From Manfred Gerstenfeld: Israel's New Future - Interviews (1994)

Islamic Fundamentalism, The Permanent Threat

An Interview with Mordechai Abir

Mordechai Abir teaches Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at the Hebrew University. He has published books on such diverse topics as Saudi Arabia, oil and Ethiopia. His most recent book, Saudi Arabia, Government, Society and the Gulf Crisis, deals with the background and impact of the 1990-91 Gulf crisis and war.

In a discussion that took place in Jerusalem, he surveys the likely impact of Moslem fundamentalism on Islamic states, global stability and Israel. He dissects and analyzes the various forces at work with a surgeon's precision. His matter-of-fact assessment offers cause for alarm, as does his warning that Israel's leadership must carefully examine every step it takes in the direction of peace with the Arab world, and the PLO in particular, in order to avoid possible disaster.

His survey of the Moslem world focuses on the rising impact of neo-fundamentalism; all the rest, he believes, is secondary. And any survey of trends in the Moslem world must begin with the Arab world, whose role is pivotal.

Despite the façade of fabulous oil riches, Abir notes that the vast majority of Arabs have remained poor and backward. Only a few of the more than 20 Arab states - mainly sparsely populated ones - enjoy significant oil resources, and none of these countries are inclined to share the wealth equitably with others.

Population growth, lack of development and a falling standard of living, set against the backdrop of oil riches that elude the masses, create a setting that is ripe for fundamentalism. That is the key factor in all changes that are likely to occur in the Arab world in the coming years. Neo-fundamentalism, as Abir calls the current trend, differs sharply from the "modern" fundamentalism that emerged in the late 19th century, but it is not totally unrelated to its predecessor.

The "modern" fundamentalism of 100 years ago emerged as the Arab and Moslem world faced the bitter truth: they had lagged behind global development. "It was no longer an important part of civilized society," Abir says. "It belonged to the Third World. The despised infidel Christian societies had not only overtaken the Arabs in every field, but finally colonized them as well."

Abir stresses that fundamentalism has its foundation in the search for answers to problems posed by the new world impinging on the world of Islam. Jamal al-Din-al-Afghani, the father of modern fundamentalism, believed that Western culture and philosophy could be separated from technology, which he claimed the West actually had borrowed from the Moslem, and developed further. His people, he preached, should take back that which was rightfully theirs, but reject altogether other aspects of Western civilization.

The message has undergone certain changes over the years, Abir says, but the basic rejection of Western values and hegemony remains essentially unchanged. What has changed are the tactics.

"In the circumstances of a future without hope, Islamic fundamentalists teach that the real answer for society's ills and people's personal problems lies in the return to the roots - the original teachings of Mohammed and his followers, the life they conducted and the success they achieved in the first centuries of Islam," Abir explains. What does this mean? He points to certain attractions of life in the early years of Islam: society was more egalitarian and people looked after one another when the Moslem world was led by pious righteous rulers.

"The old school of 20th century fundamentalism, such as the pre-World War Two Moslem Brothers, sought to create a better society," Abir says. "They did not seek control of government. After World War Two, a major change took place: the Moslem Brothers resorted increasingly to militancy and terrorism to achieve their aims."

This militancy led to an increasingly blunt confrontation between fundamentalists and the successful secular nationalist pan-Arab movement championed by Nasser. "In Nasser's jails in the late 1950s, some Moslem Brothers changed their approach totally," Abir says. "They no longer believed that any secular government could transform itself into a Moslem one. They considered government and society so corrupt that they had to be rebuilt from the bottom to adhere to the principles of true Islam."

In their quest for total change, Abir says, the neo-fundamentalists began to consider Jihad - holy war - to overthrow and replace their own corrupt governments. They compared the Arab states to the pre-Islamic idolatrous societies. The neo-fundamentalists rejected the secular Arab polity, which they associated with Western culture, its materialism and its philosophical foundations. Their leading ideologist, Sayyid Qutb, who lived for some years in the US, returned to Egypt around 1950, altogether alienated from Western culture, which he observed and abhorred.

