BOOK REVIEW / Filling the threat gap with the spectre of Islam: Daniel Easterman asks whether the West will ever dismantle its myths and stereotypes of Muslim countries: The Islamic threat: myth or reality? - John Esposito: OUP pounds 22

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IN A PRESS conference given on 31 January, Iran's President Hashemi Rafsanjani expressed fears that the new Clinton administration planned to target Iran rather than Iraq as the main threat to stability in the Middle East. The CIA, he maintained, indicated that it saw Islamic fundamentalism as a more serious threat to American interests than the expansionist aspirations of Saddam Hussein. American and European apprehensions of a ubiquitous Islamic threat are equalled only by a widespread Muslim conviction of a carefully orchestrated Western plot to destroy Islam in a reprise of the Crusades.

The end of the Cold War left the superpowers with what may be termed a 'threat gap', a gap which journalists, politicians, and assorted pundits have not been slow to fill with 'the spectre of Islam'. If our collective memories were longer, the sense of Christendom facing Islam across the Mediterranean or the Balkan states would seem a matter of routine. The Ottoman Empire was dismembered only 75 years ago. And the Gulf war was only the latest in a series of modern clashes in which Western armies confronted Muslim: Algeria, Suez, Aden, and Afghanistan are far from distant memories. What is most disturbing is not the fact of confrontation, but the high degree of mutual incomprehension that it drags in its wake. It is the purpose of John Esposito's book to take the outsider inside, to dismantle stereotypes and myths in favour of a balanced view of what is happening within Islamic countries and in the Islamicist movements that provide most of the fuel for our fears of Muslim fanaticism. It is essentially a book aimed at the intelligent beginner, with some basic information about Islam, Western-Islamic relations and modern Middle Eastern history.

Many books published on this subject in recent years have tended to take extreme positions, either playing to fears of an Islamic peril (as in John Laffin's The Dagger of Islam) or exonerating Muslims of all evil and laying all the blame for the confrontation on the imperialistic West. Esposito tries to walk a middle course, but if the book has a central theme, it is that Islam is not a monolith and that, in failing to understand this, Western policy-makers have been unable to refine their responses according to the great variety of religious and political positions held by different groups and leaders in the Muslim world. To place the policies and beliefs of, say, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan in a single container labelled 'Islam' or 'Islamic fundamentalism' is to do serious injustice to very real differences.

Esposito sedulously avoids use of the term 'fundamentalism' as 'too laden with Christian presuppositions and Western stereotypes, as well as implying a monolithic threat that does not exist'. Instead, he speaks of 'Islamic revivalism' and 'Islamic activism'. His fifth chapter, 'Islamic Organisations: Soldiers of God' ranges widely through the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Mustimin) of Banna and Qutb, Mawdudi's Jamaat-i Islami, Egyptian revolutionary groups, the Lebanese AMAL and Hizbollah, and the Tunisian Islamic Tendency Movement.

All of this is set against a background of unremitting Western interference in Middle Eastern affairs, domestic oppression, poverty and overpopulation. The success of the Islamicists in providing not only political opposition to discredited regimes, but also an alternative source of health care, social services and education is revealing. 'In recent years,' Esposito writes, 'most Islamic movements have moved toward a populist, participatory, pluralistic political stance, championing democratisation, human rights, and economic reform.' Esposito is undoubtedly correct in arguing that Western attitudes to the movement of Islamic reform are charged with a heavy weight of past prejudices, and that enthusiasm for democracy in Eastern Europe contrasts sharply with continued Western support for illiberal regimes in the Muslim world. 'The realities of colonialism and imperialism, although forgotten or conveniently overlooked by many in the West, are part of its living legacy . . .' In the end, however, I am not wholly convinced by Esposito's reassurances. He is right to argue that a threat in the popular, tabloid sense does not exist, but that does not mean that liberal and democratic values are not threatened, both within the Muslim world and abroad. That the threat is not monolithic does not render it less real.

After all, the West does have much of value to offer, and it is as often the good things of our culture as the bad that are condemned by Muslim thinkers, not only extremists but those we like to think of as moderates. The deep values of a secularly-orientated open society as advocated (though not always implemented) in Europe and North America often stand in direct opposition to those (Christian, Muslim, or whatever) that base social and political theory on a divinely revealed and closed ideology.

Esposito places his faith in the ability of Islam to diversify and to adapt itself to new ideas, as happened to the Judaeo-Christian tradition in the West. But I think this is where his otherwise accurate analysis breaks down. To the extent that Western society reinterpreted itself and developed the ideals inherent in liberal democracy, it underwent a radical process of secularisation. Now, I am happy to accept that a similar process may yet take place within the Muslim world, drawing on ideals within Islamic tradition; but proper liberalisation and secularisation will necessarily entail the erosion of religious influence - which is precisely the decline modern Islamicist movements seek to arrest.

It may be that, in the end, the real struggle of the next century will not be so much one between Islam and the West as a more diversified contest between various forms of secular liberalism and ideological absolutism Given past experience, a struggle of some sort seems inevitable.

(Photograph omitted)