Monday, March 3, 1997

Fundamentally Speaking, Hoover fellow Guity Nashat and Laurence Iannaccone, Professor of Economics, Santa Clara University discuss Islamic Fundamentalism and what Islamic Fundamentalists want.

Recorded on Monday, March 3, 1997

ROBINSON: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Our show today, 'Islamic fundamentalism'. Let's take a look at the Islamic world. Its size might surprise you. It stretches all the way from Morocco, across Northern Africa, down through the sub-continent of India, through Southeast Asia and out into the Pacific Ocean and the nation of Indonesia. And it includes a population of 1 billion people, or about 1 in 5 people on the face of the earth. Now the Islamic world is, of course, different in many ways from the West, but we'll be looking today at one difference in particular. Here in the West, we take separation of church and state for granted. The United States Constitution, Amendment 1, 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.' But in the Islamic world, whether there should be any separation of church and state is a matter for sharp dispute. Now, try to imagine American foreign policy being run according to the principles laid down in Martin Luther's catechism or try to imagine deriving our entire tax code from the Old Testament. I have here the Book of Leviticus, chapter 27, verse 30, 'All tithes of the land, whether in grain from the fields or in fruit from the trees, belong to the Lord, as sacred to him.' A tithe is ten percent. Maybe a tax code that only took ten percent wouldn't be such a bad idea. In any event, examples like these convey something of the flavor of the theocratic state that at least some in the Islamic world would like to see. States in which every aspect of the law is derived from the Koran. With us today, two guests. Guity Nashat is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor at the University of Chicago. Guity is an expert on Islam and the Middle East. Larry Iannaccone is a professor of Economics at Santa Clara University. He's an expert on religious fundamentalism. We began by discussing the very term itself, 'Islamic fundamentalism'.


ROBINSON: What is an Islamic fundamentalist and how does an Islamic fundamentalist differ from a non-fundamentalist Muslim?

IANNACCONE: Fundamentalism is a very problematic term. First off, it's a sloppy term. It gets used especially in the media and by politicians but also by professors in a variety of different ways, so over time we've come to use the term 'fundamentalist' for anyone who is extremely devout, committed to a very strict standard of their religion, wanting to see that religion form a comprehensive basis for living.

ROBINSON: So the Pope is a fundamentalist, by that definition.

IANNACCONE: Well, we also tend to combine it with groups that are conservative and that scare us. And this is the other problem. We use it one way in which it is very comprehensive and maybe even the Pope could be a fundamentalist. And then we use it another way to apply to people who are very militant, even terrorists.

ROBINSON: Militant, alright. To me that has the sound of what I think is being conveyed.

IANNACCONE: Right. Well, the problem is when you combine those two terms and you have a very large number of people, millions of Muslims, millions even of Christians who qualify under the notion of fundamentalism as a strict, fundamentalism as a committed sort of religion. And then you combine that with a very small number of people who are extremely militant, and suddenly you have an image of the world being filled with potential suicide bombers and assassins. And frankly, at that point, the sloppy language becomes misleading and dangerous.

NASHAT: Exactly, I think it is dangerous.

ROBINSON: Make the language unsloppy for us.

NASHAT: Okay. I would say that there are groups of Muslims. I think another problem with this 'fundamentalist' is that it suggests a monolithic spread of people out there who now have replaced communism, the 'red menace'. The 'green menace' is now out there trying to wipe out Western civilization and I think this is far from the truth. To begin with, Muslims have never been united in their past. Fourteen hundred years of history, the only time when they formed one community was in the period of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, who died in 632.

ROBINSON: So it's been a while.

NASHAT: So it's been ever since then. They've never really been united on what kind of community they want, what kind of leaders they want. Some of the most serious wars, let's say, in history have been fought between various groups of Muslims- the Ottomans, for instance. One of the reasons why they were never able to complete their various invasions of Europe was because on their east, on their eastern border, they were fighting with another Muslim power, the Saafalids, who were Shiites. These are the two major sects of Islam. So this idea of Islamic fundamentalism suggests that all these Muslims are sitting there, waiting with their swords...

