demand a response so long as the United States is committed to being a hegemonic power. Given the current "two-war" doctrine of the Pentagon – the policy that America must be prepared to fight simultaneous "Desert Storm-equivalent" wars on two fronts – it is clear that the U.S. government is deter-mined to retain its great-power status.

But while Saddam certainly posed a challenge to U.S. hegemony, Islamic fundamentalism does not. Saddam Hussein created a secular totalitarian state. He built a strong, though overrated, military and terrorized his neighbors. There is ample historical precedent of strong military leaders conquering neighboring territory and erecting empires. Saddam seems to have believed himself a latter-day Saladin (the Kurdish prince who repulsed the Crusaders in the twelfth century) or, better yet, a new Haroun al-Rashid (the Baghdad caliph famous from the Arabian Nights), a ruler to lead the Arabs back to bygone glory. But there is absolutely no historical precedent of a religious revolution storming across a region with the lightening speed of a military conquest. There is no precedent of Muslims from different sects uniting under the banner of Islam, of jihad, of anything, to form a political military phalanx.

The U.S. government has also expressed an interest in stability in the Middle East. At times, that has meant a desire for peace in the region; at other times, it has meant containing conflict. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Washington supported Iraq because it was thought that so long as Iran was consumed with its fight with Iraq, it would not be able to spread its revolutionary brand of Islam.

In the name of stability, the United States has for many years supported other authoritarian regimes in the region. After a tumultuous period stretching roughly from the end of the Second World War through the late 1960s, the states of the Middle East have been governed by an extraordinarily small number of individuals. In spite of the popular image of the Middle East as a chaotic place, there has actually been very little turmoil there. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Jordan, Morocco, and Iraq have been led by the same men for more than two decades. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates have been ruled by the same families for much of the past century. The areas that have seen significant political turmoil are Israel, Lebanon, and, only recently, Algeria.

The U.S. government staunchly supports the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Saudi monarchy in Saudi Arabia, the al- Sabah family in Kuwait, King Hassan in Morocco, and King Hussein in Jordan. The rulers of these regimes are, to greater or lesser degrees, authoritarian. These regimes are often more benevolent than the military authoritarian regimes that controlled Latin America in the 1970s, but they are still closed systems maintained by security services and patronage. They also enjoy the sup-port of the United States, a support that takes a variety of economic, military, and diplomatic forms. Without American aid, the capacity of these regimes to survive would be diminished.

Given its interests, the American government could in theory adopt any number of policies toward Islamic fundamentalism. It would even be possible to allow for a fundamentalist sweep of the Middle East. It would be possible to allow for a military dictator such as Saddam to dominate the region. Or it would be possible to adopt a stance of unyielding support for military authoritarian governments that face an Islamic challenge.

With this in mind, it is useful to examine U.S. policy as it is now practiced toward Algeria and Egypt. Both countries are focal points of political Islam, but American policy is not the same in each case. Limited by the decisions of previous administrations and of America's allies in Europe, the Clinton administration finds itself intimately bound to the Mubarak regime. It has far greater latitude with respect to Algeria. Its approach in both countries exhibits the tension between whether Islamic fundamentalism or extremism is the primary challenge. Apprehensive about both, the Clinton administration, like its predecessors, gives in-sufficient attention to an even greater threat: the failure of these regimes to liberalize.

Egypt's Bottom Line

Since the signing of the Camp David Ac-cords in 1978, Egypt has been a pillar of American policy in the Middle East. Though the U.S.-Egyptian alliance was crafted by Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat, it has been strengthened by their successors. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has supported the United States in the region at nearly every critical juncture. Under Mubarak, Egypt adhered to the U.S. policy of supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and, later, in fighting Saddam during the Gulf War. As the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, Egypt has also been a leading sponsor of Arab-Israeli negotiations. Though U.S.-Egyptian relations have not been without tension, there has been no major bilateral crisis in nearly 20 years. In return for its allegiance, Egypt receives nearly $2 billion in direct U.S. aid every year, two-thirds of which consists of military aid. Since 1975, Egypt has received nearly $35 billion from the American government.

In the past five years, Egypt has been caught in a deepening spiral of economic depression, population explosion, and violence at the hand of radical groups acting in the name of Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, and the Gamaa al-Islamiyah are the most prominent of the many Islamic groups that are calling for the end of the Mubarak regime and a new day of Islamic government in Egypt. Every day, in Cairo or in Upper Egypt in the region around Assyut, some cleric or another denounces Mubarak as an infidel, as a stooge of the United States, and as a betrayer of his people.

