Where is Political Sunni Islam heading

Eyad Abu Shakra

Published: Updated:
“One has to have a good memory to keep one’s promises.”


Israeli politics is accused of numerous minuses, however bad timing is definitely not one of them.

We as Arabs know by now how timely the strikes of the Israeli far right usually are, whether they are strategic with a long-term purpose to be attained, or tactical with the aim of finding a speedy solution for a pressing problem.

Thus we must not be surprised at what is happening in the Gaza Strip. In the light of Palestinian divisions and the external conspiracies, it was expected that Binyamin Netanyahu would try to abort the Palestinian Authority’s attempts to seek U.N. membership. The Israeli right, which rejects peace in principle, has always been keen on thwarting any rational Palestinian initiative aimed at achieving real peace, and undermining the credibility of any Palestinian leader who embarks on such an initiative.

Israeli authorities, especially Likud governments, have encouraged Palestinian extremism in order to justify their repressive stances to the U.S. and the West, and that as if Western powers need a fig leaf to cover their unwavering support for Israel.

It has also been in Israel’s best interest to “exchange favors” with certain powers in the region, especially those that pride themselves on being the “axis of resistance” and have been assiduously exploiting the Palestinian cause to expand their own regional influence. This explains Israel’s occasional empty threats to launch a military strike against Iran and its stance on the Syrian crisis. Israel is now quite at ease about the status quo with “Shiite Political Islam”, and this is clear in both its non-intervention policy against the Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its tacit understanding with Iran, beginning with the Iran Contra affair and culminating in Nuri al-Maliki’s reign in Iraq. What is Israel is concerned about now is “Sunni Political Islam.”

Netanyahu and his government are well aware of the dynamics of Islamist power in the Palestinian scene. They know the “decision-making” differences between Hamas on one side, the Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other alleged resistance organizations on the other.

Netanyahu - like Barrack Obama, Tony Blair, and William Hague - is aware of the relationship between Hamas and the Tehran-Damascus axis and of the fact that Hamas is trying to reset its priorities after its leadership left Syria, and this includes getting close to Egypt under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Add to this the fact that while Hamas remains the de facto government in Gaza several of the rockets fired into Israel may not have been fired by Hamas. In fact, Tehran is actively funding other groups like the Islamic Jihad, in addition to its declared support. It is, therefore, important to look at the timing of the aggression on Gaza against the backdrop of Hamas’s fallout with Damascus.

It would seem quite strange to attack Hamas after it had distanced itself from the Tehran-Damascus axis and began a rapprochement with Cairo, which in turn still seems committed to its agreements with Israel.

On the other hand, it is obvious that confusion and lack of clarity are the two main distinguishing characteristics of Hamas’s rule. In fact, this is the case with Political Islam in general whether in its Shiite form as it becomes clear in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon or in its Sunni form as is the case with Hamas. They both follow the principle of “dissimulation,” which though originally a solely political Shiite practice, is now being adopted by some Sunnis, too.

In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot Hamas such principle, which allows for the hiding of beliefs for fear of persecution, was justified at the time when certain groups were persecuted by repressive regimes in their respective countries, but now that those very groups have come to power, they have lost all the possible motives for adopting this principle.

Political Islam is now forced to deal with the reality on the ground, for it can no longer promise paradise to people. But the problem lies with the emergence of other more radical groups that are making such promises all the time. These groups, with their “jihadist” and “takfiri” labels, are now fierce rivals of the traditional powers of Political Islam; and the irony is that and some of them are supported by Tehran despite the completely divergent ideological and theological differences.

In Gaza and some parts of the West Bank, there have been reports of considerable Shiite confessional conversion. In Lebanon, it is hard to imagine the rise of radical Sunni groups in the absence Hezbollah’s ascendancy, in the context of which it may have been attempting to create a Qaeda-like “scarecrow” in coordination with Tehran and Damascus, one that they can use to justify their actions before the International Community. The Syrian regime, in particular, has a great experience in this field.

The most important question, however, is: How far can these radical factions jeopardize the influence of traditional Sunni political Islam like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Libya, Hamas in Palestine, and al-Nahda in Tunisia in the light of what is happening in Gaza? How can this be seen in relation to the withdrawal of Egyptian “civilian”, secular and Christian groups from the assembly in charge of writing the constitution, and the absence of Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi from the enthronement ceremony of the new Coptic pope?

The Israeli aggression on Gaza has surely taken all those factors into consideration, and based on them has had a clear agenda: wreaking more havoc in the Palestinian scene, giving the regime in Damascus more time to destroy the unity of Syria, and exposing the helplessness of traditional “Sunni Political Islam.”

(The writer is a columnist at Asharq al-Awsat, where this article was published on Nov. 19, 2012)
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