ROBINSON: Polishing their rifle.

NASHAT: Polishing their swords. Jihad, to wage a jihad against the entire world, so this is my problem.

ROBINSON: Devout, conservative, committed, but isn't there in fact something a little threatening about at least some Islamic fundamentalists?


ROBINSON: Let me pretend that I'm advising Madeleine Albright on the Muslim world and I have to say that there are some things there that would be alarming or that would at least catch my attention. There is a particular kind of religious Muslim, I won't use the word fundamentalist...

NASHAT: Islamist, yes.

ROBINSON: Islamist who rejects the division between religion on the one hand and the state- state authority, politics and so forth- on the other, and wants to replace it with a sort of seamless religious order.

NASHAT: Let's go back to Mrs. Albright, you mentioned her. Dr. Albright.

ROBINSON: Dr. Albright, who is not here, whom I've never met, but let's assume we're trying to advise her.

NASHAT: Let's just remember that Saudi Arabia is a much more puritanical state than Iran, which supposedly everybody calls a fundamentalist state.

ROBINSON: Now tell me why you say that.

NASHAT: Because Saudi Arabia applies the Shari'a much more seriously. They cut off your arm if you steal. They stone you without any hesitation.

IANNACCONE: They are more restrictive about women's roles.

NASHAT: They are much more strict about women's roles. Women cannot drive. Women have to be completely covered up when they go out. And it's a U.S. ally. So the point I'm trying to make is that even if such societies exist, Mrs. Albright doesn't have to worry that these states that apply the Shari'a necessarily pose a threat to the U.S.

ROBINSON: So why are we the 'Great Satan' to Iran then?

NASHAT: Let me just point out something else about Saudi Arabia. And in fact the Teleban, who are the strictest of the existing political groups anywhere in the Muslim world today.

ROBINSON: And these are the people who now run Afghanistan.

NASHAT: Exactly. They were supported initially by Saudi Arabia and today, too, the U.S. State Department also has supported them. And this is a problem they have faced because suddenly this group that receives all their aid from the U.S. suddenly is creating the strictest, least humanitarian, the strictest towards women, towards civil liberties, towards political liberties. So these all really have to do more with national interest of these various groups.

IANNACCONE: I think we have to be very careful when we talk about U.S. interests and a threat to U.S. interests when we think about fundamentalists. I think the thing that's most threatening is political instability and fundamentalists are not the prime cause, by a long shot, of instability in the Middle East. If you could imagine...

ROBINSON: Is Saddam Hussein a fundamentalist?

IANNACCONE: No, I don't think...

NASHAT: No, no. Not at all.

ROBINSON: Is he even a religious man?

NASHAT: No, he isn't, but it's interesting what happened to Saddam Hussein.

ROBINSON: He's a thug.

NASHAT: Well, no, he was a socialist. In the seventies, that socialism was a mixture of Arab nationalism and some socialist ideas. However, after he started the war against Iran, and he discovered that he wasn't getting too much support, in order to make sure that he would enjoy the support of the majority of the Iraqis, he tried to present the war in a much more religious guise.

ROBINSON: So he was manipulating religious sentiment.

NASHAT: So he manipulated religious sentiment.

ROBINSON: So it was not his religious beliefs, per se, that caused him to be such a stinker.

NASHAT: No way, no.

IANNACCONE: I think this is a kind of thought experiment that you might imagine. What if somehow you could wave the wand and change the Middle East and make everyone in the Middle East either less religious or change their religion, turn them into Christians. Would that somehow solve the problems of the Middle East? Would that put an end to civil unrest, violence, revolution? Absolutely not. And I think this is where we have mistakenly focused on religion. For one thing, the Middle East was a...

ROBINSON: You're making, to me, a dramatic claim that religion plays virtually no role in the Middle East. If they were all Presbyterians, they'd still be at each other's throats.

