After the Red Menace, myth of the Green Peril

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IS Islam a threat? If so, to whom?The bomb attacks in Buenos Aires and London, the hounding of the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin, Malaysia's ban on a 'subversive' Islamic sect and the rally at Wembley Stadium last Sunday of the fringe group Hizb ut- Tehrir have revived the spectre of a virulent radical ideology opposed to the liberal, democratic way of life.

Has the Comintern been replaced by a Khomeintern, and the Red Menace by an Islamic Green Peril?

Theevidence for such a worldwide network - or indeed of a monolithic, powerful Islamic world - does not exist.

For all Iran's commitment to the export of the Islamic revolution, not one country has followed suit. The Islamic government of Sudan is a home- grown one; no concrete evidence has been produced to back Egyptian claims of substantial links between Tehran and Khartoum.

The Algerian government makes no claim thatIran supports, in any material way, its Islamic opposition, whose approach is radically different to that of Tehran.

The greatest Iranian success has been among the downtrodden Shia in southern Lebanon. Iranian revolutionary guards trained and funded the radical groups which in effect took over much of the south, and took Western (and other) hostages. But with the end of the civil war, and with the opportunities presented by reconstruction, Iranian influence is on the wane.

Within the Middle East, Iran suffers from the twin disadvantage of being non-Arab and Shia, whereas most of the Arab world is Sunni. It does back a number of radical Islamic groups worldwide, including the Lebanese resistance group Hizbollah (Party of God) and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

But the reasons for the growth in Muslim fundamentalism - or Islamist activism as it is now frequently termed - are sociological, economic and cultural as much as religious. Recruits for Islamic groups are readily found among the socially disadvantaged who feel the state has failed them. Many in countries such as Egypt and Algeria have turned to a deeper and more active form of Islam because this seems to offer the best alternative way of life to the existing order.

Even where prosperity is greater, Islamism can attract those alienated by materialism. More conventional Islamic parties have made few inroads in Malaysia, but the mystical al- Arqam sect, which was banned earlier this month, had attracted more than 100,000 followers in a country where breakneck economic growth has disrupted traditional social patterns.

In the past, governments in Islamic countries could dismiss policies and ideologies such as liberal democracy or communism as wrong-headed or a threat to state security. They cannot do the same, however, with Islam.

Whether fairly elected or not, a government has to argue that it is ruling according to the true precepts of Islam, and that its Islamist opposition has misinterpreted them. This debate is particularly charged in Pakistan and Bangladesh, which owe their creation to Islam.

These cultural and nationalistic divisions are crucial when it comes to weighing the threat of an 'Islamic bomb'. Pakistan is generally assumed to have the technology to produce a nuclear weapon, but the bonds of faith do not appear to have persuaded the country to share its knowledge with potentially hostile neighbours, even under an avowed Islamist such as the late Zia ul-Haq.

Although the language used in political debate across the Muslim world isoften Islamic, the confrontation is as ever between the haves and the have nots, about corruption, economic mismanagement, abuse of power and the denial of human rights.

This is especially the case in Algeria, where the Islamic Salvation Front claims a sense of higher moral purity in its drive to remove a corrupt secular, political leadership that had squandered the wealth of the country.

It is suggested that, if an Islamic government is installed in Algeria, other countries in the region will follow suit. But social and political conditions in neighbouring countries, notably Tunisia, are very different.