By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published in Frontline.
Sectarianism seems to be on the rise across the Arab world. The language of Arab nationalism is on mute; it has been replaced, on the surface, by the language of sect.
On July 28, as the fires of Gaza burned from Israeli gunships, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt went to see Hizbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah. Jumblatt and Nasrallah had not seen eye to eye over Syria, a crisis that has absorbed Lebanon’s politics. Hizbollah entered the Syrian war in 2012 on the side of the Syrian government against the fractured uprising. In early 2013, Jumblatt had advised Hizbollah to withdraw from Syria, saying that the Lebanese militia group was fighting there “with orders from Iran”. The suggestion was that Hizbollah had no strategic interests at stake in Syria and that it had only entered Syria because Iran wanted to bolster its ally. Jumblatt’s visit to Nasrallah sought to rebuild the bridges between the two Lebanese leaders—they spent their time talking about the war on Gaza, inscrutable Lebanese politics and the increased sectarianism in West Asia.
Hizbollah is torn about Syria. Different opinions rattle inside this disciplined organisation. A dominant strain feels that Hizbollah had to go into Syria by necessity—not on the orders of Iran, although that was probably part of the equation. The Syrian war had turned, fairly early, into a stage for the ambitions of Gulf Arab states that had begun to finance what Hizbollah members called the takfiri groups. The name takfiri refers to the Al Qaeda-type groups that had begun, by mid-2012, to dominate the Syrian war—with takfiri, from kafir, referring to their tendency to name those whom they do not like as apostates. These Al Qaeda groups—whether Jabhat al-Nusra (The Support Front, formed by the Islamic State of Iraq in 2012), Ahrar ash-Sham (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant) or the Liwa al-Islam (Brigade of Islam)—were committed to harsh, sectarian struggle. Young Nusra fighters, for example, breathe the fire of sectarianism—this person is kuffar (an infidel), that person is rafida (those who reject), they say as the campfires warm them for the next day’s battle. Many use these terms casually, a banal kind of hatred. It is this kind of attitude that worries Hizbollah’s leadership.
The worry is legitimate. Car bombs in Lebanon, mostly orchestrated by these groups, have been the calling card of Al Qaeda and allied outfits. Threats to tear open Lebanon’s always fragile social order are commonplace. Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir of Sidon, the southern coastal city of Lebanon, engineered a clash against Hizbollah in 2012. Al-Assir has an eerie, calm demeanour and speaks in a monotone voice. Al-Akhbar’s Radwan Mortada interviewed al-Assir in 2012, finding him in a typically combative mood. Hizbollah, he said, maintained a “sectarian monopoly” of resistance, and divided Islamic groups to “push through their Iranian project”. Towards the end of 2012, al-Assir announced that he would form an armed “resistance” group of his own. “We have a blood score to settle with Hizbollah,” said the Sheikh, “that can only be settled with blood.” The Lebanese army, in an uncharacteristic show of force, expelled al-Assir and his boys from Sidon. A senior officer in the Lebanese army told me that they would not permit the fissures to open. Al-Assir’s boys went underground. Hizbollah was able to avoid that conflagration.
On the surface, sectarianism is on the rise across the Arab world. Khaled Almeena, a veteran Saudi editor, wrote a cry from the heart on July 29—as the Israeli war entered its 22nd day (the length of the 2009 Operation Cast Lead). The Arabs, he wrote, “are more focussed on internal fighting and interfaith abuse. Sunni, Shia, liberal, Wahhabi, secular and all kinds of labels are being stamped on each other. The killing of people from other sects and gloating about it on YouTube and social media has become a daily feature.” Almeena says that a young woman wrote to say, “The Arab world has lost its soul.” Looking at the mess from Libya to Iraq, Almeena says, “makes me agree with her”. The framework of sectarianism—Shia vs Sunni—dominated not only the way the media have begun to see these struggles, but it has also begun to exhaust the language of the participants themselves. The language of Arab nationalism is on mute; it has been replaced, on the surface, by the language of sect.