Qutb called for using all possible means in the war against Western influence. His first target: the local Moslem governments that had permitted the corruption and decline of their societies. He held them responsible for introducing Western ills to Moslem society. He was also convinced that these governments were incapable of solving their people's social and economic problems.

Like many other Moslem Brothers who opposed Nasser's regime, Qutb was incarcerated in 1954. He was released in 1964, only to be executed by the regime in 1966. His books and letters from jail had a tremendous impact on changing the Moslem Brothers' outlook. They stimulated the emergence of neo-fundamentalism in the 1960s, its expansion in the 1970s, its further spread in the 1980s and the growing militancy of the early 1990s.

Bringing the picture up-to-date, Abir says, "The neo-fundamentalists want to change the societal system to a theocracy governed by jurists or religious leaders. We see now a military Islamic fundamentalism that seeks to overthrow Arab and Moslem regimes in order to replace them with Islamic ones.

"Sayyid Qutb and his followers considered that the establishment and popular Islam, which was practiced so commonly in the Islamic world, had corrupted true Islam," Abir says. "In their view, it was worse than the teachings of the infidels. Qutb's followers felt that they had to remove themselves from the corrupt societies in which they lived to create a new circle of true Moslems. This is modeled on the Hijra, the prophet Mohammed's migration from Mecca to Medina. The thinking of the different neo-fundamentalist organizations is always based on the principle of Jihad, and that the end justifies the means.

The radical thought expressed in this approach finds a receptive audience among the intelligentsia and the masses throughout much of the frustrated Moslem world. Abir notes that only a few million Arabs actually enjoy the great wealth generated by oil revenues. "The Moslem have-nots number about 800 million, including 200 million Arabs," he says. "Their standard of living deteriorates continuously, because they reproduce so quickly. The growth of the economy of many countries cannot keep up with that. But, along with some intellectuals who joined them, the have-nots also are motivated by political frustrations resulting from the decline of Moslem power vis-à-vis the West."

He points to contemporary Egypt as a typical example. Poverty cohabits there with extreme wealth, he notes, and the standard of living of the masses continues to decline. Unchecked population growth and the limits to the number of people who can subsist on agriculture contribute to the increasing migration to the cities, which lack the infrastructure to accommodate them.

Since the 19th century, Abir says, some Western philosophers, such as Ernest Renan in France, have accused Islam of being reactionary and standing in the way of the modernization of the Moslem world. This, Renan said, was the cause of Moslem backwardness in modern times and the Moslems' inability to develop and improve their standard of living. Moslem reaction prevents the adjustment of its followers to the new world. The present reality, Abir notes, bears this out.

He cites non-Arab Iran, which underwent a total fundamentalist revolution under the Ayatolla Khomeini, as an example. "The lot of the average Iranian farmer improved temporarily compared to the Shah's days. This is no longer true, and the urban proletariat faces increasing hardship. Thus, the model fundamentalist state has not only failed to solve Iran's socio-economic problems, it has aggravated them.

"Iran has the potential of becoming a well-to-do society if it uses its oil revenues to develop its economy. However, it earmarks a large percentage of its income to build its military might by acquiring conventional and non-conventional weapons in its quest to regain the status of a major power in the Gulf, and possibly in the Moslem world.

"Shiite Iran sees itself as the vanguard of true Islam in the Moslem world," Abir continues. "The first target of its militant fundamentalist Islam is the Arab world. Iran has become the supporter of all Islamic revolutionary movements from Morocco to Afghanistan, including the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movements in the territories, and to some extent, even Israeli Arab fundamentalists.

Abir says that the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad both receive, directly and indirectly, financial aid from Iran, which also supports the Hizbollah in Lebanon. "Their cadres are trained in Iran, or Iranian revolutionary guards train them in Lebanon and Sudan. A lot of money is spent for this purpose," Abir says.

He notes that the Iranian government also finances training bases for fundamentalist extremists in Sudan and, indirectly, their activities against Egypt, Libya and North Africa. President Rafsanjani has hinted to the Egyptians that he will continue to undermine their regime as long as it collaborates with American efforts to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process.

