Sunday, December 25, 2011

From Pan-Arabism to Secular Nationalism and Islamism

Palestinian Nationalism arose during a time when the predominant Arab political ideology was pan-Arabism, the belief that the Arab states created at the end of the colonial age needed to come together to overcome superficial divisions created by Britain, France and Turkey. The Sharif of Mecca, who cooperated with the British and staged the Arab Revolt of 1916, was a firm believer in a pan-Arabist ideology and sought to unite much of the Arab world east of the Suez Canal under his rule, up to and including Damascus, Jerusalem, Basra and Baghdad. The pan-Arabist ideology that arose at the time was in many ways more of a response to 400 years of Ottoman yoke, under which the Arab leadership in Mecca, Damascus and Jerusalem lamented its lack of independence and sought to reestablish Arab control over the Holy Cities of Islam that had been absent since Selim I defeated the Mamluks in 1517. In the 400 years that followed, the Arab world searched and yearned for a new Saladin, a man who would liberate their holy cities and put Arabs back in control of Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem and Damascus. The Ottomans effectiveness in combating Arab nationalism looked to be on the wane after the Young Turks Revolution of 1908 overthrew the oppressive government of  Sultan Abdulhamid II. With the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) embroiled in World War I and looking increasingly weak and focused on perceived disloyalty among the Armenians, the British began looking for a way to exploit latent Arab desire to be free of the Ottoman yoke.

The time between 1915 and 1917 was pan-Arabism's greatest chance for success, but British and French desires to maintain the Middle East in broken down pieces for easy division and British belief that the Sharif could not control a large state prevented any real agreement with the Sharif on the makeup of the post-Ottoman Arab state. When the Sharif realized the British had betrayed him with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, his family took what it could: control in Jordan and Iraq. Of course, the British had more than an observational role in the Sharif's ultimate collapse and ouster in Saudi Arabia, supporting his rival Ibn Saud, who took over all of Saudi Arabia by 1932. With the Sharif's failure combined with the British and French imposing minority governments on Jordan, Iraq and Syria, the Pan-Arabist ideology flickered out. Abdullah of Jordan also sought to put himself as the leader of a pan-Arabist "Greater Syria," but his assassination by a Palestinian nationalist in 1957 put all such plans on the back burner.

In reality, Palestinian nationalism's failure between the 1940s and Six Day War came about in part because it was one of the only national movements that focused on separating itself from its neighbors while King Abdullah and eventually Gamal Abdel Nasser were focused on forging a unified Arab State in the mold of the Sharif of Mecca's plan from World War I. Pan Arabism and its leaders faced their ultimate test in 1967. Nasser, increasingly belligerent and imagining himself as a modern day Saladin used a lot of bluster and a blockade of the Straits of Tiran to escalate conflict with Israel. Finding support from a receptive government in Moscow and emboldened by his own grandiosity, Nasser was caught completely unprepared for Operation Focus, in which the IAF destroyed the vast majority of Egypt's air force on June 5, 1967. With the catastrophic collapse of Arab armies and the expansion of Israel into the Sinai, Judea, Samaria, Gaza and the Golan Heights, Pan-Arabism became associated with Arab failure to displace Israel.

Although the Yom Kippur War brought back a measure of prestige to the Egyptians, by then Nasser was dead and pan-Arabism was on the wane. Saudi Arabia became a greater power in the region by virtue of Egypt's weakened state and perception that Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were too moderate and unwilling to champion the cause. In its own way, Israel became a symbol of the West's supposed unwillingness to let go of the Middle East and its continued attempt to manipulate and control the flow of oil while also maintaining the upper hand in the ideological battle.

The reborn Palestinian nationalism, in the form of the PLO, came of age in this primarily post-Arabist world. Because leaders in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria were focused of forging pan-Arabism, led by themselves of course, and were still largely minority and/or foreign governments (Hashemites in Jordan, Alawites in Syria and Christians in Lebanon), the PLO embraced increasingly turned away from cooperation with those governments against Israel and moved toward the rising Islamist movement. In 1979, the Islamic Revolution in Iran gave Islamism its strongest voice and a strongly-anti Western message. Iran's revolutionary government rightfully saw the Pahlavi Shah Mohammed Reza as an American and British puppet put back in power after Mohammed Mossadegh attempted to nationalize Britain's Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later known as British Petroleum). Iran became the flag-bearer for anti-Western passions by virtue of its own history with Britain and America and came up at a time when the PLO was seeking a significant international patron. Unlike the Egyptians and Syrians, Iran had no obvious goal to take over Palestine and as non-Arabs, they represented little direct threat to the Palestinians. Iran was, of course, embroiled in an eight year war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. When the U.S. toppled Saddam in 2003, it removed Iran's most powerful counterbalance, empowering the Iranian government to enflame the passions of Iraq's Shi'ite minority and to push itself toward leadership of the Muslim world as Saudi Arabia became viewed as more and more connected to America, and thus, untrustworthy.

