September 5, 2006

Political Islam takes center stage since 9-11

By Andrew Hammond

RIYADH (Reuters) - In the five years since the September 11
attacks, U.S. intervention abroad has fed the extremism it
seeks to destroy and cemented the rise of political Islam as
the ideology of choice for millions in the Middle East, experts

Today, political Islam -- a diverse movement with moderate
as well as hard-line elements -- has been widely embraced in
the Arab world, where many feel alienated by corrupt rule and
foreign policies seen as serving the interests of the United
States and its ally Israel.

"Since September 11, I have worked on massive public
opinion polls in the Muslim and Arab world. You can see the
animosity between September 11 and now. It's growing and it is
worrying," said Jihad Fakhreddine, a Lebanese analyst based in

"The line between religiosity and extremism has become
thinner. In the time of colonialism, the antagonism was not
perceived in terms of the West and Islam. Independence
movements in the Arab world were driven by nationalist

Radicals hitching themselves to the al Qaeda banner are now
fighting U.S.-allied governments in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and
have staged attacks in Morocco, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist group which
espouses non-violence, made a strong showing in elections last
year, while Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, born in 1988
during the first Intifada against Israeli occupation, won polls
in January.

Islamist discourse dominates in the pan-Arab media, where
both nationalists and Islamists revere Osama bin Laden, the al
Qaeda leader seen as the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks, as
"Sheikh Osama."

Nationalist politicians, who on the face of it have no
reason to support Islamist movements, cheer their ability to
challenge the West on popular channels like Al Jazeera.


The U.S. response to 9-11, when 19 Arabs struck a deadly
blow to the heart of the world's only superpower, has driven
more people toward Islamist politics, analysts say.

"American actions against political Islam after September
11 have ironically contributed to its further rise and
emergence, even in its most fanatical, extremist forms," said
Lebanese-born academic As'ad AbuKhalil, who teaches in

The United States has invaded Iraq and backed Israel in its
conflict with the Palestinians, presenting both policies as
part of a plan to spread democracy in a dysfunctional Arab

Public opinion in the region has traditionally seen a
resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict as the key to solving
the region's problems of democracy and religious extremism.

"Moderate Muslims are having a difficult time. They are not
at peace with the radicals, but they cannot somehow make their
point heard convincingly in the West," said Jawad al-Anani, a
former Jordanian government minister of Palestinian origin.

President George W. Bush's recent comment that the United
States is battling "Islamic fascists" has crystallized a
widespread sense that the "war on terror" is a war on Islam,
Anani said.

"The Islamists have some ... valid arguments. They say 'we
are fighting your enemies, who don't do anything to solve your
problems, who take Israel's side blindly, who don't show any
sympathy for Muslims being killed in Palestine or Iraq'."


Political Islam began its ascent long before 9-11.

Analysts say its roots largely lie in the failure of
secular Arab nationalism to challenge Western hegemony and
return land to dispossessed Palestinians.

Over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were driven from
their homes when Israel was created in 1948. Israel won control
of the remaining 22 percent of historical Palestine in 1967,
though its native Palestinians remained in place.

"The rise of political Islam in the Middle East, to which
the United States and Western governments contributed, only
became noticed after September 11 with those attacks,"
AbuKhalil said.

"The underlying causes for the rise of Islamist movements
are non-religious in nature. It's about foreign policy and the
stand against corruption and tyranny," he said.

Fred Halliday, a professor of international relations at
the London School of Economics, also pointed to nationalism and
the discrediting of past ideologies that have failed in the
domestic and foreign arena.

"9-11 was a very important event, but I don't actually
think in terms of Islamism in the Middle East it is the main
event," he said.

"Political Islam uses a lot of nationalist ideas and
themes. Bin Laden says countries are occupied by foreigners and
have the right to fight. With him, Hamas or Hizbollah, 80
percent of the rhetoric is secular nationalism reconfigured,"
Halliday said, adding that Shi'ite Hizbollah also borrows from

Islamist movements today offer empowerment in the face of
U.S.-allied governments who argue that fighting the
America-imposed order is futile and that Palestinians should
make do with what they can get through talks alone.

Islamists, with their slogan "Islam is the solution," say
it doesn't have to be that way.

Saudi cleric Saleh bin Humaid captured the zeitgeist during
Friday prayers in Mecca this month.

"We are now, with God's will, witnessing a new dawn that
implants self-confidence in the (Muslim) nation ... so that it
relies on its unity, its people and wise policies rather than
on international organizations and resolutions," he said.