The U.S. Must Tread Carefully to Avoid Creating More Fundamentalist Islamic Governments

The United States has, since 1979, had two unpleasant experiences with radical Islamic fundamentalist rule: Iran and Afghanistan.

In each case, we expected the rule of reason and the norms of modern global exchange would apply to these nations after Islamic fundamentalists seized control. We were mistaken.

Instead, we were met by ferocious and fanatical hatred aimed against the West generally and the United States in particular.

After the Shah of Iran was deposed, the U.S. hoped that normal diplomacy and the established traditions of international discourse would yield constructive relations with Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule of the clergy. Instead, a 444-day hostage crisis began.

We learned the hard way the lesson that should have been clear from the moment Khomeini took power: There was no way to negotiate, compromise or even talk with a leader as implacably opposed to democracy and tolerance as Khomeini.

Our experiences in Afghanistan have reinforced the lesson. After the U.S. poured millions of dollars of equipment and expended untold man-hours to gather and disseminate vital intelligence for the Mujjahiddin in their resistance to Soviet occupation an Islamic fundamentalist government took power. It is profoundly anti-American. It openly shelters the world’s most notorious – and dangerous – international terrorist, Osama bin Laden. It has been under U.S. sanctions since bin Laden’s 1998 terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in east Africa killed 224 people. Bin Laden is linked to the bombing in Yemen of the U.S.S. Cole, an attack which killed 19 U.S. sailors.1

The Taliban has fashioned a regime far less tolerant than anything Leonid Brezhnev ever imagined – a dictatorship of the clerics that revels in the destruction of irreplaceable ancient cultural Buddhist masterpieces as it publicly flogs a woman accused of walking in public with a man who is not a relative.

The U.S. would do well to avoid a third lesson.

Consider Malaysia, a parliamentary constitutional democracy of the British model of 22 million2 located south of Vietnam, where a former government official with close links to radical Islamic fundamentalist groups has begun an international public relations effort to destablize the government in Kuala Lumpur.

The effort pits former Deputy Prime Minister and ex-Minister of Finance Anwar Ibrahim against his former mentor, 20-year Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. The rivalry, personal and political, has caused political upheaval.

Anwar is presently in jail, the result of a 1999 corruption conviction.

Most recently, Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, visited the U.S. Betting that U.S. public officials and media would be sympathetic to a woman whose husband is in prison, particularly since the charges had political overtones, paid lobbyists controlled by her husband arranged and orchestrated the trip.

Anwar’s political history began as a student activist at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1960s. He believed the religious instruction he received at boarding school had been perfunctory, and began to make fiery public speeches about Islam both inside and beyond the university.

Upon graduation in 1971 Anwar played a leading role in founding Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia, or ABIM, the Malaysian fundamentalist youth movement. By its own description, ABIM aimed to generate an Islamic movement as a path to Islamic revival in Malaysia. Anwar traveled to Iran to meet with the Ayatollah Khomeini. He was arrested in 1974 for his role in a student demonstration while his organization – taking one page each from Marx and the screed of radical Islam – denounced labor exploitation and “all things repugnant to the spirit of Islamic justice.”

Anwar’s jailing came after he became an open political rival of Prime Minister Mahathir, leading rallies of up of up to 50,000 people calling for political change. Since then, fundamentalist Islamic student groups have taken control of student unions at most public universities, and anti-government activities have resulted. On July 4, for instance, suspected arson destroyed a building at the University of Malaya on the eve of a visit by the Prime Minister.3 The Islamic Party of Malaysia has been gaining seats in Parliament.4

In recent years Malaysia has made extraordinary strides in its development as a prosperous, stable and democratic state.5 Except for the downturn that affected all of Asia’s economies in 1998, Malaysia is enjoying steady and impressive economic growth, with annual increases in GDP over the last decade ranging between five and ten percent. In the ranking of Asian economies, its per capita GDP of approximately $7,370 is immediately behind South Korea’s and ahead of seven others in the region. Malaysia is the United States’ 12th largest trading partner and its 17th-largest export market.6 U.S. trade with Malaysia exceeds that with India, Indonesia, and Russia combined.

Malaysia is not a perfect country. Its levels of economic freedom, regulations on trade and limits on private property rights led the Heritage Foundation to conclude in 2001 that its economy is “mostly unfree.” The Malaysian legal system, like America’s, is based on English common law, but some abuses have been alleged.

It is, however, a tragedy of history that, more than once (consider Castro’s Cuba, or Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua, as well as Iran and Afghanistan), dictators have seized power by exploiting popular movements seeking reforms of imperfect governments.

Not every Islamic leader ends up endorsing terrorism. But The U.S. was fooled in Iran and Afghanistan, and it would be dangerous to be fooled again. As the old saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” The proverb has no line for those who are fooled a third time.


Amy Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank.  


1 “Bush Takes Tough Line On Taliban,”, July 5, 2001, downloaded July 5, 2001 from
2 CIA World Factbook 2000, downloaded from on July 5, 2001.
3 Leslie Lau, “University Wing Burnt on Eve of Mahathir’s Visit,” Straits Times, July 5, 2001, downloaded from on July 5, 2001.
4 U.S. Department of State, Background Notes, Malaysia, October 2000, downloaded from on July 5, 2001.
5 John T. Dori, “Standing Up For Democracy and Economic Reform In Malaysia,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder #1235, November 16, 1998, downloaded from on July 5, 2001.
6 U.S. Department of State.


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