The Region: Meet 'national Islamism'

A lethal blend of two radical world views: Islamism and Arab nationalism.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
In July 2006, Muhammad Abd al-Sattar, a deputy minister in Syria's government, made a very strange statement on that country's state-controlled television. Jihad, he said, is the duty of every Muslim, Arab and Christian in order to kill the Jews. But wait a minute. Why did Sattar say Muslim, Arab and Christian? After all, jihad is an Islamic religious notion. Why should Christians wage Jihad? And the word Arab here means the non-Muslim, non-Christian Alawites who rule Syria and pretend to be Muslims. What's happening here is a new ideology, the doctrine of Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria; and the Iraqi insurgents, behind what Syrian President Bashar Assad calls the "resistance" philosophy. It is the blend of two radical world views: Islamism and Arab nationalism. Call it National Islamism. The last time there was such a synthesis it brought together right-wing nationalism and left-wing populist socialism. The doctrine called itself, appropriately enough, National Socialism. It is best known by the German version of those two words, Nazism for short. I'm not making this comparison for shock value. It's a perfect parallel. National Islamism fits the interests of many key political groups in the Middle East. For Iran, it constitutes a bridge into the Arab world, overcoming a big problem. They are Persians, not Arabs, and Shi'ite, not Sunni Muslims. As long as Arab nationalism rules, they are outsiders. But even with pure Islamism, the Shi'ite-Sunni gap still limits their influence. With National Islamism, though, the problem disappears. Iran can claim to lead the Arab-Islamic people - a designation filling all those gaps - against the evil Western-Crusader-American-Jewish-Zionist-imperialistic-satanic conspiracy. Then there is Syria, the world's first National Islamist state. While the Western media is still full of talk about Syria as a "secular" regime fighting Islamists, that is quite obsolete thinking. Bashar has been running an Islamization campaign since he took power six years ago. Of course this does not mean Syrian society is going to be transformed into rigid piety. But it does mean the non-Muslim Alawite rulers can play at being good Muslims, keep their Sunni Muslim majority happy, and extend their influence as the great patron of Islamist revolution in the Arab world. HERE'S ONE small example of the benefits. In 1998, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood which hates the regime and wants to overthrow it, held a meeting in Jordan to mobilize support from other Islamist groups. One Jordanian Islamist told them off. Syria was the only Arab state fighting their enemies, he said. "Therefore, it is impossible for an Arab or a Muslim to attack it and try to harm it and its leadership." For other Arab states, even relatively moderate ones, National Islamism is great if they can manipulate it to their own benefit. They need a mechanism to defuse their own Islamist oppositions. By playing up their piety and using Islamist slogans to justify their policies, they can cut the ground from under their enemies at home. With Hizbullah and Hamas the story is a truly remarkable one. Hizbullah was established in Lebanon in the 1980s to bring about an Iranian-style Islamist revolution in that country. To this day, though it is often forgotten, Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah is the official representative of Iran's chief cleric in Lebanon. But then in the 1990s, partly due to Syrian tutelage, came a big change. Hizbullah reinvented itself as the leader of the Lebanese national resistance, a great patriotic organization. Being patriotic while representing the interests of Teheran and Damascus was not an easy trick, but Hizbullah pulled it off. Today it is seeking to take over the Lebanese government with its local Syrian-backed ally. In fact, Hizbullah is now preparing to launch its own Christian candidate, Michel Aoun, to be president of Lebanon. Hamas is in a roughly parallel situation. It has successfully outbid its nationalist rival Fatah as the best exemplar of Palestinian patriotism. Most of those who voted Hamas into office in January 2006 were not Islamists, but they did like the Hamas program of terrorist violence and absolute refusal ever to make peace with Israel. FOR THE WEST, the onset of National Islamism is bad news. The radicals, whose whole appeal is based on their militancy, are not about to settle the Arab-Israeli, Lebanese or Iraqi conflict peacefully. And if Iran gets nuclear weapons, thousands of Arabs will jump on the National Islamism bandwagon. True, "resistance" is a purely negative slogan. But if enough hysteria is built up, pure demagoguery will close people's ears to the real issues. What kind of society would this build? Who knows? Doesn't this make peace, democracy and economic progress impossible? Who cares? With its visionary utopian plans for the future and glorification of violence, this is not a movement that's going to be characterized by moderation or pragmatism. Appeasement will be no more successful than it was with its European predecessor. It will be defeated in the end - but for now, the believers in National Islamism are singing "The future belongs to me." The writer is director of Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center.