ISIS and the specter of Zionism

 

I’m not saying that Zionism and ISIS are identical or anything as simplistic. But in trying to find generalizing labels for ISIS, such as being a fascist organization, or a totalitarian state and so on, and in the effort to draw parallels between different political experiences one can more subtly propose that ISIS and Zionism have some features in common.

ISIS just like Zionism (at least if we take seriously their media production, in itself a matter of debate) does imagine that a land is promised to them, or should belong to “the Muslims” at large, irrespective of creed, culture, local tradition, etc. ISIS does project the notion that the Muslim homeland involves a rejection of what is not Muslim, or at least a seclusion from what is perceived to be a political other. From the first issues of their newspaper Dabiq, ISIS highly encouraged people to emigrate to this land, to perform “hijra”, based on the idea that the prophet Muhammad also moved from Mecca to Medina to found his community of believers.

Some may retort that Zionism was a secular ideology, yet the seriousness with which the Jewish movement treats passages of the Old Testament as part of the history of a political community is quite similar to what ISIS does with stories of the prophet and his companions, especially when it comes to relating these stories to a material experience involving the seizure of territory and management of population. In fact, the differences (how the religious uses secular textual technologies) as well as the similarities (what they actually do with it) can shed light on the peculiarity of state or other organizational formations in the Middle East.

The production of a climate of fear is essential to ISIS’s political strategy which involves pushing some people out of the territory they control (and thus turning them into refugees) and inviting others, who share their ideological views, to come and live with fellow like minded Muslims. Yet this was exactly what early Zionists practiced in different ways in the beginning of the twentieth century, with the most spectacular image being the Haganah and then the more virulently powerful Irgun, but also the less spectacular political tactics of various groups practicing land appropriations that follows similar rationales. These groups were definitely different from what ISIS is today, just as the context in which they operate, but the political logic is mostly the same.

Because these movements are essentially foreign and irremediably unpopular, their objective is to drive out an eternally discontented population, and to invite another that travels for mostly ideological reasons. In the failure to do so, these movements cannot survive on the long term, which is another reason why a politics of violence is inherent to their modus operandi. And ultimately, just like Zionists Jews imagined belonging to one secular rationalized community despite different geographies and histories, Muslims from all over the world travel to Syria and Iraq in order to belong to a similarly imagined community.

Advertisements

Lebanon in Syria

The fates of the modern states of Lebanon and Syria are inextricably linked. It is important to read their history not just as was done conventionally that is Syria never fully recognizing Lebanon as an independent state but also the reverse, as Lebanon, or particular segments of the Lebanese political establishment involving and using Syria for its own survival as a small state. During the first half of the twentieth century and until the 1970s, Muslims and pan-Arabists of all creed had difficulty recognizing that Lebanon should be a separate state as such. The civil war forced the Christians to realize that they needed help from the Syrians first when the Phalangists risked defeat against pro Palestinian forces around the second half of the 1970s, second when a section of the Christian establishment had allied with the Syrian help after 1982 Israeli invasion, and third after the Taif agreement of 1982. Even Michel Aoun the staunchest opponent to Taif and the Syrian regime realized that such categorical attitude was detrimental to Lebanon’s strategic advantage.

In the beginning of the 1990s, and after bitter clashes with the Syrian regime, it was Hizbullah’s turn to realize that they could not survive and strive as a resistance force without Syrian geographical strategic positioning, as well as security and logistical support. This brought them closer to other political groups in the country during the 1990s. Then events unfolding after 2005 when the former prime minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated should be understood as a struggle to fill the security vaccum left by the withdrawal of the Syrian army and more importantly the removal of the Lebanese-Syrian security nexus that was built during the post-war period. Hizbullah’s recent intervention in Syria and in Qalamoun in particular should be read in this light, as an effort to create a protective boundary around the small state of Lebanon that the Syrian regime once provided.

