Islamic Militancy Has Roots in History Iran May Encourage Fundamentalism, But Is Not Its Sole Cause

Islamic fundamentalism is again making news in the Middle East with the spotlight on Hamas, a Palestinian fundamentalist group operating in Israeli-occupied territory. The Israeli expulsion 415 adherents of Hamas drew attention to Iran's ties to the group.

But the United States is mistaken in seeing Islamic fundamentalism as a product recently exported from Iran. It is something quite different -- a long-standing force in the Middle East not likely to disappear even if the religious regime in Tehran vanishes. If it sweeps the region in the face of American resistance, the United States may be in even worse political shape in the Middle East than before.


Far from being a phenomenon invented by Iran, Islamic fundamentalism has been an active force in Middle Eastern politics from Morocco to Indonesia for well over a hundred years. It has waxed and waned as an effective oppositional force in confrontation to secular political systems.

The West was simply blind to Islamic fundamentalism. It was ignored as a force for so long primarily because it was masked by great power rivalries throughout the century.


The original leader of the Islamic revolutionary movement was Jalal al-Din al-Afghani, an Iranian. Al-Afghani traveled the length of the Islamic world starting in the 1870s, preaching Islamic reform and religious resistance against the colonial European powers. He claimed that Britain, France and Russia, in particular, were operat-ing in collusion with Middle Eastern rulers to rob the people of their patrimony through sweetheart deals for exploitation of natural and commercial resources in the region.

As a direct result of the efforts of Al-Afghani and his followers, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood evolved throughout the region. These groups generally espoused three methods in their political and religious activity: personal piety coupled with evangelism; applying Islamic law to modern problems; and political resistance to secular regimes.

The activities of the reformers were unceasing, but the events of two world wars effectively overshadowed them in Western eyes. Throughout this period the nations of the Middle East were treated largely as war prizes to be divided among the European powers. Every current nation in the Mediterranean-Mesopotamian region was created by the British and the French without consent or consultation on the part of the residents. This increased the resentment of the fundamentalists against the West and against the rulers installed by Westerners.

After World War II, the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union for influence in the region dominated politics. Governments such as those of Egypt, the Sudan, Iraq and Syria were constantly pressed to choose between East and West. The choice was often prompted by "gifts" of military support to sitting rulers. With ready sources of money and guns in either Washington or Moscow, secular rulers could easily suppress the religious fundamentalists who opposed them. This added still further to the anger of the religious reformers.

One of the most ruthless oppressors of religious resistance wasGamal Abdel Nasser. In the coup which brought him to power in Egypt in 1954, he was aided by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. He made the decision to found his government on principles of Arab nationalism rather than Islamic fundamentalism. Since the Islamic reformers were prominent and relatively powerful, he exiled or executed their leaders, driving the movement underground.

Nasser did not suffer at the hands of the fundamentalists, but his successor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by them.

Moreover, Nasser's legacy is now effectively dead. The failure of Arab nationalism as a means of solving regional problems has removed the only serious ideological challenge to fundamentalism.

After the end of the Cold War, secular Middle Eastern leaders suddenly found themselves with no ready source of personal military support. The Soviet Union was defunct --no longer supplying weapons. American politicians, for their part, felt that weapons given to Arabs might be turned against Israel. The war against Iraq prolonged the sale of arms to Arabs for a bit, but now such sales are at a standstill.


The result is that the lid is off of the long-standing conflict between religious and secular forces in the region. And the religious challengers have a good chance of winning for the first time.

The Iranian revolution was proof that a powerful secular regime could be unseated by Islamic reformers, and now fundamentalists are launching assaults on all fronts.

Iran's involvement with fundamentalism throughout the region is not accidental. The Iranian revolution was led by religious reformers who had political pedigrees leading directly back to Al-Afghani. The political pronouncements of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sound like those of the Islamic revolutionaries of the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, some of his rhetoric seems to have been directly lifted from writings of that period -- not surprising since he was himself a young man at that time and in close touch with the leading religious leaders of the day.

Little wonder, then, that Iran's current leaders are in close touch with all of the principal fundamentalist movements: Ha- mas, Al Nahda in Tunisia, the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria; and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan. These groups are historically all political cousins with deep "family" roots.

Iran is indeed providing help to these groups, but they would persist without aid from Tehran. It is somewhat absurd to believe that Tehran could effectively mastermind revolutions in half a dozen countries thousands of miles from Tehran.

Far from being a primary force, Iran's activity is more likely a hedge for the future. Whether Iran acts or not there is a good chance that Islamic fundamentalists will eventually rule in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan. They are already in power in the Sudan and Libya. The fundamentalist Hezbollah is powerful in Lebanon. Muslim movements in Syria and Iraq are merely waiting for strongmen Hafiz el Assad and Saddam Hussein to pass from the scene.


Saudi Arabia is a curious case. Saudi leaders already claim to be fundamentalists, but reformers say that the Saudi royal family is corrupt and unobservant in Islamic practice and must be eliminated. Thus far, the Saudis have successfully repressed the revolutionaries, but they continue to foment protest and guerrilla action in the Arabian peninsula.

The United States has a serious choice to make. It can support the sitting leaders in the region at the risk of seeing them toppled one by one in popular uprisings. Or it can begin now to develop understanding at some level with the religious fundamentalists in the region as insurance against the day when they may fully come into their own as rulers of the region.

William Beeman is a Brown University anthropologist specializing Iran.