By :

Hasan Johar – Department of Political Science – Kuwait University

Gawdat Bahgat – Department of Political Science – Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Published in: 

Iranian Journal of International Affairs Vol. III, No, 1, Spring 1996 (pp. 97-119)


Political Islam and the West:

American and European Response

This study seeks to examine the rise of political Islam in the Middle East over the last two decades. A brief definition of “Islamism” and a short discussion of the socio-economic and religious-psychological reasons for the rise of the phenomenon are provided. The main focus is, however, on Western response particularly the American and the French. Special attention is given to the Algerian case. As a conclusion, the study analyzes the dynamics which will shape the future of political Islam in the upcoming decades.


For the last two decades Islam has become a key feature of the discourse of Middle Eastern politics. In almost every place, Islamic movements are gaining grounds. In Iran the Ayatollahs have been in power since 1979. Sudan has been ruled by an alliance of the military and the Islamists since 1989. Moreover, the Islamic Salvation Army (HS) in Algeria, Al-Nahda in Tunisia, Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza, Hizballah in Lebanon, Welfare Party in Turkey, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, and other Islamic groups in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and elsewhere are major contenders for power. Even more significant is the process of re-Islamization of Middle Eastern societies, which can be observed by the growing number of worshipers in the mosques and the increasing number of veiled women.

The growing power of Islam in both public and private lives in the Middle East can be explained partly by the failure of the governments to meet the expectations of their people. In response, many of these ruling regimes have tried different formulas to cope with the rise of political Islam since the late 1970s. However, the pace of change has proven to be gradual and the dynamics of political and economic reform vary from country to country in accordance with local circumstances.

Given the vital western interests in the region, as has been proven by the Gulf War, and the heavy economic and military dependence of Middle Pastern governments on western powers, American and European stands occupy a central stage in determining the direction and the path of reform. In other words, the West will be affected, positively or negatively, by the power-struggle in the Middle East and western response will be an important determinant in the outcome of this struggle.

This study attempts to analyze European and American response to the rising power of political Islam in the Middle East since the 1990s. Special references will be made to the Algerian case where the struggle between the Islamists and the government is very intense. France and the United States have been involved more than other western countries, consequently more attention will be given to their roles. Moreover, the study puts forward policy recommendations to Western policy-makers and presents the most significant factors which will shape the future of the Islamic movement in the following decades. However, it is appropriate to start with a brief discussion of the term “Political Islam”.

Political Islam: Who? What? and Why?

Islamism refers to the engagement in political activities, either in the opposition or in the government, by incorporating both Islamic vocabulary and principles. The term fundamentalism, widely used by the media, is not very accurate since it originally described the rise of the Protestant movement in the United States in the aftermath of the First World War and advocated adherence to traditional orthodox Christian values. Islamists are less interested in introducing theology than in establishing a society and a state which would live according to Islamic law and precepts.

Political Islam is an urban phenomenon. It appeals more to city-dwellers, particularly, the newcomers who are confused between their traditional rural values and the modern way of life in a big city. Islamist views tend to be strongest among the poor and low middle class since these groups experience the widest gap between their expectations and what they actually have. The majority of Islamists have good educational backgrounds. Many of them have college degrees front religious or secular universities. Abbasi Madani, the leader of the FIS in Algeria earned his doctorate in education from a British university, while his younger colleague Abdelqader Hachani is a petrochemical engineer and a doctoral candidate at a French University.1 In addition, many Iranian leaders have graduate degrees from French universities. Furthermore, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, Hassan Al-Turabi, the leader of the Islamic movement in Sudan, and Sheikh Omar Abdel­Rahman, an influential spiritual leader of the Egyptian Islamic movement, all studied at AI-Azhar University in Cairo.2 Many of the rank-and-file of these Islamic organizations are engineers, doctors, lawyers, and scientists.

The rise of political Islam in the Middle East is better understood as a cumulative socio-economic, political and religious process. Thus, there is no specific point of time when it started. Probably, it is fair to state that Islamic movements through out the region have gained momentum since the late 1960s. In the following decades, the local, regional, and international developments have reinforced the appeal of political Islam.

It is important to point out from the outset that understanding Islamism can not be reduced to a merely socioeconomic hardship. A more comprehensive approach which would include foreign policy issues, religious/psychological factors, as well as socio-economic reasons is needed. All can be summed up in a general diagnosis: the erosion of legitimacy. Seymour Lipset states, “legitimacy involves the capacity of the system to engender and maintain the belief that the existing political e institutions are the most appropriate ones for the society. “3 It can be argued that the rise of political Islam since the late 1960s has been in response to the legitimacy-crisis. A detailed discussion of three dimensions of this crisis is in order.

