Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Ideology Or Strategic Interest?

Bernard Haykel, an associate professor of Islamic studies at NYU, has a bizarre op-ed in today's New York Times that is, to say the least, confusing. His argument is that al Qaeda is becoming concerned that Hezbollah is stealing its thunder in the fight against Israel.
But now Hezbollah has taken the lead on the most incendiary issue for jihadis of all stripes: the fight against Israel.

[...]For Al Qaeda, it is a time of panic. The group’s Web sites are abuzz with messages and questions about how to respond to Hezbollah’s success.

[...] The truth is that Al Qaeda has met a formidable challenge in Hezbollah and its charismatic leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who have made canny choices that appeal to Al Qaeda’s Sunni followers. Al Qaeda’s improbable conspiracy theory does little to counter these advantages.
Haykel peddles the "all Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims hate each other and will therefore never work with each other" schtick at the beginning of the column.
Al Qaeda’s Sunni ideology regards Shiites as heretics and profoundly distrusts Shiite groups like Hezbollah. It was Al Qaeda that is reported to have given Sunni extremists in Iraq the green light to attack Shiite civilians and holy sites. A Qaeda recruiter I met in Yemen described the Shiites as “dogs and a thorn in the throat of Islam from the beginning of time.”
I'm not sure how this myth, along with the one that says secular and fundamentalist Islam cannot work together, continues to stay alive despite all the evidence to the contrary. Secular and fundamentalists in Damascus and Tehran have found common cause. Radical shi'ites in Tehran and Hezbollah and Salfist Sunnis of al Qaeda have found common cause. In the final analysis, ideology does not determine the presence or lack of cooperation. What does, however, is shared strategic interest. Despite his initial claim of how unreconcilable the hatred is between Shiite and Sunni, Haykel admits the opposite throughout the rest of his column.
Many Sunnis are therefore rallying to Hezbollah’s side, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan. The Saudi cleric Salman al-Awda has defied his government’s anti-Hezbollah position, writing on his Web site that “this is not the time to express our differences with the Shiites because we are all confronted by our greater enemy, the criminal Jews and Zionists.”

[...] First, although Sheik Nasrallah wears the black turban and carries the title of “sayyid,” both of which identify him as a Shiite descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, he preaches a nonsectarian ideology and does not highlight his group’s Shiite identity. Hezbollah has even established an effective alliance with Hamas, a Sunni and Muslim Brotherhood organization.

Second, Hezbollah’s statements focus on the politics of resistance to occupation and invoke shared Islamic principles about the right to self-defense. Sheik Nasrallah is extremely careful to hew closely to the dictates of Islamic law in his military attacks. These include such principles as advance notice, discrimination in selecting targets and proportionality.

Finally, only Hezbollah has effectively defeated Israel (in Lebanon in 2000) and is now taking it on again, hitting Haifa and other places with large numbers of rockets — a feat that no Arab or Muslim power has accomplished since Israel’s founding in 1948.

These are already serious selling points. And Hezbollah will score a major propaganda victory in the Muslim world if it simply remains standing in Lebanon after the present bout of warfare is over and maintains the relationships it is forging with Hamas and other Sunni Islamist organizations.

Perhaps he means that al Qaeda's specific brand of Slafist Sunni ideology is making it incompatible with support for Hezbollah. But this doesn't pan out either. Much of al Qaeda's ideology has its roots in organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood (through thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb), so if the Muslim Brotherhood is now backing HEzbollah, it's hard to see how al Qaeda's prblem has anything to do with ideology. Ignoring the claim that Hezbollah has been at all discriminatory or propotionate (proportionate to what, exactly, is unknown), which I can only describe as misleading, the majority of this column questions Haykel's claim of how much Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims truly hate each other. Perhaps more importantly, it fails to differentiate between rhetoric and action.

More likely, al Qaeda is upset because another group has taken the headlines. But also curious is Haykel's claim that al Qaeda is upset because Hezbollah has stolen its thunder in targeting Israel. Perhaps someone can refresh my memory, but when was the last al Qaeda attack against Israel? Hamas (Sunni), Islamic Jihad (Shi'ite) and al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade ("secular") have been attacking Israel for years, and al Qaeda has taken little notice beyond the usual rhetoric. They have never tried to "upstage" Hamas by launching a more spectacular attack in Israel.

Al Qaeda's targets have consistently been American and European countries, American and European interests in foreigh countries, and local (generally Muslim) allies of Americans and Europeans. This goes back to the claim that al Qaeda (or Islamic fundamentalists in general) are attacking us because of our support for Israel. If anyone should attack Western interests because of support for Israel, it should have been Hamas or IJ. Likewise, if al Qaeda really cared about the Israeli-Palestinian situation, you would have seen al Qaeda attacks in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. But you haven't. Israel provides al Qaeda with great rhetorical material, and that is likely the case with this latest episode.

At the most, al Qaeda's concerns have more to do with organizational/bureaucratic rivalry than with ideology. Nevertheless, I even hesitate to accept that that is the case. Al Qaeda has been "upstaged" there before, by Sunni, Shi'ite and secularists alike. Why is it different now? Israel has supposedly been "attacking" Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza before, so what is different about this conflict? Hezbollah has even upstaged al Qaeda in the past with regards to Israel. By the mid-1990s, Israel and everyone else knew its presence in southern Lebanon was failed, and they would eventually have to withdraw. Hezbollah had become the champion of the anti-Israel cause in the Arab world, a major factor in motivating Hafiz al-Assad, and late Bashir al-Assad, in pledging Syrian support to Hezbollah. According to Haykel's claim, this imminent victory for Hezbollah should have driven al Qaeda mad with jealousy and led to a surge of al Qaeda attacks on Israel. This wasn't the case, as al Qaeda had little presence in Israel or the Palestinian territories. In fact, as I've mentioned before, according to the 9-11 Commission, al Qaeda even saw fit to cooperate with Hezbollah (via Iran) in the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996. If Haykel is correct, al Qaeda's actions in the latter half of the 1990s should not have played out anything like they did.

Given al Qaeda's limited involvement in attacks against Israel in the past, and given Haykel's mistake in not separating rhetoric from action in other parts of the op-ed, I suspect he's making the same mistake again. Hezbollah's campaign against Israel may be causing the al Qaeda public relations department some headaches, but I seriously doubt whether Hezbollah's actions are going to be the determining factor in when, where or how al Qaeda carries out its next attack.

I'm also unclear about Haykel's claim that Shi'ites and Sunnis everywhere will come together to attack Israel and the United States. This is sort of like the extreme of the claim that Iraqi Shi'ites are simply going to hand over control of Iraq to Tehran, because the regime there is also Shi'ite. In this case, however, some sort of pan-Islamic force will emerge, shedding all national identities, to attack the Zionist-Crusader conspiracy. Gone is any recognition of the power of nationalism. Ignored is the historical evidence from events like the Iran-Iraq War, where it was certain that Iraqi Shi'ites would defect and fight for Tehran and that Iranian Sunnis would pledge their allegiance to Baghdad. The evidence, however, proved these hopes and fears on the part of Baghdad and Tehran to be wrong almost in their entirety as Iranian Sunnis and Shi'ites fought with equal ferocity against Iraq Sunnis and Shi'ites. Why the power of nationalism would simply disappear now is unclear.

In the end, I'm not really sure what the point of Haykel's op-ed is, exactly, but whatever his final argument is is, in my view at least, probably wrong given how very few of his basic assumptions seem to hold any water anyways.


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