"Iran aims to destabilize all secular Sunni Moslem-Arab regimes. They hope to achieve this directly or in cooperation with the Sunni-fundamentalist regime of Sudan, as well as the different militant Islamic organizations in the Arab-Moslem world and its affiliates in the West," he says.

Although it is widely believed in the West that there are two opposing political currents in Iran's Islamic regime, Abir maintains that they do not differ in their fundamentalist ideology.

"Rafsanjani is no less an extremist than his opponents, but he is also a pragmatist," he says. "He is ready to bow to circumstances, and wants to obtain Western technology and investments for his country in order to advance its economic power and military capability while improving the standard of living."

But his pragmatism is a tactic, which coexists alongside the traditional trappings of a Shiite regime, propagated by his mentor, the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Its propaganda and indoctrination office, Da'wa, is responsible for all the shady operations. Iran uses it to "spread the word of Allah" through terrorism and subversion.

"Indeed, Rafsanjani's regime is behind major efforts in recent years to 'Islamicize' Moslem regimes," Abir says, noting that as long as a fundamentalist regime retains power in Iran the situation will not change dramatically.

"Iran's first target is to subvert the weaker pro-Western Arab governments," he says. "They assist domestic Sunni fundamentalist groups, through financial support, training of terrorists, helping guerilla fighters and supplying weapons and explosives.

"Rafsanjani still aims to achieve the goals of his mentor's Islamic revolution, but he is such a pragmatist that he endeavors to survive on the side of the West. He is looking for ways to achieve his ends but, unlike his opponents, he wants to avoid confrontation with the West.

"Many western experts and some governments, notably Germany, are totally confused," Abir charges. "Many assume not only that Rafsanjani is a pragmatist, but that he is willing to adjust to realities and eventually allow Iran to rejoin the 'sane' community of nations. This is totally incorrect."

Abir points to a basic contradiction in Rafsanjani's philosophy: "One cannot insulate scientific and technological advances from the Western civilization which produced them. Yet the war declared by Moslem fundamentalists against Western culture is a war of civilizations."

He notes that long-held conventional wisdom maintained that highly populated, poor Third World countries with very high birthrates had no hope of improving their lot. India has disproved these gloomy forecasts. Despite its population growth, per capita income in India has risen meaningfully in the framework of its overall development. China is another outstanding example.

Abir maintains that China and India prove that Third World countries have hope and can develop. But Islamic society's apathy and hostility to the West prevent a huge segment of the globe's population from adapting to modern economy and technology, as well as from modernizing. Instead, they seek salvation in seventh century Islamic models.

In adjusting to the modern world, the Moslems do not have to give up their basic cultural values. But unless they can overcome their xenophobic, anti-Western bias, Abir asserts, most Moslem states are unlikely to defeat poverty and chaos. "The have-nots are incapable of halting their economic decline without major financial aid from the oil producers or the West, which is unlikely to increase in the foreseeable future," he says.

As if to demonstrate that irrationalism cannot coexist with the quest for development, Abir points to Iraq under Saddam Hussein. "Ironically, this was the one oil-rich country with a sizable population and a diversified economy, which had significant economic growth due to oil revenue," he says. "But that was before it got involved in war with Iran in 1980, and before Saddam's Pan-Arab anti-Western and anti-Israeli ambitions." Since that war, and Saddam's ensuring military forays, Iraq's economy has been almost totally destroyed and will take many years to rehabilitate.

After all of Abir's assessments and his survey of the situation throughout the Moslem world, the inevitable question arises: What does it all mean for Israel?

"The conclusions are very sad," he says. The dovish elements in the Israeli government won the upper hand, and they are negotiating Palestinian autonomy with the PLO, which is likely to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state. If this happens, it is questionable whether the PLO will be able to control a process which takes place all around in the Arab-Moslem world: the rise of fundamentalism. Such fundamentalism, or ultra-nationalism, may even spread among Israeli Arabs, whose ties with their kinsmen will be stronger than ever.