The demographic structure of the region is very disturbing. Over the past two decades, the population growth rate averaged 3.1 percent.4 The natural outcome of this very high rate has been a growing number of young people. According to the vice president for Middle East and North Africa Region at the World Bank, 40 percent of the total population are under the age of 15.5 This depressing demographic map has had a tremendous negative impact on economic development and employment opportunities all over the region. The unemployment rate in Algeria is 30 percent and in Gaza Strip it is over 50 percent.6 The average Egyptian bureaucrat works twenty-seven minutes a day.7 The annual inflation rate in Turkey is between 50 to 70 percent.8 In addition to these economic indicators for individual countries, the region as a whole has performed very poorly since the mid 1970s as the following table shows, Regardless of who won and who lost in the Gulf War, militarily in economic terms, the region as a whole was a net loser considering the very large costs of the conflict and the expenses of rebuilding. No wonder, the oil producing countries of the region have been forced to cut their public expenditures drastically. This does not mean that they became poor, but it means that their ability to provide their citizens with free social services and heavily subsidized products is diminishing.

Table (1)

Economic Performance in Developing Countries and

the Middle East l971-93*

Developing Countries03.702.302.102.8
Middle East04.600.2-0.200.6

*The first line is growth of real GD? percapita; the second line is export volume. (percent change.)

Source: International Monetary Fund., World Economic Outlook Washington DC: InternationaI Monetary Fund, October 1993, p.70.

In order to hide, or reduce, the impact of this poor economic performance many Middle Eastern regimes have claimed ambitious unrealistic foreign policy goals. These include the liberation of Palestine; Arab, African, and Islamic unity; the emancipation of the Third World and even the defeat of imperialism. It is obvious that none of these “historic missions” has been fulfilled.9 Added to this, is the repeated defeats of Arab armies on the hands of the Israelis. Even peace as a foreign policy goal has little prospect to improve the image of Arab regimes given the perception that it has been negotiated from a position of weakness.10 In addition, the fact that so far the peace process has not improved life for average dtizens in Gaza and the West Bank or as a PLO member describes it, “there is an overwhelming feeling that we are getting peace without justice.” 11 Thus, using foreign policy to gain credibility has not worked. However, there have been some regional developments which provided hope and possibility of “Islamic victoryt1 such as the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the 1981 assassination of President Sadat, the attacks on Israeli troops in southern Lebanon in 1983, and the success of FIS in Algerian elections during 1991.

In addition to the socio-economic crisis and the foreign policy issues, religious and psychological factors have played a significant role in the process of Islamization of Middle Eastern societies and policy. Arab nationalism has failed to defeat Islamic solidarity. There has been a certain level of cooperation between different Islamic groups. There is no one central Islamic organization that dominates the whole movement, but FIB, Iran, Sudan, al-Nahda, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizballah, Welfare Party, and private Gulf citizens and organizations help each other based on a shared belief and common interest. Moreover, there is the perception that western models such as socialism, capitalism, and other “isms” have all been tried and failed, the only thing which has not is Islam. Finally, Islamists challenge the ruling elites on religious ground. In their view, the leaders, including the Saudis, have deviated from the pure Islam and some are accused of trying to destroy Islam in the interest of the Americans, the Europeans, and the Israelis.

The preceding analysis of some of the major causes of Islamic revival suggests that Islamism is an expression and a manifestation of many crises which dominate Middle Eastern socio-economic and political systems. Islamism is, to a great extent a symptom not a cause of the ongoing instability in the area. Faced with the growing challenge of political Islam, Middle Eastern ruling elites have been prompted to forge a strategy to ensure their survival.

State Response

It has been argued that Arab elites are basically nationalist while Arab masses are religious.12 This description is fairly accurate and can be extended to cover Turkey to a lesser extent. This gap between the rulers’ political belief and the peoples’ religious orientation has cried for a certain level compromise over the last two decades in order to achieve a certain level of “co-existence” or “coherence” in the political fabric of Middle Eastern societies. Given the rareness of peaceful transition of power almost all over the region, the ruling regimes have experimented with different strategies to contain Islamism. A common denominator has been to isolate the radical wing by winning over the moderate one. In other words applying the stick dimension to the extremists and the carrot one to the main-stream members.

