Nationalists Versus Islamists: The Middle East’s Titanic Battle

By Barry Rubin, GLORIA

The Middle East is in a new era, very different from the politics and strategic situation we have been used to for so long. For 55 years the region has lived under Arab nationalist dominance. Every Arab regime, except perhaps Sudan, is Arab nationalist, governed by that basic system and world view.

Of course, these regimes have governed badly, not keeping pledges to unite the Arab world, minimize Western influence, destroy Israel, or bring rapid social and economic progress. Still, they know how to stay in power. Remember that the last real regime change from within an Arab state happened 37 years ago when Hafiz al-Asad seized power in Syria. Since then, surprisingly little has changed in Arab ideology, political structure, economic organization, or society.

It has also been 28 years since Iran’s Islamist revolution took power in 1979. Since then, though not solely because of that event, Islamism has been on the upsurge. Certainly, it also suffered setbacks and almost three decades later Islamism had been unable to seize power anywhere, at least until Hamas’s recent triumph in Gaza.

What has happened now, however, is that radical Islamism has reached a critical mass. It now poses serious challenges to Arab nationalism as the leading opposition in every Arabic-speaking country. Islamism plays a key role in governing Iraq, Hamas defeated Fatah on the Palestinian front; and Hizballah is close to gaining at least equal power in Lebanon.

For years, probably decades, to come, the Middle East will be shaken by a titanic battle between Arab nationalism and Islamism for control. This struggle, and certainly not the Arab-Israeli conflict, is the central theme and underlying factor in every regional issue.

This is so for several reasons. One is that the Islamist cause is now promoted by an alliance including two regimes, Iran and Syria, as well as Hamas and Hizballah which both rule territory. Syria’s government, technically “secular” and ruled by a non-Muslim Alawite minority no less, behaves like an Islamist one, especially in its foreign policy, as to keep loyal its Sunni Muslim majority.

It is folly to think that this HISH alliance (Hamas-Iran-Syria-Hizballah) can be split. After all, the parties have common aims and ideologies, their cooperation is so mutually beneficial, and last but not least due to the fact that they think they are winning.

Historically, there were two barriers for Iran’s trying to become the Middle East’s leading power: the Persian-Arab and Shia-Sunni divides. How could Persian, Shia Iran appeal to Arabs who mostly were Sunni? The HISH alliance solves that problem. Three of the four members are Arab, and Hamas is Sunni as is the majority of Syrians. If one adds Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgency that breakthrough becomes even clearer.

Nor does this exhaust the Islamist forces working today to seize state power throughout the region. Al-Qaida is a factor, mostly in Iraq—where it cooperates closely with Syria—and Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaida is far more a threat in terms of terrorism, however, than in a strategic sense. Since it has only one tactic, in comparison to other Islamists’ flexibility, al-Qaida is unlikely to take over any countries.

A third Islamist set of groups are Muslim Brotherhood movements. While Hamas arises from the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, its Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian counterparts do not particularly like Iran or Shia Muslims. Still, they are also trying to transform Arab nationalist into Islamist states. Even if they use elections in pursuing this objective the goal remains the same.

To understand the region today all its issues have to be seen in the context of this nationalist-Islamist battle. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, it will greatly increase the power of HISH, the Arab regimes’ readiness to appease it, and the recruitment for Islamists of all types throughout the area.

In Lebanon, Hizballah backed by Iran and Syria seeks to control the government, or at least have veto power over its policies. In Iraq, Syrian-backed Sunni insurgents fight Shias among whom Iran has considerable influence. HISH hedges its bets but on both sides tries to turn Iraq into a client state. Among Palestinians, Hamas seeks full power over the movement by ensuring that war with Israel continues and by driving Fatah out of the West Bank.

On the other side, in theory, are all the Arab regimes except Syria plus Israel. In practice, though, these forces are far from united. Arab governments will try to cut their own deals or pursue their own interests. They may be privately happy if Israel defeats Hamas or Hizballah but they will scarcely provide any help or make peace.

