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Kuwait: Arab ideologies fade, fundamentalism on upsurge

"A quarter-century ago, some of us could send our sons to Beirut to be educated, to the American University there. Reacting to their encounter with American views, they all came back Arab nationalists.

"Now, we have much more money. We send our sons directly to the States to be educated. Their reaction is that much stronger. That's why so many of them come back Muslim fundamentalists."

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The words were those of a senior Kuwaiti businessman. He was referring to the explosion of support here in the past few years for various types of extreme Islamic fundamentalism.

The fundamentalists made a dramatic point in late February when five of their members won seats in this super-rich emirate's 50-member parliament. Their landslide chased the previous Arab nationalist opposition group here right out of the chamber.

"Maybe it's the end of the era of Arab nationalism in the region," summed up one Arab professional here with two decades of experience in Arab nationalist politics. He lumped together all the forms that nationalism took -- Baathism, Nasserism, and other creeds -- and said, "It looks as if maybe, now, the tide is turning against us."

Certainly, throughout the Arab world, the ideologists seem to be on the run. In addition to the latest election results here in Kuwait:

* In Egypt, Nasserism seems a spent political force, its founder passed away a decade ago and now reviled by his own successor, President Anwar Sadat.

Mr. Sadat meanwhile faces the heaviest challenge to his current peace policy from the revitalized Muslim Brotherhood and a host of other revivalist Muslim groups.

* In Syria, the Baathist and secularist government is desperately trying to keep the lid on a situation in which the Muslim Brotherhood and associated groups have twice in the past two years brought northern Syrian cities close to total insurrection.

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* In Iraq, the Baath Party government has succeeded, with massive injections of oil earnings, in erecting the basic socialist infrastructure all the Arab nationalists called for.

But this has been done only by the use of the most repressive strong-arm tactics internally. Resentment against this treatment, once channeled chiefly into rival ideological parties, is now increasingly fueling the religious opposition of the majority Shiite Muslim population.

The structures the Arab nationalist parties set up in these countries remain in place, but many of the parties' original ideologists have fled their creations. They argue that these regimes have failed to solve the basic problems facing the countries of the region. Among them are:

1. The Arab-Israeli problem, whose continuation has often provided a pretext for the imposition of military rule.

2. The challenge of creating, with oil or aid incomes, an efficient administration capable of involving all citizens in the development effort.

3. The problem of developing national economies along productive and equitable lines.

None of the societies of the Gulf have been through the experience of ideological rule and resulting resentment in as direct a way as Egypt, Syria, or Iraq. But they have always kept in close contact -- and their lightning-fast catapulting from traditional pastoralism and fishing into the forefront of the jet age has made the development of political thinking here correspondingly extreme.

In Syria, for example, girls whose mothers fought against the veil are now returning to its folds.

Here in Kuwait, women who never dared to forgo traditional dress, but certainly hoped for something more modern for their daughters, watch as these independent misses cover up more completely -- with long skirts, scarfs, and gloves -- than even is prescribed in the Koran.

Their brothers, returning in droves with their doctor's and master's degrees from American universities, are sketching out the new fundamentalist philosophy.

"We are against all parties and political organizations," one fundamentalist campaigner told me. (His candidate won, leaving a nationalist-leaning liberal without a seat.)

But this avowal could be disputed. One of the revivalist groups here, the Social Reform Association, is linked to the other strands of the Muslim Brotherhood, with their tight cell organization spanning the region.

Their main rivals in the new wave, the Silfiyyin (New Breed), are more fundamentalist than that. They consider no Muslim experience in ruling since the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors to have been theologically correct. And that includes all existing Muslim regimes.

For the moment, the rulers here in the Gulf are still trying to come to terms with the new wave. They see its militant anti-Shiism as a useful counter to any other revolutionary Islamic waves that may emanate from across the Gulf. (All the Arab Gulf states have sizable Shiite and ethnic Iranian minorities.)

Thus arose the phenomenon of many upper-class Kuwaiti voters cruising from their extensive villas in their radio-telephone-equipped new Rolls-Royces to the polls in their fine neighborhood schools -- to vote, apparently, for the raw fundamentalist in his sandals and shaggy beard.

For the moment, too, the fundamentalists are still only feeling the possible dimensions of their new influence. Their platforms deal only in the vaguest terms with the greater political problems of the day. Their main concern is still small scale, concerned with ultra-proper Muslim social observances.

But their youthful leaders are the brightest and best the new societies of the Gulf have to offer. "If they can learn quickly and find their role, this could be the beginning of a new renaissance," one habitue of the Kuwaiti political scene summed up.

"Let's hope they can do better than the nationalists."

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