Thus, the situation in most of Algeria, southern Egypt, and southeast Turkey can be described as a sort of civil war or a guerrilla attack in which neither the Islamists nor the governments have defined the front lines. In this environment, systematic torture, disappearance, burning crops, demolishing homes, and collective punishments are common practices. The outcome of this policy is very disturbing. In early 1995, it was estimated that more than 40,000 people had been killed in Algeria,13 and as many as 20,000 Islamists are packed in Egyptian prisons.14 This policy reflects the governmental perception of the problem as a law-and-order issue which requires a security response, not a political one.

On a less violent level, a “national dialogue” with the moderate leaders of the Islamists had been proposed in order to weaken and divide the movement from inside. Thus, Algerian President Liamine Zeroual tried to negotiate with Abassi Madani, president of F’S, and his deputy Ali Belhaj, in order to separate them from the more radical movements such as the Islamic Armed Group and the Islamic Salvation Army. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak did the same by attempting to include the Muslim Brotherhood in the political system on the expense of the more radical groups such as the Gama’a Islamiya and Jihad. It is noteworthy to mention that the two experiments have failed. Another technique to penetrate the Islamic movement has been through controlling the religious establishment and the mosques by keeping religious officials on the government payroll, hence exerting unmistakable influence on the content of the Friday sermon This is in contrast to Iran where religious leaders enjoy financial independence from the government. In addition, some Middle Eastern governments have tried to appeal to the same religious constituency by adopting Islamic symbols. Finally, some Middle Eastern regimes such as Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, and Kuwait have introduced political reform in response to demands for political participation and to diffuse the threat of Islamists.

Besides these local attempts to contain Islamic activism, it is significant to point out that Islamism has developed transnational features. In other words, the Middle East is witnessing the emergence of a regional cleavage between the Islamists on one side and the secular governments on the other. By the late 1980s and the early 1990s Middle Eastern peoples and governments were vigorously watching the democratic revolution in Eastern Europe and Latin America. There were some signs that in a short time the region would follow suit. Then, the Algerian election and unrest took place. The Algerian example has had two significant regional implications. It had been proven, once again, that in every free election, relatively speaking, Islamists are more likely to win than any other political power Equally important, no Middle Eastern regime would allow Islamists to come to power peacefully. Not surprisingly, the experiment with political reform in the region has been weakened ever since. The ongoing power struggle in Algeria is closely watched by other Middle Eastern regimes as well as by other Islamic movements. The two sides are trying their best to ensure the victory of their surrogate. Islamists in Egypt, Sudan, Iran, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait as well as in Europe and United States are working together for the establishment of an Islamic state and Islamic society. However, as The Economist observes, “there is, as yet, no international Islamic revolutionary organization run by an Islamic Comintern.”15

Moreover, the end of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan added momentum to the Islamic movement in the Middle East. Hundreds of young Arabs who had fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan returned to their home countries better trained and more confident and zealous. Their new mission has become to fight their secular governments.

In response, governments all over the region have intensified their efforts to meet the rising threat. There is an emerging triangle of security cooperation among Cairo, Tunis, and Algiers against what their leaders profess to see as a common threat.16 On another front, after a brief summit meeting during February 1995 between Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, Jordan’s King Hussein, Egyptian President Mubarak, and PLO Chairman Arafat a joint statement was issued condemning bloodshed, terror, and violence “consolidating an Arab Israeli alliance against Islamic violence.”17 In addition, in 1993 the Saudi government banned private donations by Saudi citizens to Islamic movements abroad.

Finally, many Middle Eastern governments, realizing their eroding strategic significance in the aftermath of the Cold War, have tried to capitalize on the western fear of Islamism as Tansu Ciller, the Turkish Prime Minister, states, “In this part of the world there are two models: One is the Khomeini model of Iran and the forces. of the uprising trend of radicalism. The other is Turkey as the only country among 52 Muslim countries that is secular and democratic. If Turkey is rejected, fundamentalism will find a fertile land to flourish in, and then this will be the last fortress which will fall.”18 This raises the question of how the West would react to Islamic revival?

Western Response to the Rise of Political Islam

It is very important to emphasize from the outset that there is neither one monolithic political Islam, nor one western response. Rather there are variety of Islamic movements and interpretations as well as different responses by different western governments and change within the same country from one administration to another. Having said so, still there is a common perception of Islamism in western policy and vice versa. For many years after the second World War Islam had been considered as a bulwark against the threat of communism. However, in the aftermath of the Cold War, Islam has been increasingly seen as expansionist and as the only ideological alternative to the liberal democracy. Moreover, culturally, Islam has been increasingly perceived as being at odds with western values. For example, many policy-makers express their concern on how women and minorities are treated in Muslim countries. There is tremendous doubt among western scholars and politicians on the likelihood of introducing and consolidating democracy under Islamic rule.

