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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Palestinian Arab nationalism and Islamism

In The New Republic, Benny Morris reviews Hillel Cohen's "Army of Shadows" (see my review here.) It is a lengthy and comprehensive review.

At the end Morris expands on a theme that Cohen only peripherally touches upon but it is an important point that needs to be examined further:
Cohen's learned book, especially its lengthy citations from Zionist intelligence reports and from Arab letters and memoranda, incidentally sheds light on a rarely illumined aspect of Palestinian nationalism (and one that indirectly "explains" at least some of the collaborators). From the first, the nationalism of Palestine's Arabs was blatantly religious. Almost all the "nationalist" statements Cohen quotes were couched in religious or semi- religious terms. We are dealing here with an Islamic nationalism. Indeed, when the Palestinian national struggle turned significantly violent, against the British in 1936-1939 and against the Zionists in 1947-1948, the struggle was defined by the movement's leaders as "a religious holy war," a jihad. And those rejecting Husseini's leadership, in peacetime as in wartime, were deemed heretics as well as traitors. The gang that murdered a collaborator in Balad al- Sheikh, a village near Haifa, hung a placard in the village square reading: "We hereby inform you that on 8 March 1939, Nimer the policeman was executed ... as he betrayed his religion and his homeland.... The supreme God revealed to those who preserve their religion and their homeland that he betrayed them, and they did to him what Muslim law commands. Because the supreme and holy God said: 'Fight the heretics and hypocrites; their dwelling-place is hell.'"

This Islamism colored the Palestinian national movement from its conception. When, in 1911, the Jaffa newspaper Filastin attacked land-sellers, it declared: "All land belongs to God, but the land on which we live belongs to the homeland [watan], at the command of God." "Islam does not forgive traitors," village mukhtars were told by urban nationalists in 1920. In 1925, the mufti of Gaza, Hajj Muhammad Said al-Husseini, issued a fatwa forbidding land sales to Jews. The Jews, he said, were no longer a protected people (as they had been in the Islamic world during the previous thirteen centuries). Muslims who helped them were to be treated as heretics, and Christians who aided them were to be deported.

A more comprehensive fatwa against land sales was issued by the ulama (the authorities on law and religion) of Palestine in January 1935. It declared that "the seller and speculator and agent in [the sale of] the land of Palestine to Jews" abetted the prevention of "the mention of Allah's name in mosques," and accepted "the Jews as rulers," and offended "Allah and his messenger and the faithful," and betrayed "Allah and his messenger and believers." These abettors were to be cast out of the community of the faithful, "even if they are parents or children or brothers or spouses." Hajj Amin alHusseini was the first signatory to this edict; and his name was followed by those of the muftis of Jenin, Beersheba, Nablus, Safed, and Tiberias. Cohen observes that this fatwa applied "the traditional [religious] concept of khiyana--betrayal--to traitors against the national cause."

A year later, the mufti and qadi (religious judge) of Nablus toured the neighboring villages and preached that anyone who killed a land-seller "would reside in paradise in the company of the righteous people of the world." Similarly, penitent collaborators made public professions of a clearly religious cast: "I call on Allah, may He be exalted, to bear witness ... I call on Allah and the angels and the prophets and the knights of Palestinian nationalism to bear witness that if I violate this oath, I will kill myself," declared Abd al-Fattah Darwish, of al-Maliha, in May 1936. The religious discourse prohibiting the sale of land to Jews was also adopted by the Christian Arab clergy of Palestine, no doubt under Muslim pressure. A congress of Christian clerics that same year ruled that "whoever sells or speculates in the sale of any portion of the homeland is considered the same as one who sells the place of Jesus' birth or his tomb and as such will be considered a heretic against the principles of Christianity and all believers are required to ban and interdict him." And finally, in 1947, Jamal al-Husseini, Hajj Amin's cousin and deputy, reportedly called for the murder of land-sellers: "Murder them, murder them. Our religion commands this and you must do as the religion commands."


The religious discourse underpinning Palestinian nationalism was not limited to the matter of land sales. The founding declaration of the Higher Arab Committee, the executive body chaired by Hajj Amin alHusseini that was to lead the Palestinians both in the 1936-1939 Revolt and in the 1947-1948 war against the Yishuv, referred to the Palestinian National movement as "the holy national jihad movement." The following year, in July 1937, those who supported the British Peel Commission recommendations--to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states--were denounced as heretics, whereas those destroying Jewish property would be declared saints.

