Events in the Middle East have seldom been more closely interdependent and interrelated during our recent political history; a raging civil war in Iraq, escalation of factional infighting in the occupied Palestinian territories, and an increasingly polarised political landscape in Lebanon share one clear common denominator: dichotomy between modernity and conservatism. At the same time, the re-emergence of alliances between Iran, Syria, and hard-line political forces within various nation states in the Arab World on the one hand, and a strategic coalition of “moderate” Arab regimes with the West on the other, underlines the prevalent order of international society in the beginning of the 21st Century, namely religious nationalism vs. political realism, respectively.
Of course, this rigid analogy is unacceptable, in varying degrees, to political forces on either side of the equation. For conservatives, theirs is essentially a nationalist struggle against western domination, which has merely taken the form of religious (Islamic) loyalties, particularly following the political vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and consequently the disintegration of socialist movements across the battle grounds of the Cold War, including the Middle East. In other words, Islamic political forces in today’s Middle East are the natural alternative to the dwindling leftist movements who had constituted a major bulk of the opposition in the 60s, 70s, and most of the 80s.
For the moderates, or mainstream regimes, in the Middle East, their quest is based on a pragmatic interpretation of international relations, and a conscious effort to integrate their societies (political and economic structures) into a global order that is compatible with western strategic interests in the region. This camp draws its logic and vision on the basis of the inevitable balance of power, especially within the framework of the “war on terror” doctrine dictated by the US following the 11 September, 2001, attacks.
However, despite any reservations on the categorisation of these two camps, the fact remains that there are two competing wisdoms among social and political forces inside the Middle East, which are shaping the future of the region in unexpected, and often turbulent, ways.
Public opinion within the Middle East bares witness to the extent of polarisation that has gradually taken shape in recent years. Opinion polls inside the Palestinian territories, for example, indicate that, should early legislative elections be held as announced by President Mahmoud Abbas last month, approximately 35% of the vote would go to Hamas, despite the detrimental impact of its victory in January 2006 on the socio-economic structure of Palestinian society. Another 35%, it is estimated, would go to Fateh, the mainstream national movement often associated with the Oslo peace process, and ultimately with mutual compromises with Israel on the issue of Palestine on the basis of the two-state solution.
The polarisation of Palestinian politics, especially during 2006, has gone far beyond political rivalries and into an alarming trend of head-on collisions. The now-familiar pattern of armed clashes between Hamas and Fateh loyalists is threatening to shatter the fabric of Palestinian society. Palestinian civil war is no longer a distant nightmare, but rather a clear and present danger whose outbreak is only, for now, prevented by Israel’s ongoing colonisation of the West Bank and imprisonment of the Gaza Strip, as well as its military onslaught of a common Palestinian population. To think that a nation under military occupation can turn against itself is outrageous, yet this is clearly happening.
We are, therefore, left with sufficient reason to believe, or at least to explore the idea, that internal political struggles in the Middle East are not merely based on exclusively national considerations, but rather on a combination of ideological and religious aspirations rooted in centuries of wars, invasions, turmoil, and a historical evolution that has ultimately resulted in a deeply divided neighbourhood. The answers to the Middle East’s troubles may, after all, have to be pursued internally.
Rami Bathish is director of the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org