The endless wars with Israel are not really about the Jewish State. Nor are the wars about the Arabs living in the territories that Israel lost in 1948 to Jordan and Egypt and recaptured from them in 1967. The rest of the Muslim world cares no more about them than Hitler cared about the Sudeten Germans or Japan really believed in the rights of Chinese and Koreans.
Israel is a sideline in a regional struggle by fractured populations, divided by ethnicity and religion, by language and natural resources, to unite into a single commonality. It is a natural target because its population consists of a people who are members of a different religious and ethnic group than the dominant religious and ethnic groups of the region.
Unlike the Persians and Turks, the Jews are not Muslims, not even Shiites, and unlike the Christian Arabs, the Jews are not even of the same ethnicity as the regional majority. Jews are neither Muslims nor Arabs and that makes them unique and alien in a region where every country is dominated by either an Arab or Muslim identity. Or both.
To the Arab Nationalist, the Persian and Turk is an alien, but the Christian Arab is a brother. To the Islamist, the Christian Arab is a Dhimmi or an infidel, but the Turk is a brother in faith. But to both, the Jew and the Jewish State are an alien presence in the region that must be removed for their own version of regional unity to flourish.
The Post-Colonial contest in the Middle East has been over how to unite the fractured ethnic minorities and the religious splits together into a single region. What do the tribal oil monarchies have in common with the former colonies ruled by military strongmen? What do any of them have in common with the Persians and the Turks?
Uniting behind something is difficult, as even the Islamists must admit. Islam split over issues of succession not too long after Mohammed’s death. But uniting against something is fairly easy. The Jews are the most alien of all the groups in the region. Unable to unite on love, the Middle East unites on hate and hating Israel gives everyone in the region a feeling of having something in common.
Israel is however only a sideline in the larger struggle between Islamists and Nationalists, Sunnis and Shiites, in a region struggling to define itself around the supremacy of a single defining identity, rather than a harmony between different identities.
Terrorism against Israel is not a continuous enduring phenomenon. The enemies that Israel faced were defined by the political and religious trends of the region, from an early PLO committed to fighting to incorporate Israel into a Greater Syria to the latter day Hamas which is fighting for its own Islamist superstate in the form of the Caliphate.
Rather than an ongoing resistance by an oppressed people, the terrorists have actually been defined by ideological opportunism.
To the Arab Nationalists, it was nationalism that defined a nation and their terrorists constructed a mythical Palestinian identity to indoctrinate generations into becoming eager soldiers in the endless war being promoted by their Arab Nationalist backers in Egypt and Syria. And so Palestinian nationalism was born, not at all troubled by the lack of any actual national history to go with all the flags and bloody poems about dying for a homeland that had never existed and whose population consisted of economic migrants from Syria, Egypt and Jordan.
To the Islamists, nationalism is at best suspect and at worst, idolatrous. Hamas has never been able to disavow Palestinian nationalism, but its leaders waver between invoking the Palestinian nation and tossing it aside for their true goal of a regional Islamist unity.
The Arab Nationalists needed a national history and identity to lay claim to Israel. The Islamists has no need for such trinkets. To the Islamist, Israel is a Muslim possession by right of conquest. Once Muslims capture a place, whether it is Spain or Israel, it becomes Muslim land in perpetuity. There is no need for a national mythology linking a people to a specific place to allow a Muslim to lay claim to a territory that was once ruled by Muslims.
Hamas, like the rest of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist organizations, is transnational. It isn’t completely divorced from ethnic hierarchies and national identities, but they are secondary to its larger agenda of replacing national identity with Islamic identity.
The Arab Nationalists and their terrorist groups, such as the PLO, were at war with Israel for ethnic reasons. The Islamists are at war with Israel for religious reasons. From the perspective of the people being shot at, it doesn’t make much of a difference whether the people trying to kill you are doing it for racial or for religious reasons. But it does help us predict the future trends of such violence.
Hamas rose as part of a regional trend away from Arab Nationalism and toward Islamism. Egypt, once the great hope of Arab Nationalists has been overtaken by the Muslim Brotherhood. Iraq and Syria have tumbled away from their old Baath Socialism and are now defined by sectarian Shiite Islamist politics. Even among the region’s non-Arab powers, Iran is a Shiite Islamist stronghold and Turkey has become a Sunni Islamist power. With the fall of Tunisia and Libya, Arab Nationalism is as good as dead. Islamism is the future.
At the level of the Arab Street, what people want from Arab Nationalism or Islamism is economic prosperity and an end to the ubiquitous corruption that makes daily life so frustrating and difficult. The Arab Nationalists could not deliver on their economic promises, no more than their Asian and Slavic counterparts could. The Islamists, despite their free market posturing, are no more able to reform a system based on bribe infrastructures, monopolies and subsidies. Their ingenuity only extends as far as Islamizing it and financing the whole mess with Western democracy subsidies.
The Islamists may not be able to deliver on their promises, but it’s much harder to pry them out of office, once they get in, as the example of Iran shows us. Islamists dig deeper than your average Socialist dictator and there’s no prying them loose without a bloody civil war.
For Israel that means counting on the Islamists of Egypt or Turkey to fall on their own is a false hope. Neither the Turkish nor the Egyptian military has the will or the strength to remove the AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood. If Syria falls, then Israel will be surrounded by a coalition of Sunni Islamist enemies on all sides. And Hamas is only their catspaw, much as the PLO was for the Arab Nationalists of Syria and Egypt.
Until now Israel has had to cope with a region where it was hated primarily based on race. Now it will have to survive in a region where it is hated based on religion. In some ways this will not be so different, but in other ways it will be.
The rise of the suicide bomber was one of the early forecasts of the cult of martyrdom. It is also a reminder that Israel serves as the canary in the coal mine for wider developments in the Middle East. Before the Muslim Brotherhood took power by winning an election in Egypt, Hamas took power by winning an election. The Arab Spring came to Israel years earlier, but as the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, the Arab Spring was neither Arab nor a Spring; only an Islamist winter.
In its ancient history, Israel has often found itself in the path of conquering empires whose goals went far beyond the small land and minute number of people that they were confronted with. The Romans expected that sorting out Judea would be a minor matter. Instead it became a bloody series of wars that went on for centuries. The Roman Empire’s goal was not Judea, it was to control the region, and the pesky Jews were just in the way.
Islam aspires to be an empire once again and the Jews are once again in the way. The war against Israel, whether carried on by the Arab Nationalists or their Islamist successors, was always about the ambitions of men who wanted to build empires, rather than about the narrow strip of land that is of little use to anyone but the small number of people who inhabit it.
Arab Nationalism came up against what should have been an easy target in several wars and lost. Its leaders never entirely recovered from those defeats. Their dreams of uniting the region died when they were unable to defeat a single small country with an army that lacked the training and officers of the Jordanian or Egyptian forces. When the Arab Nationalists reconciled themselves to Israel, they lost the only thing that they had to offer their people besides economic failure.
The Islamists know all this and intend to succeed where the Arab Nationalist dictators failed. As with Rome, the pesky Jews have gone from being a nuisance to a humiliating obstacle to their bigger plans for the region.
Islamist imperialism has come to revolve around the old problem of destroying Israel. The ideology of Islamism says that only Islamic unity can allow the peoples of the Muslim world to tackle great challenges. To establish the Caliphate and build a regional empire, the Islamists must do what the Arab Nationalists could not do. They must destroy Israel. And if they cannot do that, their reign will end in humiliation and failure.
The Gates of Jerusalem are the new Gates of Vienna
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam.··He blogs at Sultan Knish.