Reflections on insurgent political Islam, twenty years after the outbreak of the Second Intifada


This week marks twenty years since the outbreak of the Second Intifada.  I remember those febrile days very well, here in  Jerusalem.  The peace talks at Camp David broke down in late July.  After that, it was clear that something was coming, though no-one knew exactly what form it would take.  There were stormy demonstrations on the university campuses in the early autumn.  Arab and Jewish students facing off against one another.  I was a PHD student in my late 20s, then, and I was not an observer or bystander.  Rather, at that time the direction of events seemed to me to offer a kind of triumphant vindication for the views I had been professing for the previous half decade or so. 

It didn’t take special insight to see the gaping holes in the peace process of the 1990s. One simply had to be bereft of the very deep longing for peace and normality which was the mood of mainstream Israeli society at the time. I was not part of mainstream Israeli society.  Rather, I was a Zionist immigrant from London, with a passion for history and a hatred for those I perceived to be the enemies of Israel and the Jews.  I read the Fatah and Hamas propaganda and listened to their threats and I was looking forward to what I thought was coming down the road that early autumn afternoon outside the Frank Sinatra cafeteria. On the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University.  To war.  And victory. With a beautiful Jerusalem autumn sky overhead as we and the Arab students chanted our threats at each other.  Outside the cafeteria that would be blown up by a Hamas bomb on July 31, 2002. 

We got our war all right.  It started with the killings on the joint patrols, then the first days of October when it looked for a moment like a generalized revolt of the Arab population, including those with Israeli citizenship, was about to begin. The first bombings in Jerusalem began in November.  The shootings on the roads started up at about the same time.

The years that followed witnessed the bus and café bombings, and long weeks spent on reserve duty in different parts of the West Bank for a generation of IDF soldiers.  It rapidly became clear, as had been predicted, that this was not a nationalist struggle. Rather, the organizations coming against us were wrapped in the banners of insurgent political Islam.  The tactics, suicide bombings most importantly but also the more general desire to destroy our will through the deliberate targeting of civilians, had been borrowed from the Shia jihadis of Lebanese Hizballah. 

This point is I think crucial to understanding the trajectory and the results of the ‘Al Aqsa Intifada.’  It was the first eruption of political Islam in its insurgent form against a western democracy.  It felt unfamiliar at first, and would go on to be a harbinger. 

A year after, when we were in the midst of the period of suicide bombings, Al Qaeda destroyed the twin towers in New York.  This ushered in a global focus on the issue of insurgent political Islam.  The Afghanistan and Iraq invasions in turn brought the issue of Middle East political dysfunction decisively to the front and center of western political discourse.

Subsequent Islamist attacks in Madrid, London and Paris, and many other locations in the west widened this focus. 

Then in 2010, following challenges to the sclerotic political order in the Arab world, Islamist popular mobilization and insurgency arrived, finally, in mass form in the heartland of the Arab Islamic world itself.  It reached its purest, most unalloyed expression in the shape of the ISIS Caliphate.  It delivered nothing of what it had promised. Not dignity. Not victory. And not the eclipse of enemies. Rather, it provoked a massive reaction against itself, which has proved the stronger. 

From the vantage point of Jerusalem, what all this looked like was a kind of gigantic shadow reflection of our own experiences in the 2000-2004 period.  The same ideas, the same organizations, the same slogans, even the same tactics. But making our own experience dwarf like in the cost, the sheer volume of destruction visited on the heartlands of the Arab world in the years following 2010. In Syria, above all other places. But not only in Syria. 

So there is a shape, and a trajectory.  And it seems to me that what this is a story of, above all other things, is the story of the rise and decline of a particular revolutionary political idea.  That idea is insurgent political Islam.  And this is the pivotal point I want to suggest here.  A point which it feels strange to make because this idea has been such an intimate companion and enemy to my generation (or at least the particular corner of it which I inhabit) for the last 25 years.  As we have grown from youth to middle age.  We watched it arrive to its terrible adulthood and we have watched its decline. Because the pivotal point is that insurgent political Islam, or ‘Islamism’, indeed now appears to be in decline. Its eclipse and its increasing decrepitude are no less stark, and no less significant than the similar decline of its predecessor, Pan-Arab nationalism. 

