Muffled militants


Washington -- DURING a visit to Turkey in May I met with a columnist for a leading Ankara newspaper and asked him in passing how circulation was. "Great," he told me. It was growing daily. What was their trick? I asked. More sports? Doonesbury? Ann Landers? No, no, he said, it's very simple. "We are giving away commentaries on the Koran with every new subscription."

Not only in Turkey, where the mayors of Ankara and Istanbul come from the Islamic party, but also elsewhere in the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalism seems to be either going underground or going mainstream.

That is, fundamentalist groups are either engaging in more hard-core violence, and losing to the secular authorities, or playing by the rules of the game and being co-opted by the secular political systems.

But whether their approach is the M-16 or MTV, Islamic fundamentalists no longer seem quite so threatening, their power no longer quite so invincible, their victory march no longer quite so inevitable. Indeed, for the moment -- and it may only be a moment -- the Islamic fundamentalist phenomenon has peaked.

The reasons are many. To begin with, the violent Islamic groups overplayed their hand. Their tactic of assassinating officials alienated large segments of the public in Egypt and Algeria and triggered a harsh counter-reaction from these secular states.

Never underestimate the power of the secular state in the Arab world. These regimes have used all their resources -- police, intelligence, the army and ruthlessness -- to suppress the violent fundamentalists and to co-opt the nonviolent ones. Since Muslim militants in Egypt almost destroyed the tourism industry there in 1992, the regime has killed 800 fundamentalists in separate shootouts. As the Islamic expert Martin Kramer points out, every Arab ruler threatened by an Islamic opposition "has found a way to contain it or confront it."

They have been aided by the dismal failure of Iran, which has become a living, breathing advertisement against Islamic rule.

Islamic fundamentalism also seems to have lost some edge in places where the secular authorities have done a slightly better job of improving living conditions. The fact that Yasser Arafat today has 60,000 people on his payroll in Gaza has weakened the Hamas fundamentalist group, which tends to draw recruits from the desperate.

Also, Islamic parties that have joined the system are under the same pressure to create jobs as secular parties. The Hezbollah fundamentalists in Lebanon have gone into the tourism business in Baalbek, where a few years ago the only foreigners were hostages who were bound and gagged.

Progress toward settling the Arab-Israeli conflict also seems to have diluted one of the main sources of anger used by fundamentalists to mobilize large constituencies. Jordan's Islamic Action Front was defeated last week in important municipal elections by a pro-government slate that favored peace with Israel.

But is this the start of a long-term trend or just the pause that refreshes before radical political Islam surges anew? A lot depends on whether governments use this pause to undertake serious reforms or avoid them.

Yes, the secular Arab states have quashed violent fundamentalists, but their heavy-handed bureaucracies have also quashed the free flow of information, commerce and entrepreneurship needed to alleviate the poverty that fuels fundamentalism. As the political economist Henri Barkey notes, most Arab regimes have cumbersome state bureaucracies more suited to keeping the ruler in power "than to fostering the growth of a modern competitive society."

That explains why when you cover international economics, you notice that there are two words that never come up: "Arab world."

Arab world growth prospects today are dim, because few Arab governments have instituted the educational reforms, liberation of women, privatization of state industries and downsizing of bureaucracies that countries from Brazil to Indonesia have done to compete in the 21st century. With 50 percent of the Arab world under the age of 18, that is not a healthy situation.

Whether it is the Internet or the global investment highway, the Arabs are not in the game. As long as that continues, the Arab world will stagnate and the environment for radical politics -- Islamic or otherwise -- will flourish.

Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.

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