In searching for the origins of Islamic extremism in the Arab world, many analysts point to the restraints that autocratic governments impose on political expression. With no channels open for serious opposition, many activists turn toward the only arena that remains relatively open: religion.
Prague, 30 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Islam has little competition on the Arab political scene. With no real political parties, a shackled press, and few pathways for dissent, the mosque has evolved into the place to discuss politics. And fundamentalist organizations have done more than talk. From the Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas to Hezbollah, such groups provide social services, medical assistance, counseling, and temporary housing. Analysts say these often-conservative groups are the only substitute for a civil society.
Shireen Hunter, the director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says extremist groups based on Islam have politicized the faith. She says these groups hold sway with people often because politics are generally prohibited in Arab society.
"And so what happens is -- because there isn't enough room for expressing criticism of the system or ruler or whatever, and because the culture has been so based on Islam -- political dissent is more likely to be expressed in religious terms. And because the mindset, particularly of the non-elite groups, is shaped by Islam, then obviously they are more receptive to those theories that extremists use to try and explain the conditions and give voice or shape to the grievances of people through Islamic imagery and vocabulary."
Hunter does concede that there are some democratic regimes -- for example Turkey and, to a degree, the reformist government in Iran -- and attempts to "open" society. But she says government regimes across the region do not tolerate real political opposition. She says that there must be a real alternative to dissent to counteract the influence of extremist Islamic groups.
"You must create institutions which can act as intermediaries between the people and the government. People who feel that they have a place and a channel to voice their grievances and have some role to play in the shaping of the countries policies. This has been absent, I would say literally, in all of the Middle Eastern countries bar none."
Cherif El-Shobashy is a European editor with the Egyptian weekly "Al-Ahram." El-Shobashy argues that political repression is not the main cause of extremism in the Middle East.
"If you want to look at the Middle East in particular, I would say that the most important thing is that the people of these countries and of this area feel very frustrated and feel humiliated by what is happening and what has happened in the last 40 or 50 years. They were promised by their regimes that they would have prosperity [and] that after independence all the problems would be solved. And these problems were not solved."
Poverty and social inequality are not the only fuel feeding the development of extremist groups. Al-Shobashy says extremists are fighting against what they view as the partiality of the U.S. position towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
"We believe that Israel has the right to live in the area and has the right to live in secure borders within the area. But we do not believe that Israel has the right to occupy the territories of other Arab countries and to deny the rights of the Palestinian people. So this is the issue now. And I think that this is a very important issue and one of the main causes of extremism in my opinion."
El-Shobashy does agree that Islam has become increasingly politicized in Middle Eastern societies. But he says average citizens disagree with the goal of Islamic fundamentalists to establish their view of Islam as the rule of law.
"This is the deviation of Islam -- that it has become a political issue. The fundamentalists and the extremists believe that they have the right to be in power and that the Arab countries and the Islamic countries should be governed by the law of Islam as they understand it. And they have a restricted and distorted view of Islam. So you are very right. This is the real problem. Islam is a religion and not a political party."
Despite last month's terrorist attacks on the U.S., El-Shobashy says he is optimistic that religious fundamentalism in the Mideast is on the decline.
"Islam is a religion and it is a very important religion. It is a great religion. But it was not meant to [provide] solutions to political and economic problems. So I think that these people, these extremists -- especially now after the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States -- I think they are on the defensive."
El-Shobashy says that Islamic fundamentalism held great weight with Muslim populations in the 1980s and 1990s. But he said that once many groups were given political attention, people found that platforms such as "Islam is the Solution" were simplistic and crude. El-Shobashy says that while people in the Middle East remain frustrated with global and domestic politics they are less likely to look to Islam to provide answers to economic and political woes.