Nothing seems so much intriguing and complex as the interplay between political and social dynamics of this volatile Middle Eastern region – hemmed in by “intra and interstate polarisations”; fragmented by regional animosities and antagonisms among different political actors, exploited by the cult of political instrumentalisation of Islam, and accompanied by the multifaceted quest for power. The region demands exemplary efforts and seeks great promises beyond false dawn towards the goals of pacification and reconciliation of disputes.
The Hezbollah’s Clout
Given the present Middle Eastern picturesque, it seems that Hezbollah seems to play a pivotal role in regional politics. Hezbollah’s rise in the 1980s was precipitated by the heavy involvement of Amal—Lebanon’s dominant Shiite political faction at the time—in the Lebanese civil war, which left a gap open for leading the country’s resistance against Israel. Hezbollah emerged as a political movement when a group of South Lebanese Shiite clerics travelled to Iran for support during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
The group was formally established in 1985 but most observers believe key-founding figures cut their teeth in the deadly twin attacks on the American and French military barracks in Beirut in 1983. Although denying any involvement, Iran was likely the driving force for those attacks.
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Relations with Syria have in turn been instrumental as the main access route for Iranian money and munitions. However, it is wrong to say Hezbollah is solely an instrument for Iran. It is also a political party with genuine support from large and poor segments of the Lebanese Shiite community and responds to their economic and political grievances.
Gradually moved by the impending circumstances, Hezbollah entered into domestic politics, giving its marginalized constituency a political voice, as well as providing jobs, welfare and security. The peak of the movement came in the 2006 war, when it was able to stand off Israel for 33 days and gained a reputation as a professional militia. In the aftermath, Hezbollah aimed to transform its military victory and the concomitant popular support into political influence. Soon it became the dominant part of Lebanese (pro-Syrian) opposition.
Hezbollah, although listed as a terrorist organisation by most countries in the international community, remains central to the future stability of Lebanon. But Hezbollah will only be successful in this role if it can extricate itself from the long and debilitating campaign in Syria. For Lebanon’s and its own survival, Hezbollah cannot allow Syria to become its Vietnam.
Hezbollah is peculiar entity as both a state- and non-state actor. It is balancing non-state activities such as providing armed forces, social services, and private telecommunications to its Shiite community within its role as a dominant part of the Lebanese government. Its armed forces are also heavily involved in the Syrian war, while Lebanon’s formal policy is dissociation with the same conflict. In other words, it is a state within a state.
Forces of Schism in PLO’s Camp
Seen ironically, nothing has caused so great damage to the cause of Palestinian freedom than the internal rifts and cleavages in the Palestinian camp – the growing vertical and horizontal polarization in The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The on-going ideological fissures between the Gaza dominated Hamas (took control of Gaza in 2007) and the West Bank dominated Fateh, have intrinsically undermined the Palestinian concept of unity. Israel has taken great advantages of this political divide in the PLO’s camp, thereby procrastinating the peace resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The present deal of reconciliation between Hamas and Fateh seems a mammoth challenge. There seemed effectively two Palestinian cabinets, one in Gaza and one in Ramallah. Both claimed to be the legitimate government. Each denounced the other as a coup against the legitimate government. However, Sufian Abu Zaida, a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, was reluctant to draw any conclusions.
“There is no agreed-upon description of the current events among Palestinian factions. These events are characterized by Palestinian organizations standing behind the confrontations and not in the forefront, such as in the first intifada in 1987 and the second intifada in 2000,” he told Al-Monitor.
It seems remarkable that after more than 20 days since the outbreak of the violence, the Palestinian factions have failed to agree on a common name for the events. There has been no agreement on its nature or objectives, and no one knows how long it will last. Although the youth participating in it are largely affiliated with Fatah or Hamas, they might not be receiving any instructions from them. A unified political leadership might require factions to make concessions to one another, which would diminish their popularity before their organizational bases.
Abdul Alim Dana, a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), told Al-Monitor, “Forming a unified leadership is linked to the Palestinian factions’ agreement on a common national program to confront the occupation, and there are ideas among some factions about the formation of this leadership, but most of those participating in the intifada are not affiliated with political movements.” Sari Arabi, a Palestinian writer who regularly writes about Hamas, says:
“One can talk about four basic factions: Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP, and when talking about their popular presence, one can see an enormous difference in terms of organizational and popular support. Since 2007, Hamas has suffered deep systematic marginalization, which paralyzed its ability to organize. Fatah, for its part, suffered for its affiliation with the PA and building a network of interests related to it. Consequently, this has resulted in an organizational slack, although its youth are participating in the confrontations through the student movement or based on personal motives.”