Ideologically, it is only a short leap from these utterances to those of the Hamas, the Islamist movement which today dominates the Palestinian political arena and Palestinian nationalism. It would appear that the secularism of Fatah, the political party led by Yasir Arafat that dominated the Palestinian national movement from the 1960s until the turn of the century, was a cultural aberration, something of an illusion, an ideological patina in part adopted by Palestinian intellectuals and politicians to win over hearts and minds in the largely secular West. And yet, when looking at footage of Arafat on his knees in a mosque at prayer, five times a day, day in, day out, and of Fatah suicide bombers on their way to destroy a bus or restaurant in downtown Tel Aviv declaiming the certainty of meeting up with virgins in paradise, one may be permitted to conclude that the secular declarations of the 1980s and 1990s were mere window dressing, and did not really reflect the spirit of Palestinian politics. And no sooner had the grand old man of Palestinian politics departed the scene than Hamas won the first--and free--Palestinian general elections in which it participated.

Cohen indirectly establishes a particular connection between collaboration and the nature of Palestinian nationalism, though he does not explicitly dwell on the matter. The ardent nationalists of the Mandate years were in large measure driven by their Islamic faith and tenets--but the collaborators often exhibited, if not outright apostasy, then at least a measure of religious (as well as nationalist-political) backsliding. Cohen relates the story of Kamel and Sharif Shanti, a leading land-selling family in Qalqilya. Tellingly, they both married Jewish women. During Ramadan 1935, Sharif reportedly broke the fast and ate during daytime in public.

In 1929, Filastin reported that the Zionist Congress had allocated one million pounds for the purchase of land, and commented that some "twenty people--a portion of the nation that should not be discounted--will [now] have all their worries dispelled ... because the bars and dance clubs will now be wide open" to them. Another newspaper reported that "the [Jewish] city of Tel Aviv, its streets and its cafes, buzz each day with large groups of fellahin and samasirah [speculators] who humiliate themselves and sell the fertile lands of the foothills."

The leaders of the Bedouin Ghazawiyya tribe, the Zeinati clan, in the Beit Shean Valley sold land to the Jews and then spent their days in "endless trips to Haifa ... [in] fancy hotels [and] ... cafes, replacing horses with automobiles, installing a radio in their tents." All this "caused a revolution in their lives and, necessarily, their religion," a member of the neighboring Kibbutz Maoz Hayyim noted. There are reports that the Zionist land-purchasing agencies took sellers and speculators on binges in Haifa and Tel Aviv and provided them with women during the deal-making negotiations. And the ostentatious samasirah behavior triggered a vicious cycle in which they were eventually forced to sell more and more land, and help in the sale of others' lands, to maintain their new lifestyle. The outcome was predictable. The head of the Zeinati clan, Emir Muhammad, "was murdered in 1946 as he came out of a barbershop in Haifa."

So there appears to have been a correlation between irreligiosity and collaboration. Or, put another way, the more ardently religious a Palestinian Arab was, the less likely he was to collaborate with the Zionists. This was demonstrated in no uncertain terms in Israel's battle with Palestinian violence decades later: While the Israeli security services thoroughly penetrated the Fatah movement before, during, and after the First Intifada, they had great difficulty in recruiting Hamas operatives (and, incidentally, fundamentalist Hezbollah men in Lebanon).


Looking beyond the religious-secular divide, what is to be learned from the phenomenon of Palestinian collaboration? Without doubt--and Cohen is mindful of this--it reveals a basic hollowness at the heart of Palestinian nationalism. Some pointed to the widespread nature of collaborationism and deduced that "there was no Palestinian people" or Palestinian national movement. Others asserted that if there was a Palestinian national movement, it was far from enjoying mass support, and that many if not most Arabs in Palestine put personal and familial and tribal interests before national interests. Or, put another way, that the "nationalism" of many of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine was only skin deep: after all, many thousands assisted the Zionists in one way or another. Cohen is correct, I think, in asserting that the widespread phenomenon of collaboration was a "constant and sharp reminder that many Palestinian Arabs did not accept the nationalist ethos, at least not as it was formulated by the Husseinis."

