Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September/October 1994, Pages 21, 43-44
Heritage Foundation Conference Assesses Islamist Threat
By Greg Noakes
A July 21 conference at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, DC think tank, to examine "The Threat of Islamic Fundamentalism in North Africa" produced a variety of assessments. Heritage Senior Policy Analyst for Middle East Affairs James Philips chaired the panel, which included Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service, Khalid Duran of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum and his colleague, Daniel Pipes, editor of the new Middle East Quarterly and a Heritage Foundation adjunct scholar. The panelists' presentations and suggestions for U.S. foreign policy drew more criticism than praise from several Muslim scholars and activists in the audience, some of whom described the conference as an exercise in "Islam-bashing."
Opening the conference, Philips noted that Islamism is on the rise in North Africa, where Sudan's Islamic regime cooperates with Iranian efforts to spread Islamic radicalism abroad, Egypt is fighting violence with violence, Algeria is engaged in "a slow-motion civil war" and Tunisia, Morocco and Libya nervously watch developments. Philips called on the panelists to discuss the present instability in North Africa, assess Iran's role in the spread of "fundamentalism," and outline the implications for the United States and an appropriate American response.
In his discussion of "Iran, Sudan and Export of the Islamic Revolution," Kenneth Katzman argued that despite Iran's present difficulties, the Ayatollah Khomeini's dream of Islamic revolution "from Morocco to Bangladesh" is beginning to be realized. Particularly significant are Shi'i Iran's growing ties with Sunni Islamists.
These ties date to 1989, when a confluence of events provided Iran with openings to the rest of the Muslim world. In that year a military coup in Sudan "created another sympathetic government" within the region, while the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan resulted in the disengagement of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia from the Afghan conflict. Arab mujahideen formerly supported by Washington and Riyadh suddenly were open to Iranian manipulation.
Tehran's overtures to Khartoum led to an influx of Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Sudan, according to Katzman, where they helped the Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir eliminate domestic opposition in northern Sudan. Although the Guards have not fought in the civil war in the south, they have helped train Egyptian and Algerian insurgents for violent revolution in their home countries and helped form Sudan's "People's Defense Forces," which Katzman called "a clone of the Revolutionary Guards." In exchange for serving as Iran's foothold in Arab Africa, Sudan receives some oil and a considerable amount of weaponry from Tehran, Katzman said.
"Islamic revolution is much like other revolutions," according to Katzman, requiring both popular mobilization and a revolutionary cadre. Due to its lack of men and money, however, "Iran cannot work at the mass level," but must concentrate on developing an Arab cadre. Katzman pointed to the Arab mujahideen, or "Afghans" in popular parlance, as the "revolutionary nucleus" in North Africa.
The only way to stop Islamic revolutions in North Africa is dialogue, according to Katzman. "You need to create a non-revolutionary situation" by undertaking power-sharing with Islamists and accommodating elements previously excluded from decision-making. This deflates the appeal of the radicals and creates an alternative to violent revolutionary change. "Islamic regimes look dangerous to the U.S. when they come to power through revolution, not evolution," Katzman concluded.
Khalid Duran addressed "The Threat of Islamic Radicalism in Algeria" by challenging the conventional view that the country's civil strife pits a secular military government against Islamist radicals. There has been a redrawing of battle lines, Duran said, and now the struggle is between all Algerian forces opposed to ideological rule and the Islamists, whom Duran defined as believers in Islam as a superior ideology, not simply a religion or way of life. Virtually all Algerians are Muslims, Duran noted, but most reject Islamism.
Duran therefore sees a shift in the balance of power, with the new government of President Liamine Zeroual beginning to recover lost ground. He outlined five reasons for the apparent reversal of fortunes since Algerian Islamists swept the 1990 municipal elections and the first round of parliamentary voting in 1991. First, the approximately 20 percent of the population that is Berber is strongly opposed to Islamism. "Islamist propaganda has been extremely anti-Berber over the last few years," Duran said, though "at the moment [the Berbers] do not take an active part on the side of the government" because of the regime's past oppostion to Berber nationalism. Duran argued that Berbers are opposed to the Islamist demand for the imposition of shariah, or Islamic law, believing "you can be a Muslim without the shariah."