And every day, in response, the Egyptian mukhabarat round up suspected members of outlawed organizations. Detainees disappear; their lawyers are sentenced to long jail terms; suspects die in custody. Recently, the case of the lawyer Abd al-Harith Madani has inflamed passions. Madani, a member of a lawyers guild controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested in April 1994. His family was informed some days later that he had died, but they were not allowed to see the body. After some wrangling, and a flurry of threats, the body was released only after his widow was coerced into signing a sworn statement that she would not discuss his case with human rights groups. This past January, dozens of militants were killed during a massive police operation in the southern province of Minya.

Human rights groups, and even the annual U.S. congressional report on human rights, have been extremely critical of Egypt's record. They accuse Mubarak of using terrorist attacks, extra-legal methods, torture, and blackmail. The Clinton administration has also made numerous private demarches, and Clinton himself has supposedly urged Mubarak to address the underlying causes of fundamentalism: poverty, overpopulation, and the lack of popular participation in government.

Mubarak answers criticisms of his heavy-handed tactics with indignation. He appeals to the Clinton administration, as he did to the Reagan and Bush administrations before it, for aid. He claims that Egypt desperately needs money to fight the extremists and defends his methods on the grounds that unless stringent measures are taken, Egypt will fall to the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamic Jihad just as surely as Iran fell to Khomeini.

What better justification for that aid than an Islamic threat?

There is no longer a Soviet Union to in-fringe on the Middle East. Egypt is at peace with Israel. It relies on U.S. aid, and $2 billion goes a long way in a country with a per capita income that hovers around $600 per year. What better justification for that aid than an Islamic threat? When Mubarak evokes al-Jihad and asks the United States for money, he has an easy task: the spiritual head of al-Jihad and Gamaa is none other the Sheikh Abd al-Rahman, who is now on trial in New York for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

American officials look at Egypt and see an exploding population and limited political rights. They advise Mubarak to democratize and open up the system. He tends to deflect such comments by pointing to Algeria. His first priority is rooting out subversive Muslim groups. Then, maybe, he will consider allowing more democracy in Egypt.

Mubarak knows that the United States cannot afford to push him too hard. American commitments to the Middle East peace process, to the security of Israel, and to stability in the pivotal Arab ally in the region make it well nigh impossible for U.S. officials to contemplate any policy that might plunge Egypt into a civil war with the extremists. Thus, Mubarak successfully resists the delicate suggestions of U.S. officials that he liberalize because he knows that Washington is unlikely to exercise its economic leverage. He understands that rather than jeopardize Egyptian stability the United States will grudgingly acquiesce in his refusal to make more than token changes to Egypt's political system.

Moreover, in a country of such perceived importance, U.S. officials are apt to share Mubarak's interpretation that the Islamic extremists are the most pressing threat. They see a fundamentalist victory in Egypt as the first and most significant domino, after which the rest of the Arab world might well succumb to fundamentalist revolution. In view of Egypt's importance in U.S. regional strategy, we are bound to Mubarak, and hence to an authoritarian regime that is intensifying the conflict within its borders rather than defusing it. So long as repression works, however – and, in Egypt, it is working for the time being – there is little impetus for American officials to reassess the policy of firm support for Mubarak.

The Algerian Conundrum

Algeria is often pointed to as the next potential Iran. In the fall of 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won one round of parliamentary elections. The Front had vowed to rewrite the Algerian constitution if it controlled the government, and its platform called for an Islamic constitution with religious law as the law of the land. The powerful Algerian military, a force that had been forged during the war of independence with France from 1954 to 1962, quickly annulled the elections. In doing so, it claimed that the Front planned to institute a revolution similar to Khomeini's in Iran, complete with a violent purge of "secularists."

France is the Western country with the greatest interest in Algeria, and Washington has tended to defer to France on Algerian matters. In 1991, French president Francois Mitterrand firmly supported the military's annulment of the election, and the Bush administration quietly followed suit. French support takes the form of debt-forgiveness (Algeria owes at least $25 billion to Western creditors) as well as economic and military aid for the military government. Hard-liners in France, such as Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, continue to be staunchly committed to helping the military government of Liamine Zeroual and his chief of staff, Mohamed Lamari.

