Thursday, February 26, 2009

Shifting Sands - How the Gaza War Redefined Islamism

Al Ahram Weekly, February 19 - 25, 2009 - Recent events in Gaza have made it clear that Islamism is now the master of the moment. As an idea, as well as a political manifestation, Islamism occupied centre stage. The most active and influential components of the Palestinian resistance movement are now Islamist forces. Hamas and the Palestinian Jihad triggered the Israeli offensive and led Palestinian defence. Among political groups and movements to take part in protests are the Islamists that led and organised demonstrations. Even at the government level they are the strongest players. Think simply of Turkey's Justice and Development government.

Islamism, as an idea and movement, has spread throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds. The Arab cause is no longer, not only because Iran and Turkey have become major players in a political equation that was always Arab in identity, but also because the prevailing ideology of the cause is no longer Arabist. "Palestine is an Islamic stance", a motto contained in the Hamas charter, is among the most potent ideas the movement has given the Palestinian struggle. It has made it possible to transcend nationalist and Arab frameworks. And when war in Gaza struck, Islamism dominated not only banners but also the outlook that governed the logic of the struggle.

Observers noted how battle cries such as "Remember Kheibar, Jews!" were raised during protests, not only in the Islamic world but also on the streets of European capitals. Kheibar was a rich and fertile oasis north of Al-Madina inhabited by Jews and destroyed by Prophet Mohamed in 628. The implication, then, is that the battle is a fight for existence between Muslims and Jews and the only solution is jihad -- holy war. As for the appeal to the West, or parts of the West such as the human rights and relief agencies, it played solely on the theme that in the face of Zionist brutality one can only sympathise with and support the Palestinians. There was little interest in formulating a more substantial rhetoric in addressing the West.

The war in Gaza brought the Palestinian cause back to the Muslim Brothers as much as it brought them back to a cause which a new generation of members of the Muslim Brotherhood appeared less aware of than the group's founders. Historically, the Brotherhood was instrumental in raising the Palestinian cause in the Arab and Muslim consciousness. The movement's founder, Hassan El-Banna, rallied the resources of his organisation behind it. The early Muslim Brothers' Fire and Destruction in Palestine was the first book on the cause and, during the 1948 war, Muslim Brotherhood volunteers were the first to declare a jihad in Palestine. From the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood advocacy of the Palestinian cause spread to the rest of the Arab and Islamic world and to other ideological and political movements. Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and the revolutionary government he founded in July 1952, not only championed it but made it the heart of their project for Arab unity. Nasser, who together with a group of Free Officers, had once joined the Muslim Brotherhood society in the Egyptian army, can in some ways be said to be Hassan El-Banna's heir in championing the Palestinian cause despite his subsequent violent clash with the Muslim Brotherhood. The rise of the Fatah movement in the 1960s gave the Palestinian revolution another major boost. Its founders, too, had emerged from the Brotherhood's fold before the tide of Arab nationalism and the sweeping changes it brought.

As the Muslim Brotherhood became evermore preoccupied with its struggle with the regime Palestine moved from the centre to the periphery of its agenda. For new generations of Brothers, who lacked their predecessors' awareness of the cause, it was regarded as an unwelcome inheritance. The Gaza war would radically change that and bring Palestine back to the fore in the Brotherhood's consciousness....

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