IANNACCONE: No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying that the root causes are not religious. I'm saying that what you have is a whole series of nations that are non-democratic, very poor, in which there is a lot of economic and political inequity and which, as a result, there are a lot of reasons why people are discontent with their situation. When you face that kind of discontentment and no democratic means of dealing with it, people naturally organize and form groups of opposition. And it's natural in that context to reach out for one kind of ideology or another. In past times, Arab socialism was an ideology that many people attached themselves to.

NASHAT: Absolutely, yes.

IANNACCONE: We have, of course, attachments to the West, to what you might call Western liberalism and democracy. As socialism has become discredited and people are still not happy with what they perceive as the consequences of Western influence, where do you turn? You turn naturally to your own religious roots.

NASHAT: I think there's another factor. The countries where what we call the Islamist movements are gaining ground.

ROBINSON: And those countries would be what?

NASHAT: Egypt, Algeria, let's say these are the two that come to my mind. These are countries where there is very little political freedom. These regimes are still in power and they have not been able to deliver and they're still in power. The only way they can maintain their power is by being more and more oppressive and relying more and more on their security system. So, the only place for people to meet is the mosque. They cannot meet in unions, trade unions. There is no really Parliament, parliamentary elections. There are no places where people can meet and discuss ideas. So the mosque is the only place.

ROBINSON: Larry and Guity agree. The roots of unrest in the Middle East are not religious. But if that's so, how do they explain a certain figure called the Ayatollah?


ROBINSON: Iran of the 1970s under the Shah, maybe I have my history wrong, but I think I perceive the broad outlines correctly which was that there was a standard of living that was rising, there was some investment from the West. He was generally delivering the economic goods for the people of Iran.

NASHAT: Absolutely.

ROBINSON: Now I don't say that he was a nice guy and he certainly wasn't elected and he wasn't proposing to hold elections tomorrow, but he was delivering goods in what had been a very poor country. And then Khomeini, that was a popular uprising. The revolution had popular roots. So what was their, it wasn't political freedom that they wanted, they certainly didn't get it under the revolutionary government of Iran? What was going on there?

NASHAT: The revolution wasn't about losing whatever freedoms they had under the Shah's regime. What happened in Iran is that as a result of the sudden rise in oil money, suddenly money from all quadruples. The state began many projects. And many people did benefit in education.

ROBINSON: Like Saudi Arabia.

NASHAT: Right. In Saudi Arabia. But what also happened in Iran during three decades of the Shah's rule, Iran began to acquire a solid middle class. Iran always had a large middle class, but this middle class began to become much larger and many of them were coming the West. They were going both to Europe and the U.S. and they were being exposed to political freedom and liberty. And of course the Shah at the same time started a trend which he called the 'Shah and People's Revolution' in which he promised them that if he would deliver a lot more goods than he was able to do. But as far as the middle class was concerned, they began to resent his increasing authoritarian rule because they had absolutely no political freedom.

ROBINSON: So Khomeini's support was middle class support?

NASHAT: No, but it was an alliance between traditional classes and then the Westernized middle class.

ROBINSON: But the middle class made a big boo-boo, didn't they? Because they brought the mullahs down on their own head.

NASHAT: Of course, absolutely, they realized this. Because they didn't know that this traditional class and the mullahs

ROBINSON: were serious.

NASHAT: were serious, exactly. I remember, I was in Iran in 1978, I thought too many of my friends who were among

ROBINSON: The revolution was '79.

NASHAT: '79. This was in '78.

ROBINSON: So you were there one year before the revolution.

NASHAT: Right. Well, a few months, because this was August of '78. And I remember I spoke to a few leaders of this secular, very enlightened middle class that wanted to lead Iran into a real democracy. And I kept saying to them, 'What will happen when the Shah goes and you're bringing in Khomeini, what about the religious groups?' They would say, 'We'll take care of them. Our only worry is about the Shah. The mullahs, they don't know anything, we'll take care of them.'

