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Eric Nelson's article "Look to the East," (Opinion, September 30, 1996) dealing with the topic of Islamic fundamentalism, displays an analytical shallowness worthy of any Grade B action movie, complete with slogan-chanting terrorists representing a dark foreign power. Nelson begins his analysis by describing a statue of Constantine that in his view predicted the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Sultan. To mirror the prophecy of Constantine, Nelson launches into his own sophomoric attempt to identify for us the "...threats and enemies of freedom...our enemies." Naturally, despite the fragmented complexity of international relations, Nelson flawlessly leads us to one grand, hegemonic enemy lurking in the shadows, just waiting to assume the mantle shed by communism: "...The finger should still be pointed due east, directly towards the epidemic spread of Islamic fundamentalism."
Nelson points to the recent seizure of Kabul by fundamentalist forces to illustrate his fears of Islamic violence; in fact, the victory of the Taliban brings the country closer to the resolution of the civil war to which the U.S. has abandoned Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal. Nelson also points to Algeria and Turkey as countries which have embraced Islamic fundamentalism and threaten "freedom." As the defender of freedom, Nelson should have pointed out that in both countries, Islamic fundamentalists came to power legitimately through the democratic process. In Algeria, the military's suppression of democratic electoral results which awarded victory to the Islamic party plunged the country into violence and authoritarian government; curiously, the world, and Eric Nelson, failed to defend this violation of Algeria's "freedom."
To understand this lack of response, we must seek to comprehend why Eric Nelson holds Islamic "fundamentalism" to be a danger warranting the sacrifice of his own valued democratic principles. Nelson boldly generalizes, "Almost as a rule, these Islamic revolutions turn to tyranny and terror...". Neither Algeria nor Turkey, examples of Islamic fundamentalism cited by Nelson, were "revolutions" that overturned the existing order; in fact, the Refah, a Turkish Islamic party, operated willingly and effectively within the existing democratic system. Algeria descended into chaos because the world looked on and allowed the suppression of democratic results, not because of the Islamic nature of the political party.
While numerous additional specific factual and contextual inconsistencies litter Nelson's account, a comprehensive micro-analysis remains beyond the scope of this letter. The general shortcoming of Nelson's article is a failure to distinguish between extremism and fundamentalism. The potential for religious extremism exists within any religious group, as demonstrated by tragic events in both Waco and Hebron. Christian fundamentalists include conservative Republicans wishing to reinstitute school prayer; nobody would accuse these religious fundamentalists, in Nelson's words, of wandering down a "dark path" or being opportunistic "parasites."
An irrational phobia that completely identifies Islamic extremism with Islamic fundamentalism has pervaded U.S. popular culture and foreign policy, leading to the characterization of Islamic parties as extremist, regardless of their specific policies. This unreasoning stereotype of an entire religion has even led to the sacrifice of democratic principles to prevent the rise of Islamic governments, paradoxically pushing popular movements towards an extremism aimed at recapturing their freedom. Only by recognizing that Islamic fundamentalism does not automatically equal Islamic extremism can we move towards a constructive analysis of Islamic governments and movements.
In his blind search for a monolithic enemy, Eric Nelson completely loses the values of religious tolerance supposedly vital to any definition of freedom. His myopic analysis displays the effects of his own unreasoned stereotypes and fears, and by its shortcomings, effectively shows us the way to a more enlightened approach to understanding Islamic movements. --Omar M. Siddiqui '97
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