Forbes magazine
Current Events
Top World Agenda
Lee Kuan Yew, 03.13.06, 12:00 AM ET

Islam has not been a problem. however, contemporary radical Islam, or Islamism, is a problem. Oil without Islamism can be a problem, but Islamism plus oil becomes a volatile mix. Islamism plus oil plus weapons of mass destruction (WMD) equals a threat. Iran has insisted on its right to enrich uranium and has threatened to cut its oil exports, currently 2.5 million barrels per day, if sanctions are imposed. The prospect of a cut in supply caused oil prices to tick upward. A nuclear-capable Iran will significantly alter the geopolitical balance. Other countries in the Middle East will also want nuclear weapons, increasing the chances that fissile material for WMD will fall into terrorists’ hands.

How did the powerful combination of Islamism, oil and WMD come about? After WWII the European empires dissolved. More than 40 Arab and Muslim countries became independent, with Arab nationalism their first-phase response. Arab nationalism reached a high point in 1956, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, causing the French, British and Israelis to invade and occupy Suez. President Dwight Eisenhower, however, opposed the invasion and forced them to withdraw. The Arab world was jubilant, confident that Arabs would now regain their place in the sun. In 1958 Egypt and Syria merged to form the United Arab Republic, while Egypt and Yemen formed a confederation called the United Arab States. Both were dissolved in 1961. In 1967 Israel defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six Day War. Nasser was diminished, and pan-Arab nationalization lost its appeal. Pan-Islamism soon emerged as the unifying force.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur Arab--Israeli war, the conservative Arab oil states demonstrated their power by imposing an oil embargo on the U.S. and Europe. Oil prices quadrupled. The Arab oil states and Iran became fabulously wealthy. This wealth enabled the Arabs and Iranians to preach to and persuade Muslims in other parts of the world to adopt their strict and severe versions of Islam. They funded the building of mosques and madrasahs in poorer countries, sent preachers and paid for Muslim leaders to attend religious conferences. They are responsible for raising the religiousness of Muslims abroad and have “Arabized” once moderate Malay and Indonesian Muslims.

Jihadist suicide bombings first made news when Shiites in Lebanon (Hezbollah)--instigated, instructed and financed by Iranians--bombed the U.S. Marine barracks at the Beirut airport in 1983, killing 241 American servicemen. Sunnis in Palestine (Hamas) have imitated Hezbollah with suicide bombings against Israelis. Radical Muslims, instructed by al Qaeda, have imitated these bombings in Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.

Islamists believe the time is ripe to reassert Islam’s supremacy. The jihadists among them have chosen Iraq as their second battleground. Their goal is to drive the Americans out of Iraq, just as they drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

Islamic solidarity is at a high point. When a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, one with a bomb-shaped turban, radical imams in Denmark sought support from Gulf Arabs and other Arab states. Danish products were boycotted. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed regret that Muslims had found the cartoons offensive. Papers in France and many other EU countries reprinted the cartoons in support of freedom of the press. Gunmen in Gaza surrounded the EU missions. Muslims marched in protest, burning flags, brandishing clenched fists and uttering death threats. Muslim presidents in Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan spoke out in condemnation of the cartoons. The Indonesian president and Malaysian prime minister protested but asked their countries’ Muslims to remain calm. Danish, Norwegian and Austrian embassies were attacked. In Beirut these attacks may have been without government sanction, but in Damascus and Tehran they appeared organized. Each televised outburst triggered a larger one, in a crescendo of Muslim rage.

Democracy in Muslim States

Radical Islamic groups in several countries want to engineer a clash of civilizations, and oil power has given them the means. In this climate the U.S. must be circumspect when urging Arab regimes to open up. Islamist parties could easily win through the one-man-one-vote system. But once they’re in power, free elections will cease to exist. In January Hamas won 74 seats as opposed to Fatah’s 45 seats in elections to the Palestinian legislature. In the first Iraqi parliamentary elections, in December 2005, religious Shiite parties won the most seats. In Egypt’s parliamentary elections that same month the Muslim Brotherhood substantially increased its seats.

But there is hope. Following 9/11, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf took a stand against al Qaeda. Four assassination attempts since then have not intimidated him. Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika are also fighting Muslim extremists. Moderate Muslim leaders in Asia have stood up to the Islamists as well. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi opposes PAS, the Islamist opposition party, on all fronts--economic, social and religious. In January Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called for more regional cooperation against terror. He warned that Southeast Asian militants are “regrouping, adapting and recruiting.”

More Muslim leaders like these will have to fight the terrorists if Muslims don’t want their lives controlled by Islamist radicals.

Lee Kuan Yew, minister mentor of Singapore;
Paul Johnson
, eminent British historian and author;
Ernesto Zedillo
, director, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, and former president of Mexico;
in addition to Forbes Chairman Caspar W. Weinberger, rotate in writing this column.