Hussein Ibish
February 6, 2009 - 1:00am

The recent conflict in Gaza has the potential of becoming a transformative political event in the Middle East that allows Islamists to capture the Arab political imagination for at least a generation. Along with their familiar appeals to religious and cultural "authenticity," and dubious claims regarding good governance and democracy, Islamists are beginning to consolidate an exclusive claim to the most powerful Arab political symbols: Palestine and nationalism.

Few observers in the West evince a full understanding of the unprecedented cultural and political impact of Israel's attack on Gaza. The extraordinarily high civilian death toll and perceived helplessness of the victims, combined with atrocities such as the reported massacres outside a UN school and a house at which Israeli soldiers had ordered civilians to gather, and Israel's apparent use of phosphorus munitions in densely populated areas, have combined to paint the most enraging images Arab television audiences have witnessed in living memory.

Although Arab public opinion has been aroused by several other conflicts in recent decades, until now no hegemonic narrative has given coherent shape and political focus to this anger. During the Gaza war, we seem to have been witnessing the consolidation in most Arab political discourse and Arab media of a coherent narrative that contains both a prescription and a diagnosis: the Martyrs versus the Traitors.

In this mythology, the present Arab world is defined by a conflict between "the Martyrs," which are led by the Islamist movement and its allies, and "the Traitors," which include most if not all Arab governments, especially the Palestinian Authority, but also the governments in Lebanon (other than the ministers appointed by or allied with Hizbullah), Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The general public, especially when it becomes swept up in violent conflict, counts among the ranks of the Martyrs, but Islamist parties and militias are its vanguard.

Even if many in the West perceived Hamas to be fundamentally at fault in the conflict, questions of responsibility for initiating the fighting in the Arab political conversation have become an affront to the dead and injured. Every outrage simply adds further anger, a powerful form of political capital, to the Islamist account. They serve to identify ordinary people, and their basic interests, with the Islamist movement and underscore the righteous victimization of the Martyrs as a category.

What gives this narrative its unique appeal and danger is its obvious programmatic corollary: the Martyrs must defeat the Traitors, for the nationalistic cause in general and for Palestine in particular. The Palestinian issue could become a decisive factor in internal power struggles within states throughout the Arab world, and prove the decisive legitimating factor in the heretofore-frustrated efforts by Islamist groups in the Sunni Arab world to capture or inherit state power.

This narrative has been developing in Arab political discourse for many years, and is based on long-standing resentments, but perceptions regarding the war in Gaza - skillfully managed from the outset by those pushing "the Martyrs versus the Traitors" mythology - could be sufficient to establish it as the defining Arab political narrative for the foreseeable future. Islamists are increasingly garnering support not only from a devout Muslim constituency, but also, and to an unprecedented degree, from Arab nationalists in general, including many self-described secularists, leftists and Christians.

Whether this narrative comes to dominate throughout the Middle East will not be decided by how the Gaza war ended. It will instead rest upon the contrast between what is offered by Hamas' commitment to confrontation until victory, versus the Palestinian Authority's policy of seeking a negotiated agreement with Israel.

Even death and devastation in Gaza, but in the guise of religiously and culturally authentic resistance, becomes more appealing than stagnation, failure and apparent surrender in the West Bank. Avoiding this will urgently require both material and political deliverables that demonstrate the efficacy of negotiations and coexistence. This means not only moving immediately to improve the quality of life in the West Bank, but also securing political deliverables such as a settlement freeze that constitute significant political victories for those who wish to talk rather than fight.

The most significant battle will be waged in the upcoming 12-18 months, when Palestinians and other Arabs will be carefully drawing a contrast between the two approaches, especially with regard to nationalist goals.

If the Palestinian cause is permanently lost to the Islamist movement, theocratic reactionaries across the region could finally acquire the broad political legitimacy and nationalist credentials that might enable them to begin to seriously threaten existing governments.

The United States and Israel must now choose which Palestinians, and indeed what kind of Arab world, they want to deal with: one in which forces of moderation have a fighting chance to rebuild political legitimacy and credibility; or one in which the political imagination is completely dominated by the myth of the Martyrs versus the Traitors.


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