Likewise Sunni politics in the post-war period should be read in this way. Hariri needed pax-Syriana to implement his reconstruction program and the various economic (and oh so social) changes that ensued. It is only when he was constantly paralyzed by his political counterpart the President Emile Lahoud, that he urged the Syrians to intervene on his behalf. The Syrians refused given that Lahoud represented the security complex which helped build the pax-Syriana. And yet, it is not even clear if Hariri was fully convinced that Lebanon did not need the Syrian regime. The Hariri-Hizbullah negotiations that took place before he was killed attest to this ambivalence. After 2005, Sunni politics was slowly driven to increased intervention in Syria in trying to work for regime change. This process involved many groups from “moderate” to radical all the way to al-Qaeda and ISIS type. The Arsal episode is a perfect example of the blurred political boundaries between Lebanon and Syria.

The whole point here is to recognize that overall, various Lebanese actors strived to change things to their advantage in Syria just as it was done by Syria in Lebanon. Some day the history of this “intervention” should be written through that lens.

The myths of democracy

Make no mistake, democratic deliberations will always be inversely related to community formation and actual political action. What we see taking place in Syria, Egypt, and in other countries of the Middle East all bear witness to the fact that there is no such thing as democracy if there isn’t prior to that, a non-democratic (meaning non-negotiable by the public) set of rules that inform community bonds.

Don’t be fooled by thinking that Western (and other) democracies around the world permit a public to deliberate freely about all sorts of problems without resorting to violence in the absence of that functioning State that, as it happens, has already laid out the rules of the game. See how France gets crazy just from seeing a veiled woman strolling around a “public space”. See Belgium forbidding the construction of mosques, or British “public” vehemently opposing UK’s involvement in the Iraq war but in vain. Certain demands simply cannot be made democratically or involve one community of people or “interest” imposing their views on another as it may jeopardize the very existence of the State in place or change its nature, its “raison-d’être”.

The particular properties of these community bonds vary from country to country, but there is one thing that does not vary the least, the presence of a strong (Nation)-State with a monopoly over the means of coercion, a very sensitive security network or alignment with another greater neighboring power. Once these things exist, and evidently are established through non-democratic means, then one can play the game of what people mistakenly call today democracy, which could more accurately called an oligarchy if one wants to stick to using Greek terms, as is fashionable in the modern age.

Why do we have an “authoritarian” ruler in Syria highly determined to crush an opposition while the latter can only express discontent through the use of arms? Why do we have a government army pitted against a social movement in Egypt to the point where they freely open fire at demonstrators and have the president declaring that the political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, should simply be abolished? Because in both instances, the conflict is about the very crafting of the rules of the game that would serve as a guide for community building and maybe future “democratic” negotiations. However, the terms of these negotiations will be revolving around the views of the prevailing party that become “raison-d’Etat” (the translation adopted in English is “National Interest” but seem to lose the original meaning of “reason” or logic, or even views that the State reserve itself the power to enforce).

EU blacklisting Hizbullah’s military wing

hezbollah_EUEU’s decision to label Hizbulah’s military wing a terrorist organization is a silly decision, one that betrays a simplistic understanding of the politics of the Middle East in the last three decades.

My intuition is that this decision is the fruit of years of erroneous analyses about the organization that is thought to have “changed”, to have become “moderate” and “democratic” because it is now fully engaged in the local political Lebanese game. This representation of Hizbullah has pushed forth the crazy idea that if one could just somehow neutralize some military wing of the party then a fully gentrified Hizbullah can strive in a healthy democratic and pluralistic Lebanese arena.

Non-sense.

Hizbullah never changed and Hizbullah does not have different “wings”. Hizbulah is the Islamic Resistance, or simply the Resistance as a military project that fights Israeli occupation and ambitions in the region. Hizbullah political “wing” is only a democratic representation of this project in the parliament. This means that people who support the military resistance against Israel voted for Hizbullah to be represented in the Lebanese parliament.

