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ADELAIDE - The terrorist attacks in the United States last week has provided a new dimension to the political relationship between the West, particularly the U.S., and the signs of a reemergence of global political Islam in the post-Cold War era. This era has enabled the emergence of culture and religion as a new mainstream in global interactions. Religion is even seen to pose a serious threat to international relations. The revival of political Islam has become a significant ideological force in the third world, particularly in the Muslim world.
The West is convinced that the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union indicates a significant emergence of Islam and Islamic potentials in international relations. This has explained the West's animosity toward Islam as a religion, or toward "politicized Islam", related to Islamic awareness. Hence, Islam is considered by the West as the confronting force leading to the appearance of political Islamic culture, the new danger in the wake of the demise of Communism. More importantly, it is perceived by most western countries as a new threat to world order, replacing the "Soviet threat" as the principal strategic threat. The Islamic threat is not only seen to be political, but also demographic and socio-religious.
This "Islamophobia" basically stems from a lack of understanding about political Islam. Since Islam does not separate religion and politics, the reassertion of Islam in politics has been misinterpreted as "Islamic fundamentalism". In the West, this term connotes terrorist activities, radicalism, militancy and violence. As the scholar Anoushiravan Ehteshami argued, the term "Islamic fundamentalism" has been evaluated from three different perspectives. First, it can be seen as "a response to the crisis (economic, political and security) confronting the nation states in the Middle East".
The second perspective, which is championed by Samuel Huntington, links the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to a "clash of civilization". Huntington writes that the "central axis of world politics" in the post-Cold War era "will be the interaction of Western power and culture with the power and culture of non-Western societies (Islam)". A conflict between civilizations is seen to be replacing the former Cold War ideological battles. The third perspective is the linking of fundamentalism to political Islam, which is associated with the goal and political program of establishing a worldwide Islamic order.
This goal is said to have been pursued on two related levels: challenging the status-quo within Muslim countries and increasing the transnational network of interactions to establish a "pax-Islamica" (Islamic peace) across the Muslim world. Misinterpretation of political Islam, then, led to the perception that in the post-Cold War era, the global conflict is between the Muslim world and the West. Surprisingly, some Islamic states seem to confirm Western perceptions of the Islamic threat by affirming that they will replace the Soviet Union as the major challenge to the West. Some Islamic states see their primary task as resisting growing Western influences on the institutions, policies and, more importantly, the identity of the Muslim societies "from the symptoms of Westoxification and socio-cultural contamination".
Hence the West's perceptions of and attitude toward the Muslim world -- particularly in the U.S. -- have been ambiguous. U.S. foreign policy makers are divided regarding the Islamic threat. On one side, there is a belief that Islamic fundamentalism is virtually the new communism and consequently must be opposed with whatever means necessary to contain it. On the other side, the issue is violence and extremism. Another scholar argues that Americans are in two camps regarding this issue, namely: confrontationalist and accommodationist. These two approaches on coping with Islamism differ in three aspects, namely: their analysis of the underlying factors that created the Islamist movement; their assessment of whether these groups pose a threat to the West; and in the policies that they claim should be implemented to cope with the Islamist movement.
The first camp, which consider political Islam a radical utopian ideology, believe that, given the significance of the Islamic menace to the U.S. which could threaten its strategic interests, the potential political power of Islam should be battled and defeated. Some U.S. politicians note that the U.S. should pursue a coherent strategy for fighting Islamic fundamentalism. The Islamist movement should not be regarded as a set of religious activities engaged in politics, but as one involving political activists who express their pursuit of power in religious terms. From this perspective, containment and confrontation is the only realistic way for the West to deal with Islamism.
Those in the "confrontation" camp call on the U.S. not to press its Muslim allies, particularly its Middle Eastern friends, to make concessions on human rights and democratic reforms, but to maintain the Islamic authoritarian regimes which they believe can help the U.S. neutralize political Islam. Meanwhile, the "accommodationist" camp contends that the Islamic threat has been exaggerated by fears of the spread of Iran's Islamic revolution. The significant revival of Islam has emerged in the last two decades. This revival was mainly motivated by the lack of economic and social opportunities, and a desire for political freedom. Therefore, the West needs to help eradicate economic deprivation, social tensions and political corruption in the Muslim world.
Conducting "constructive engagement" with the Muslim world would reduce mutual suspicion and foster mutual understanding respectively. Western countries should make a distinction between Islamic movements and militant activities, particularly as Islamic movements in some parts of the world are known to lack sufficient military and economic-industrial strength to threaten the U.S. or any major Western countries. Furthermore, the movements, both in religious and political fields, are neither monolithic nor form a coherent political force. Moreover, they are collections of religious responses to specific sociopolitical conditions in particular countries. They even have conflicting national interests and priorities, as the scholar J L. Eposito argues.
Generalization of the Islamic world could then even become a political fiasco for the West's interests. Those in the "accommodationist" camp propose a clear and consistent policy to encourage democratization in the Muslim world and to build meaningful cooperation with them. Conflicts between the West and the Muslim world are largely due to the inconsistent policy of the U.S. which has supported corrupt, repressive "friendly tyrants" in the Islamic world through its long history of economic and military intervention. Tensions between Islam and the West, therefore, do not come from a theological perspective.

The writer is a Ph.D candidate at the Asian Studies department of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and lectures on international relations at the Parahyangan Catholic University in Bandung, West Java.

By Anak Agung Banyu Perwita

Posted in Politics @ 22 September 2001 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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