The Dynamics of Revival


In a recent article in the British Guardian newspaper, Ed Husain, a former member of the radical Islamist Hizb ut Tahrir organization [which aims to bring about a worldwide Muslim state], sought to draw a parallel between Zionism and radical Islam. The movements were, Husain claimed, “both political perversions of ancient Abrahamic faiths of Judaism and Islam.” Husain’s simplistic claim was made possible by his near-total lack of knowledge of Zionism, the issue of Jewish peoplehood, the vexed issue of secular and religious Jewish identity, and so on. However, the claim is an interesting one, and closer observation of it offers clues as to the dynamics governing the current clash between Israel and radical Islamism, and the likely outcome of the contest.

Both Zionism and radical Islam are, self-consciously, movements of “revival.” They have the following aspect in common, which underlies the tremendous strength of the loyalties to which both have been able to inspire in their followers: They have been able to reach back to motifs, stories and beliefs preceding modernity, which were at the core of the identities of the people to whom they wished to appeal. Here lies the difference between these two movements and, for example, the communism and radical socialism of the 20th century on the other. The latter two preached a radical break with the past, and celebrated an unfamiliar, imagined future. Zionism and Islamism, by contrast, both draw on the deep currents of identification and loyalty felt by Jews and Muslims to their respective traditions and history.

The result of this deeper anchoring are plain to see: The movements of secular utopia produced by modernity have largely been eclipsed and disappeared. Movements of “revival,” meanwhile, have proven one of the most durable and powerful form of political gathering of the last two centuries. They are able to enlist much of what is most dear to human beings for their purpose: cultural memory, personal identity, the magic of myth, the notion of “renewing the days of old.”

Of course, it is not only Zionism and Islamism which are able, each in their respective contexts, to draw on these powerful sources. To a greater or lesser degree, all modern nationalist movements do the same. Sunni Islamism, at least in the Middle East, functions as a kind of religious nationalism, made more powerful than its secular Arab nationalist counterpart by its ability to unambiguously draw upon the markers of loyalty of a traditional, conservative and religious society.

This mobilizing ability of ancient traditions and stories is empirically irrefutable. It is also ethically neutral. It includes Winston Churchill in 1940, mining the symbols and markers of a shared sense of Englishness, to mobilize his countrymen to sacrifice in order to oppose the most evil tyranny known to history. But it also includes the Hitler tyranny itself, which knew no less well how to draw on German dreams, grievances and loyalties for a very different project. Revivalism can be the carrier of many things.

In the case of Zionism and Israel, the singular achievement, underlying success, has been the ability to combine the archaic with the ultra-modern. The Zionist movement, and the State of Israel which it established have been able to fuse the immense mobilizing power of Jewish identity, with the mechanics of modern, democratic statehood and a free economy. Radical Islam, of both Sunni and Shi’ite varieties, on the other hand, has at least for the moment proven unable to perform a similar feat. Rather, this trend, which is in itself largely a response to the failure of earlier, secular forms of political organization to deliver economic and social progress, shows no signs of being able to be the vehicle for such development.

As a revival movement, it has the ability to tap into deep-seated loyalties, and to produce large numbers of young men willing to offer their lives. But if the evidence of Islamism in power – from Sudan to Teheran to Gaza – is anything to go by, the closed dogmatic thinking of the Islamists cannot allow the freedom upon which successful development depends. The Islamic republic of Iran is the longest-living experiment in radical Islam with sovereignty now in existence. Yet for all the murderous rhetoric and chilling ambition of the Iranian regime, it should not be forgotten that the mullahs preside over a rickety, corruption-riven, dysfunctional state, and rule largely because of their ability to inspire (well-justified) fear in their own population. Regarding other experiments in Islamist rule, in Gaza, in Sudan, the case is yet clearer.

From the point of view of Israel and its western allies, this of course bodes well. We are going to have to spend a very great amount of time and blood and treasure in the foreseeable future building ramparts against the attacks of adherents of Islamic revival. But for as long as Jewish nationhood is embedded in the solid structures of economic and technological development, while its Islamist enemies can root their own ambitions only in dysfunction and failure, the results of the contest, bloody though it be, are not in doubt.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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