Many Muslims, on the other side, believe that they have not been treated fairly by the international system. They accuse the west as having double-standard in its policy toward Islam. Some examples illustrate their point: Bosnian Muslims brutally abused by the Christian Serbs, Christian Armenians have thumped Muslim Azeris, Muslim majority in Kashmir still are under Hindu rule, and in other places in India, Muslims have been under attack in which Ayodhya mosque was destroyed in 1992. Another example is comparing western sanctions against Haiti’s junta, Burma’s military dictatorship, and President Fujimori’s in Peru with the soft, even supportive, response to the coup in Algeria. In addition, Muslims have always expressed their opposition to the strong traditional western-Israeli ties.19

Islamists accuse western Powers of supporting politically and financially repressive unpopular regimes all over the Middle Fast. United States and Europe, who have been actively involved in promoting democracy all over the world at least since the mid 1980s, have shown little or no interest in toppling governments in the region, the Islamists claim. As Olivier Roy states, “from Disraeli to Bush, by way of Clemenceau and Kissinger, the West has never been concerned with encouraging political modernization in the Middle East.”20

Islamists also resent western penetration of their values and economies. Saudi Arabia banned dish antennas in 1994 and imposed a fine of $130,000 on anyone who continues to use them and Iran did the same in January1995.21 Finally, the association of International Monetary Fund (IMP) austerity programs with high inflation and unemployment rates makes it easy to blame the IMF, which is perceived as a western institution, for the economic hardship. Western responses to these Islamist accusations have taken different forms depending on the perceived national interests.

American Response

The United States has enjoyed strong ties with a number of conservative Middle Eastern regimes including Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf monarchies particularly Saudi Arabia. In addition, over the last forty years different American administrations have reaffirmed their commitments to the security and well-being of Israel.

More important is the growing Washington’s dependence on imported oil. In 1994, the United States imported about 45 percent of its oil compared with 30 percent in 1984. The percentage is expected to rise as production of crude oil in the United States, which has fallen by about two million barrels a day in the last eight years, continues to decline. There are some projections that by the year 2000 Washington will import about 56 percent of its oil, with about a fourth of that coming from the Persian Gulf.22 Given the historical, cultural, economic, and political linkages among Middle Eastern states as well as the transnational characteristic of political Islam; American national interests will be served by consolidating stability in the region. In the aftermath of the Cold War and the Gulf War, the United States has been in a position where it can shape, or greatly influence, economic and political development in the area.

Recently  many  American  diplomats  have  reconfirmed Washington’s stand toward Islam. Robert H. Pelletreau, Jr., Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs said, “We view the religion of Islam with great respect, we respect it as movement.”23 However, American foreign policy distinguishes between Islam as a religion and Islamism as a political movement. Washington takes a “case-by-case” approach toward political Islam. In January 1995, seeking to underscore American commitment to the fight against terrorism, President Clinton ordered American financial institutions to search for and freeze any accounts held in the names of Hamas, Islamic Holy War and 10 other non-Islamic organizations. Ironically, the Egyptian government hinted that President Clinton’s list should have included the Egyptian Brotherhood.24

Both Sudan and Iran appear on the State Department’s list of countries deemed to support terrorism. In addition, Iran is considered an “international outlaw” and “rogue” regime which the administration has been trying to contain since May 1993. US Secretary of State, Warn Christopher, has led the Administration’s drive to isolate Iran, with an international campaign to deprive Tehran of equipment useful to its military and to oppose international lending and the rescheduling of Iran’s debt. The administration has also tried -unsuccessfully- to block a Russian deal to sell Iran two nuclear power reactors. Finally, Senator Alfonse D’Amato, the New York Republican, introduced legislation in January 1995 to prohibit American companies or their foreign subsidiaries from doing business with lran.25

This confrontational relationship with Iran is, to a great extent, the outcome of the lack of any dialogue with the leadership of religious opposition before the revolution in 1979. The United States learned from this experience and has been trying to avoid repeating it in Algeria. After the coup d’etat in late 1991, The State Department officially regretted the suspension of the democratic process. For several months Washington bad taken a low-key approach to the developments in Algeria, but by mid 1994 senior US officials revealed that the administration has been in contact with exiled members of the FIS and that Washington has been urging President Liamine Zeroual to broaden the government to include Islamic leaders in order to difuse the conflict. Moreover, the Clinton administration has dropped the alarmist line on Islam, insisting instead that elections must go forward and the results be respected.26

