A popular account of modern Arab history tells often the same story: After the Arab defeat by Israel in 1967, the sudden decline of Arab nationalism plunged Arab societies into a deep political, ideological, and spiritual crisis. Thus, in the 1970s, the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism filled this intellectual and ideological void. However, this narrative obscures and distorts more than it explains actual developments.
Revolutionaries became Islamists
In the 1950s and 1960s, in the centers of Arab modernization, Egypt and the Levant, the revolutionary Arab left achieved—according to the ideas of the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci— a hegemony over all cultural institutions. In doing so, it displaced older intellectuals who had grown up under the liberal British and French influence. During this period, Sayyid Qutb and other authors wrote influential Islamist works. Qutb himself belonged to this decolonizing revolutionary generation and would have belonged to the ruling elite, had it not been for his break with Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
During this hegemonic phase, intellectuals developed a revolutionary, anti-Western, and sometimes anti-Semitic reading of Islam. In addition, this period coincided with the founding of the modern Arab republics: from now on, school systems, textbooks, radio, television, films and more conveyed exactly this reading of Islamic history and thus ultimately mixed the religious in Marxism on the one hand and the Gnostic and revolutionary ideas on the other with actual Islam.
Since Marxism was the foundation, the result was a complete dissolution of religious into revolutionary thinking. To make matters worse, Nazi propaganda, which a decade earlier in the Middle East mixed anti-Jewish and anti-American propaganda with Islamic motifs and symbols, was very influential.
The split of the Arab left
After the shock of the 1967 defeat, the Arab left split into different camps. One tried not to blame the defeat on the gnostic and religious elements of revolutionary Marxism – these include, for example, the metaphysical belief in revolution, the inevitability of historical transcendence or the appreciation of brute force on popular Arabic and Muslim culture.
They relied all the more on Marxism and revolutionary ideas. In doing so, they followed the example of the European left, which also absolved revolutionary thought from assuming that Nazism and fascism were also its products. Instead, they blamed the “late capitalist reaction” and traditional culture.
The biggest names in this group are Sadik Jalal Al-Azm, Hisham Sharabi, Yassine Al-Hafez and Mohamed Abed Al-Jabari. Al-Jabari in particular is of great importance, since his work „The Critique of Arab Reason“ still plays a central role in Arab thought today. In his four-volume major work, he claimed that Islamic law, belief, thought, symbols, ideas and even the Arabic language are reactionary and contrary to genuine reason and rationality, and are therefore the cause of Arab misery.
Another important name is Mohamed Arkoun, who, using Foucault and Derrida, attempted to bring about the nihilistic postmodern turn to move Muslims into good, atheistic leftists. His work is also of great importance for current intellectual debates in the Arab world.
The other faction decided to focus even more on the religious elements in Marxism and the Gnostic in the revolutionary. With the goal of people’s war and mass revolution, they first turned to Maoism, which they applied to Islam. Their center was Lebanon, which they wanted to transform into an Arab Hanoi as the center of world revolution. Therefore, they are ultimately also partly to blame for the Lebanese civil war from 1975 onwards. Representatives were Hussein Murwwa, Hadi Al-Alwi, Munir Morkos, Adel Hussein and Mohamed Emara. Interestingly, among them were some Christian converts.
In Egypt, young Marxist intellectuals like Abdel Wahab El-Messiri suddenly became Islamic thinkers. He revised Karl Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge into a critique of the West, Zionism, Israel and Judaism. At the same time he confirmed Islam as the only true ideology.
The achievement of this faction was to reconcile Islam with inherently atheistic Western philosophies, as Ali Shariati did in Iran. If Islam seems like an atheistic, totalitarian and violent ideology, there is a reason. That was precisely the context for the revolution in Iran, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the assassination of Sadat in Egypt, Marxist violence in Afghanistan, the left-Islamic turn in Pakistan under Zia-ul-Haq and more. It was not about God, but about Islam as a revolutionary salvation movement.
There is also a third group, the original Arab left. It chose to continue working with the one-party Ba’athist governments in Syria and Iraq, as well as other Arab nationalist regimes, always present in the state media. In Egypt, Sadat tried to get of them after they had incited against the strategic realignment from the Soviet to the US camp and the peace with Israel. Shortly before his assassination in 1981, Sadat even ordered the arrest of over a thousand intellectuals.
His successor, Hosni Mubarak, immediately released the intellectuals from prison. Instead, he made an unspoken deal with them: the state would negotiate with the US and Israel, but the intellectuals would retain control of the anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment in the national culture. This is how the Egyptian-Israeli cold peace was formed.
The left, the regimes and Islamism
The conservative and more traditional Gulf states, which have not modernized intellectually during this time, are therefore not as badly affected. Rather, they had to contend with religious fundamentalism, but were not part of the global wave of spontaneous revolutionary eruptions that gradually eroded the social and cultural fundament of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinians, Egypt and Libya.
The internal divisions of the left milieu laid the foundation for brutal regimes, major conflicts, Islamism and many of the later civil wars. The intensification of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories since the early 1970s were attempts by society to maintain a degree of cohesion and stability in the political order through the classic mechanism of the scapegoat.
In the 1970s, the entire modern legacy of Arab revolutionary thought was Islamized, in both fascist and leftist varieties. This process of self-destruction took place under the aegis of the international, particularly the French, left, which hailed this “liberation movement” and actively and consciously mobilized and indoctrinated Third World intellectuals against the West and specifically the United States.
It was the Algerian jihad and the writings of Fanon and Sartre that Palestinian factions based their theories of violence on. For example, in its first circular after the terrorist attack on the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Fatah used a quote from Fanon on the front page. Again, it was this violence that later served as an inspiration for international Islamist terrorism.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the left’s anti-globalization and anti-war movement was to offer even more ideological support at a time of rising radicalization and deepening social collapse. One of the most important developments was the emergence of a new Muslim sense of identity. The atmosphere of struggle and resistance, central to Marxist dialectics and national liberation ideologies, now also became the core of the Muslim picture of history.
Initially, this struggle was directed against Jews and imperialism. The progressive ideological and social radicalization and Islamization finally led to an extension to all „infidels“. The “Palestinian question” plays an important role here, because it brings together all phases of this struggle.
The similarities between Arab nationalism and Zionism
Arab nationalism and Zionism had a very similar starting point: a mixture of socialism and nationalism combined with some tenets of Marxist thought, based on the radical atheism that Marx taught. At that time it was the strongest ideological mixture, the true political avant-garde. Everyone, whether Jew or Arab, wanted to be a socialist nationalist, based on the European model, and create a new society. Most intellectuals believed that this was the final stage of history. The early strong Zionist anti-Judaism was a consequence of this.
What happened next was a divergence: while the Israelis de-radicalized and developed Zionism and rediscovered Judaism, the opposite happened to the Arabs and Muslims: they increasingly radicalized and eventually ended up in nihilism. So they lost the self-image for themselves and their traditions even more than before.
In order to understand this development, one has to take a historical perspective and consider that, for example, in the 1940s a young educated person could be a socialist, Islamist, Arab nationalist, etc. at the same time. Different ideologies are the result of a historical process that started later. The people who went on to be among the founders of the Ba’ath Party, Arab nationalism, the Muslim Brotherhood, Syrian nationalism and Palestinian nationalism came from the same milieu. At that time there were no clear dividing lines between all these groups.
The narrative presented at the beginning, according to which the defeat in the Six Day War represents a major dividing line in ideological thinking, is therefore wrong. The defeat of 1967 is not to be understood as a turning point, but the Islamism that arose afterwards is merely a continuation of the violent ideology of the so-called secular Arab left.
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