Since 1992, between 30,000 and 40,000 people have died in Algeria's civil war. Zeroual's government controls only select pockets of the countryside and the major urban areas, while the FIS and its more militant cousin, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) dominate much of the hinterland. The Zeroual government presides over a war that is increasingly bloody, and government terror squads compete with GIA terror squads. As Mubarak says about Gamaa and al-Jihad in Egypt, the Algerian military authorities claim that GIA and the FIS owe their existence to aid from Iran. They paint a picture of an international fundamentalist movement directed and funded by Tehran.

By late 1994, the government had not significantly improved its position, and the consensus in the West was that a military solution imposed by the government was simply not possible. In November 1994, a coalition of opposition groups, including the FIS, met under the aegis of the Catholic Sant Egido association in Rome. The Sant Egido coalition called for a negotiated settlement to the Algerian crisis, but the military government violently rejected this call. The government's line was supported by France's Pasqua, but over the first few months of 1995, Mitterrand, his foreign minister, Alain Juppe (who is likely to serve as prime minister in the Chirac government), and the Clinton administration began publicly to distance themselves from the hard line. Pelletreau announced that the United States does not believe that the conflict can be settled by military means and called on Algeria's leaders to seek a nonviolent resolution to the crisis. In reaction to Mitterrand's and the Clinton administration's support for negotiations, the Algerian military has denounced both France and the United States for capitulating to Islamic extremism.

Yet, American policy toward Algeria is not so simple as Pelletreau's rejection of a military settlement. Whereas American involvement with Egypt, both economic and diplomatic, is extensive, its relationship with Algeria is far less significant. Respecting France's special interest in Algeria, the United States has not become as entwined in Algeria's economic or political life. On the one hand, that allows for a less sanguine assessment of the danger of a hard-line military crackdown; at the same time, it means that Algeria receives less attention. It is not perceived as a front-line state the way Egypt is.

There are no public ruptures within the U.S. government over Algeria similar to the split between Pasqua and Juppe in France. But there are hints of it behind the scenes. The subtle contradictions in Pelletreau's policy statements indicate that U.S. policy is not clearly anti-fundamentalist or anti-extremist. Some officials privately confess that while Zeroual and the military are making a violent mess out of an already messy and violent situation, it is better that they win.

Given a choice between a repressive FIS/GIA government and an equally repressive Zeroual/Lamari military regime, U.S. officials remain heavily biased in favor of the military. It is not that anyone thinks that the military is doing a good job or that any deny that it violates human rights nearly as flagrantly as the Islamic opposition does. Rather, the secular military is not fundamentally opposed to the United States and the West the way the FIS and GIA are.

At this stage, the Clinton administration hopes to nudge the military toward a negotiated settlement and toward economic and political liberalization, but it will not nudge so much that the Islamists can gain a decisive advantage. While the U.S. government provides little in the way of direct assistance for the Algerian military, it supports the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and as recently as October 1994, the World Bank loaned Algeria $300 million. In the face of Islamic extremism, Washington's desire for democracy takes a definite back seat to preventing the Islamists from seizing power.

The Future Is Now

It would be nearly impossible to find any-one in the U.S. government arguing against liberalization in the Middle East. For years, American officials have understood that the lack of political participation, combined with an ever-younger, ever-more-educated population with fewer economic avenues of success, is a recipe for deep social unrest. This unrest finds its most fruitful channel in political Islam.

But faced with limited leverage even in the areas of greatest concern, in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, Washington adopts an essentially conservative, status-quo policy. Believing that the regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, and even Syria are preferable to radical Islamic governments, the U.S. government continues to support authoritarianism. The degree of support varies from firm commitment to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to lukewarm commitment to Zeroual in Algeria. But in only two in-stances have U.S. policymakers adopted as hard a line toward military authoritarian governments as they do toward radical Islamists: toward Muammar Qaddafi's Libya and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In each of these exceptions, the threat of fundamentalism is largely absent, and the United States turned publicly on these regimes only when they turned publicly on the United States.

There are several reasons for the current U.S. stance, not the least of which is the inherent conservatism of great-power foreign policy. The status quo is almost always preferable to great powers. As the preponderant power in the Middle East, the United States naturally supports a status quo that reifies its position.

The Lesser Evil

But equally significant influences are the "new communism" commentaries and cultural biases that predispose policymakers to view Islamic fundamentalism as a greater threat than secular authoritarianism. As my ideal sketch of U.S. interests should have shown, it is possible to conceptualize scenarios in which American foreign policy in the Middle East could accommodate severe shifts in the status quo, including radical and extremist Islamic fundamentalism. Yet, because there is a cultural sense of Islam as a hostile monolithic civilization, U.S. officials are hard pressed to explore policy options that accommodate fundamentalism.

