A hu­mil­i­ated Arab world turns to Is­lamism

The Jewish Chronicle - - 50TH ANNIVERSAR­Y SPECIAL - BY MICHAEL SHARNOFF Dr Michael Sharnoff is di­rec­tor of Re­gional Stud­ies at the Daniel Mor­gan Grad­u­ate School of Na­tional Se­cu­rity in the US. He is the au­thor of ‘Nasser’s Peace: Egypt’s Re­sponse to the 1967 War with Is­rael’ (Trans­ac­tion, March 2017)

DUR­ING THE 1950s and 60s, Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ga­mal Ab­del Nasser guided and shaped Arab pub­lic opin­ion. Nasser emerged as the undis­puted leader of the Arab world by cham­pi­oning pan-Ara­bism — a sec­u­lar ide­ol­ogy that ad­vo­cated Arab unity and free­dom from West­ern in­flu­ence. It also cham­pi­oned the lib­er­a­tion of Pales­tine, a eu­phemism for the cre­ation of a Pales­tinian Arab state on the ru­ins of Is­rael.

Nasser en­vi­sioned a utopian, sec­u­lar pan-Arab su­per-state com­pro­mised of both Chris­tians and Mus­lims who were united not by re­li­gion but through com­mon lan­guage and cul­ture.

How­ever, Nasser’s rad­i­cal poli­cies to unify the Arab world put him in con­stant con­flict with the West, Is­rael and other Arab lead­ers. This hin­dered his abil­ity to fully mod­ernise Egypt.

Seek­ing free­dom from for­eign eco­nomic con­trol, he na­tion­alised the Suez Canal and ex­pelled the Bri­tish and French, the Canal’s prin­ci­pal share­hold­ers. Th­ese ac­tions trig­gered the dev­as­tat­ing 1956 Suez War, and brought Cairo into a closer al­liance with Moscow.

Seek­ing Arab unity, Nasser briefly merged Egypt with Syria into the United Arab Re­pub­lic (1958-1961), but this failed mis­er­ably be­cause the Syr­i­ans viewed the UAR not as a union of equals but as an Egyp­tian oc­cu­pa­tion.

Dur­ing the 1960s, Nasser’s am­bi­tion to ex­pand his in­flu­ence in Ye­men tainted his im­age as an Arab hero, es­pe­cially af­ter he de­ployed chem­i­cal weapons against fel­low Arabs.

Dur­ing the Cold War, Nasser feuded with Saudi, Jor­da­nian and Tu­nisian lead­ers within a sec­u­lar con­text. He ac­cused them of be­ing il­le­git­i­mate be­cause they were mere pup­pets of the West and in­dif­fer­ent to­wards fight­ing Is­rael and not be­ing ad­vo­cates for the Pales­tinian cause.

Nasser had no prob­lem ac­cept­ing vast sums of Soviet aid de­spite the fact many Mus­lims did not sup­port athe­ism or Com­mu­nism.

Although a pi­ous Mus­lim, Nasser did not seek an Is­lamic state. In Egypt, he once said, “we are Mus­lims, but we are not Is­lamic. My coun­try is Mus­lim, Chris­tian and Jewish, and I ex­pect it al­ways to be so.” He also viewed the Mus­lim Brother­hood as religious fa­nat­ics and a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion, and sup­pressed the move­ment by driv­ing its mem­bers un­der­ground and hang­ing its chief ide­o­logue, Sayyid Qutb, in 1966.

Sec­u­lar pan-Ara­bism did not unite the Arabs, free them from for­eign in­flu­ence, nor did it de­stroy the Jewish state. On the con­trary, Nasser’s an­tipa­thy to­ward the West, sup­port of the Pales­tini­ans and pro­pa­ganda war call­ing for the elim­i­na­tion of Is­rael re­sulted in a hu­mil­i­at­ing mil­i­tary de­feat and the loss of Egyp­tian land.

In June 1967, Is­rael quadru­pled its ter­ri­tory by con­quer­ing the Si­nai Penin­sula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and Old City of Jerusalem from Jor­dan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. In just six days, years of empty slo­gans, prom­ises and threats re­vealed the bank­ruptcy of pan-Ara­bism.

Af­ter the war, Egypt and the Arabs, whom had never missed an op­por­tu­nity to call for the de­struc­tion of Is­rael, were now prin­ci­pally con­cerned with the restora­tion of Arab ter­ri­tory, not the lib­er­a­tion of Pales­tine.

Nasser, who had helped found the PLO in 1964 in or­der to ma­nip­u­late Pales­tinian af­fairs, del­e­gated this task to the Pales­tini­ans them­selves and en­cour­aged Fe­day­een ter­ror­ist at­tacks against Is­raelis.