A good example here is Saudi Arabia. The Saudis fight Iran but do so by giving money and recruits to the Iraqi insurgency or their ill-fated attempt to buy off Hamas by brokering a deal between that group and Fatah. Neither of these tactics has been very helpful. And the incompetence, corruption, and dictatorial nature of the Arab regimes—plus their Islamist-style extremist propaganda—all help foster more opposition.

Still, this does not at all mean the Islamists will win. No one should underestimate the Arab nationalist regimes and there are huge problems with the Islamists’ strategy. The tragedy is that neither of these movements have the answers for the Arabic-speaking world’s big problems. Both of them, especially given their often-violent struggle, will bring more violence and suffering on the region’s people.

What is vital, however, is to understand the nature of the conflict and how specific “local” issues relate to it. In this framework too, past realities are now outmoded while the myths all-too-often dominant in media and academia are even more misleading and unable to predict the direction of events.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs, and author of the recently published The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).

August 19, 2007 | 6 Comments »

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6 Comments / 6 Comments

  1. Nigel’s right, this alleged battle is a smokescreen. Assad is not Syria and Syria is not Assad; as long as Assad advances the ummah cause he gets to stay, that’s all. Faux-Muslim pagan Assad has a self-interest in being a nationalist, yet to succeed he has to be pro-“Islamist” (to use that fake made-up inappropriate word). So it’s not that nationalism and s0-called “Islamism” are conflicting, they’re interdependent in this case. Islamic nation-states don’t conflict with the ummah concept of a greater Islamic nation (which already exists in a way), they are just steps to getting there.

  2. The Middle East is in a new era, very different from the politics and strategic situation we have been used to for so long. For 55 years the region has lived under Arab nationalist dominance. Every Arab regime, except perhaps Sudan, is Arab nationalist, governed by that basic system and world view.

    No. They’re all governed by Globalist Criminal Syndicate stooges. They may pander to nationalism, but there is little evidence that Arab “nationalist” rulers have much interest in their people or even the integrity of their nation states – which puts them in much the same category as most “nationalist” rulers, incidentally.

    Still, they know how to stay in power.

    There are advantages to being a loyal lacky of The Syndicate.

    It has also been 28 years since Iran’s Islamist revolution took power in 1979. Since then, though not solely because of that event, Islamism has been on the upsurge. Certainly, it also suffered setbacks and almost three decades later Islamism had been unable to seize power anywhere, at least until Hamas’s recent triumph in Gaza.

    Oh Gawd! Is this guy supposed to be a professional analyst?
    Do the words “Afghanistan”, “Saudi Arabia”, “Sudan”, “Bosnia” or “Kosovo” mean anything to him?

    For years, probably decades, to come, the Middle East will be shaken by a titanic battle between Arab nationalism and Islamism for control.

    Evidence for this assertion? Considering that “nationalism” has given way to Islamism with barely a shot fired, his assertion seems a trifle flawed.

    Syria’s government, technically “secular” and ruled by a non-Muslim Alawite minority no less, behaves like an Islamist one,…

    Hardly evidence of a “titanic battle”.

    Historically, there were two barriers for Iran’s trying to become the Middle East’s leading power: the Persian-Arab and Shia-Sunni divides. How could Persian, Shia Iran appeal to Arabs who mostly were Sunni? The HISH alliance solves that problem. Three of the four members are Arab, and Hamas is Sunni as is the majority of Syrians. If one adds Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgency that breakthrough becomes even clearer.

    War is peace, freedom is slavery and an alliance between Islamists and nationalists that “solves that problem” is evidence of an inevitable titanic battle between Islamism and nationalism.
    Sheesh! Mossad really need to train their disinformers a bit more thoroughly than this! Or maybe the Shin Bet would consider employing Rubin to portray settlers as religious extremists. 🙂

    While doubtless at certain levels – mainly at the levels of the poor brainwashed sods doing the fighting and dying – there are conflicts between Islamists and nationalists, the “Islamist-nationalist battle” should be seen as a smokescreen to hide the agendas of those behind it – as most political theatre is.

    btw, hate to seem pedantic, but shouldn’t a “research center” be able to provide some footnotes as evidence to back its assertions?