European Response

To some extent political Islam has been approached in the United States as a “foreign policy issue”. Most Americans felt the heat of Islamism, for the first time, when it was brought home by the World Trade Center bombing in New York in February 1993. For Europe, in contrast, Islamism has been dealt with more as a domestic issue considering the geographical proximity of the Middle Fast to Europe, a long history of close cultural interaction (Islam is the second largest religion in Germany and France and the third-largest in Britain).27 In Addition, the simple demographic facts (there are at least 12 million Muslims settled in Europe). Thus probably it is fair to say that the Middle East is for Europe what Mexico is for the United States.

Consequently, socio-economic and political stability in the Middle East has been a crucial European goal, particularly for the last several years with the growing turmoil all over the region. A good manifestation of this European attitude is the statement made by the Prime Minister Foul Nyrup Rasmussen of Denmark, the president of the first World Summit for Social Development held in Copenhagen in March 1995,. . . if we don’t help north Africa . ., then we will have these poor people here in our society.”29 Over the last two decades Europe (especially its southern tier; France, Italy and Spain) has been worried about the outcome of the deteriorating economic conditions in the Middle East. In addition, the uncertainty accompanying the decline of secular regimes and the rise of Political Islam fuels European fear.

Turkey applied for membership in the European Union in 1987. But, regardless of any Greek veto, the Turks, to most European politicians, are still too poor, too unruly and “too Muslim to qualify.”30 However, over the last decade the steady gains of revival were visible. It could be seen in countless ways; the number of women wearing traditional headscarves and veils, the workers’ cafeterias closing during daylight fasting hours for the holy month of Ramadan, and the construction of new mosques. In consequence, the Welfare Party gained more votes and more power in the municipal elections held in March 1994. It doubled its share of the vote from local elections five years earlier and ended up in third place with 19.3 percent of the vote. Moreover, the party won the mayoralties of Ankara, Istanbul and 29 other major towns and 400 smaller ones which means that about two-thirds of Turkey’s population is in areas under the local control of Islamist.31 In response to the growing Islamization of Turkey and in an attempt to counter the capitalization of Islamist on the economic crisis, the European Union admitted Turkey into its custom union, the antechamber to full membership in March 1995. It is believed that this will strengthen the country’s ties to the West and promote a prosperous, democratic Turkey to serve as a model for other Islamic nations.

In order to institutionalize cooperation between Europe and North African countries in the area of economic development and to enhance political stability many proposals have been under consideration. One of them is the Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Mediterranean (CSCM) modeled after the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) which has served since 1975 as an umbrella for East-West cooperation in different areas such as arms control, trade, and human rights. Another proposal is the Five Plus Five grouping which brings France, Spain, Italy, and Malta together with Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya. Europe had hoped that both the ‘CSCM’ and ‘Five Plus Five’ would limit instability and radicalism in these countries by helping them politically and financially to address their social and economic crises. As developments in Algeria show, Europe has had very little success.

Given the strong historical and cultural ties between France and Algeria, Paris will be affected by the outcome of the political turmoil in Algeria more than any other European country. No wonder, three decades after independence, Algeria has moved1 again, to the heart of the French domestic policy. An Islamist victory in Algeria could set off an exodus of asylum-seekers to join their 600,000 compatriots living in France. It could destabilize other North African countries creating more France-bound refugees (at least 570,000 Moroccans and 200,000 Tunisians already live there).32 Moreover, it would almost certainly spread unrest among the 4 million French citizens who are of Algerian origin.

Consequently, France has taken a hard-line policy toward the ongoing struggle in Algeria French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua explained the French stand, “The current authorities are not a model of democratic government, but the idea that a moderate Islamist regime might emerge is a foolish one. The choice is either to support the regime or see the coming to power of fundamentalists.”33 Thus, since 1992, Prance has expelled a number of foreign Muslim clerics, banned several Islamic publications that it said were inciting violence in France, and arrested many suspected of links to Algerian Islamists including French citizens. Equally important, in response to French lobbying the IMF awarded Algeria a $1 billion loan stand-by, Paris club of government creditors rescheduled loans worth $5 billion. In addition, Algeria receives bilateral aid from France worth $4.1 billion a year in export credits; and substantial help from the European Union. 34 Finally, since early 1995 some French politicians, including President Francois Mitterrand, have realized that the conflict in Algeria is unwinable and joined the United States in suggesting that the European Union sponsor peace talks to end the growing civil war there and to exert pressure on the military-dominated government to compromise with the Islamists.