Second, "Islamism is a very recent phenomenon in Algeria," according to Duran, and has not had time to infiltrate the military, as occurred in Pakistan prior to the 1977 military coup of Zia ul-Haq and the 1989 Bashir coup in Sudan. While some Algerian officers and soldiers have defected to the Islamist camp, the vast majority of the military supports the government, Duran said.
Third, internecine warfare has weakened the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and other Algerian Islamist groups. Because the development period of the movement has been truncated, there is little cohesion. Apart from tension between moderate and radical Islamists, Duran said there is a developing split between the FIS leadership in exile and such radical groups within Algeria as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Armed Islamic Movement (MIA). These radical groups are responsible for the ongoing campaign of assassination, including the killings of leaders Duran termed "so-called moderate Islamists" like Mohammed Ben Slimane of the Hamas party. His murder first was attributed to government death squads, but later acknowledged as the work of the GIA.
Fourth, the Islamist tactic of "hitting at the economy has backfired," according to Duran. By striking at people's pocketbooks, Algerian Islamists hoped to inspire popular resentment against the regime. Instead, although everyone considers the government inefficient and corrupt, blame for increased economic hardship has focused on the Islamists, Duran believes. He noted that the largest number of Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan were Algerians, and that "this is the one element that has contributed to the success of the movement" in Algeria through its military prowess. Yet the price paid in terms of public opinion is high, and the killing of intellectuals "has turned the masses against them."
Finally, other opposition groups in Algeria, including the former ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), are growing stronger, giving the people additional political options. "Algerians feel that they can choose," Duran said. Nevertheless, the quick succession of governments since the 1992 military coup and widespread talk of "a hidden mafia" of military and business interests have created a climate of uncertainty in the country, which Western indecision over the Algerian crisis has only fueled, Duran argued. Such uncertainty plays into the hands of the radicals.
The task of outlining a U.S. response to the Islamist challenge fell to Daniel Pipes, who maintains that Islamists have nothing to do with traditional Islam. Therefore he views the issue of Islamic radicalism not as "a clash of civilizations" between Muslims and the West, but as a battle of ideas between fundamentalists and anti-fundamentalists.
"We are outsiders in the debate," Pipes said. "We have a say, we have a role, we can help one side or the other, but we are outsiders."
Pipes noted that although "the debate over fundamentalist Islam is new" within American foreign policy circles, "it is eerily reminiscent of the debate over Marxism-Leninism," between the Left and the Right in American politics. The Left is focused on the improvement of local social and political conditions, arguing that the West is on the wrong side of history and should accept the Islamists' inevitable rise to power. By engaging in dialogue with the fundamentalists, the Left believes the radicals will moderate their policies, just as leftists felt detente was the way to deal with the Soviet Union and China.
Pipes said the Right views the fundamentalists' misguided utopianism and global ambitions as the source of conflict, arguing that confrontation with the radicals and solidarity with America's friends in the region is the only rational response. "Appeasement does not work. Resolve does," according to Pipes. "Now you hear about the 'good' fundamentalists and the 'bad' ones...I think that's a mistake." Pipes held that while tactics may change, the ultimate goal of creating an Islamic state remains the same.
As for specific policy recommendations, Pipes made four proposals. First, the U.S. should not deal with Islamic fundamentalists, but confront them. Second, Washington should use "the instruments of state" to press Islamic regimes in Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan to moderate their policies. Third, Muslim institutions and individuals like Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin who stand up to fundamentalists should be encouraged and assisted through USAID and the U.S. Information Agency. Fourth, the U.S. should stand behind governments in the Muslim world that are combatting fundamentalism and join the French in adopting a hard-line stance in Algeria.
The American Right won the Cold War, and will win this battle as well, Pipes declared. "Keep in mind who was right the last time around, for that will give a good indication of who will be right this time around."
The question-and-answer period was heated, but none of the speakers retreated from their positions. In response to a question about the Clinton administration's policy toward Algeria, Pipes said pressing the military regime to negotiate with the opposition was a mistake. "We are pulling the rug out from under them," he said.
Duran concurred, adding that Islamists have always considered the United States their chosen enemy and that U.S. support for dialogue will be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Kenneth Katzman disagreed, saying that Washington was taking appropriate actions "to put back in the box a revolutionary situation...If you have that dialogue you defeat the influence of the 'Afghans,' the militants and the 'bad fundamentalists'...The issue is the process."
Response from several Muslims at the seminar was highly critical.