Pan-Arabism is dead and secular nationalism lags far behind Islamism as the dominant political ideology in the Middle East. In many ways, Nasser's failure in 1967 sounded the death knell for pan-Arabism and to a greater extent Arab nationalism as the dominant ideology for opposing the West. Islamism arrival in Tehran in 1979 presented another option. Both ideologies were focused on a singular goal: removing the stain of Western influence on the Middle East. Pan-Arabism was a response to the post-World War I border drawing, under which Arab states were created based on Britain and France's agreed upon spheres of influence with no regard for historical tribal distribution. The idea of creating a unified Arab state that hearkened back to the Umayyad or even Mamluk empires was a way to restore the Arab world to prestige. Of course, deciding who would lead that Arab state proved to be among the ultimate failings of pan-Arabism. Likewise, despite Islamism popular appeal, theological differences have caused fragmentation among the centers of Islamic power. Iranian Shi'ites, who finally liberated themselves from a millennium of Sunni oppression, have little love for the Saudi Wahhabis. Meaningfully, there seems to be little desire to return the dormant Caliphate as there is a desire for each Islamic country to purify itself from Western influence by looking to its own Islamic tradition, be it Salafi in Egypt, Wahhabi in Arabia or Shi'ite in Iran.

Both of these ideologies focus on Israel, which is perceived as continuation of Western meddling in the Middle East. Palestinian nationalists, seeing that other nations were adopting their cause as a way to strike at Israel, have turned from secular nationalists in the PLO to Sunni Islamism (and to some extent Hizbullah's Shi'ite Islamism) in Hamas. By ideologically aligning the Palestinian struggle with the ideology of the dominant political forces of the region, the PLO continues to wane in influence while Islamists in Hamas and Hizbullah assume greater power. Of course, part of the shift toward a more politically radical ideology entails greater violence and an ultimate unwillingness to negotiate or acknowledge Jewish nationalism in the Middle East. While the PLO could at least lie about accepting Israel, Hamas, Iran and Hizbullah do not and will not disguise their uncompromising desire to bring about the end of Jewish sovereignty in Israel and make sure that the Jews do not rise from their dhimmi status ever again.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Birth of Palestinian Nationalism

Back after hiatus...and I must comment on Newt Gingrich's assertion that the Palestinians are an invented people.

Let's start with the obvious. All ethnic, national and religious identity is "invented" by people as a means of collective organization and to create a sense of inclusiveness. Nations and peoples are forged usually by an aspiration or common belief or by the will of a powerful leader. Charlemagne essentially created the "Franks" in the same way that a group of exiled British revolutionaries created "Americans." In this regard, Newt Gingrich's statement, while true, is rather meaningless. The context, of his statement, is far more interesting. Gingrich, a man with no insignificant knowledge of history, gave a mere glimpse into what he really means when he made that statement. Indeed, in the wave of denouncements and reactions, very few people have taken the time to look at what Palestinians are the history of their nationalism. The story is quite interesting, and when understood, gives Gingrich's comments greater context.

From 1517 to around 1917, the territory of "Palestine" was ruled by Turkey, first by the Ottomans until 1909 and then by the CUP until the end of World War I. There was a large swathe of territory that was predominantly Arab that was ruled over with varied strictness from Istanbul. During World War I, the British sought out aid against the Turks and sought out the most powerful Arab leader they could find, the Sharif of Mecca. Through months of diplomacy and negotiation, the British, French and Arabs came to some agreements under which the Sharif would raise a revolt against the Turks in exchange for the independence (and presumptive control) of a newly formed Arabian state. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement (which was famously leaked to the world press by the new Bolshevik government), there proved to be significant disagreements over the territory of that state, as France laid claim to certain Syrian and Lebanese territories while Britain wanted control and influence over Iraq and other territory, notably between Acre and Haifa. In the end, the revolt took place but proved to essentially be a failure and the Sharif was given an independent state in Hejaz in modern Saudi Arabia. He lost that kingdom within 8 years, when an up and coming power from the Nejd region, Ibn Saud, took over his kingdom and in 1932 formed a new state called Saudi Arabia.

The Sharif was not given a large unified Arab Kingdom as he was promised, but his sons, Faisal and Abdullah, received control over certain territories allotted to Britain after World War I. Faisal became King of Iraq and Abdullah the King of Transjordan. And it is at this moment that things got interesting. Faisal and Abdullah were Hashemites from Hejaz, not Arabs from the local tribes and elites that had been governors in the environs of Damasacus and Jerusalem. The creation of Transjordan posed an immediate threat to the power of the heretofore Jerusalem-centered Arab power structure, notably bringing the Hashemite dynasty into conflict with the al-Husseini family, who were the Grand Muftis of Jerusalem.  When the question of what to do with the Jews and Arabs west of the Jordan (in modern Israel, Gaza, Judea and Samaria) arose, Abdullah inserted himself into the discussion by seeking to incorporate any Arab lands west of the Jordan into his territory. What followed is arguably the birth of Palestinian nationalism, as Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, organized anti-British and anti-Jewish opposition west of the Jordan and sought to establish himself as the political head of the Arabs. Husseini failed in to accomplish the majority of his goals because he was categorically opposed to any compromise with either the Jews, the British or the Hashemites, and he eventually fled while being hunted by the British, but not before planting the seed of nationalism into the Arab population west of the Jordan.