The American and European coming to terms with political Islam is a positive development which would serve both Western national interests and stability in the Middle East. A general war on Islamism is not in the best interest of either side. Recently, the West has had more problems with Libya and Iraq (both are secular not Islamist). Iran has taken many initiatives to improve relations with the West (particularly during the Gulf War) and since Khomeini’s death has subordinated ideology to national interest Finally, the West has had close and profitable relations with Saudi Arabia despite profound cultural differences. Most likely political. Islam will continue to dominate the power struggle in the Middle East for the next several years. The West has to learn how to live with it.

In order to establish a better understanding a number of guidelines should be considered: First, Western governments should deal with Islamism more as a socio-economic phenomenon and less as a mere security threat. It is wrong to categorize all of them as terronsts. Second, since the early 1990s Middle Eastern governments have never been as dependent on foreign power as they have been on the West. The United States and Europe should use this leverage to press these governments to engage their Islamist opposition in the political system. Third, independent human rights organizations have documented the severe abuse of human rights all over the region for a long time. The record of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey is similar to the one of Iran.34 The West should utilize its political, military, and financial weight to push for more respect and less abuse of human rights in all countries in the region. Fourth, over the last several years many Middle Eastern countries introduced some form of democracy and political liberalization. The West should encourage these attempts and support the construction of a democratic infrastructure such as freedom of press and civil society. Fifth, radicalism finds its roots in poverty. In order to strike extremism in the heart the West should promote economic development and free market. Sixth, peace would help the region to transfer the financial resources to address its social and economic problems. Finally, Willy Claes, the Secretary General of NATO, asserted recently that fundamentalism poses as big a threat to the West as Communism once did.36 Statements like this do not help. The West should avoid overreacting to the specter of a monolithic Islamic threat. Instead a case-by-case approach should be applied toward Islamic movements at present and in the future.

The Future of Political Islam

In most Middle Eastern countries Islamic movements constitute the main challenge to their governments. However, in most cases the secular state has proven too powerful to be toppled and has established strong ties with foreign countries which perceive their national interests in the survival of these secular regimes. Thus, an impasse has been reached in several Middle Eastern countries with each side (the governments and the Islamists) unable to destroy the other. At the same time each side refusing td recognize the rival’s power. Given the decline of legitimacy and the acute economic crisis in most states in the region, it is very likely that Islamists, even if they don’t come to power; will play an increasing role in the political, social, and economic arenas.

The dynamics of the power struggle between the governments and the Islamists vary from one country to another. However, there are common factors which would play a crucial role in shaping the outcome of this struggle.

The peace process between the Arabs and Israelis one of the most significant developments in the region. Theoretically, peace is supposed to help the contending parties to have better use of their resources In addressing their socio-economic problems. However, for many years Arab governments have hidden behind the Arab-Israeli conflict claiming that everything, including political participation, should be put aside for the sake of the dispute with Israel. Now, with the declining likelihood of another major war, Arab masses will demand a bigger share in the political systems. How ready Arab regimes are for political reform still remains to be seen. Moreover, most Arab governments have accepted to make peace with Israel but what about Arab masses? Having for years been bombarded with official rhetoric of extreme hostility toward Israel, most Arabs are not prepared for peace (the cold peace between Egypt and Israelis a good example).37 It is likely that peace with Israel might add to the alienation of Arab masses.

One of the main propositions of this study is that the severe economic crisis is a major reason for the rise of political Islam. Consequently, the future of Islamism would depend partly on the ability of the states environment. The World Bank has argued recently that the region requires at least 3 percent annual growth per capita to secure political stability.38 According to the latest figures available, most states have achieved much lower rates of economic growth. For example, Egypt 1.8%, Jordan -5.4%, Tunisia 1.3%, Algeria 0.5%, Turkey 2.9%, Iran -1.4%, and Saudi Arabia –3.3%.39  Among the main reasons for this slow economic growth is stagnating oil prices which brought a decline in inter-regional aid as well as a reduction of labor remittances. Another important reason for the economic decline for the last two decades has been the huge military spending by almost all states. The Middle East is the largest arms market in the Third World. Arms races in both conventional and non-conventional weapons have not stopped. For example, in 1994 Saudi Arabia bought seventy-two F-15 fighter jets from McDonnell Douglas Corporation for $9.5 billion. Kuwait bought 256 M1A2 battle tanks from the General Dynamics Corporation for $2.2 billion.40 In February 1995, Iran signed a $1 billion agreement with Russia to build a nuclear power plant. Other countries are doing the same and the main loser is domestic and regional economic development.