The Syrian Refugee Crisis
The worst humanitarian crisis the world faces today after the Jewish exodus from Europe during the Second World War is the Syrians’ migration issue or the refugee crisis. Throughout the years since the 2011 Arab Spring protests, Syria has been ravaged by civil war and violence, resulting in half a million of its citizens killed. While the military of President Bashar Al-Assad battles a number of anti-government forces, the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has emerged and thrived in the subsequent chaos. Seeking to escape the violence from all sides in this conflict, millions of Syrians have fled their homes and their country, seeking refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Europe. But the recent terrorist attacks across Europe have led to many countries threatening to close their borders. The Syrian refugee crisis seems to be an acid test regarding the future of the EURO-Med dialogue. Ironically, no Muslim majority state in the region has offered shelter to the refugees other than the European states.
The Cult of Political Instrumentalisation of Islam
While political actors in the region are fully engaged in a vicious vie to control ideological power, Islam, considered close to the hearts of the majority of the inhabitants of this region, becomes a vital force for legitimization and dominance. Due to different interpretations of Islam, different views, ideological in nature, on possible cooperation and coordination forms among conflicting political actors arise. While politics dominates religion in the Middle East at large, different, yet conflicting interests of actors play a significant role in heightening the contours of religious interpretations, hitherto altering power configurations and increasing sectarianism.
In the professed form, all states across the region of West Asia and North Africa, or Muslim majority countries for that matter, are democratic republics and monarchies. Yet in reality, they are dictatorships. The leading political constellations in these states maintained democratic props such as parliaments, regular elections, and political parties, while standing above these props installing their compliant supporters in key positions.
Alliances between political rulers and religious clerics have become the norm since the creation of nation-states in the 19th 20th centuries. In nondemocratic states, such alliances help the rulers to achieve one or some of the following: Promoting congenial beliefs that serve the ruler, justifying violence, yet regulating it, legitimating the rulers’ repressiveness, naturalizing the status quo, mobilising, yet persuading the public, denigrating any dissenting ideas, excluding and outbidding oppositional forces and obscuring social reality through mystification and mythology.
Against this background, a wide variety of deformations have emerged. Alliances between secular polities and conservative religious clerics resulted in a discriminatory Wahhabi conservative regime in Saudi Arabia since 1930s; a discriminatory Shiite conservative regime in Iran since 1979, a religiously-coloured Baathist regime in Syria since 1960s; a discriminatory Baathist regime in Iraq under Saddam Hussein since 1970s and later under American provisions since 2003 and a cynical Pan-Arabist regime in Egypt since 1950s etc.
In Syria, for instance, those who elect the sole dictator Bashar Al-Assad, Syrian Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun claims, go to paradise. In 2014, he said voting for Assad is an “enactment of prophet Muhammad’s commandment”. In 2013, he reiterated the sanctity of supporting Assad, calling it a “religious obligation” for all Muslims, inside and outside of Syria. Hasssoun even issued a fatwa compelling Muslims to aid Assad against rebels, claiming that the prophet declared the “army of the Levant” to be worthy of his followers’ support.
In Saudi Arabia, opposing the repressive measures of the Saudi rulers, Senior Council of Ulama claims, is impermissible in Islam. Saudi grand mufti Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh stressed that the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud is keen to “save the interests of the nation and protect the Muslim communities from all evils”. In other words, the king, anyone of them, becomes Saudi Arabia’s Jesus the Saviour.
In Egypt, those who oppose the military rule lose Allah’s blessings. “Egypt is a country that God Almighty mentioned in the Quran unlike any other,” Ali Gomaa, the former grand mufti of Egypt said in a sermon. “We are an army that the Messenger of God [the prophet Muhammad] has blessed, and made its soldiers the best on the planet, and gave it his blessing.”
Former Egyptian minister of religious endowment Al-Hamadi Abu Al-Nawar said in 2014 that the popularity of President Al-Sisi has reached heavens. “Allah, Archangel Gabriel and other angels love Al-Sisi”, and that’s why the whole world loved him when he spoke at the United Nation General Assembly in the same year. Similar claims were also circulated about the president under Mohammad Morsi, Mubarak, Sadat, and Nasser etc.
While having a voyage through the history of Middle Eastern turmoil, we may logically tend to form the observations that the present crises in the Middle East seem to have their deep roots in the epochal socio-political rivalries-caused by both local and foreign powers. The end result is that there is a high degree of human rights violations and poor quality of life richly reflected by the Syrian exodus crisis. The challenge of healing and preventing the sufferings of the people of this region cannot be possible as long as there is dichotomy in our attitude and policies.
To read Part Two (Evolution of Turmoil in Middle East: Beyond Religion), please click HERE.