Analysis: In the Mideast, No Politics but God’s

In the Mideast no one is left standing save Islamist movements, from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to Gaza's Hamas to Lebanon's Hezbollah

A line was uttered this month by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, that drew little notice in between his stentorian asides but said a great deal about politics today for Israelis, Palestinians and the larger Arab world.

To tens of thousands of supporters gathered here to welcome President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Mr. Nasrallah declared that Iran’s Islamic republic “supports the ‘no’s’ that the Arabs declared at the time of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Khartoum before many abandoned them. Iran renews these ‘no’s’ along with the Arab nation.”

The “no’s” refer to a dramatic Arab summit in Sudan in 1967, when, after Israel’s crushing defeat of its neighbors, Arab states declared “no” to peace with Israel, “no” to negotiations with it, and “no” to recognition of it. Nasser, the Egyptian president, was the standard-bearer of a secular nationalism whose moment had ended with that war; today, Iran is, by choice or default, the scion of a generation of opposition politics that now alone bears an indelibly religious stamp.

In a region once convulsed by a potpourri of ideologies — from unreconstructed Maoists to millenarian Salafists — no one is left standing save Islamist movements, from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas in the Palestinian territories to Hezbollah, perhaps the most formidable. Be it opposition to Israel, to autocratic Arab regimes, or to the plethora of injustices visited on Arabs, the Islamists are the only ones with a broadly popular message and an ardent following, with a fleeting exception or two.

Their ascendancy is not new; for a generation, they have eclipsed their secular and leftist predecessors, whom they often act (and sometimes speak) like. But the legacy of their virtual monopoly on opposition is becoming more and more clear. They have reinterpreted conflicts — between Arab and Israeli, East and West — and have highlighted the degree to which the very notion of identity has shifted in the Arab world; so much so that “Arab” may soon become passé in defining that world. And with a politics bereft of ideology beyond faith, they have narrowed the avenues for change in a region whose inhabitants desperately want it.

These movements often exude a canny pragmatism. Islamists in Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories have all embraced electoral success; in time, they may even reinforce a democratic body politic. But on issues from poverty to Palestine, they have imposed a paradigm of morality, ethics and occasional absolutism that tends to neglect society’s most pressing problems or turn them into unrequitable anthems.

This is a large reason that for reformers, provocateurs and critics outside their orbit, pessimism is the fashion today. “Religious politics or politicized religion has taken over,” said Fawwaz Traboulsi, a historian, columnist and longtime leftist activist from Lebanon. Asked if there was any counterexample out there — beyond the quixotic fringes and uncompromising idealists — he shook his head.

“No,” he said, “I don’t think there is.”

The American University of Beirut hosts a collection of hundreds of posters from an age that was violent, tumultuous but, to many in the region, more capable of hope that solutions for the region’s deep problems could be found. They are eclectic, from the agitprop of secular Palestinian groups to the intoxicating promises of Lebanese partners bent on abolishing the nation’s vaguely feudal system a generation ago.

Many are imbued with the iconography of the third world liberation movements of the day. (Read: ample imagery of the Kalashnikov rifle.) The haircuts date the photos. So do the terms. (“Armed struggle,”rather than today’s preferred “jihad.”) But they capture a fervent idealism. To the West, it may have been the era of the massacre at Munich, hijackings and the rise of Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. But to many Arabs, it was a time pregnant with the promise of real change, when the Palestinian movement captured the Arab imagination to a degree unmatched before or since.

“Through revolution comes the liberation of women,” one poster reads. “Palestine is for people … Whatever their religion,” another declares. Other slogans tout the P.L.O. as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” a rueful artifact given the divisions today between the stridently religious Hamas and a rump, nominally secular Palestinian Authority that is engaged, fitfully, in unpromising negotiations with Israel. A Lebanese poster quotes the promise of one bygone leader: “The new leadership that is capable of building a real Lebanon is neither an Islamic leadership nor a Christian leadership but rather a national leadership.”

The slogans are more than nostalgia: they poignantly illustrate what is no longer really debated — women’s rights, secular citizenship that transcends today’s more primordial identities (Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim, Christian and so on), and the yawning gap between rich and poor. For many Islamists, social welfare is an issue of charity and benevolence, not of restructuring society.

“Radical” is a word journalists often deploy. So is “militant.” They are shorthand and, as such, do little to describe what today’s Islamist opposition really represents.

“They are radical only in the sense that they reject Israeli hegemony in the region,” said Karim Makdisi, a professor at the American University of Beirut. Indeed, Hezbollah long ago set aside enforcement of social conservatism in Lebanon, for the sake of unifying its diverse constituency. While 25 years ago it called for an Islamic state along the lines of Iran, it is now firmly part of the prevailing sectarian order. Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, it helps represent a rising middle class. “They are not against the state at all,” said Elias Khoury, a Lebanese writer and critic. “The only thing is that they want to dominate it in their own way.”

Their greatest legacy may be on the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which both Israel and its Islamist opponents have inexorably moved away from a struggle between competing nationalisms and toward a historic clash of religions — more messianic, more grounded in identities as Muslims and Jews and, in that, more dangerous. Bringing the sacred into the debate makes compromise altogether more difficult. Jewish fundamentalism against Islamic fundamentalism, Mr. Khoury called it: “That is a sign of catastrophe, and this is the situation we’re in now.”

In Shatila, a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon where Christian militiamen massacred hundreds and perhaps more after Palestinian fighters withdrew in 1982, there is still the iconography of an older age. But the posters of Arafat and the dictums of his Fatah movement are faded. Even the pictures feel obsolete; the eyeglass frames are unfashionably thick. “The nation of Muhammad,” slogans read now.

They unfurl down the narrow street, past Palestinian children playing in trash dumps with almost no hope of returning to their forefathers’ land, past cobwebbed electric wires that rival Baghdad’s dysfunction, past the telling stench of sewage. “Martyrdom is life,” a poster reads. “Jihad until victory or martyrdom,” another adds.

At his grocery store, Ghassan Abdel-Hadi, a father of four, sat with relatives a few days after Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit. Down the street, there was a denunciation of the Palestinian Authority for being “American lackeys.” One merchant praised Hezbollah for paying for his father’s operation. Mr. Abdel-Hadi himself was no ideologue. He politely held out hope, even if, pragmatically, he feared the worst.

“When no one supports you, you have to rely on God,” the shopkeeper said. “You put your trust in him and off you go to face what’s ahead.” NYT