America's false perceptions of Islam

PARIS — PARIS -- The presidential campaign season starts with terrorism at the top of the American foreign policy agenda -- even if it's not an issue but Republicans and Democrats merely competing to make the most ferocious promises to do something about it.

There is a rousing cynicism in this, since there is very little practical to do, beyond certain self-evident preventive and police measures already agreed, if often unenforced.


Terrorism in any case is selectively and demagogically identified.

In American politics, terrorism is nearly always Muslim terrorism. A too-large part of the policy community and political class has already nominated Islamic fundamentalism successor to Communism as global threat to our new world disorder.


Thus Washington's campaign against fundamentalist Iran, Sudan, and Libya as terrorism-sponsoring states. The president had families of those killed in the TWA Flight 800 disaster witness his signing of legislation imposing secondary boycotts on foreign firms dealing with those states, as if there was a proven connection between Iran and what happened to the airliner.

It was a political exploitation of the tragedy, and a demagogic one of the kind that leads the country deeper into ignorance.

To understand why there is a fundamentalist Iran, we need to know why there is also a fundamentalist Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Afghanistan, and fundamentalists in government in Turkey, and perhaps one day in Algeria.

Basis of terrorism

We need to understand that terrorism is not always fundamentalist. Politicized Middle Eastern terrorism began in sophisticated Palestinian circles.

Some history is essential. The Islamic Ottoman Empire was a major player in world affairs for six centuries, collapsing only in the first world war.

Before the Ottomans, a brilliant Arab empire had, at its peak, ruled from Central Asia through the Middle East and North Africa all the way to southwestern France, occupying much of Spain for seven centuries, until 1492.

This was a much more advanced society than Europe's, at the time. The Arabs transmitted classical Greek philosophy and literature to Western Europe, together with their own advanced mathematics and science.


With such a past, the bitterness and humiliation felt in the Islamic world today is not hard to understand. It is felt by ordinary people as much as by leaders. An Algerian intellectual, Hamid Chorfa, recently wrote that "Orphans of their marvelous history, the masses try to re-attach themselves to what nourished that history, to retrace their steps...."

This is fundamentalism. The fundamentalists' illusion is to think that they can go back to the religion-centered society and government of the Middle Ages. Their illusion, as Mr. Chorfa says, represents "a case of social pathology, a pathology that results in extremism."

After their expulsion from Spain the Arabs retreated into a kind of intellectual isolation. Then, in the 20th century, came colonialism. The Arabs became the ruled, rather than the rulers. They found themselves parcelled out among the European powers.

After that, Israel was forcibly implanted in what had been Arab Palestine.

When Egypt and the Arab states again became fully independent in the 1950s, they tried to catch up with the West by adopting the model of the single-party "progressive" dictatorship -- popular because the Soviet Union championed the Arabs.

That didn't work. Wars with Israel produced defeats. The Gulf War saw Iraq crushed. Only oil has given the Arabs -- some of them -- international influence.


Most Islamic countries are still poor and backward, overshadowed by the West, which dominates global technology and the world economy.

Israel still occupies Jerusalem, Islam's holy city, as well as that of TC Jews and Christians. The U.S. still supports Israel.

Now the war in Bosnia has "rekindled the myth of a campaign by the Christian West to eradicate the last outpost of Islam in Europe." The British ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, Alan Monro, goes on to say: "This is not a superficial conviction; its persuasive message has formed a brimstone staple of Friday sermons in the mosques throughout the Muslim world for the past four years."

No solution

To grasp all of this, and understand how it has produced the desperation of the fundamentalist movement, does nothing to solve the problem Islamic fundamentalism presents.

It does demonstrate that fundamentalism is not some state-sponsored conspiracy against the West. It does suggest why nothing can be improved by bombing Iran or Libya.


The Arabs are caught up in the historical tragedy produced by their five centuries of intellectual and cultural retreat.

We are affected by their tragedy, which is far from ended, since neither fundamentalism nor terrorism will get the Islamic peoples where they want to go.

Fundamentalism has no positive program for governing a modern state and building a modern economy. Iran is finding that out. There is discontent there at the failures of government by the mullahs.

The elections in Iran in March, and recent votes in Egypt, Jordan, and even in Algeria, all produced indications of dissatisfaction with the fundamentalists, and also with violence.

American foreign policy cannot successfully deal with the Islamic world so long as it is content to think and debate in false and ideologized terms, as it is doing today.

This is the political season, and therefore the demagogy season. The time is overdue to become serious.


William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/13/96