Asked about his assertion that Islamism is opposed to traditional Islam, Pipes said, "There are pious Muslims who are not Islamic fundamentalists." As an example of the traditionalist/fundamentalist divide, Pipes referred to the ritual stoning of the three pillars at Mina during the pilgrimage to Mecca. Traditionally this represents the believer's repudiation of Satan, but according to Pipes that interpretation has changed since the Islamic Revolution in Iran. "Now [the pillars] are the Great Satan," the United States, Pipes declared. The remark drew skeptical laughter from the audience.
One questioner said the West's apparent double standard toward Muslims in Bosnia and Palestine contributed to the Islamists' success. Pipes replied that he saw no double standard, arguing that while the West has done nothing in Bosnia it had intervened in Somalia. He argued that there was an enormous difference between Pakistan having nuclear weapons and Libya possessing nuclear capability, though he neglected to mention the Pressler Amendment designed to end Pakistan's nuclear program, as well as the fact that no such legislation has been passed to end a similar program in Israel, which has not even signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"We have no problem with Islam as a religion, but we do have a problem with the people who declare us 'the Great Satan,'" Pipes said. "We should confront them and do ideological battle with them."
Response from several Muslims at the seminar was highly critical. Mokhtar Maghraoui, a physicist and director of Islamic education at Schenectady, NY's Islamic Center of the Capital District, told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,, "They had three speakers; two speakers were completely off balance and one was somewhat balanced." While expressing appreciation that Kenneth Katzman "advocated a kind of dialogue" and made a distinction between political change through revolution and evolution, Maghraoui added that Duran and Pipes "were extreme and extremely speculative. One could simply reject their arguments one by one."
Maghraoui, originally from Oran, Algeria, was disturbed by Duran and Pipes' support for all-out confrontation and "ideological battle" with the Islamists. "This is a recipe for disaster," Maghraoui declared. "This is a recipe for civilizational cleansing."
Maghraoui was particularly critical of Pipes' proposal for U.S. government assistance for "anti-fundamentalist" writers in the Muslim world like Rushdie and Nasrin. "This is a very narrow view that completely neglects how societies develop, as well as the deep-seated emotions among Muslims," Maghraoui argued. "It simply won't work. It will create a feeling that we are again subjected to a form of intellectual imperialism."
Abdurahman Alamoudi, executive director of the American Muslim Council in Washington, DC, echoed Maghraoui's critique of the confrontation policy. "We are for dialogue. We are not for revolution," Alamoudi said. "We are encouraged by [Katzman's] statement, but we want him to go a few steps further...and spell out the conditions for dialogue." Noting that the media and scholars tend to focus on militant Islamists, producing a plethora of books and articles on "bad" Islam, Alamoudi said, "We want them to tell us who represents good Islam!"
Both Maghraoui and Alamoudi found Pipes' reference to the hajj and the pillars of "the Great Satan" deeply offensive. "Muslims do not feel that the U.S. is 'the Great Satan,'" Maghraoui declared. "Muslim people are very intelligent and sensitive...[Pipes] is using terms the American people are very sensitive to, and is trying to play the card of villifying Islam and Muslims," Maghraoui said. "It is very cruel on his part to use these methods of deception."
Alamoudi told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,, "Pipes is known to be against Islam, period. He says it." Alamoudi felt the reference to the pillars at Mina "was insulting and repugnant. When Muslims go on hajj they go for a religious purpose, and they don't worry much about America."
Some Muslim groups approached the Heritage Foundation about expanding the panel to include an Islamist perspective. Alamoudi said an American Muslim Council offer to provide a speaker from Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front was declined by the think tank. Five American Muslims distributing Islamic literature on the sidewalk in front of the conference site were briefly questioned by Washington, DC police, who had received a call from the Heritage Foundation that a "mob" of people was protesting outside, according to Alamoudi. However, panel chair James Philips apologized for the incident at the start of the conference proceedings.
Asked about the impact of the conference, the AMC's Alamoudi expressed fear that some in the audience might accept the panelists' arguments uncritically. He referred to a July 27 article by Andrew Borowiec in the Washington Times, headlined, "Islamic Fanatics Put U.S. in Quandary," which quoted extensively from the gathering. "It scares me a lot," Ala-moudi said.
Greg Noakes, an American Muslim, is the news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. ❑