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Islamic fundamentalist groups make U.S. policy in Mideast more difficult


WASHINGTON -- The suspected role of one or more Muslim radicals in the World Trade Center bombing exacerbates U.S. policy makers' problems in grappling with the growing influence of fundamentalist Islam in Middle Eastern politics.

Officially, the United States draws a distinction between hatred-spawned violence and the political movements that seek to make Islam paramount in political and cultural life in much of the Middle East and beyond.

But that distinction has proved hard to put into practice, particularly when Islamic movements threaten the stability of allies the United States counts on to help protect its interests.

And efforts to view the phenomenon dispassionately may be sorely tested if, as some analysts fear, Islamic radicals open a second front in the United States in their war against the West.

Policy-makers confront a number of competing pressures, not least of which is the likelihood that a terrorist act will inflame public opinion and sway official U.S. reaction.

America's closest friends in the Middle East -- Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia -- already feel threatened by Islamic fundamentalism to the point of cracking down in various ways. This has made it virtually impossible for the United States to be a consistent champion for human rights, the rule of law, and democracy in the region.

Islamic radicals in many countries oppose the Middle East peace process, the existence of Israel and what they see as the encroachment of corrupt Western customs. And violent fringes engage in or sponsor acts of terrorism ranging from the spectacular, such as bombings, to the merely brutal, such as attacks on Western tourists.

Three episodes illustrate the problem:

* For a decade, the United States backed the Mujahedeen, which included radical Islamic elements, seeking to overthrow the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan. Their eventual victory has thrown that country into factional chaos. Worse, in the view of regional leaders, Muslims from other countries who helped the war have returned to foment trouble at home.

* When Algeria's military voided last year's election victory by a Muslim fundamentalist party, the United States joined other countries in acquiescing.

* The United States joined in the condemnation of Israel's expulsion of 400 Palestinians linked to Hamas, a radical Islamic movement that Israel and the United States agree includes terrorists. Yet it accepts, for now, Israel's refusal to return all the deportees immediately. In an added twist, American diplomatic contacts with members of Hamas recently were halted because they complicated the peace process.

It wasn't until last year that the United States came up with a clear policy statement on the growing regional movement.

In a Washington speech that still stands as American policy despite the change in administrations, Edward Djerejian, assistant secretary of state for the Middle East and South Asia, rejected the idea that Islam itself posed a threat to the West.

"[T]he U.S. government does not view Islam as the next "ism" confronting the West or threatening world peace. . . . The Cold War is not being replaced with a new competition between Islam and the West.

"We detect no monolithic or coordinated international effort behind these movements," he said. Other officials point out that Saudi Arabia, a close ally, is a deeply conservative Islamic regime.

The speech went on to support the broadening of political participation in the Middle East, but cautioned, "While we believe in the principle of 'one person, one vote,' we do not support 'one person, one vote, one time.' "

Mr. Djerejian said the United States differs with those who practice terrorism, oppress minorities, preach intolerance, or violate internationally accepted standards of conduct regarding human rights. It also differs, he said, "with those who substitute religious and political confrontation for constructive engagement with the rest of the world."

For these and other reasons, he said, the United States is on bad terms with the secular governments of Iraq and Libya.

"We're not posing ourselves in opposition to Islam, or those who want to govern under the principles of Islam," an official involved in framing the policy stresses.

Various harsh crackdowns on fundamentalists in the region have drawn criticism from the United States, but never enough to interfere with the bedrock relationship between the United States and its close allies.

Even with Syria, American diplomats separate their "human rights dialogue" from higher-priority work on the Middle East peace process.

Policy-makers, the official said, realize that "a big chunk of the region has little tradition of democracy," and the United States says it respects local traditions.

He acknowledges that the United States will face "a dilemma" in the future if a militant Islamist party wins power democratically.

U.S. officials explained their acquiescence in Algeria's move last year by saying Islamists had no intention of maintaining democracy once they used it to achieve power.

But to the Arab world, "the perception was that democracy is supported except when the winners are Muslims," said Asad AbuKhalil, a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute who also teaches at Georgetown University.

This only aggravated hostility toward the West, he said. He advocates "consistent, universal support for democratization and standards of human rights" regardless of who benefits.

Analysts who see radical Islam as the one of the most serious threats to the United States in the region suggest the United States abandon any push for democracy in the region.

"There's a conundrum that needs to be worked out," says Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "And that is that if democracy is to be a pillar of foreign policy, in the Mideast there is a problem of promoting opposition to pro-Western regimes. The principal opposition to pro-Western regimes in the Middle East is Islamic fundamentalism."

"There's no evidence that the opposition to pro-American autocrats are themselves democrats," he said.

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