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It was a perfect morning. In only a few hours, Khartoum would be stifling, But at six o'clock on January 18, 1985, the air was clear, the sky already a swimming-pool blue.
In my room at the Hilton, the only sound was the hum of a twenty-year-old air conditioner pumping lukewarm air. I drank my coffee and read the morning paper, trying not to think about what lay ahead. I had seen and done many things as the Cairo bureau chief of The New York Times and witnessed many startling events since my first trip to the region in 1971, when I was a young student. But I had never covered an execution.
An hour later, I left for Kobar Prison. The prison's rectangular courtyard, about the size of a football field, was three quarters full when the Times's Egyptian office manager, Carnal Mohieddin, and I arrived. I was wearing a white cloak and head scarf, hoping that the prison guards would not realize that I was a foreigner. The policemen waved us through, into the prison parking lot, without even a second glance at me in the backseat, the correct place to be for a woman in much of the Middle East. I kept my head down as Gamal and I walked slowly through the crowd to the center of the prison yard and found places to sit on the sandy ground.
The scaffolding was at the far end of the courtyard, elevated but still lower than the prison's sandstone walls. The scene at Kobar was gay, nothing like the grim photographs I had seen of prisons where Americans are executed, with ftiends and relatives of the condemned huddling outside the walls amid protesters holding candles in the night.
I seemed to be the only woman in the yard. Many of the several hundred men appeared to know one another. They greeted each other in the traditional Islamic welcome: "Assalam Aleykum," peace be with you. "Aleykum Salam," and unto you, came the reply again and again. The tall, dark-skinned men in their foot-high turbans arid flowing white robes laughed and chatted about the weather, prospects for this year's crops, and the unending civil war in southern Sudan. Gradually, everyone sat down in the sand to wait tinder the suit that seemed to grow harsher by the minute. The execution was scheduled for ten 0 1 clock.
Shortly before the appointed time, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha was led into the courtyard. The condemned man, his hands tied behind him, was smaller than I expected him to be, and from where I sat, as his guards bustled him along, he looked younger than his seventy-six years. He held his head high and stared silently into the crowd. When they saw him, many in the crowd leaped to their feet, jeering and shaking their fists at him. A few waved their Korans in the air.
I managed to catch only a glimpse of Taha's face before the executioner placed an oatmeal-colored sack over his head and body, but I shall never forget his expression: His eyes were defiant; his mouth firm. He showed no hint of fear.
The crowd began cheering as two Sudanese guards in sand-colored uniforms tightened a noose around the sack where Mahmoud Taha's neck must have been. Though the babble of the crowd drowned out their words, they seemed to be screaming at him. Suddenly, the guards stood back, the platform snapped open, the rope became taut, and the sack that covered Taha wriggled in the air. A few seconds later, the sack merely swayed a bit at the end of the rope. Idiotically, I thought of potatoes.
A roar erupted in the courtyard: "Allahu Akbar!" the crowd screamed God is great! The am intensified as the men began chanting in unison: "Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Islam huwa al-hall!" (Islam is the solution).
The exuberant men hugged and kissed one another. Justice has been done, a man next to me shrieked, failing to his knees, touching his forehead to the sand, uttering a Muslim prayer. Stunned and sickened by the jubilation around me, I pulled at Gamal's sleeve and tried to tell him that we should leave. But I couldn't speak. In my nervousness, I must have tugged at my head scarf, which was now askew. Recognizing the danger, Gamal pulled the scarf down over my exposed bangs and pushed me firmly toward the courtyard door. As we edged our way toward the heavy iron gate, the sand began rising in an orange cloud under the shuffling of hundreds of feet. When we reached the exit, I craned my neck to catch one last look at the scaffolding: The sack, Taha's body, was still dangling from the rope. I wondered when they would cut it down.
To many of the Sudanese who applauded his execution that day, Taha had committed the worst possible crime. He had been convicted of sedition and "apostasy," abandoning Islam a charge that he denied. But Taha insisted to the end that he was not a heretic a murtadd, a Muslim who had abandoned Islam but an Islamic reformer, a believer whose "crime" was having opposed President Gaafar al-Nimeiri's cruel interpretation of Islam's sharia, the Muslim holy law. From what I knew of the situation, I, too, felt that Taha was killed not for his lack of religious convictions but because of them.
His execution was my introduction to the Islamic fervor that has shivered Middle Eastern politics ever since 1979, when the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the glum Muslim puritan from Islam's minority wing, Shiism, ousted the shah of Iran in a popular revolution. While Iranians are Shiites, the smaller of the two great branches of Islam, the Islamic revival, sparked by tile ayatollah's revolution, soon took hold in Sunni Muslim lands as well. Now in almost every Arab capital, would-be Khomeinis promise a more "authentic" and "virtuous" government, and in almost every Arab state there is a struggle for power between the autocratic rulers and the Islamic militants who claim to represent millions of the unhappily ruled, the educated-but-unemployable, futureless young, the poor, the dispossessed those whom Muslims call "the disinherited" and whom they recruit by the tens of thousands. Whereas Taha's execution was exceptional in 1985 in Sudan, thousands Of Dien and women in that country and throughout the region have since been killed for their ideas in the name of Allah, and the killing goes on.