The difficulty with genuine liberalization, as Mubarak is fond of reminding any-one who will listen, is that it would open the political arena to the Islamists. In societies where democratic traditions are not en-trenched, it is easy to subvert democracy to serve the interests of an organized clique such as al-Jihad. The problem with current U.S. policy is that it attempts to keep the lid on Islamism and in so doing allows for the extremism of the authoritarian governments who are sitting on the pot.

The United States has adopted what it believes to be the lesser of two evils. Better the pro-Western military or authoritarian governments than an Islamic state like Iran. This is an interesting spin on the Kirkpatrick doctrine of the 1980s that it was better for the United States to countenance military governments than allow for the possibility of a communist takeover.

The problem in today's Middle East is that repression is fuel for the extremists.

The problem in today's Middle East is that repression is fuel for the extremists. Furthermore, in countries where poverty is rife and discontent with the government is high, repression justifies extra-legal opposition. Finally, repression is a blunt tool against movements that draw strength from ideology, as the United States should have learned in South Vietnam. Egyptian security forces might round up a hundred suspects in the poorer districts of Cairo in order to collar a handful of bona-fide extremists. Perhaps they beat or harass a third of the detainees, some of whom are college students who listen every day to inflammatory sermons about how unjust the government is. After the hundred are released, there might be an additional dozen converts to extremism.

Rather than supporting policies that continue the vicious circle, the United States might more assiduously push for liberalization. That would mean not extending loans to the Algerian military and making it clear to Mubarak and other Middle Eastern leaders that the economic aid is contingent on decreased levels of government violence. It would mean that the United States would no longer turn a blind eye to the flagrant denials of the most basic human rights in Saudi Arabia, particularly for women. Above all, it would mean a more subtle appraisal of the nature of political Islam.

The forces of modernism and secularism are far from spent in the Middle East. Fundamentalism, either at its most extreme or at its most progressive, is still a minority movement, but it is clearly gaining strength. Some of that strength is due to the efforts of extremists, as insurgent and terrorist violence in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Israel destabilizes secular governments. In response, these governments funnel resources that are badly needed elsewhere into the military and security services. Still, for many, any form of political Islam is undesirable, and these people will continue to fight against Islamism. The struggle embraces not just the elite, but whole classes in Middle Eastern societies that are no more attracted to Islamic government than most Americans are attracted to a government based on Biblical law. There is a battle for the soul of the Middle East, and the outcome is uncertain. The besieged governments may succeed in turning back the threat of the extremists, but they are unlikely to remove Islam from political life. For the time being, modernism and secularism will have to coexist with political Islam.

We should accept Political Islam as a natural part of the political spectrum in the Middle East and act accordingly…We should stop worrying about fundamentalism and start concentrating on reform.

Although whatever it does, the United States will have limited effect, present policy makes it easier for authoritarian governments in the Middle East to remain in power. In the process, this policy line increases the risk that the only change will be violent change led by the most extreme fundamentalists. While U.S. access to oil would not be threatened by a fundamentalist sweep of the Middle East, there is some-thing to be said for avoiding bloody revolution. In the interest of seeing the Middle East develop peacefully, we should therefore stop giving authoritarian governments such wide latitude and such generous aid. The harsher public stance that the Clinton administration has taken toward the Algerian military is a step in the right direction, but many more explicit steps need to be taken.

Islam has been around for nearly a millennium and a half, and it shows no signs of spiritual or moral collapse. It is, in fact, more vigorous than ever, as the growth of political Islam demonstrates. Political Islam is not going to disappear. We should accept it as a natural part of the political spectrum in the Middle East and act accordingly. And given the likelihood that future reform in the Middle East will involve people who believe that religion should be an integral and even central part of political life, we should stop worrying about fundamentalism and start concentrating on reform. Making aid and loans conditional on political reform is but one way that we could lend support to moderation.

Commitment to political Islam does not make one an advocate of violence and terror. It does, however, make one a proponent of change. Political reform in the Middle East could be violent, but it can be peaceful. The results could be as varied as capitalist democracies in the West. Few countries are likely to resemble Iran, unless violent revolution becomes the only viable alternative to the current order. We may not be able to pre-vent violence and extremism, but we should at least not be a party to them. Without our billions, without our public and private encouragement, authoritarian governments in the Middle East will be far less able to resist the social and political reforms that their countries so desperately need.

At the time of the article's release, Zachary Karabell was an associate at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and a contributing editor of the Boston Book Review.

Photo courtesy of Juanedc

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