Look around the Arabic-speaking world today. Where does one find an insurgency led from below, a jihad, a popular revolt, of the kind premiered by the Second Intifada and then witnessed on a vastly larger scale in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain?  Nowhere. 

There is certainly disorder. The end result of ten years of chaos is that large swathes of the Arabic speaking world are a smoking ruin.  But across that ruin, with its semi, or non-functioning governments in Libya, Yemen and across the single space still officially referred to as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, what one finds is not popular insurgency, but rather the machinations of states and their obedient clients. 

The main legacy of Islamist insurgency’s tearing asunder of the Arab world, paradoxically, is the clinical death of a number of Arab states, and their penetration by a variety of regional and global non-Arab powers.  These powers – Iran, Turkey, Russia, the US – make use of the remnant organizations of the insurgents as contractors and cannon fodder for their own designs. 

Political Islam ,meanwhile, has itself entered that phase of its existence where, no longer an insurgent banner, it is now a decoration used by powerful states as part of their justification of themselves.  Today, it is borne along by Turkey and Iran, and this is its main remaining relevance.

But in both these cases, political Islam is mixed up with a kind of imperial revanchism as the main justifying idea of the regimes. And in any case, this is largely a top down affair, with insurgents re-mustered as military contractors.  The former Sunni Islamist rebels of northern Syria, for example – are now trucked and flown hither and thither by the Turkish state and Adnan Tanriverdi’s SADAT company – to Libya, to Azerbaijan.  The various militias that the Iranian IRGC raises – Fatemiyun and Zeinabiyun –  labor in return for tiny salaries and residency rights to the Shia refugees who make up the ranks .

If this reminds you of anything, it should.  It is a phase that both Arab nationalism and Soviet style communism also passed through, before dissolving.  Long after its existence as a revolutionary idea, Arab nationalism became the empty excuse offered by a series of Arab police states for their existence and their repression.  And long after the days when it inspired millions, Soviet style communism remained as the justifying ideology of a number of harsh and airless dictatorships in Europe, Asia and Africa. 

Political Islam has now entered this phase of its existence. Which means that as an idea, it hardly matters anymore.  The states have returned.  The Middle East is entering a phase of major power competition. The recent Israel-UAE deal was an important event in this process of alliance crystallization. 

Three power blocs are now set to compete in the Gulf, the Mediterranean and across the semi governed spaces of the Arabic speaking world.  Two of these – those led by Iran and Turkey – present political Islam in its post insurgent phase.  The third, that of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, constitutes  the camp of the reaction against insurgent political Islam, which defeated it. 

So we are, it appears, at the end or in the closing stages of a trajectory. The trajectory is that of an idea, which came, and rose, and was conquered, and the legacy of which is a broken region and two decades of insurgency and civil war.  We didn’t know what was coming, then, in the summer of 2000, in Jerusalem, in the curious interim months between the end of the bright hopes of the 1990s and the thing that was going to replace them.  We know now. 

As to what will follow, there will be winners and losers.  Iran and Turkey will continue to present themselves as representatives of Islamic authenticity and purity. There will be few buyers.  One of the characteristics of ideologies in their senile phase, when they become part of the language that regimes use to justify themselves, is that no one is really convinced by them. Not even the people who serve them, and certainly no one else. The game to come is  power competition, directed by ruling elites from above.  Among the emergent generation, meanwhile, there appears to be a very great cynicism, a perhaps healthy indifference towards all such narratives, and a search mainly for self advancement. 

Here in Israel, as in the other areas targeted for destruction by insurgent political Islam, we have come through. And we are well placed to flourish in the period ahead, on condition that we can maintain our own deeply strained social contract – exposed starkly by Covid 19.  The idea that first erupted into real consequence in the Arab world in Jerusalem, and which for a moment seemed about to bestride the world, has gone down to defeat.  In 2020, 20 years since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, the age of Islamist insurgency in the Middle East appears to have passed.  

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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