Taha's fate intensified my interest in this growing militancy, which, in 1985, I assumed naively was something new. But contemporary Islamic radicalism, often called "fundamentalism," a word borrowed from nineteenth-century European and American Protestants who also opposed scholarly explication of their scriptures in favor of a "fundamentalist" reading of sacred texts, turned out to be only a new expression of a struggle almost as old as Islam itself the latest attempt to impose a militant version of the "straight path," the way enjoined by the Prophet Muhammad, who founded Islam in seventh-century Arabia.
Over the succeeding decade, I encountered this movement in many forms in every Middle Eastern country I covered. After the 1991 Gulf war divided the Middle East, it was widely and foolishly predicted that America would introduce a new order in the region based on democracy, capitalism, and human rights. But these militant Islamic movements committed to establishing Islamic states that in theory will combine economic development with Islamic justice have endured and in some countries have become vastly more influential and threatening to the prevailing order. Even in countries where there is little prospect that Islamic forces will rule, Islam now provides the vocabulary of everyday life, reshaping the language of politics, fundamental aspects of national culture, and longstanding traditions. In most Arab states, even secular leaders have increasingly relied on Islam to shore up their rule. Thus, the power struggles are DO longer between the defenders of the "secular" order and advocates of religious rule but, rather, over who will rule in the name of Islam.
This book is my attempt to understand these militants and their movements as well as the responses to them in the varied and culturally distinct countries where they have emerged as either challengers or rulers. When I started this project soon after the Gulf war, the late Albert Hourani, an eminent British historian of Arab descent, urged me to avoid generalizations about the resurgence of Islam. Of course, militant Islamic movements had some common themes, heroes, and villains, but, he cautioned, they varied dramatically from one country to another and could best be evaluated "within the context of their individual societies and their own distinctive histories, political traditions, and cultures." I have followed his advice and attempted to describe these movements as I have witnessed them in ten Middle Eastern countries, all but two of them Arab.
Though Islam itself is based partly on the principle of tawhid, the "Oneness" of God which implies, in addition to monotheism, the inseparability of church and state, or in Islamic terms, of religion and politics militant Islam takes many forms. And while radical Arab Muslims assert that Islam is the only force that can unify the Arabs, as Arab nationalism promised but failed to do for the previous generation, what I have seen so far suggests the contrary. If anything, militant Islam becomes ever more fragmented and diverse. Just as the Koran gives ninetynine names for God, Islam and Islamic militancy, in particular occurs in many varieties, as distinct from country to country as Catholicism is in France, Italy, Brazil, and America. There is no more an Islamic world than there is an Arab world or a Christian world. This book contains very few predictions, but of this I am sure: There will not be a single, unified Islamic umma, or community, any more than there is a single Arab nation, even in the unlikely event that Islamic radicals topple every quasi-secular government in the Middle East.
My reasons for choosing the countries I have written about are obvious, but less so is the order in which I have written about them. I begin with Egypt, the self-proclaimed "mother of the world," for it was, in fact, Arab nationalism's standard-bearer under its former ruler Colonel-turned-President Gamal Abdel Nasser as well as the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, though it now claims to be nonviolent, remains the world's largest and most influential militant Islamic organization. The historical center of Arab political and cultural life, Egypt has faced an energetic and violent Islamic challenge in recent years. Given its population, geography, and history, Egypt's political fate will inevitably affect that of the smaller, weaker Arab states around it. Egypt is also the Arab country I love best. It was the first Arab state I visited, and it was in Cairo that I was based for The New York Times between 1983 and 1985.
Saudi Arabia, the subject of my second chapter, is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and hence of Islam, the faith of more than a billion Muslims throughout the world, less than a majority of whom are Arab. I have tried to describe how the militants have used the events of the Prophet's life and some of the laws and political traditions he created to justify their own views on how society should be organized. Arabia also produced the region's first modern militant Islamic state the result of an alliance between a religious leader and a local tribal chief in the eighteenth century.
I turn next to Sudan because it is the only Sunni Arab state in which militant Muslims now rule. The seven-year reign of the National Islamic Front, a branch of Sudan's Muslim Brotherhood that seized power in a military coup in 1989, provides much evidence of the appalling crimes of this ostensibly Islamic state, which should serve as a warning to other Arabs of the dangers they face should they, too, attempt to reconstruct human nature according to religious doctrine.