A Tissue of Jealous Principalities
During his visit, Jumblatt gave Nasrallah a gift, James Barr’s Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East (2011). Barr’s book tells the story of the French and British machinations in the Levant, disregarding the intensity of an emerging Arab nationalism, for their own capricious ends (the typical sirens—oil, territory and power). The British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, and the Sharif of Mecca’s correspondence in 1915-16 spurred the Arab Revolt that started in June 1916. This Revolt weakened the already vulnerable Ottoman Empire, which, with pressure from the British and the French, collapsed a few years later. The British had foreseen their advantage. They did not back the Arabs for generous reasons. As T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) wrote in a secret memorandum (January 1916), “The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion.”
Britain’s Mark Sykes, a Conservative MP with cynicism as his nature, and France’s François Georges-Picot, former French Consul in Beirut, signed an agreement in 1916 to divide up West Asia to their whims. They intended to “draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk”, referring to the towns of Palestine and Iraq on their map—a line that would cut the Arab lands into a northern French protectorate and a southern British one. The next year, Britain’s Lord Balfour declared that Palestine would be a “national home for the Jewish people”.
Arab aspiration, with an ancient lineage reborn in the Nahda (Renaissance) of the 19th century, was captured by the Lebanese historian George Antonius in his landmark 1938 The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement. On the title page, Antonius placed Ibrahim al-Yaziji’s exhortation, “Arise, ye Arabs, and awake!” Arab nationalism, Antonius wrote, was not merely about cultural longing. It was also about “economic needs” and “political theories”. Arab nationalism drew from its own long history—not by borrowing from the West. All this the West denied. France and Britain carved up the Arab nation, drew boundaries of insignificance, created countries and monarchies and set the terms for the expulsion of Palestinians to make way for European Jews.
Barr’s book retells this story. It is an easy read. Jumblatt’s gift is a message. It suggests that other narratives, apart from religious fratricide, might offer a better explanation for the turbulence at hand. A hundred-year history of suppressed Arab nationalism might be part of the story. Barr blames the Europeans. They are after all the ones who drew the lines that deepened the divides. But they are not the only authors. Those monarchies who feared Arab nationalism—such as the oil- and gas-rich Arab sheikhdoms—fought as hard as the Israelis and the West to undermine Arab nationalism, whether Nasserism or Baathism, and especially the socialist variant of Arab nationalism.
Jumblatt’s message is for Nasrallah to recall his earlier image for Hizbollah to be the vehicle of Arab nationalism and not Shia sectarianism. In 2000, when the Israelis withdrew from Lebanon’s South, Nasrallah travelled to Bint Jbeil to stand before a Lebanese flag and proclaim, “We dedicate this victory to our oppressed people in occupied Palestine, and to the peoples of our Arab and Islamic nation.” Hizbollah, then and in 2006 when it fought back an Israeli attack, stood not only for the Army of God, but also for the Army of the South (Al Janoub) or even the Army of the Arabs. That image has taken a severe beating with Hizbollah’s entry into the Syrian war.
The End of Sykes-Picot?
When the Islamic State seized a substantial part of northern Iraq, it sent its bulldozers to break the boundary marks that divide Iraq from Syria. The border towns of Albu Kamal (Syria) and al-Qaim (Iraq) united rival Al Qaeda factions along the roadway that links Raqqa (Syria) to Fallujah (Iraq), the main artery of the Islamic State. What had been the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) decided that even that grand swathe of land was insufficient. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed himself as Caliph and renamed his group the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s map shows its global ambitions—from Spain to Indonesia, the Islamic world that was set to be absorbed into one territory. Such a view is ludicrous. The Islamic State’s military capacity is tactical. It has taken the experience of low-level ex-Iraqi army officers and disgruntled Baath officers who are good at battlefield command but are not given to grand strategic thinking. They can break into a prison or fight to capture a military post, but they are not trained to develop a regional, let alone a planetary, campaign. This is one reason why the Islamic State continues to fight in its corridor, from north-western Syria to north-central Iraq.