By blacklisting a “military wing” the EU is condemning (or judging!) a popular and legitimate political demand to fight occupation. To give a European example, it is a bit like condemning French resistance “military wing” against the Nazi regime. This is why, most Lebanese political parties whether pro or anti-Hizbullah criticized the EU decision. If anyone in the EU thinks that Israel is a danger to its neighbors and has been committing atrocities (or terrorism for that matter) against the Palestinians then please let us know if anything else than military resistance can force them to reconsider their actions. It is not a hazard then that not one single EU state is willing to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian question seriously.

Hizbullah will disarm only if a comprehensive and just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is found and activated. This is what the EU, Arab States, and whoever is putting his nose into our affairs should be working on instead of distributing silly labels.

Whether the recent events in Syria initiated such a step, by blacklisting the “military wing”, the EU is condemning the idea of Resistance against Israel through military means. This is another proof that whether intended or not, most political actions with regards to Syria against the Asad regime are irremediably serving Israeli interests.

Isolationism or Regionalization?

Recently the Phalangist MP Sami Gemayel has proposed to “amend the preamble of the constitution to stipulate Lebanon’s neutrality towards regional conflicts”.

“We request amending the constitution to clearly state that Lebanon must stay neutral towards regional events,” Gemayel said after the weekly meeting of the party’s political bureau. He elaborated: “We are very concerned about Lebanese factions’ participation in the Syrian war and this can lead to transferring the fighting into Lebanon.” “We remind those publicly declaring that they have fighters in Syria, particularly Hizbullah, that they have signed the Baabda Declaration that clearly states we must disassociate Lebanon from regional crises,” the MP noted.

The Baabda declaration took place in June 2012 during one of these so-called “national dialogue sessions”. Whether Lebanon should get involved in regional questions or just adopt an isolationist stance is at the heart of a historical debate that is as old as the existence of the State. Logically enough, the isolationist stance was traditionally endorsed by the Lebanese Christian Right (and still represented by the Phalangist party although recently joined by several other groups). This stance found many enemies whose political existence depended on the resolution or simply the management of regional questions. The coalitions of pro-Palestinian formations, resistance groups against Israeli occupation, pro-Syrian political parties, and so on).

It is not a coincidence that the isolationist stance went well with the famous dictum “Lebanon’s strength is in its weakness” that Pierre Gemayel (again former Phalangist leader and grandfather of the PM Sami Gemayel) declared at some point in the 1970s referring to the multi-confessional nature of the political process and the neutrality position Lebanon strove to enjoy at that time. The event following 1975 were to prove the extent to which this declaration was detrimental to those who found themselves to be Lebanese nationals. It is ironic also, that in the midst of the event following the 1975 debacle, the same party that had adopted an isolationist line had ended up asking for Syrian interference in order to defeat the leftist-Palestinian coalition. Syria was then on an integral part of doing politics in Lebanon. So in order to protect an isolationist/neutral stance the party was forced to ask for a regional cover.

More generally, the paradox of Middle Eastern states is that the more they push for national isolation (for security reasons) the less they are able to confront bigger political forces and thus end up weakening their political bargaining power. The Sunni-Shi’i conflict that has been nurtured gradually since the 1990s is the last mess that threatens to wreck any power the region can accumulate in facing forms of domination. It all started when Iran took precedence in establishing itself as the only regional force that can challenge Israel and the US, a development that left many jealous states and parties across the region. And crucially enough, Iran could only do that because Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas were working together to that effect. These movements are born from the consequence of State ineffectiveness at carrying vital political actions in order to liberate territory and create a strong military deterrence power. Again, the regional nexus permitted local parties to become stronger and voice certain political demands that could not be answered and delivered by local institutions. Whatever one’s stand toward the Syrian uprising (and elsewhere), this development weakens states at the regional at least in the short to mid term as it forces new groups to shorten their attention to “the inside”.