Another important determinant of stability and the role of political Islam in the region is succession crisis. With few exceptions, peaceful transition of power is rareness in the Middle East particularly in the Arab World. Arab heads of states, both monarchs and presidents stay in office until they either die or get assassinated. King Hussein of Jordan, for example, has been in office longer than any living head of state in the world. The youngest Arab leader, President Qaddafi, has been in power since 1969. Considering that the leaders of most Arab states, including the PLO, are in their 60s and 70s, it is believed that the departure of these great survivors would add new dynamics to the political process in the Middle East (the death of Houari Boumediene and the rise of Chadli Bendjedid in Algeria is a good illustration). A younger, mor6 liberal, more westernized generation would take over very soon in key Arab states such as Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Given the dictatorial nature of Arab regimes, it is expected that this generational transition will add to the political uncertainty which would affect political Islam one way or another.

Finally, The majority of Middle Eastern states have a combination of ethnic, religious, and sectarian minorities: the Berbers in North Africa; Christians in Egypt and Sudan; Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria; Shiaa in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Lebanon; and many many others. Given the size, economic fortune, political power, and external alliances, these minorities are an important factor in the political process in all Middle Eastern countries. Their reaction, support, neutrality, or opposition, would be considered by both the governments and the Islamists. The Berbers in Algeria, estimated to number 8 million among 28 million Algerians, have not taken an active role in the war between the government and the Islamists. Rather, they are threatening total war to defend the relative autonomy of their people in the mountainous Kabylia region in the north which is the least penetrated by Islamists.41 The Kurds in Turkey, estimated to number between 10 to 15 million among 60 million Turks, are now spread throughout the country, mostly on the outskirts of the big cities. As newcomers to the city, unable to find work and bringing conservative rural values, they are ripe for recruitment by the Islamists. The Welfare Party claims that the Kurdish insurrection will be solved when it takes power. 42

It is not clear how the interaction between all these factors, and many others, would affect the rise of political Islam. What is more likely is the fact that the status quo will not last for very long. Moreover, the process of replacing the current regimes with ‘some thing’ different, whatever the share of Islamists in it, is destructive. A productive approach for the ruling elites to minimize this turmoil is to integrate the Ialamists into the political process instead of criminalizing them, and for the West is to recognize and accommodate them. In the long run, they may prove a more stable partner. Islamism should be approached more as a religious, socio-econornic and political challenge and less as a security threat.



  1. John L. Esposito., “Political Islam: Beyond the Green Menace,” Current History, vol. 93, no. 579, January 1994, p. 21.
  2. Mary Anne Weaver., “The Novelist and the Sheikh,” The New Yorker, Vol. 70, No. 47, January 30, 1995, p. 58
  3. Seymour Martin Lipset., Political Man, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981, p. 64.
  4. Caio Koch-Weser., “Economic Reform and Regional Cooperation: A Development Agenda for the Middle East and Norffi Africa,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1993, p. 28.
  5. Ibid., p. 29.
  6. United States Congress, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, One Hundred Second Congress, Second Session, August 11, 1992, Promoting Pluralism and Democracy in the Middle East, Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1993, p. 55. Also, see Youssef M. Ibrahim., “Algeria Is Edging Toward Breakup,” New York Times, April 14, 1994, p. A4.
  7. Mary Anne Weaver., p. 56.
  8. Henry Kamm., “Turkeys Crises: Rebellion, Recession and Religion,” New York Times, May 20, 1994.
  9. Ghassan Salame., “Small is Pluralistic: Democracy as an Instrument of Civil Peace,” in Chassan Salame., (Ed,) Democracy Without Democrats?, New York: I. B. Tauris Publishers, 1994, p. 87.
  10. Edward W. Said., “The Phony Islamic Threat,” New York Times Magazine, November 21, 1993, p. 65.
  11. Youssef M. Ibrahim., “Palestinian Religious Militants: Why Their Ranks Are Growing,” New York Times, November 8, 1994, p. A7.
  12. quoted in Chassan Salame., “Islam and the West,” Foreign Policy,

No. 90, Spring 1993, p. 23.