The Arabs of the British Mandate were, of course, overtaken by larger forces in 1948, as the larger Egyptian, Syrian and Transjordanian forces converged on Israel and choked off what would become Palestinian nationalism by seizing Arab territory granted to Palestine in the Partition Plan and dealing heavy handedly with Palestinian nationalist attempts until 1974, when Palestinian Nationalism became a newly adopted tactic to attack Israel after the Arab failures in 1967 and 1973.

This history, infrequently discussed, raises a number of interesting points. First, it is evident that Palestinian nationalism, at least the form that we have now, arose from the al-Husseini line of leaders who refused to have the Arabs of the former British Mandate represented by a Hashemite king. The central tenet of their nationalism was that Jordan was not the home of the Arabs of the British Mandate. But why is that? Aside from religious ties to Jerusalem, there is nothing to suggest that Jordan's inadequacy was anything more than a political conflict. Obviously, there is the issue that Jordan did not encompass all of the land on which Arabs in the British Mandate lived, but large scale population transfers were not uncommon in that era of nation building (notably in India and Pakistan). The origin of Palestinian nationalism is, at its essence, the product of a political conflict between the Hashemites and Arab elites in Jerusalem unwilling to live under Hashemite rule. At that time, Palestinian nationalism did not reflect a perceived ethnic or religious difference between the Arabs east of the Jordan and west of the Jordan that was beyond the tribal and clan differences that had been in place for centuries.

Based on this understanding, the next questions we must ask are what are the goals of Palestinian Nationalism? What territory does the movement claim and what kind of state would it create? In many ways, it is hard to know because Palestinians have never had their own state but the movement can be most easily characterized by what it opposes: Hashemite rule over the local Arab populations in Jordan and Palestine, and strong Sunni religious identity and, of course, Jewish sovereignty in Palestine and especially over Jerusalem. These three prongs have created a great number of enemies for the Palestinians, among them the Israelis, the Jordanian monarchy and various Christian groups, especially the Phalangists of Lebanon, the often forgotten actors in the Lebanese Civil War.

Of course, since Palestinian nationalism arose from a political conflict and not an ethnic or religious one, it is difficult to tell who are the current Palestinians and what defines them. Indeed, because most Palestinians did not create an identity but instead had it foisted upon them by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, it is much easier to tell who Palestinian leaders are than who Palestinian people are. However, at this point in the game, there are certainly at least some people who identify as Palestinian and so must be considered.

The question, of course, is how to counterbalance Palestinian and Jewish nationalism because that is the source of the conflict. Tracing back to their origins in the 1920s, Palestinian leadership has been violent, uncompromising and has made enemies of most of its neighbors. Palestinians assassinated King Abdullah in 1957 and tried to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy in 1970, while instigating a civil was in Lebanon. Palestinian nationalists, for all of their current backhanded posturing, largely still insist on displacing all Jews currently living in "Palestine." While not discussing it openly at this point, the PLO (now calling itself Fatah) also sees itself as the legitimate rulers of Jordan, displacing the "foreign" and British-imposed Hashemite monarchy. All attempts to negotiate any significant compromise with this nationalist movement have failed. More ironically, the Palestinians seek support for their struggle by pointing to historical correspondence between the Sharif of Mecca and the British, even though the Sharif's plan was to create a pan-Arab empire that would have given Palestine no autonomy. It is even more ironic that the current Palestinians seeks support for their cause from correspondence written by the patriarch of the Hashemite family they now resent and despise.

Which brings us back to Newt Gingrich's comment. What he should have said is not "Palestinians are an invented people" but "The circumstances of the creation of the Palestinians show that they are unwilling to make peace and should not be given their own state." Palestinians have largely boxed the world into a narrow group of solutions that all center on rejecting the notion of Jordan as a Palestinian homeland. Yet, looking back at post-World War I understandings, it is clear that the British created two states for two peoples, Jordan for the Arabs and Israel for the Jews. The resolute unwillingness of Arab leaders in Jerusalem to accept an Arab state ruled by the Hashemites and their resort to force and terrorism to drive that point home to the British led the British government to cede them an additional 45% of the land west of the Jordan. But even that was not enough. If any lesson can be taken, it is that the Palestinian leaders who imposed the Palestinian national identity on the Arabs west of the Jordan made critical errors for the well being of the average "Palestinian" by so steadfastly fighting the Jordanians and rejecting the 1947 Partition plan. And as much as Mahmoud Abbas wants to recognize that error now, it is too late for him or anyone else to gloss over the true nature of Palestinian nationalism and its origin.