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Arab World Sees a Resurgence of Islamic Politics

Religion is becoming the leading force in the region, observers say. In several countries, national debate revolves around Muslim identity.

November 02, 2002|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — Gripped by frustration and a sense of powerlessness, particularly in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, multitudes of Arabs are embracing a more conservative interpretation of Islam to define their identity and reclaim some faith in the future.

The growing influence of Islamism, Arab scholars and Western analysts generally agree, has turned religion into the leading political force in the region. It is, they say, the most significant political movement since Pan-Arabism, preached by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and '60s, and a source of concern to Arab regimes that allow little democracy or freedom of expression.

In Morocco's September election, a moderate Islamist party was the third-largest vote-getter.

In Egypt, Islamists, who by government order had to run as independents, won at least one-quarter of the National Assembly seats in 2000. Preachers such as Amr Khaled in Cairo have been elevated to celebrity status with sermons that are conservative but not inflammatory. And across much of the Arab world, women of all classes are putting on the hijab, the head scarf their grandmothers fought to take off half a century ago as a symbol of women's oppression.

"My neighbor had been going to religion classes for several years and tried to convince me to go, but I wasn't ready," said Omniya Mahmoud, 27, a Cairo teacher. "I used to be the type who really took care of what I wore, dyed my hair, put on makeup. But when I started the classes, I found lots of other women my age. I realized this was the right thing to do. It is what God wants.

"I veiled about a year ago," she said. "Being veiled doesn't mean I'm a fanatic, despite what they think abroad. It just means I'm doing what God wants me to do as a good Muslim."

In Cairo's sidewalk coffee shops, where men sip coffee and puff on water pipes, the topic that is endlessly debated is not Arab unity, Iraq or the fate of the Palestinians. It is what actions and beliefs fit into an Islamic context. Saudi Arabia and Iran also are debating the meaning of being Muslim.

Scholars are divided over whether this searching represents reform or is a discussion somehow manipulated by regimes sensitive to Islam's image and Western misperceptions that Islam condones violence and condemns modernity.

"The moderate Muslim is looking for a Muslim ideology he can identify with, one that doesn't put him on a collision course with world powers and doesn't lead to catastrophic killings or psychotic acts like we've seen," said Frank Vogel, an Islamic scholar at Harvard University. "What he doesn't want is some kind of new Western or global order imposed on him willy-nilly that has nothing to do with his Islamic identity or authenticity.

"But 'moderate Muslim' doesn't mean what many people think. A mainstream Muslim often does believe in things like religion having a role in politics and in state law. At first blush those beliefs seem fundamentalist. But if we mistranslate them as extremist, we'll misjudge what's going on in the Middle East and we'll fail to play a positive role in the emergence there of moderate and successful political systems."

The roots of Islamic revival go back to 1967, when Arabs believed that their defeat in the Six-Day War against Israel was an expression of God's anger for drifting too far from their religion. The mosques started filling and the veils reappearing.

Many attribute the latest wave of Islamism, at least in part, to signals and language emanating from the United States: the Bush administration's disengagement from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Afghanistan and the possibility of another in Iraq, President Bush's remark in April that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was "a man of peace" as Israel was reoccupying the West Bank, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell's comment that the prophet Muhammad was "a terrorist."

"What we're seeing now isn't about Islam; it's about frustration and finding an identity for yourself," said Manal Kahmhawy, a 54-year-old homemaker. "I think also that since Sept. 11 more people are considering themselves Muslims because Islam is threatened now. It's an enemy of the West, so people cling to it. It's a matter of pride, not religion. We're on the defensive."

The frustrations are understandable, given the fact that Arabs were once on the cutting edge of progress and knowledge. Fifteen centuries ago, while Attila the Hun was raiding Gaul and Italy, Arab tribes were gathering annually for weeklong poetry festivals. Arabs believed that the world was round when Europeans thought that it was flat. Arabs devised algebra, invented the universal astrolabe -- forerunner of the sextant -- and discovered and named chemical substances such as alkaline.

Later, after the birth of Islam in the 7th century, the great Arab cities -- Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and Cordoba in Spain -- were the intellectual centers of the world.

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