  1. New York Times., “Algeria, and the Islamic Challenge,” March 6, 1995.
  2. Economist., “Turn Black, Mubarak,” Vol. 334, No. 7900, February 4, 1995, p. 15.
  3. Economist., “A Survey Of Islam: Not Again, for Heavens Sake,” Vol. 332, No. 7875, August 6, 1994, p. 7.
  4. New York Times reported that Islamists from Algeria crossed the border to Tunisia and killed five Tunisian border guards in response to growing cooperation between the two governments against Islamic movements. See Yousseff M. Ibrahim., “Algeria Rebels Said to Attack Post in Tunisia,” New York Times, February 17, 1995.
  5. John Battersby., “Israel Gets Genial Arab Bloc While Arafat Gets a Nudge to Squelch Islamic Militants,” Christian Science Monitor, February 6, 1995, p. 6.
  6. John Darnton., “Discontent Seethes in Once-Stable Turkey,”. New York Times, March 2, 1995, p. A6.
  7. A recent example is Washingtons efforts to press Middle Eastern countries to vote for an indefinite extension of worldwide treaty limiting nuclear arms. Israel, which is rockoned by Western intelligence services to have some 200 nuclear warheads, had been under much less pressure. See Steven Greenhouse., “A-Arms in the Mideast: US Tailors Its Appeals,” New York Times, February 16, 1995, p. A6.
  8. Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994, p. 7.
  9. Newsweek., “When Words Are the Best Weapon,” February 27, 1995, P. 39.
  10. Agis Salpukas., “Long-Term Oil Strain Is Seen,” New York Times, October 31, 1994.
  11. Robert H. Pelletreau, Jr., Daniel Pipes & John L. Esposito., “Symposium: Resurgent Islam in the Middle East,” Middle Fast Policy, August 1994, p. 2.
  12. Economist.,”Turn Back, Mubarak,” Vol. 334, No. 7900, February 4, 1995, p. 15.
  13. Elaine Sciolino., “Condemning Iranian Oil Deal, US May Tighten Trade Ban,” New York Times, March 10, 1995, p. 2.
  14. Daniel Williams., “US Shifts Approach to Algeria as Islamic Movement Builds,” Washington Post, May 19, 1994, p. A31.
  15. John L. Esposito., “Political Islam: Beyond the Green Menace,” Current History, Vol. 93, No. 579, January 1994, p. 22.
  16. World Almanac and Book of Facts 1994, Mahwah, NJ: Funk and Wagnalls, 1994, p. 727.
  17. Barbara Crossette., “Talks in Denmark Redefine Foreign Aid in Post-Cold-War Era,” New York Times, March 10, 1995, p. A5.
  18. Economist., “Turkey: Things Fall Apart,” Vol. 334, No. 7901, February

11,1995, p. A6.

  1. John Darnton., “Discontent Seethes in Once-Stable Turkey,” New York Times, March 2, 1995, p. A6.
  2. Economist., “Deja Vu,” Vol. 332, No. 7876, August 13, 1994, p. 45.
  3. Jon Marks., “Attitudes Harden,” Middle East, Vol. 38, No. 33, August 19, 1994, p. 6.
  4. Economist., “Time to Help Algeria,” Vol. 334, No. 7902, February 18, 1995, p. 11.
  5. In September 1994 Clinton Administration officials apologized to the Saudis after a State Department spokesman told reporters that the Administration “does have serious concerns about human rights” because of recent arrests in the Kingdom! See Flame Sciolino and Eric Schmitt., “Saudi Arabia, Its Purse Thinner, Learns How to Say ‘No’ to US, New York Times, November 4, 1994, p. A6.
  6. John Darnton., “Discontent Seethes in Once-Stable Turkey,” New York Times, March 2, 1995, p. A6.
  7. Edward W. Said., “The Phony Islamic Threat.” New York Times Magazine, November 21, 1993, p. 65.
  8. Economist., “Low Growth, Low Hopes of Peace,” Vol. 333, No. 7887, October 29, 1994, p. 47.
  9. World Bank., World Development Report 1994, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, Table I, p. 162.
  10. Eric Schmitt., “US Arms Merchants Fatten Share of Sales to Third World,” New York Times, August 2, 1994.
  11. Youssef M. Ibrahim., “Violence Drives a Minority in Algeria to Take Up Arms,” New York Times, October 1, 1994.
  12. John Darnton. “Discontent Seethes in Once-Stable Turkey,” New York Times, March 2, 1995, p. A6.


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