Islamism vs the weak Arab nations

The fragility of Arab national identity makes it difficult to resist the Islamic State. This makes the Kurdish experience relevant to the prospects of war against the movement.

Hazem Saghieh
17 September 2014

The end of the fighting in Gaza was soon followed by a political battle. During the fierce military conflict between Israel and Hamas, the two Palestinian leaderships - Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Hamas and its government in Gaza - had put on a show of unity at the negotiations in Cairo that were attempting to bring the violence to an end. In the event, the respective Palestinian factions resumed their internal struggle even before the bombardments and rockets were halted.

The character of their fallout is instructive. On both sides, its discourse is proscriptive: mutual rebuttal rather than genuine criticism. Hamas claims for itself and its war the best Palestinian qualities and virtues, repeatedly challenges Mahmoud Abbas’s words and deeds, and denies him any share of the patriotism that it seeks to monopolise. Abbas questions Hamas’s prolongation of the battle with Israel, alleging that it needlessly doubled the number of casualties; slammed its execution of “collaborators” (including the brutal manner of the deed); criticises its belated acknowledgment of responsibility for kidnapping the three Israeli settlers, having denied it for so long; and accuses Hamas of conspiring to topple his Palestinian Authority.

The fact that this political contest proved impossible to suspend even while the guns were being fired seems to reveal the depth of the West Bank-Gaza split. Such devices as a a coalition government, or a joint delegation in Cairo, are unable to keep it from erupting. After all, the government - hailed as a major event - was effectively put on the back-burner shortly after its birth, such was the mutual animosity. 

The Kurdish example

The internecine Palestinian rivalry is but one example of a phenomenon that has helped create the conditions for ISIS-like organisations in the Middle East: namely, the brittleness of Arab national identities, and the frameworks that contain or express them.

Several forms of weak national identity are visible in the places where ISIS (which now calls itself the Islamic State) has established itself. In Syria, for example, the Bashar al-Assad regime has for nearly four years sealed off any chances for a reasonable settlement with the rebels, who represent a majority of the population. Instead, Syria's rulers responded to protests that were at first peaceful with overwhelming force and brutal mass murder. The many forms of government repression have but one goal and one meaning: keep Assad and his supporters in power - or let the country burn.

In Iraq, there is another kind of brittleness. When the political crisis in Baghdad escalated after ISIS's military advance in June 2014, all sides there ostensibly agreed that the government's pro-Shi'a policies had, by alienating the Sunnis, contributed to the rise of ISIS.  After long and difficult negotiations, a supposedly united government was formed under a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. But despite enormous regional and international pressure, it failed either to include strong Sunni figures or to weaken strong Shi'ite ones (as evident in the appointment of departing prime minister Nouri al-Maliki as first deputy to the president). In the end, the formation of a the government has turned into nothing more than a dispute over the distribution of power between Sunni forces and the Shi'ite alliance.

Thus, regimes in both Damascus and Baghdad have shown little interest in national unity and coexistence - and this attitude was replicated by the armed groups opposed to them. The proof of this is precisely the way that radical Sunni Islamist groups - including ISIS - became the dominant anti-government force in the two countries.

The fragility of Arab national identities is revealed elsewhere, all the way from Libya in the west to Yemen in the south. In this respect, within the broader region the Kurdish case is emerging as unique. The Kurdish identity was always free of the seductive hypothesis of Arab nationalism, which Kurds saw as an attempt at forcible incorporation. Now, after the revolutions and the collapse of central governments, the Kurds see it as nothing more than folklore. In this sense, the Kurds are fighting their own battle without being fooled by pretensions regarding a national bond they never took seriously to begin with. 

The implication of these developments may for some be offensive: namely, it is impossible to combat ISIS on the basis of an imagined Iraqi or Syrian "consensus" that does not in fact exist. The corollary is that the Kurds must fight ISIS as Kurds - and the same goes for every other country and community in the region that can cohere in the way the Kurds have been able to.

Until this is recognised, the war Barack Obama intends to wage on ISIS - whether he is firm or lax in pursuing it - will be undermined before it even starts. 

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