"We see the beginning of a process," he says. "The power of fundamentalism in the territories is on the rise. It has spread from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank and it brings newfound vigor to the battle against the Jewish state." He refers to a televised interview with Sheikh Yassin, the founder of the Hamas movement, conducted a few years ago, and to recent declarations by Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders. All of them flatly reject the right of Jewish Israel to exist on land, which they term waqf, part of a religious endowment. They continue to call for unceasing holy war - jihad - to destroy Israel.

"Sheikh Yassin said that he had nothing against the Jews and accepted them as dhimmis - a tolerated community with no political rights," Abir says. "They were always protected and treated well in the Moslem communities in the past. This dhimmi status is exactly what some old established Israelis can expect from a potentially fundamentalist Palestinian state, but newcomers will be deported to their countries of origin once the Arabs destroy the Jewish political entity. The people of the book can live in safety as a community, without political rights, in an Islamic state."

Although Sheikh Yassin may have intended his words to sound comforting - after all, he does not want to eliminate the Jews - Abir does not interpret them that way. Efforts to expand negotiations with the Palestinians, represented by the Arafat faction of the PLO, that will clearly lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state might prove a step beyond the point of no return, he believes.

Abir speaks openly of his fear that steps taken by dovish Israeli officials essentially pave the way to the establishment of a PLO state in the West Bank. He has little doubt that such a state will be taken over by fundamentalists and/or the rejectionist nationalists.

"Let us assume that for tactical purposes the Hamas will stand aside and let the Arafat-led mainstream PLO Palestinian state be established," he says. "In a second stage, the Hamas will take it over. The trend nowadays is that the masses - especially those who suffer economic hardship - increasingly follow the fundamentalists.

"Indeed a Palestinian state may go through a very difficult economic crisis without the vast resources needed to solve the problems of its population and the Palestinians in the diaspora. It will be surrounded by unfriendly Arab regimes and Israel, unless it establishes some form of union with Jordan and receives substantial aid."

Moreover, he notes, only about half of the Palestinian people live in the West Bank and Gaza, many in refugee camps. "What will happen to the 2-2.5 million Palestinians who are outside and preserve their identity?" he asks. "They live in camps in nearly Arab countries, or in other parts of the world, rejected by their Arab brethren.

"For them, the war will not be over, as they will not have a place in the 6,000 square kilometers of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - where the population will soon number a million people - and they will insist on the 'right of return' (awda) to Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Ashdod and West Jerusalem. Can Arafat contain such demands? Does he sincerely want to? One can see the case of Lebanon and its political ramifications. "I cannot consider such a solution being practical at all," he says flatly, "unless some magical formula is found to solve the problem of all the Palestinians. Otherwise, the pressure from within to overrun Israel when the opportunity presents itself will continue."

He does, however, see another alternative. "The best solution for the Palestinian people is that the Hashemite Kingdom will fall," he says. Jordan, which has a Palestinian majority, will become a Palestinian state with an offshoot in the West Bank and Gaza. Another, more problematic, alternative is a federated Jordan-Palestine.

"Israel has to look after its own interests, and therefore has to insist on security arrangements that will guarantee its existence," he says. "Once a Palestinian state is established - even an autonomous region - it will be protected by international law and organizations. Israel's ability to protect its population and its security will be constrained.

"The Jordanian solution will give the Palestinians a sufficient territorial basis," Abir continues. "Such a Palestinian Jordan could have joint water resources with Israel and common desalination projects on a very big scale. There could be many diverse major joint projects, which would benefit both countries.

"Even a Jordanian-Palestinian-Israeli economic confederation is possible," Abir says. It could attract meaningful Arab and international investment that would help solve the problem.

"The Palestinian-Jordanian entity would have a flag, army and air force east of the Jordan," he says. "It would have an outlet to the sea in Aqaba, which would also be meaningful for Iraq. It would also have an Israeli-controlled corridor to Gaza and other Mediterranean ports.

