Published on Thursday, December 13, 2001 in the International Herald Tribune
Support the Palestinian Authority or Hamas?
by William Pfaff
The response and long-term remedy for Islamic fundamentalism proposed by nearly every Western commentator and official is a big and cathartic dose of modernization: globalization, democratization, women's liberation, secular education, rural electrification, lots of computers and a market economy, and all that only for starters.
Yet the leading figures in the terrorist movement that brought down the New York Trade Towers and attacked the Pentagon, overturning the complacency by which Americans lived before Sept. 11, were for the most part from the most modernized strata of the two most modern countries in the Middle East.
The extended bin Laden family is one of the best educated, richest, most widely traveled and best connected families in Saudi Arabia. It is in business with the Bush family in Washington. Its members are investors in the Carlyle Group, which is politically the most powerful operation in Washington, nearly every one of its members a former Republican administration official. Osama bin Laden's Qaida lieutenants have included Egyptian professional men and Arab intellectuals. The men who carried out the attacks in the United States were Westernized midlevel technical people.
Today's Islamic radicalism began as an 18th century modernizing movement. It is an important force today because, as Ira M. Lapidus, an American historian of Islam, has written, its leaders "mobilize the religious yearning for salvation and project it into modern politics." The revival "embodies a totalistic and utopian dream of a perfected human condition - not only in private morals but in political life, not in the next world but in this one."
Until the 1940s Islam was deeply conservative in social and political views, accepting the world as it was, without deep questioning of the material and political circumstances in which Muslims lived. The revival started when the Saudi tribal family allied itself with the reformist movement we know today as the Wahhabi, which eventually took over most of Arabia, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
The Saudi patrician and would-be world revolutionary Osama bin Laden came out of a radical tradition that began as a religious movement nearly three centuries ago but became politicized by European imperialism. The foreigners were proselytizing Christians who condemned certain Muslim practices as immoral.
Fundamentalist violence against British imperialism first broke out in what then were the Indian Northwest Frontier Provinces - today the frontier provinces and tribal areas of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan. The Pashtun people were involved, who made up the vast majority of today's Taliban.
Modern Islamic radicalism is dangerous to the Islamic people themselves because it is going nowhere. It is incapable of reforms that would allow Muslim people to cope with the political and economic pressures of modern international society. That was the Taliban's failure.
It is dangerous to the West because it gives an apocalyptic religious interpretation to what fundamentally is political conflict. That is why recent developments in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are alarming. The collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the popular joy that greeted their defeat were dramatic demonstrations to the rest of the Islamic world of how insubstantial - and, in power, how unpopular - the radical movement really is. It was a moment of great importance for modernizing reformers in the Muslim world who aim at a discriminating assimilation and adaptation of the good things that modern technology and modern political culture can offer to Islamic civilization today.
At exactly this moment, the United States seems to have endorsed Israel in an attempt to destroy the Palestinian Authority, leaving Hamas, the radical Islamic terrorist movement that wants to destroy Israel, as the only surviving force for Palestinian liberation. The Palestinian Authority is a hapless and indeed hopeless force today, with an incompetent leader. However, since the Oslo talks more than a decade ago it has been the only Palestinian entity willing to negotiate with Israel to find a way by which the two peoples can share historic Palestine and Jerusalem.
It represents rational, secular Arab nationalism, with Christian as well as Islamic origins, with which the West not only can deal but has been dealing, from Oslo until last year's collapse of the Camp David negotiations.
If it is destroyed, the message to the Islamic world will be that the United States prefers terrorist Muslim enemies to rational Arab reformers. It is a message that validates what the Islamic radicals have said since the beginning.
Copyright © 2001 the International Herald Tribune