  3. Several thoughts on Barry Rubin’s article about the beginnings of an epic battle going on between Islamic radicalism and Arab nationalism:

    1. Islamic radicalism is an ideology that has no state, but is a state of mind, seeking to become personified in a state.

    2. Arab nations are all politically structured variations of dictatorial feudal and tribal societies and all spring from Islam, Islamic culture and Islamic historical precedent from which Islamic radicalism, fundamentalism, extremism or whatever ism descriptive of the world of Islam.

    3. Historically, Pan Arab nationalism is strongest when it comes to being united in hearts and minds against common foes, with Israel topping the list and America a step or two behind and against the amorphous West.

    4. Islamic radicalism while it calls for a return to the old ways of Islam with strict observance of the religious and cultural principles and mores, that ideology and those who follow it are united with Arab nationalists in their hatreds of common non-Muslim foes, with Israel topping the list and America right behind.

    5. As regards Israel, since 1948 the Arab nations have wanted to destroy Israel and the Jews residing there. That Arab dream and their hatred of Jews and Israel are as strong today as it was then. All that has changed is that Arab tactics and strategies to destroy Israel and rid the region of Jews has changed.

    There is little or nothing to distinguish radical Islam without a state from Arab nationalists. As regards israel they are two sides of the same coin. Should the radical Islamists gain their state, the people of those nations may well experience changes, but not as regards their bred to the bone hatred of Jews and their dream seared in their minds for Israel’s eventual destruction.

    No matter which way you cut it, both the Arab nationalists and the radical Islamists will always make time to express their hatred of Jews in efforts to demonize, kill or maim them and find some way to join together to realize their dream for Israel’s destruction.

    Unfortunately, America or the State Department that is the brains behind U.S. policy in the Middle East insists on painting pictures that just aren’t there and ignores the picture of the way things are and the way things will be if America continues to blind itself to realities.

    Just imagine how emboldened the radical Islamists would be if they did destroy Israel. America is standing next in line and the destruction of Israel may be all that it will take for the epic clash of civilizations to go nuclear.

  4. Rubins`Questions may soon be answered when the Islamists take over the government and country of Pakistan who already have the BOMB. This scenario may even precede the Iranian BOMB.When that occurs all this academic drivel will be of little consequence. Turkey may go the same route down the way and don`t forget our close friends the Egyptians, Mubarak is a hairs breath away from being deposed or worse. Israel can still fund the Hamas through our new close buddy Fayad and all the make believe we have been playing for so many years will come to a sudden violent halt.
    Lets see now all our Leftists here speak oh so much passion about curbing individual rights in defense of democracy. ( the curbing of the rights of the political right is what they seek). I say screw democracy: we are talking about our physical and spiritual survival and they don`t get it yet but they will, they will!
    I say for those countries openly threatening our survival we have every right to curb their collective individual and national rights, by exerting what strength and power we do have. ie; We use a cobalt bomb where it is effective and hydrogen bomb where that is most effective. For example: targets can be Mecca, Rhiad, all the oil fields in the ME, ( the Russians will love us all the way to the bank except that nobody will have much use for all their oil after we get through with them. A well placed Bomb on the Aswan High Dam will kill 10-20 million people and place much of Egypt under water. Same with pakistan and Iran. Don’t forget Syria and Hizbolla we get them too. Sound too doomsday and not civilized? In the final scenario we may not have a choice as it will be us or them!

  5. This article doesn’t go far enough. The questions left unanswered are,
    1. What is “Islamism”?

    Does it mean to create a Caliphate all over the world? Are Iran’s ambitions limited to the Middle East?

    2. What are the goals of the Nationalists? Simply to remain in power? Or do they want more.

    Saudi Arabia in spreading Wahabbist attitudes and doctrines all over the world are also Islamists.

    3. Is there any possibility in creating a “moderate” front against the Islamists as the US is attempting to do?

    4. What should Israel and the US do in the face of all this?

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