March of the Great Islamic Crusade. Journalist's book explores roots of this source of terrorism
Sacred Rage: The Crusade of Modern Islam, by Robin Wright. New York: Linden Press. 288 pp. $16.95. FOR nearly 40 years it has been customary in Washington to blame Moscow for anything that we dislike in world affairs. Ronald Reagan's identification of the Soviet Union as ``the focus of evil in the modern world'' is an accurate oversimplification of a long-indulged Washington assumption.
But for five years now, citizens of the United States have been attacked -- and many of them have been killed -- from a new and different quarter that has nothing to do with communism or the Soviet Union. In fact, the Soviet Union is also a target of this new source of world violence and tension: Islamic fundamentalism.
In Washington, ``it'' is still identified largely by the single word ``terrorism.'' Sometimes it is made more specific and called ``government sponsored'' terrorism, and is accompanied by an implication that the source is Iran. Sometimes Syria was also named, until the Syrians played a helpful role in gaining the release of the hostages from TWA Flight 847 in July.
The fuzziness of Washington's comments on the central phenomenon of these times still leaves many a Westerner puzzled and groping. A fine reporter has come forward to explain what is going on and gives us sound advice about how to deal with it.
Robin Wright went to the Middle East in 1973. She landed in Beirut on the day (Oct. 6) of the outbreak of the fourth Arab-Israeli war. That first trip included a visit to Iran. She was back frequently on assignment for the Monitor and other news services (the London Sunday Times, the Washington Post, CBS).
In 1981, Miss Wright went to Beirut to live and to report from there. She covered the emerging story of the Islamic revival. She has seen it all and reported it all, brilliantly, much of the time primarily for this newspaper. Her new book is the history of what has been going on in the Middle East and North Africa from the 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran to the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from Lebanon last this spring.
This is history in the making. It comes at a time when many observers of world events want to know what killed 260 Americans during President Reagan's first term (in the suicide bombings of the US Embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut) and took another American life recently in connection with the hijacking of Flight 847. Those 261 Americans are all believed to have been killed by commandos of the Shiite branch of the Muslim community.
But the Shiite commandos -- who apparently happen to be the military activists in all the operations that have taken American lives since the 1979 Iranian revolution -- are only part, although often the most active part, of a vast ideological movement that has swept through the Islamic world and erupted in every country where Muslims are an important part of the population. Islamic crusade formalized in 1982
It is a crusade. It was formalized and declared as such from the Independence Hotel (formerly the Hilton) in Tehran in March of 1982. It was given its formal structure at a conference there of ``some 380 men with various religious and revolutionary credentials,'' who had gathered from all over the Islamic world, according to Wright. The conference ended with a declaration that, under the guidance of those men at the conference, Islamic militants ``would launch a large-scale offensive to cleanse the Isla mic world of the `Satanic' western and eastern influences that were hindering its progress.''
The Islamic militant movement is impartial toward East and West. In Iran it outlawed the communist Tudeh party, drove its members and sympathizers out of public employment, imprisoned many, and executed some. At celebrations held four months after the original Islamic conference, ``demonstrators stomp and spit at the Hammer and Sickle as angrily as at the Stars and Stripes,'' Wright says.
The movement's militance expanded from the conference in Tehran in 1982. There have been more conferences since. It established a central clearinghouse for ideas and communications in Tehran in what Wright describes as a ``drab, four-story concrete headquarters in downtown Tehran'' where the assorted mullahs and revolutionaries gather from time to time. The continuing conference and the central headquarters, known among foreign correspondents as Taleghani Center, flourish under the protection and the ex ample of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.
Probably the most important point that emerges from this book is the fact that the movement is not the creature of the Ayatollah. He is its first successful practitioner. He did not create it. He does not control it. He does not direct it. But he is a massive inspiration to it. Those who preach and plan the movement throughout Islam look to him as their exemplar. They keep coming back to Tehran to take council of each other under the Ayatollah's protection. It is in Tehran that the different groups in t he crusade have set up training schools.
Why are Americans the principal target of its militant activities?
``The Islamic fanatics do not view their militant activities as an initiative, but as a response against an enemy which they believe started it in the first place,'' Wright reports. ``Their revolution is against foreign domination and encroachment in every aspect of their lives -- symbolized most often and most recently by the US.''
The difference is that the US has played a major role in the Middle East ever since World War II. The Soviets tried to do so at one time. They overstayed their leave briefly in Iran at the end of World War II. But largely they have remained aloof. The US has intervened. US troops went into Lebanon under President Eisenhower. The US has been a major purchaser of Mideast oil and the main supplier of military weapons to the Shah and to Israel. The US has supported Israel and protected Israel from Arab atta ck. The US has most recently (in 1983) been fighting Arabs in Lebanon.
The West has been intruding in the Islamic world ever since Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798. Throughout the last two centuries, Western countries have pushed back the frontiers of Islam, dominated whole areas, and, in the eyes of the natives, exploited them and their resources. But the older colonial powers have become recessive. The British and French are largely gone. Since World War II the Americans have increasingly become, in the eyes of Muslims, the main intruders. Israel just another Western `intrusion'
The Muslims are not anti-American because America supports Israel, but because Israel is to them just another manifestation of American intrusion into their affairs.
The range of the new Islamic crusade is far greater than most people yet appreciate. There have been riots in Morocco and Tunisia and in Soviet Samarkand. There has been trouble in the Muslim communities in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria -- and in the Philippines. Primary targets of the ``terrorists'' have been the governments of most of the Arab countries themselves.
The crusade is openly and avowedly trying to bring down the regimes in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Shiites of Lebanon are in daily battle with the militiamen of the Christian-dominated government there. Trouble has been stirred up by the fundamentalists in the Sudan, in Egypt, even in Libya. The Islamic crusade is on the march, everywhere. The purpose is to set up Islamic republics under the laws of Islam and the guidance of the fundamentalist clergy. To them, the US is in the path to their goals. How long will it last?
How powerful is this crusade? How far will it go? And how long will it last? Miss Wright does not pretend to know. She can only note that it is active throughout Islam, has set up an Islamic republic in Iran, and has expelled the Israelis from Lebanon. Briefly, it even held the Grand Mosque in Mecca. It has both failures and successes. It has grown in strength and zeal with each success. It gained a fresh boost to its confidence and determination from the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. We can see now only the beginning, not the end, of the Islamic Crusade.
But Wright is clear about one thing: US bombs cannot stamp out either the crusade or its commandos. Physical retaliation will give it greater sweep and enthusiasm, and bring it more candidates for martyrdom. Bombing the Taleghani Center in Tehran would merely mean more such centers in other places. There is no single command center. The crusade is operated locally for local reasons.
The only practical thing the US can do, in the author's opinion, is to keep a low profile in the Middle East, avoid intervention as much as possible, and, in effect, try to get out of the way.
Robin Wright is an authority on the Middle East. She has assembled the first comprehensive and detailed account of the Great Islamic Crusade. She has seen the beginnings of a movement that may influence history for a long time to come. Anyone to whom the Middle East is important will want this book for its account of what has happened there since the overthrow of the Shah, for its thoughtful explanation of the nature and background of these events, and for its comments on their implications for the futu re.
Joseph C. Harsch is a senior columnist for the Monitor, specializing in diplomatic affairs.