A Palestinian worker prays at a housing project in the Jewish settlement of Har Homa on Sept. 7, 2009 in East Jerusalem. (Photo credit: DAVID Silverman/Getty Images)
The war for Islam
These are the roots of the current Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict — not any theological dispute or ancient hatred. The foot soldiers who are doing the killing may believe that they are defending what is sacred in their sect, but those who mobilized them know the struggle is at its core a recent political phenomenon. It is a conflict that pits Iran and its Shiite allies in the region against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni allies over political power and tangible strategic interests.
The revolution in Iran brought the country’s Shiite ethos to the fore. Meanwhile, Sunni identity in the Arab world was undergoing a revival after the defeat of “secular” Arab nationalism. In Syria, the majority Sunnis had been chafing under Baath rule since the 1960s, where the levers of real power were in the hands of the Alawite minority, an offshoot sect of Shiism. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran unleashed the monsters of sectarianism on a massive scale — but it was the American invasion in 2003 that pushed the country into a Sunni-Shiite civil war that is likely to continue for years to come.
There is also an undercurrent of economic and class resentment at the heart of the current upheavals in the Arab world. After World War II, the first waves of young, ambitious, and misguided military officers who hailed from the upper classes but claimed to be representing the resentful rural hinterland took over power in the cosmopolitan cities of Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus. The regimes they overthrew were not full democracies but were relatively open and tolerant systems that embraced diversity and wanted to maintain good relations with the West. They had allowed for the formation of political parties and lively if not fully free media. Certainly, the monarchies in Egypt and Iraq and the Syrian republic never engaged in the gratuitous violence the petty military officers visited on their people in subsequent years.
For decades, these new Arab regimes imposed on their peoples a political version of a Faustian bargain: The state will provide social and educational services, government employment, economic subsidies, and other forms of state patronage, provided that the population not agitate for real political empowerment. In the states that espoused Arab nationalism — such as Syria, Egypt, and Iraq — part of the authoritarian bargain was that citizens should postpone their demands for democracy until the so-called battle for national economic development had been won and until victory in the struggle with Israel and imperialism was secured.
Many intellectuals accepted this diabolical bargain; those who resisted were persecuted or sought refuge in the sanctuary of Beirut. But after decades of atrocious governance, rapacious authoritarianism, predatory economic monopolies, and the hollowing out of civil society, the rickety scaffolding of those new nation-states, built over ancient civilizations like Iraq and Syria, began to fray and disintegrate. Even the homogeneous states with clear cultural identities and a sense of permanency like Egypt, and to a lesser extent Tunisia, could not escape the storm of discontent that swept the region in 2011, ushering in a new open era of constant sorrows and lamentations.
In the June 1967 war, three Arab states were defeated and lost territories to Israel, but their very existence was not in jeopardy. Today, the multiple wars raging in Syria and Iraq, as well as those in Libya and Yemen, are more dangerous, as they grind at the weak foundations of the states. The unraveling of Syria may well drag into its maelstrom the fractured country of Lebanon or even Jordan. The local combatants and their regional and international sponsors appear to have no vision for the future and thus condemn these lands to continue their slow unwinding.
Israelis chant slogans while waving flags at Damascus Gate on June 1, 2011 during a Jerusalem Day parade in the city's eastern sector to celebrate its capture during the Six-Day War. (Photo credit: GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
To the victor go the spoils
The Arab defeat in June 1967 instantly transformed Israel, the little Sparta, into the region’s military superpower. Fifty years later, Israel has a first-world economy with a high-tech industry capable of competing with other corporations from technologically advanced states. But Israel is a country of paradoxes: It is a democracy for its Jewish citizens, a partial democracy for its Arab citizens, and a mean occupier of the Palestinians of the West Bank while keeping the Gaza Strip in its grip. Israel is at home in the 21st century, but it is also home for Jewish groups that wallow in religious atavism, intolerance, and anti-modernity and that are not dissimilar from the like-minded Muslim groups plaguing Arab lands. Regardless of what Israeli leaders say publicly about possible land compromises with the Palestinians, their actions — in the form of unabated settlement building on Palestinian land — speak of their conviction that Israel should maintain enough territories in the West Bank to make the creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible.
Despite what U.S. President Donald Trump might wish, there is no incentive for Israel to strike a historic bargain with the Palestinians now or in the near future, since the balance of power is not likely to change. The Palestinians, in turn, have grown dependent on the kindness of strangers from Europe and the United States. The Palestinian leadership exists in stagnation, after wasting many opportunities to pursue a comprehensive and protracted strategy of creative peaceful resistance to occupation that could draw the necessary support from Israelis who don’t want their country to be an occupier in perpetuity, one that gives off a whiff of the old American South.
The absence of a peaceful way out, and Israel’s insistence on maintaining control over a captive nation, will force the occupied to embrace nihilistic violence such as that promoted by Hamas. But this will not lead to liberation or reconciliation, but to more pain and resentment to the occupied and the occupier alike. The recent phenomenon of Palestinians knifing Israeli soldiers and civilians should not be surprising to Israelis familiar with the history of Jewish resistance to Roman control. The group within the Jewish Zealots known as the Sicarii (Latin for “dagger men”) waged a campaign of stabbing against the Romans and their Jewish sympathizers in the first century. The Sicarii Jews wanted to create a Jewish rebellion against the Romans, but their campaign backfired. It was a nihilistic endeavor — but occupation, and the desire to end it, was at its core.
It may be difficult for the Arabs of today to seriously reflect on the meaning of the defeat they suffered 50 years ago, given their current calamitous predicament. A half-century ago in the free sanctuary of Beirut, Arabs engaged in introspection and self-criticism, seeking to answer the central questions of their political life: What went wrong, and how did we reach this nadir? That unique moment of guarded hope and promise lasted but a few years.
Fifty years later, there is no equivalent to Beirut in which to ask the hard questions about why and how the moment of enthusiasm that followed the 2011 Arab uprisings lasted for only a few months before the peaceful protest movements gave way to violence and civil wars. And in the last half-century, the Palestinian movement — along with its numerous Arab allies — has failed to become a transformational force, just as the uprisings of recent years never became transformational revolutions.
But the fundamental questions asked by Azm, Adonis, and their supporters 50 years ago are as relevant today as they were then. What is radically different today is that things have been falling apart for years and are likely to continue on this trajectory of death and desolation for the foreseeable time. Cairo has lost its greatness, Baghdad is on its way to becoming almost exclusively a provincial Shiite capital, Aleppo was sacked for the first time in 600 years, and Damascus is a city in fear. Geographically, Alexandria is still on the Mediterranean, but in reality it has become a desolate hinterland. Beirut keeps fighting — but it is getting old and tired and feels abandoned. We now know that there are many ways to pillage great cities.
Singing about his harsh world in the Mississippi Delta of the 1930s, Charley Patton, to my mind the greatest bluesman in the classical era, belted out: “Every day seem like murder here.” Fifty years after the defeat, it is still the time of assassins in the Arab world. But there are many young Arab voices in politics, the arts, academia, and business who are not willing to give up the good fight. They constitute thousands of points of light keeping hope alive. But the reality is that for years to come, these flickering embers of enlightenment will continue to be engulfed in that endless, thick darkness.
(Top image credit: PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP/Getty Images)