Then Algeria. A vicious war has raged between the secular government and Islamic radicals since 1992, when the military refused to accept the militants' electoral victory and decided instead to crush the Islamic populist movement. The conflict has already claimed some forty thousand lives, and its outcome remains unclear. I took next at another North African country Libya, an oil-rich Arab land in which, once again, a military officer, the erratic but durable Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, has suppressed religious militants as well as secular dissenters who oppose him. While militant Sunni Muslims despise him for having banned the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya and radical Shiites blame him for the "disappearance" of a leading Lebanese cleric during a visit to Libya in 1978, Qaddafi himself has imposed his own eccentric form of "Islamic" rule on his sparsely populated country.
I then move to what the French once called the Levant, the eastern Mediterranean Arab states, each with its own distinct preoccupations and political traditions. Lebanon is slowly emerging from the seventeen-year civil war that all but destroyed what was once the Arab Middle East's most prosperous and intellectually vital society. But modern Lebanon, whose national boundaries were drawn by Europeans around an uncongenial assembly of heterogeneous ethnic and religious groups, is struggling under a new demographic reality: The state that was created for, and long dominated by, Christians now contains a solidly Muslim majority. Shiite Muslims alone, many of them supporters of Hezbollah and other violent Islamic groups, constitute about 40 percent of the population. I have tried to describe the efforts by Lebanon's political elite, dominated by Syria, to devise a new modus vivendi among its fractious religious sects and clans while responding to growing demands from politicized Muslims for a fairer division of political power and spoils. I have also described the evolution of the violent, Iranian-supported Hezbollah into a more traditional political party, a transformation that has intriguing implications for Lebanon's political future.
In neighboring, politically stagnant Syria, President Hafiz al-Assad has precluded such sectarian warfare by murderous repression of his own militant Muslims. So far, Assad's rule by the threat of renewed state terror holds firm.
Syria's exact opposite is Jordan. Of all the Arab states, Jordan has been among the boldest in offering militant Muslims political rights and participation in government. Its daring experiment offers some tentative lessons for other Arab states confronting radical Islamic pressures.
While most Westerners once associated militancy affecting Israel largely with Hamas, the militant wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West Bank and Gaza, the assassination of Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 revealed the intensity of Jewish militancy Islamic radicalism's counterpart. Like their Islamic soul mates, Jewish fundamentalists openly advocate replacing their system, in this case a democracy, with a theocracy in which the word of God, as they interpret it, would be law. They, too, have their fatwas, their bitter hatreds, and fanatical clerics who issue death warrants for Arab leaders and their own. They, too, condemn their society and its leaders, portraying their prime minister as "traitorous" and his government's policies as a "betrayal of Judaism." In their world of self-righteous hatred and intolerance, no one and no idea is safe. But Jewish militancy is the subject of another book. In my chapter on Israel I have tried to examine not only the evolution of Hamas in the territory that Israel has occupied since the 1967 war and from which it is now partially withdrawing in keeping with its dramatic 1993 peace agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization, but also the development of what few realize is one of the region's fastest-growing Islamic groups the homegrown, largely nonviolent Islamic Movement of Israel, which flourishes within Israel's 1948 borders among its Muslim citizens, who now constitute some 18 percent of the population. Democracy has so far proven a boon to Israel's Islamists.
While I have written much about Palestinians, I have not written about Palestine, for it is not yet born, though I expect it soon will be. Nevertheless, Palestinians, united by a common dream, remain geographically dispersed. As such, they face a variety of challenges within their own diaspora. For too many years Palestine has been a cause rather than a place, and Palestinians have suffered from the burden of having been for far too long the issue around which other Arabs have rallied and tried to unify themselves, a symbolic rather than a real people with needs and problems that most Arab states have preferred to ignore. For a people betrayed time and again by Arab leaders, including their own, the militant Islamic promise of justice and territorial redemption through a return to Islam has been a particularly seductive illusion.
I conclude with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which remains among the Middle East's most intellectually dynamic societies. Non-Arab, Shiite Persia was modern militant Islam's first victory. Despite a debilitating eightyear war initiated by Iraq in 198o, an abysmal economic performance, widespread corruption, support for international terrorism that has alienated Much of the West and Arab states as well, and intense political repression at home, the Islamic revolution and the republic it spawned retain widespread support among millions of poor Iranians. But within the elite, many have despaired of the Islamic dream and are now trying to flee to America or to any other country that will have them. A tiny but influential minority, however, chooses to remain, hoping to make Islam succeed as a political framework, in effect, by separating once again the political functions of the state from the ideological and often inept clergy that has dominated Iranian political life since 1979. Whether or not they succeed and Iranian history and the brutality of Middle Eastern politics make such a victory most unlikely these Islamic reformers have launched a thrilling debate that has kept Iran a fascinating, if unpredictable, place.
