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by Barry Rubin


In July 2006, Muhammad Abd al-Sattar, a deputy minister in Syria's government, made a very strange statement on that country's state-controlled television. Jihad, he said, is the duty of every Muslim, Arab, and Christian in order to kill the Jews.

But wait a minute. Why did Sattar say Muslim, Arab, and Christian? After all, jihad is an Islamic religious notion. Why Christians waging Jihad? And the word Arab here means the non-Muslim, non-Christian Alawites who rule Syria and pretend to be Muslims.

What's happening here is a new ideology, the doctrine of Hamas, Hizballah, Syria, and the Iraqi insurgents, behind what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad calls the "resistance" philosophy.

It is the blend of two radical world views: Islamism and Arab nationalism. Call it national Islamism. The last time there was such a synthesis, it brought together right-wing nationalism and left-wing populist socialism. The doctrine called itself, appropriately enough, national socialism. It is best known by the German version of those two words, Nazism for short.

I'm not making this comparison for shock value. It's a perfect parallel. National Islamism fits the interests of many key political groups in the Middle East. For Iran, it constitutes a bridge into the Arab world, overcoming a big problem. They are Persians, not Arabs, and Shia, not Sunni Muslims. As long as Arab nationalism rules, they are outsiders. But even with pure Islamism, the Shia-Sunni gap still limits their influence.

With National Islamism, though, the problem disappears. Iran can claim to lead the Arab-Islamic people--a designation filling all those gaps--against the evil Western-Crusader-American-Jewish-Zionist-imperialistic-satanic conspiracy.

Then there is Syria, the world's first National Islamist state. While the Western media is still full of talk about Syria as a "secular" regime fighting Islamists, that is quite obsolete thinking. Bashar has been running an Islamization campaign since he took power six years ago. Of course, this does not mean Syrian society is going to be transformed into rigid piety. But it does mean the non-Muslim Alawite rulers can play at being good Muslims, keep their Sunni Muslim majority happy, and extend their influence as the great patron of Islamist revolution in the Arab world.

Here's one small example of the benefits: In 1998, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which hates the regime and wants to overthrow it, held a meeting in Jordan to mobilize support from other Islamist groups. One Jordanian Islamist told them off. Syria was the only Arab state fighting their enemies, he said. "Therefore, it is impossible for an Arab or a Muslim to attack it and try to harm it and its leadership."

For other Arab states, even relatively moderate ones, National Islamism is great if they can manipulate it to their own benefit. They need a mechanism to defuse their own Islamist oppositions. By playing up their piety and using Islamist slogans to justify their policies, they can cut the ground from under their enemies at home.

With Hizballah and Hamas, the story is a truly remarkable one. Hizballah was established in Lebanon in the 1980s to bring about an Iran-style Islamist revolution in that country. To this day, though it is often forgotten, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah is the official representative of Iran's chief cleric in Lebanon.

But then in the 1990s, partly due to Syrian tutelage, came a big change. Hizballah reinvented itself as the leader of the Lebanese national resistance, a great patriotic organization. Being patriotic while representing the interests of Tehran and Damascus was not an easy trick, but Hizballah pulled it off.

Today, it is seeking to take over the Lebanese government with its local Syrian-backed ally. In fact, Hizballah is now preparing to launch its own Christian candidate, Michel Aoun, to be president of Lebanon.

Hamas is in a roughly parallel situation. It has successfully outbid its nationalist rival Fatah as the best exemplar of Palestinian patriotism. Most of those who voted Hamas into office in January 2006 were not Islamists, but they did like the Hamas program of terrorist violence and absolute refusal ever to make peace with Israel.

For the West, the onset of National Islamism is bad news. The radicals, whose whole appeal is based on their militancy, are not about to settle the Arab-Israeli, Lebanese, or Iraqi conflict peacefully. And if Iran gets nuclear weapons, thousands of Arabs will jump on the National Islamism bandwagon.

True, "resistance" is a purely negative slogan. But if enough hysteria is built up, pure demagoguery will close people's ears to the real issues. What kind of society would this build? Who knows? Doesn't this make peace, democracy and economic progress impossible? Who cares?

With its visionary utopian plans for the future and glorification of violence, this is not a movement that is going to be characterized by moderation or pragmatism. Appeasement will be no more successful than it was with its European predecessor.

It will be defeated in the end but for now, the believers in National Islamism are singing, "The future belongs to me."

Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His co-authored book, Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography, (Oxford University Press) is now available in paperback and in Hebrew. His latest book, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, was published by Wiley in November 2005. Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online at:

This article was submitted November 9, 2006.


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