The irony though here is that Middle Eastern countries are not all sticking to a plan of focusing on “the inside” The Gulf and in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar have tried in all possible ways to challenges Iranian foreign policies by targeting its proxy, first Hamas and Hizbullah, then the Syrian state. This regional war cannot be dissociated from its potentiality of boosting certain states or political formations over others that do have regional agendas. Then, in a context such as the Middle East where occupation is regionally organized, where some states have regional agendas, the isolationist stance resemble what is called ostrich politics (where the ostrich is said to try to delude her enemies by hiding her head in the sand). They fail to see how they cannot avoid the fact that any genuinely political action must involve regional interference whether from within or from without. While Gemayel shouts for a Lebanese neutral stance above, members of his most important political ally (Al Mustaqbal party) and its main sponsors (such as Saudi Arabia) are all deeply involved inside Syria.

I am not trying here to defend Hizbullah’s intervention in Syria but more appropriately to explain why it is impossible for them not to intervene, just like it was practically impossible for Palestinians not to try to wage political militant activities from Lebanese territories, or why more generally, regional issues dictates local ones. This is so because first, local quests for influence need certain regional leverage, and second, because certain political questions are irremediably “trans-national” (such as the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). But the only way to carry out transnational actions is by putting in place a political formation of State, institutions, organizations or groups, that can operate freely away from the vagaries and individualizing tendencies of the democratic push. More on this later.

War always

General Hassan ShateriI was listening to Hizbullah’s Al Nour radio station two days ago when I heard, in the words of the radio speaker, that the main guy behind the reconstruction of the south, an Iranian engineer, Hassan Shateri, was killed in some kind of an ambush returning from Damascus to Beirut. I was wondering why the Syrian rebels would want to kill an engineer who was responsible for the building of homes in the South and, according still to the speaker, in Iran after the Iran and Iraq war, and in Afghanistan. Basically the guy comes to build after wars in conflict areas.

Next day I stumble across this article in the Guardian titled “Elite Iranian general assassinated near Syria-Lebanese border”. So now things made a bit more sense, although it still is a plus to know that Iranian generals can be sorts of philanthropists after war. Somehow people involved in war do have economic occupations linked to pre-war or post-war possibilities (Dick Cheney may be an example although away from the idea of comparing Shateri to Cheney).

In any case, killing this general along with the multiple events that have been taking place in the past two years are making sure that we are going straight into a regional explosion where Syria will be the main battlefield. For now the forces are not of equal match for a large scale mobilization to become a possibility, although this asymetry unfortunately increasingly resembles the Lebanese wars settings that were prevalent from 1975 to 1990: a weakened state/security complex, lots of parties who stand to gain from keeping it that way, not one party who can (or wants to) actually create a peace situation through hegemonic positioning and a militia economy slowly feeding on itself and largely annoyed if things would come to change.

Confusion in the age of democracy

Today in Beirut, people are confusing an assassination that has clear regional causes and implications with very narrowly defined local demands, which may just worsen the current regional situation. The assassination of Wissam al Hassan, head of the Internal Security Forces is clearly the consequence of a long cold war that has began 7 years ago when the former prime minister Rafic al Hariri’s convoy was blown up with similar material.

But just to skip a few chapters and focus on the latest events, since the outbreak of popular unrest in Syria, the militarization of the conflict has spilled over into Lebanon and in so doing has opened the door to all sorts of political opportunities for groups, local, such as the Future movement and its loose allies (such as Salafist groups) and Syrians (such as the defecting military units) to team up in order to challenge the Syrian regime.

People forget that Lebanese political actors are involved in regional gambles that assure their position in power in the first place, or at the very least inform the particular local strategies they choose to adopt. And today, people are asking for a political outcome that ignores these regional dimensions. When Wissam al-Hassan was heavily involved in these gambles, people ask the government to step down on the legal ground that it cannot ensure the security of the nation. Since when was al-Hassan working with the intent of ensuring the security of the nation? The “security situation” has never been isolated in national enclaves, and if anything the modicum of a government that people have in Lebanon is one of the last obstacles, albeit a fragile one, to total security breakdown.

This is one of many examples why “democratic demands” of a seeming “civil society” in Lebanon are terms that produce more contradictions than facilitate the search for an effective solution.