IANNACCONE: Revolutions in general do not occur when things are getting worse and worse. Revolutions tend to occur when things are beginning to get better and when expectations rise even more rapidly than realities. When expectations fed by some improvement run rapidly ahead and then confront the reality that the improvement isn't nearly as great as one would hope. The Shah is promising great things for everybody, but in fact a great many people are still feeling frustrated. The middle class feels especially frustrated. Fundamentalism, in so far as you can make generalizations about it, tends not to be a movement that is restricted to or even mainly limited to the poorest of the poor. It tends to be middle and lower middle class people who are most likely to be recruited.

ROBINSON: Excuse me, I still want to do a little more digging here because so far as the conversation has taken place, I get the feeling that religious fundamentalism in the Muslim world is simply a proxy for economic and political discontent.

NASHAT: Absolutely.

ROBINSON: Okay, so you've confirmed that that's the statement you- but it can't be that that's all there is. So, in Iran you have the middle class, sure, but then you did have the people who were genuine supporters of Khomeini.

NASHAT: But I didn't speak about the traditional classes who are the majority of the people. Now their condition had also improved. They had-

ROBINSON: We're talking about Iran now.

NASHAT: Iran now. Their condition had improved but also what they perceived-

ROBINSON: Economic.

NASHAT: Economic. And their children were getting much better education, some of them were going to Europe. But for the traditional classes, it was the attitude of the regime toward Iranian traditions that really bothered many of these traditional groups. Let's say, what would happen if- because the regime continued to look down on Iranian culture of which Islam is a very important part. These are so completely intertwined.

ROBINSON: So the Shah was too Western.

NASHAT: He was too Western. It wasn't that he was Western, but he was so openly disrespectful of what the majority of Iranians thought were important values in their life.

ROBINSON: I'm still not convinced. Aren't there basic differences between the governments of Muslim nations and those in the Western world?


ROBINSON: In this country, no matter how religious the Christian, I haven't yet met a Catholic who thinks the United States should be run by canon law. I haven't yet met a Lutheran who thinks that we should throw out Congress and be run by the Missouri Senate. On the other hand, the more religious groups in the Islamic world do in fact have aspirations to control the apparatus of the state. That's a vital distinction, isn't it? First of all, is the distinction correct, am I right about that?

NASHAT: Yes, though I-


IANNACCONE: In the Christian world, and in the United States, you will find a very small number of people who think that it would be possible to run an entire nation from strict Biblical principles.

ROBINSON: But they tend to drop out rather than make a bid for state control. So you have the Amish, they tend to be little communities.

IANNACCONE: Traditionally, the people for whom the term fundamentalist was developed years ago were a segment of Protestant Christians in the U.S. around the turn of the century who were very discontent with the liberalizing trends within Christianity. And you're exactly right, they pulled out of the main stream. And, in fact, I think with a lot of fundamentalists in all societies, they have a tendency to pull out, try to create enclaves in which they can live their traditional life. What happens sometimes is those groups can become so threatened that they feel that's no longer viable. They can also feel that they're gaining enough power that they can aspire to something more. And so to some extent in the U.S., to a greater extent in Islamic countries, you have people now who want to do much more than merely defend or maintain their traditions, want to promote them and push them on the entire society.

ROBINSON: So in Iran, Khomeini was serious about taking control of the state and he did it. And in Afghanistan, the Teleban wanted to run the country and they got it.

NASHAT: Okay, but the point is- Let's look at Iran, that's a good example. When the Islamic republic was created in 1979, they thought they were going to create a state that could be run completely according to Islamic rules and regulations. If you look back, there really isn't such a blueprint anywhere in Islam.

ROBINSON: Even, I'll mispronounce it again, the Shari'a.

NASHAT: The Shari'a, of course. Because the Shari'a only governs civil matters- marriage, divorce, these kinds of things, commerce. But basically there is no political blueprint.

ROBINSON: No Constitution, no president, no legislative branch. It doesn't exist.