The Islamic State revives the idea of the pre-Sykes-Picot zone, but it does so cruelly—through a constricted imagination, with grave repercussions for anyone who is deemed to be kuffar. Christians and other Muslims—as well as secularists and trade unionists—have to submit to their vision of the world, flee or be killed. It is a terrible fate for a national idea with sublime connotations. Despite its desire to break the barriers between Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State is not prepared to go beyond Sykes-Picot—its sectarianism prevents it from making that leap. It is a victim of its narrowness, producing yet again “a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion.” Even the Islamic State is fragmented. Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Baghdadi’s brainchild, refuses to go on its knee. Its leader, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, was said to have declared an emirate in Syria—which was hastily denied. The coordination between the Al Qaeda groups is to their tactical advantage, even if they dream different strategic delusions.
Israel’s bombing of Gaza is another example of the endurance of the logic of Sykes-Picot. The Israeli ruling elite is deeply worried about the character of their Jewish state. If they give the Palestinians full rights, the demographic tilt would work against the Jews. If they allow for the creation of Palestine, they will lose their right to the land (and subsoil aquifer) in the West Bank (which Israel insists on calling by its Jewish name, Judea and Samaria). Israel dismisses the two logical solutions: absorb the Palestinian population into a secular and democratic Palestine/Israel (the “one-state solution”) or allow the creation of a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza (the “two-state solution”). The only remaining strategy is to encage Palestinians, whose life is made so miserable that they choose to emigrate. The walls, settlements and regular humiliation at the hands of the Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank and the embargo and regular bombardment of Gaza are the necessary part of this project. These techniques are the modern-day outcomes of the Balfour Declaration—they provide a “national home” to the Jews.
Keeping a people under occupation to uphold the dream of an ethno-religious Jewish state is an idea that should seem anachronistic in our time. Most states are under pressure to avoid so narrowly interpreting their idea of citizenship—either by international law or by mass migration. In West Asia, Saudi Arabia and Israel as well as al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State reduce their idea of citizenship to religious/ethnic belonging. Minorities can only exist as second-class citizens. Or worse. Israel’s Operation Protective Edge will slowly wind down, as Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defence did. But the social basis of these wars will endure. Israel is Balfour’s heir. Its inheritance is toxic.
Libyan Fairy Tales
In 1911, Italian imperial ambitions—thwarted in Ethiopia in 1896—revived with an eye to Libya. The Ottomans seemed weak, and the Italians felt powerful enough to use their newly developed air and sea power to seize the three Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica (which would be put together as Libya). Deputy Leone Caetani, a scholar of Asian languages and a socialist, warned his fellows in the Italian parliament that their mission was a “fairy tale”. The people of North Africa did not need to be saved from the Ottomans. They were capable of their own political movements. A century later, similar misguided ideas of humanitarian intervention brought Europe to bomb Libya. Little changes, despite the times. Libya was no backwater. But Italian public opinion turned from paternalism, wrote the Italian diplomat Sergio Romano, to “racist contempt”. Libya was for the taking, much as West Asia could be treated as an empty slate upon which European ambitions could be sketched. There was no consideration for the fact that Libya had an emerging nationalist movement, with newspapers with titles such as al-‘Asr al-Jadid (The New Era) and Taraqqi (Progress). None of this was seen as relevant as the Italians seized the country eventually, and used it to their advantage.
A century later, with Muammar Qaddafi’s state bombed out of existence by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the old dynamics reasserted themselves. Grandees who had nursed dreams of an independent Cyrenaica—now rich with oil—tried to put forward independence as an idea for the Libya’s east. From behind the scenes, last year, these old classes set in motion a former air force commander, Abd-Rabbo al-Barassi, and the ex-head of Libya’s Petroleum Defence Guards, Ibrahim Jathran, to declare independence. It was Jathran’s militia that seized the oilfields and attempted to sell eastern Libya’s oil on the open market through the port of Sidra. The United States opposed this and pushed the weak central government to go after Jathran in March 2014. In many ways, the ongoing and very bloody battle that is tearing apart Libya now hinges on the “central” government’s response to Jathran’s adventures.