Dur­ing a meet­ing with Jor­dan’s King in 1970, Nasser said he met Yasser Arafat’s Fatah move­ment and told them that Egypt’s de­ci­sion to ex­plore a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment was not a re­quire­ment for the Pales­tini­ans. In that same year, Nasser agreed to an Arab-Is­raeli peace ini­tia­tive prof­fered by then Sec­re­tary of State Wil­liam Rogers, known as the Rogers Plan. Threat­en­ing PLO leader Khaled Has­san, Nasser stated: “I am go­ing to ac­cept it. You are free to re­ject it — that is your right. But what­ever you de­cide, do not crit­i­cise me.”

Pan-Ara­bism’s de­cline cre­ated a vac­uum that was filled by Is­lamists — Mus­lims who ad­vo­cate an Is­lamic state gov­erned by Is­lamic law. For decades, Is­lamists like the Mus­lim Brother­hood were sup­pressed by Nasser and other Arab lead­ers, and af­ter 1967 they be­gan or­gan­is­ing and ar­tic­u­lat­ing more as­sertively that Is­lam is the so­lu­tion to all their prob­lems.

In ad­di­tion to pro­vid­ing so­cial ser­vices, Is­lamists found sup­port by ar­gu­ing that Is­lam is the rem­edy to Arab and Mus­lim weak­ness be­cause apos­tate regimes aligned with the West or Rus­sia pre­vented Mus­lims from achiev­ing their full po­ten­tial.

By not im­ple­ment­ing Is­lamic law, Is­lamists ar­gue that sec­u­lar na­tion­al­ist lead­ers ig­nore Is­lamic is­sues, are sub­servient to for­eign pow­ers and have failed to lib­er­ate Pales­tine.

Nasser’s Egypt was a dic­ta­tor­ship and not a democ­racy. De­spite his charisma and pop­u­lar­ity, he could not com­pletely erad­i­cate Is­lamist move­ments like the Mus­lim Brother­hood. For decades, Nasser and other dic­ta­tors, such as Sad­dam Hus­sein,

Hafez al-As­sad, Muam­mar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi Royal Fam­ily, used bru­tal force to liq­ui­date th­ese move­ments.

Yet they failed to ex­tin­guish the ide­ol­ogy that in­spired them and they pro­lif­er­ated clan­des­tinely, es­pe­cially within jail cells in the Mid­dle East.

Is­lamists are not mono­lithic, and tac­tics dif­fer to­ward achiev­ing th­ese goals. In re­cent years, some Is­lamists have par­tic­i­pated in pol­i­tics and gained power through elec­tions such as Ha­mas in Gaza, En­nahda in Tu­nisia, and the Mus­lim Brother­hood in Egypt. Oth­ers have taken up arms against the state, such as in Libya, Si­nai, Syria, Iraq and Ye­men.

While ha­tred of Is­rael per­sists, the im­me­di­ate vic­tims of mil­i­tant Is­lamist vi­o­lence are non-con­form­ing Mus­lims and eth­nic-religious mi­nori­ties such as the Assyr­i­ans, Chris­tians, Copts, Kurds and Yazidis. More­over, Is­lamist move­ments such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh do not recog­nise the no­tion of the in­ter­na­tional West­phalian state sys­tem. They strive to erase recog­nised bor­ders in the ar­eas in which they op­er­ate to res­ur­rect an Is­lamic em­pire called the Caliphate.

A ma­jor un­in­tended con­se­quences of the 2003 Iraq War and 2011 Arab up­ris­ings was the rise of Daesh. Like Al-Qaeda, they es­pouse a doc­trine known as tafkir, that den­i­grates non-con­form­ing Mus­lims and Mus­lim lead­ers who do not share their world­view as kuf­far, in­fi­dels and non-be­liev­ers that should be pun­ished with death. This vi­o­lent and in­tol­er­ant ide­ol­ogy is re­spon­si­ble for the geno­cide of the Yazidis and the ex­o­dus of Chris­tians from the Mid­dle East.

Long gone are the days when Nasser’s sec­u­lar pol­i­tics dom­i­nated the Mid­dle East. The resur­gence of Is­lamism and its bi­nary world­view of be­liev­ers and non­be­liev­ers, its abysmal hu­man rights record, and its quest to de­stroy the sovereignt­y of na­tions to re­build the Caliphate present dire chal­lenges for the re­gion and be­yond.

Un­for­tu­nately, many in the West are still com­ing to terms with this new re­al­ity. Worse still is the fact that the West has yet to present a clear strat­egy that tar­gets mil­i­tants and the ide­ol­ogy that in­spires their vi­o­lence.

First vic­tims of Is­lamists are non­con­form­ing Mus­lims


A dam­aged Egyp­tian tank in Si­nai, 1967 This photo is from an ex­hi­bi­tion of Is­raeli pho­tog­ra­pher Micha Bar-Am about Is­rael in 1967, at the Is­rael Mu­seum, Jerusalem un­til Oc­to­ber 17, 2017


Nasser cel­e­brates af­ter Bri­tain was forced to pull back from the Suez Canal Zone in 1956

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