"The entity would have a much higher level of education than the Gulf countries and could become an important part of the development of the Arab countries and benefit from such connections. Many joint venture plans are already being proposed, and many more will emerge if the peace negotiations bear fruit and produce a Jordanian- Palestinian entity."

The country would derive significant revenues, Abir maintains, from oil and gas pipelines, which could pass across its territory from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Iraq and Syria. It would also be a passage for trade from Israel to and from the Arab world, and a conduit to Israeli technology in various fields.

"Such a country could have real economic expectations and a realistic political chance of survival without having to resort to war again soon," Abir says.

This picture looks quite rosy, yet Abir stresses that only if a Palestinian-Jordanian federation emerges from the peace process, or if Jordan becomes a Palestinian home, can it become reality. While fundamentalism and other ultra-nationalist movements will persevere, he maintains that they may not acquire the power they will if an independent Palestinian state emerges in the territories.

"My opinion results from studying the Moslem world's history," Abir states. "To a large extent, the success of fundamentalism is less an outcome of political discontent and more the result of economic misery. The Moslem world experienced waves of rising fundamentalism. There were and always will be fundamentalist tendencies in Islam. The only question is how powerful they will be."

Returning to the Iranian example, he says, "Paradoxically, fundamentalism did not provide an answer to Iran's socio-economic problems. The standard of living of the Iranian population declined under the late Shah. Only five percent enjoyed the fat of the land. It was not surprising that the illiterate people, who were often tenant farmers, were seeking a fundamentalist solution.

"They are devout Moslems. In the same way, the misery in Egypt is generating support for militant fundamentalism. Yet 14 years after the Islamic revolution, Iran's economy is in shambles and the standard of living of its urbanized masses and rural population is even worse than in the past, and it is still declining."

Before Israel makes any final, binding arrangement with the Palestinians and its neighbors, Abir urges its leadership to keep in mind what is happening today to Christian minorities in 'secular' Moslem states. Egypt - which he terms the most secular state in the Arab world, aside from the Christian parts of Lebanon - has been unable to combat the hate of fundamentalist Moslems for the Copts, who are true remnants of the original Egyptian population. The Christians in Lebanon have seen the writing on the wall since their failure in the early 1980s to establish a Christian-dominated Lebanon or a semi-independent entity in their part of Mount Lebanon.

"In today's secular Egypt, Copts and Moslems theoretically enjoy equal rights," he says. Nonetheless, the number of Copts steadily declines, due to emigration caused by widespread covert discrimination and, above all, because of increasing persecution by Moslem fanatics. "The Moslem masses refuse to accept a dhimmi community as being equal," he states.

"Sometimes, people from these dhimmi communities hold high positions in the public administration and elsewhere. Moslems work under them. This is totally objectionable to the average Moslem. In the Egyptian countryside, where the people are uneducated and backward, the situation is even more conducive to the success of fundamentalist propaganda against Copts. This increasing socio-religious tension in rural areas and provincial towns often erupts into pogroms and blood clashes, which the government finds hard to control.

"As Moslem fundamentalism spreads in Upper Egypt, Cairo and the Delta, where many fundamentalists live, many Copts have come to the conclusion that the only solution is to emigrate. We do not know their exact numbers, as this is a sensitive political subject in Egypt, but they probably used to represent 7-9 percent of Egypt's population. There are sizable Coptic communities in New York, Chicago, Canada and elsewhere in the Americas. The Lebanese Maronites also see the writing on the wall, and hundreds of thousands have emigrated to American and Europe over the last 20 years."

To Abir, the lessons are clear. Israel's leaders must be fully aware of the sad realities of the Middle East at present and in the fateful years ahead, he warns, and endeavor to avoid fatal errors in negotiations with neighboring Arab states and the Palestinians. Above all, Israel must preserve its vital interests and ability to defend itself.

"We have to keep in mind the risk of a PLO state in the territories, which could eventually turn into a fundamentalist Palestinian state that openly rejects the very right of a Jewish state to exist in their midst," he concludes.

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld

The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.