The roots of fundamentalism

The Persian Gulf region has 65 percent of the world’s total oil reserves. Of the 3.1 billion tons of oil on the market in 1990, some 843 million tons were produced in the Middle East. To appreciate the importance of oil in preparing the ground for the Khomeini regime’s export of fundamentalism one need only imagine how much less attention Islamic fundamentalism would have received had Khomeini seized power not in Iran, but in another third world country located far from the Middle East.

Oil also provided the funds with which Khomeini and his heirs exported their revolution and fundamentalism. The huge oil revenues paid for the extensive political and propaganda campaigns abroad, funded the worldwide networks created to recruit and train fundamentalists, provided the financial and logistical support for Khomeini’s allies and surrogates throughout the Islamic world, and enabled the clerics to bestow gifts of free oil to certain countries to increase influence. Between September 1991 and February 1992, for example, Rafsanjani’s government "spent more than $500 million and sent out 1,300 Islamic fundamentalist preachers to influence the newly independent Muslim republics of Central Asia. On the average, the mullahs have spent $100 million annually in recent years to reinforce and maintain their operatives in Lebanon.

     Looking at the region as a whole, oil has also indirectly paved the way for fundamentalism’s growth in the Middle East. Since 1975, of the thirteen members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) all except two (Ecuador and Venezuela) have been Muslim countries. Six (Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) are located in the Persian Gulf region and two (Algeria and Libya) in Muslim North Africa. Indonesia’s population is over 90 percent Muslim. Half of Nigeria’s population is Muslim, and most of the time a Muslim has ruled the country.
     The flow of petro-dollars, however, was a two-edged sword. The rapid oil price increases meant equally rapid energy price increases in oil-importing countries, such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Egypt. The consequent economic problems fomented social turmoil, and the resultant rising tensions provided fertile ground for the growth of fundamentalism.

For the oil-producing countries, the situation was worse. The flood of petro-dollars and consequent economic upheavals quickly led to the unravelling of these countries’ social fabric. The newly acquired wealth created havoc with people’s daily lives. Corruption, bribery, extravagance, greed, and -most importantly-the widening rift between the very rich elite and the poor majority in countries such as Iran brought fundamental changes to societies whose social structure had remained essentially unchanged for decades. A Nigerian political analyst’s description of the situation applied to all the oil-producing countries: "There is unprecedented indiscipline in Nigeria these days. . . . There is smuggling, there is corruption, money permeates society."

         The corruption accompanying the enormous wealth worked to the advantage of the fundamentalists, who declared that the only solution was to seek refuge in the "Islam" they represented. Such simplistic answers attracted the deprived masses to the fundamentalists’ fold. Iran provides a classic example.

         After 1976, the shah was forced by international pressure to loosen the grips of repression. Khomeini jumped at the opportunity to exploit the widespread social discontent and political vacuum created by the brutal clampdown on organized opposition. Relying on religious demagoguery and a nationwide network of like-minded mullahs, Khomeini hijacked the leadership of the antimonarchic revolution.

     It should be emphasized, however, that although economic and social factors play an important role in the growth of fundamentalism, it is a misperception to view the phenomenon as merely a product of social destitution or the unfair distribution of wealth. True, Khomeini and his followers took maximum advantage of the poverty and deprivation in Iran to advance their own political interests. But fundamentalism also has historical, cultural, and social roots which do not necessarily grow out of economic factors. All of the material components of the present crisis-poverty, bureaucratic corruption, and so on–existed in the region in the 1960s and ’70s, but fundamentalism’s appeal remained limited to small religious sects until the mullahs took over in Iran. After 1979, Khomeiniism was exported; fundamentalists were organized and nourished morally and financially by the Iranian mullahs. Had Khomeini not assumed power in Iran, "Islamic fundamentalism" would not have been the issue of global concern it is today