I have not included, for very different reasons, two countries that readers might expect to find in this book: Turkey and Iraq. Until the early twentieth century, Turkey was the seat of a great Islamic empire and the first Islamic state to experience a secular revolution. Yet Turkey remains somewhat isolated from the rest of the region. It is not an Arab country, and recent developments there, unlike those in non-Arab Iran, seem to have had little impact on the Arab-oriented Middle East. I have not written about Iraq because I have not been permitted to go there since 1986. Shortly before the Gulf war, I coauthored a book about Saddam Hussein and his monstrous regime. I could hardly expect a visa in return. Not long ago, an Iraqi diplomat told me that I was on a very short list of writers who are considered the regime's "eternal enemies."
I am not a scholar, and this is not a scholarly book. While I have identified some of my sources in numerous footnotes, this book is based largely on interviews I have conducted and on my travels and adventures during twentyfive years of reporting from the region. Though scholars may wince at my rendering of Arabic terms, I have tried to transliterate them in a form that is most easily recognizable to non-Arab readers; the inconsistencies in spelling result mainly from quotations from sources that have used a different form.
I have also tried to avoid the debate about what to call the movements I have described. Though I have used the term occasionally, I am not comfortable with "fundamentalist" because the militant movements embrace far more than a preference for religious orthodoxy. Moreover, while a great many Muslims are orthodox in their religious practices, by no means are they all politically oriented; fewer still follow a militant line. Many of these Muslim traditionalists shun politics on principle. Others, especially those in such conservative states as Saudi Arabia, where sharia is already the basis of most laws, consider themselves what we would call "fundamentalists," but they, too, do not oppose their governments, however wanting they may be, since their leaders attempt, at least in theory, to apply sharia and abide by what they view as Islamic tradition.
My focus, rather, is the young militants and the men who lead them, those who see Islam as a way of bringing about revolutionary change in their societies. They are deeply political in that they view politics as a way of replacing secular laws and rulers not just with Muslim edicts and Muslim rulers but with what they call "Islam." They are also determined to rid the their societies of secular and even traditional "un-Islamic" customs, ethnic and sectarian cleavages, and social injustice, which they blame for having prevented Muslims from developing and prospering. They are, moreover, not traditionalist but "modern" in their outlook; many of them are young and often the products of Western secular training, especially in the sciences.
As Olivier Roy, the French political scientist, has argued, these militants are the product of Muslim cultures that have already been both "modernized" and "Westernized," partly reshaped by Western education, values, and culture American films, music, and fashion. The Algerians who write "Islam is the solution" on the Casbah walls do so in French, dressed in blue jeans and leather jackets. They would not be out of place in a Left Bank cafe. Thus, this militant or radical Islam, or Islamism, which is what I prefer to call this trend, does not represent primarily "hatred of the other," in Roy's words, so much as "hatred of oneself and of one's desires." The militants I write about inhabit a "hybrid world" and promote a cult of nostalgia for an imagined past that they seek to reclaim by securing sufficient political power to "re-Islamize" their societies and produce, if not a more democratic, a more "just" government and "authentic" environment.
Some militants, including those who support Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, advocate gradual change through nonviolent preaching, education, and pressuring their rulers to make their societies more "Islamic" in law and deed; others, such as adherents of the numerous "Islamic Jihad" groups, endorse ousting or killing "un-Islamic" leaders and their secular elite and even military coups to secure power and impose an Islamic order. Many movements include advocates of both collaboration and confrontation, persuasion and violence, who oscillate pragmatically between these methods. But whether they favor Islamization "from below" or "from above" their goal is the same power.
This book is not merely about politics, though politics is at its center. What I've tried to do is convey in a historical context the mood of the Countries within the region, the tone of their debates, and the forms taken by the struggle for dominance in each of them. I have paid special attention to three groups: Christians and other nonMuslim minorities; intellectuals; and women. All three are likely to be most dramatically and, I fear, adversely affected should the Islamization under way in the region prevail.
While I have tried to keep an open mind about traditions and cultures that differ from my own, I make no apology for the fact that as a Western woman and an American, I believe firmly in the inherent dignity of the individual and the value of human rights and legal equality for all. In this commitment, I, too am unapologetically militant.
Apart from this, I have tried to approach the region and its people in a spirit of inquiry. Almost seventy years ago, Freya Stark, another woman writer and traveler with a passion for the Middle East, wrote these words in her diary from Damascus: "Most people seem to want to stagnate when they reach middle age. I hope I shall not become so, resenting ideas that are not my ideas, and seeing the world with all its changes and growth as a series of congealed formulas. To feel, and think, and learn-learn always: surely that is being alive and young in the real Sense."
Copyright © 1996 by Judith Miller