Little seemed to work for Libya as the country was torn apart by assassinations and kidnappings, the new government failed to assert itself, and no process for reconciliation could be started. A delusionary militia leader from Misrata, Salah Badi, began a war against Tripoli’s airport, which had been controlled by the militia of Zintan. The militias of these cities, including that of Jathran, had been the ground forces of the rebellion of 2011. NATO air power and pro-U.S. elites did not insist on any unified military command. When General Khalifa Hifter flew from his home near the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters in Virginia into Benghazi—the epicentre of the rebellion in 2011—he had hoped to create a central command. It did not work. All central institutions collapsed and, effectively, none was created. Now, Hifter has moved his loyal troops to Benghazi to fight the Islamists (including some of those allied to Jathran), while Badi’s Misrata forces are doing battle with Zintan’s militia in Tripoli. The U.S. embassy fled Libya, and France and Britain told their nationals to leave the country. Those North Atlantic powers most eager for the adventure in 2011 took the first plane out of the chaos. The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of the champions of NATO’s 2011 intervention, is nowhere to be seen. He is too busy defending (in The Wall Street Journal) Israel’s right to pummel Palestinians.
An undercurrent in Libya suggests that some militias might unite to destroy the power of Salah Badi, who many think suffers from post-traumatic shock. Blood lies on the horizon. There is no way other than terrible violence in the country.
When Jumblatt gave Nasrallah the book by Barr, he surely suggested to Nasrallah—an avid reader—that histories other than Islamic ones are to be studied if one has to understand the challenges and potentials of the current dilemmas in West Asia. Cliches such as “the Shia Crescent” or the “Sunni-Shia Divide” smother the complexity of the region, reducing them to easily digestible narratives. But is that all that Jumblatt is saying to Nasrallah? Both are men who are cunning—clever with symbols. Surely, Jumblatt was not saying that the Europeans’ plots of the 1910s are responsible for all that is wrong with the region. That is too easy, a fool’s belief. Other dynamics are involved—at the head of which is the myopic regional ambitions of the Saudi royal family and its fear of the Muslim Brotherhood (which has been sidelined in Egypt, Syria and Libya), but not far behind is the clumsy regionalism of the Turks and the Iranians, unable to outflank each other and yet eager for an advantage. The “tissue of jealous principalities” weakens the region. It fails to allow a suffering Arab population from finding solutions to their everyday problems— unemployment, inflation, and lack of basic citizenship. These are the most powerful desires.
The day that Jumblatt met Nasrallah, the Lebanese singer Julia Boutros released her new single, Righteousness is my Weapon. It is a homage to the fighters of Gaza. In 2006, Boutros, who is a Christian, used the text of a letter Nasrallah wrote to Hizbollah fighters to create a song—Ahibaii, My Loved Ones. In her new anthem, she sings,
“Righteousness is my weapon, and I resist.
Despite my pain, I resist.
I will not give up, I will not give in.
For my country’s sake, there is no compromise.”
Such is the spirit of Arab nationalism—transcending sect and religion and national boundary. That is one reason for the enduring charge of Palestine. It incubates Arab nationalism, brings Arabs together in agreement especially now when they disagree over so much—how to understand the political developments in Syria or Egypt. With Palestine, there is clarity.
In Tahrir Square, one of the most powerful slogans was for “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice” (‘aish, hurriyya, ‘adala igtima‘iyya). It resonated across the square. Bread, or ‘aish, in the Arabic of Egypt, refers to life. The call for bread is a call for life. As the Arab Revolt of 2011 slides into its current darkness—the Islamic State in Syria-Iraq, the Israeli bombing in Gaza, the Egyptian eclipse, the bloodletting in Libya—the echo of Tahrir’s slogan can be heard in street corners, held like a guilty sentiment. It sits near Boutros’ militant lyrics about her people who “resisted the madness of the wind”. It is hard to vanquish the dreams of awakening, despite the madness of the wind.