Islam and politics in the Middle East

Issue 

By Sean Malloy

Islamic fundamentalism, and Islam in general, cannot be taken out of historical and political context. Western media hype portraying Islam as an inspiration for terror clouds the real nature of Islam in the Middle East. Green Left Weekly interviewed Ahmad Shboul, associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Sydney University, about the meaning of Islamic fundamentalism.

Shboul discussed two recent historical examples, Algeria and Palestine.

"In Algeria Islamic identity has always been very important. The long French occupation from 1830 to 1962 emphasised both the Arab and the Islamic view of religion in the face of French occupation and colonisation.

"The National Front for Liberation [FLN] of Algeria's platform is nationalist, but part of that was assumed to be also an Islamic identity. You can't call the Front for Liberation an Islamic movement, but it was assumed Islam was a genuine part of Algerian national identity.

"The only Christians in Algeria are the French and maybe a few Arabs; indigenous Algerians are entirely Muslim. For them, being an Algerian is being a Muslim."

During the French occupation, "there were two types of Muslim, traditional and modernist. The modernist ones were influenced by socialism. After independence the FLN became the ruling party, and the only party for a long time."

Shboul explained that the FLN attempted to develop the economy in non-capitalist ways. "They experimented with socialism, workers power or management. They did try to industrialise the country, but did not succeed."

Algeria's debts grew along with inflation, dashing the FLN's promises of development and employment.

"The World Bank imposed certain conditions on Algeria, and the International Monetary Fund demanded certain economic regimes to ensure debt repayments. A large amount of Algerian youth became unemployed and couldn't see much hope. "Many young Algerians turned to Islam as a kind of individual satisfaction. Then they got involved in political reform, especially after the Iranian revolution. People who became interested in Islam just as a question of identity or as an escape found themselves involved in movements which had political aims as well."

The FLN introduced a multiparty system in mid-1989 after a year of protests over various issues. More than 20 opposition organisations formed, including the Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS).

"The Front for Islamic Salvation, as an Islamic movement, had all of the usual slogans 'follow the teaching of the Quran', 'follow the practice of Muhammad' and so on, which is very ambiguous but has a great appeal to people. People can relate to it without needing to define what it is. FIS ended up having a movement which has very clear slogans, which people can relate to, but with no clear political program."

Algeria's new electoral system was similar to the French system, involving two rounds. The first round of elections resulted in a high level of support for FIS, so "the government started to have cold feet", says Shboul. "They were advised by such countries as Saudi Arabia and the United States that the election result was dangerous, so they aborted the elections."

Scrapping the elections "led to more opposition. Then followed violence. Many FIS leaders were imprisoned. Religious dress is now banned. If the authorities see someone in religious clothes they arrest them; people with beards become suspect. You have a situation where religious people have become feared by the government, but that does not mean they started the violence.

"The Islamic movement in Algeria is very popular, but it has resorted to violence partly because of frustration."

Palestine

"In Palestine you have a different situation, because the Palestinian movement has been a secular movement for a long time. The PLO is a secular organisation and is still secular by definition. But there has always been a tendency to resort to Islamic slogans in times of frustration.

"The PLO has been trying to compromise with Israel since the mid-'70s. The more they compromise, the worse things seem to get. They are not getting any response from the Israelis. There is a large section icularly in Gaza, looking for alternatives."

Islamic revival in Palestine is a result of the frustrations of not establishing freedom from Israeli rule and a counter to Israel's religious extremism, says Shboul.

"Essentially they are trying to use Islam as a platform for opposition. Some of them even talk about establishing an Islamic state. I see Hamas as a war cry for resistance against Israeli occupation.

"In certain instances there has been cooperation between PLO and Hamas. In other cases Hamas is very hostile to the PLO. Hamas doesn't want to be compromised because they feel that the PLO has been selling out.

"Hamas is not necessarily related to the Muslim Brotherhood; it is not a branch of the Brotherhood. It is a Palestinian movement; Hamas is an acronym for the Movement of Islamic Resistance of Palestine.

"Its origins are essentially in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank."

Some Middle East observers argue that Hamas was encouraged to develop by Israel in order to compete with the PLO.

"There is a school of thought that says perhaps they have been encouraged to undermine the PLO or perhaps to let a kind of extremist leadership emerge so the Israelis could say, 'Look, these are extreme people. How can we deal with them?'. This is just a hypothesis; I'm not sure if it is correct or not."

Varied goals

Religious fundamentalism in the Middle East is similar to religious fundamentalism in the West, argues Shboul. Islamic fundamentalism is a spectrum, as is Christian fundamentalism.

"There are people who can be described as Muslim fundamentalists whose main aim is to make people more committed to Islam. There are many movements like this that originate in Pakistan which don't have any political programs. They are known as the movement of Dowar, which means mission or preaching.

"These people must not be confused with people who have a political program. Hamas in the West Bank definitely does have a political program. They are all committed Muslims, but their political program is that Israeli occupation."

Islam is being used by the west for its own political purposes, to create a fear of the Middle East as something that needs to be controlled.

"This concentration on Islam as a danger has been exaggerated and might have been fabricated after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the decline of communism", says Shboul.

"Islam is the best candidate to be an opponent and this is helped by various factors: the long history of antagonism towards Islam in the West; the Zionist movement trying to make Israel appear at the forefront of opposing this kind of 'barbarian' threat."

Victimisation

"When you look at the situation of Muslims in the world, you find that most of them are being victimised. Muslims are being victimised in Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Georgia.

"Or Muslims are persecuted by their own governments. In Algeria there have been many people executed, thousands imprisoned. The same in Egypt. So-called Muslim regimes are persecuting their own people, such as the Saudis and Pakistanis. Muslims are also persecuted by the Israelis in the occupied territories.

"Rather than Muslims being a danger, the danger seems to me that most Muslims are victimised."

Shboul says that the fears created by the Western media's distorted picture of Islam "justify all sorts of political decisions and ideological positions of the west. Ultimately the danger is not Islam, the danger is misunderstanding what Islam means.

"The problems in Islamic countries are socio-economic and a lack of political development. Most of these countries don't have decent democracies or parliaments, and yet they are being supported by western powers.

"Some regimes with strong Islamic opposition movements are playing into the hands of this 'Islam is a danger', and cooperate with the CIA and Mossad. The intelligence services of some Muslim countries also want to contain this so-called Islamic danger. The whole thing is being interpreted from the point of view of western, particularly US, interests."