The Rising Tide of Political Islam

Morning Edition: September 12, 2006

The Rising Tide of Political Islam

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Iím Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Iím Steve Inskeep.

This next story begins with a car that was left outside the American embassy in Damascus. Syrian television says attackers wanted to detonate a car bomb. They failed. According to a Syrian official, gunmen also tried to storm the embassy. The U.S. State Department says the unknown assailants were turned back and that todayís incident appears to be over.

MONTAGNE: The failed attack comes in a region that the U.S. sees as full of threats. President Bush uses the word terrorist to define a variety of groups in the Middle East. Thatís not just al-Qaida, but also Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, the winner of this yearís Palestinian elections. Those last two groups are viewed quite differently in the region, as an emerging political force with street credibility and electoral clout.

NPRís Deborah Amos reports on the spread of political Islam and what it means for the west.

DEBORAH AMOS: Political Islam is a rising tide, embraced by a younger generation who believe the way to good governance is through religion. They also believe the Bush administration is waging an undeclared war on Islam. They see battlefields in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and most recently Lebanon. These views show up consistently in opinion polls and in conversations across the region.

This is Tripoli, Lebanonís second largest city, a port town with a fishing fleet and a growing Islamist movement. On a main street, an elaborate traffic islandís sign spells out Allah and proclaims Tripoli is the fortress of Islam. The city has two Islamist television channels, three Islamist radio stations.

SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING

AMOS: Omar Succar(ph), a portly college graduate with a well-trimmed beard, leads the way into the dusty offices where he broadcasts daily radio commentaries, as well as the Muslim call to prayer.

Mr. OMAR SUCCAR (Broadcaster, Tripoli, Lebanon): In the morning, in the noon and in the midnight.

AMOS: And can I hear the prayer?

Mr. SUCCAR: Yeah.

SOUNDBITE OF MUSLIM CHANT

AMOS: Succar learned English in school and is eager to try out some definitions when the conversation turns to radicals versus moderates.

Mr. SUCCAR: Weíre modern. We are modern. We have seven computers. We live in the modern life. My Islamic broadcasting to give the right view if he is Christian or he is Muslim.

AMOS: For Succar, the right view is that only Islam can return the region to its long, lost glory.

Mr. SUCCAR: I have a glorious history and now I donít have anything - this hurt me. Now I am ashamed from I am Arabian. I see - Iím ashamed from my Arab leader.

AMOS: A widespread opinion, underlined during the recent war in Lebanon, that Arab leaders failed to stand up to Israel while a disciplined Islamist movement inflicted serious damage to Israelís army and its prestige. What is perceived in the region as Hezbollahís victory has strengthened support for Islamist groups, says Rami Khouri, a commentator with Lebanonís Daily Star newspaper.

Mr. RAMI KHOURI (Daily Star, Lebanon): People are lost with no real credible leadership to represent them, except for what is emerging now as the new credible leadership that people turn to, which is mainstream Islamists, but strong Islamists - Hamas, Hezbollah, Muslim Brotherhood.

AMOS: An ideology that has replaced the failed ideas of an older generation, Arab nationalism, socialism and even more recently what is seen as the failure of Iraqís violent experiment in American style democracy.

Islamist groups are appealing, says Jordanian journalist Ronda Habbib(ph), because they offer a clean alternative - incorruptible, disciplined and efficient - compared to what many view as the corrupt Arab rulers of today.

Ms. RONDA HABBIB (Journalist, Jordan): I blame the Arab systems for what is happening. I blame their lack of vision, their failure in reaching out to their people. Somebody else had to fill the gap and taken the hand that was coming.

AMOS: But there are distinct and different groups reaching out. There are the radical al-Qaida types, violent and extreme. And then there are the political Islamists, says Alistair Crooke, who share a common goal.

Mr. ALISTAIR CROOKE (Former British Intelligence Officer): All of these groups are the groups that essentially are wanting elections before anything else. Elections, elections, elections.

AMOS: Crooke is a controversial figure, a former British intelligence officer, at one time a special Middle East envoy for Prime Minister Tony Blair. Crooke calls for western engagement with political Islamists because he believes they want what the West wants.

Mr. CROOKE: They want reforms, they want constitutional change and they want participation in government. And on the other side, it is the people who I describe as the revolutionary groups, the revolutionaries, who are saying to them, my brothers, youíre on the wrong track. Youíll never succeed this way because the West will never, ever, ever allow you to make real reforms of Muslim societies against Western interests. So the only way we can go, in short, we have to burn the system. We have to take it down. We have to have revolution.

AMOS: The revolutionaries, like al-Qaida, have issued death threats against Islamists who call for elections, claiming democracy is against Islam.

You met Zarqawi in jail?

Mr. LEACH SPALOT(ph) (Islamist, Jordan): He was introduced to me. I mean, thatís what I care about. He used to think that, oh, Iím an apostate.

AMOS: The speaker is Leach Spalot, at home with his grandchildren in Amman, Jordan. An engineer, Spalot was one of the first Islamists elected to Jordanís Parliament in the mid-1980s. His criticism of Jordanís monarchy resulted in a jail term in the 1990s. Spalot shared a cell with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who would later lead al-Qaida in Iraq.

In jail, Zarqawi declared Spalotís Islam not radical enough.

Mr. SPALOT: He talked to me only once to invite me to his way of thinking. And after that he wouldnít allow anybody to talk to me. It was blasphemy if anybody talked to me.

AMOS: Their paths never crossed again. But their vision of Islam remains in competition - violence or change through the existing system.

Still, in Jordan and in other Arab countries, political Islamists are barely tolerated by governments that block any political success. Spalot dropped out of Parliament. This is what he tells his young supporters now.

Mr. SPALOT: Iím telling them I cannot deliver. I am not delivering the system. This system has to be changed. It has to be reformed. The only way that we will filter the successful and unsuccessful is to let us administer.

AMOS: What would Islamists do differently than Arab leaders today? The answer is unclear, says Bernard Haykel, a professor of Islamic studies at New York University.

Professor BERNARD HAYKEL (New York University): They have sort of hyperbolic or very impressive statements about what they would do or what they might do, and how wonderful Islam is. But in actual fact, they donít have a program that will put bread on the table and will provide for basic services and will provide jobs for these societies.

AMOS: Even so, says Haykel, Islamists must be given a chance at power. It could be messy, but he believes it is a Middle East solution, not imposed by the West.

Professor HAYKEL: I think that Islamists have to come to power in a major country like Egypt or Syria or Iraq and they have to fail before people realize that the utopia is not going to happen through Islamism.

AMOS: An increasing number of Middle Easterners want to take that chance. The question is whether Arab rulers and the West will let them.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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