NASHAT: No, absolutely not. So basically they had to maintain and retain a lot of the political institutions that had existed before. They changed them, they gave them an Islamic veneer, but basically it's exactly the same. And I think the position of women is a good example. Because before the revolution, women were, let's say, the labor force. Participation of women was 12%. Now after the revolution, they tried to encourage women to retire from the labor force. They soon discovered they really needed women. Because so many of the technocrats have left and whoever had stayed behind, they needed them. Therefore they tried to bring them back through the back door. And if you read some of the speeches of some of the leaders of the present day Islamic Republic, including Mr. Rafsanjani.


NASHAT: Who is the President of Iran, until the summer. He kept encouraging women to be in the labor force. And he said women in the rural areas work, in tribes work, why shouldn't women in towns work. And in fact his own daughter became a member of Parliament. She's going to run for President of Iran. She's one of the candidates.

IANNACCONE: This illustrates something that I think is important in fundamentalism in general. You will find a striking gap between rhetoric and reality. You will find people saying that when we get in control, we will transform every aspect of life and run everything, politics, technology, the economy, social life, according to basic principles in our scriptures. When they actually gain control, it very rarely happens. Partly because it's just not possible. Partly because the costs are just too high. And your example of Iran is exactly right. It's interesting to note that the status of women in Iran is by no means the most restrictive of all Islamic countries. Saudi Arabia, our ally, probably enjoys the dubious distinction of restricting women more than any other country. Part of the reason goes back to a perverse economic effect. They have so much oil income that they can afford not to have as many women in the labor force.

ROBINSON: Okay. Now, some Islamic countries are more important than others, of course. Let me ask about a big one.


ROBINSON: Egypt matters. It has a population of 60 million, biggest population in the region. It's our ally. It's crucial in any diplomacy that seeks to achieve a peace among Israel and its Arab neighbors. Egypt really matters. And Mubarak is having trouble. According to what you've said, maybe I, if I were advising Madeleine Albright, I'd be a little diffident about going on supporting him because if he's doing what the Shah used to do, if he's becoming more authoritarian, aren't we just setting up ourselves to be associated with, in Hosni Mubarak, somebody the fundamentalists just want to get rid of? They can't stand him.

NASHAT: Okay. Well, Egypt gets the second highest amount of aid after Israel, about 3 billion per year. I think we should make every effort to encourage Mr. Mubarak to try and change the economy around because Egypt today has a heavily controlled status economy. And the status economy has brought a great deal of poverty, stagnation, to Egypt. They keep saying they are trying to change it, but they haven't really made any serious effort.

ROBINSON: Larry, so how should we deal with Egypt?

IANNACCONE: This goes back to my basic point that the problems we attribute to fundamentalism have their roots in broader social, economic problems. And if we want to address fundamentalism, instead of addressing it fundamentally, basically, as a religious problem, I think we ought to think about the political problems, the economic problems that are giving rise to it. In the case of Egypt, we are working to prop up a government that is not democratic, that is not run efficiently, that breeds continual discontent among its people because of continuing poverty which in turn is related to a very inefficient economy which is heavily regulated, prices are controlled. They are doing all the things that we know don't work in an economy. And so for us to continue to support Mubarak is to set him up and ourselves up for continual problems. We are justifying, we're creating situations or promoting, maintaining situations that the Islamisists say, "See, this is why you can't go with the West."

NASHAT: Right.

ROBINSON: So treat them as another Mexico. Just push them to open up.

NASHAT: Well, the problem is Egypt is too important. We cannot push him too hard the way we did with the Shah.

IANNACCONE: We're talking about a need for gradual change.

NASHAT: Right. We should put more pressure on him and make him aware that this road he's taking can only lead to disaster.

ROBINSON: Larry, Guity, thank you very much.


ROBINSON: Our experts agreed that religion is by no means the only important factor in understanding the Islamic world. Economics is important. So too are people's aspirations for human rights and self-government. Yet even though they said religion isn't the only important factor, they did admit that it matters. So even today, in the dwindling years of the twentieth century, religion, the enduring question of man's relationship with God remains a vital component in understanding what makes the world turn. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.

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