In their book The Palestinian People: A History, Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal wrote that Palestinian nationalism can be traced back to 1834, when a group of peasants in the Nablus area rebelled against their then-Egyptian rulers. Most historians disagree, and locate the birth of Palestinian Arab nationalism in the 1920s (and the start of general Arab nationalism only a few years before). But for years thereafter, Palestinian Arab nationalism remained the purview of middle- and upper-class families. Most peasants, and perhaps many among the urban poor as well--together, some 80 percent of the Palestine Arabs--lacked political consciousness or a "national" ideology. The masses could be periodically stirred to action by religious rhetoric (Islam certainly touched them to the quick), but this failed to bind them in a protracted political engagement, especially when the price had to be paid in blood. Cohen writes, too hesitantly in my view, that "the conduct of Palestinian society [during 1917-1948] might lead to the conclusion that ... [its] national spirit was not sufficient to the task at hand."

But of course the Palestinians were to change. Indeed, the disaster and the dispersion that befell them in 1948 was itself a major milestone in the formation of a truly "national" consciousness; and the results of the war in 1967 certainly abetted this development. By the time of the intifadas, millions of Palestinians had rallied to the cause, and many thousands were prepared to engage in political action and combat, and to pay the price in blood and imprisonment. By then it was incontrovertible that there was a Palestinian people. Palestinian nationalism may not have been during the Mandate, and may not be today, quite the secular, democratic, and open nationalism of modern Western Europe; and it may still be defined in large measure by what it wishes to destroy rather than by what it hopes to build. It is intolerant, violent, and--above all--religious. But it is most certainly a variety of nationalism.

I have touched on the religious aspects of early Palestinian Arab nationalism in the past.

While it is an important component of nationalism, I am not sure that Morris' flip-side equation of irreligiosity with collaboration (or, if you will, weaker nationalism) is as clear. I think that the weakness of their nationalism is rooted more in historical Arab cultural patterns.

Traditionally, Arab allegiance has been primarily to their clans, then to their religion, to their villages, to the Arab nation and only peripherally to their individual "nations." This is not surprising as the entire idea of nationhood is much more recent and Arab history transcends the idea of individual nations.

Palestinian Arabs in the Mandate period had only recently been introduced to the idea of nationalism, and the borders of "Palestine" were drawn by Europeans, not at all in consonance with what had been considered "Palestine" beforehand. There was no compelling reason for them to want to fight for their "nation" when their collective consciousness tilted more towards their clans and the Arab 'ummah.

In the previous centuries, Palestinian Arabs were much more clearly divided into clans. The Yaman and Qais tribes (both of whom migrated from Arabia) had battled each other in a deadly blood feud for hundreds of years. More well known was the antipathy between the Husseini and Nashashibi clans in the 1920s and subsequent decades. Beyond that, many villages were closely identified with individual families. This was where most Palestinian Arab loyalties were, and as a result entire villages and families negotiated their own peace treaties with the Zionists in 1948 based on their own self-interests and relationships.

The unity that nationalism demands - the obligation to die for your country - was close to non-existent in 1948 among Palestinian Arabs. Very few chose to fight for anything beyond their own villages. Certainly their leadership had been decimated during the 1936-9 uprising, but that doesn't explain their sheer apathy during the 1948 war. Most of the fighters were imported from other countries, or forced to fight by neighboring countries when they fled Palestine.

The Palestinian Arabs in 1948 who fled and lost their built-in village- and clan-based unity still assumed that Arab unity and pan-Arab nationalism would act as their security blanket, and that they would be able to integrate into the surrounding Arab states as Arabs had migrated freely for economic reasons between areas in the Middle East since antiquity. The hatred that they faced from their brethren as they sought shelter was such a shock that they had to sublimate their reaction into a new kind of nationalism that emerged a couple of decades later. This was all they had left, as their clan-based villages were gone. The religious component is an important one and Morris is right in pointing out that the supposedly secular nationalism represented by the PLO is a facade for Western consumption, and that Hamas-style nationalism (which is really pan-Islamism disguised as nationalism) is the mainstream and ascendant stream of nationalism that exists nowadays.

The West would be well advised to understand this history and mindset. The assumption that a Palestinian Arab state would be a democratic, secular nation willing to live in peace with Israel is horribly misguided; it would be an Islamist theocracy given the current Palestinian Arab leadership and history.