Radical rule that divides a lost people

Everyday Jihad
July 13, 2007

Fred Halliday lauds a perceptive look at a Middle Eastern tragedy

Anyone watching television news in recent weeks could be forgiven for losing track of the many, separate but conjoined and apparently similar, sites of violence in the Middle East and its periphery, broadly the swath of countries running from the Mediterranean in the west to the frontiers of China and India in the east.

To the unstoppable series of incidents in Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza can be added the almost wholly unseen war in the mountains of eastern Turkey between the Turkish army and the PKK Kurdish guerrillas, which has been going on since 1984. Meanwhile, over all these internal wars hangs the possibility of an outbreak of serious inter-state war between Iran and its enemies Israel and the US, and a second, bloodier and more protracted round of the Israeli Hezbollah - in effect an Israeli-Iranian - war of last summer.

To all these conflicts there has suddenly been added a new one, that between fundamentalist Islamists based in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon and the Lebanese army. Fierce battles broke out on May 20 in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and continued for several days even as - in apparent retaliation for the attacks in the north - unknown but probably Islamist agents set off lethal bombs in Beirut.

A new, unexpected and distinct line of conflict has now emerged. As with all the others, it intersects and reinforces the fighting already taking place in the region, even as it further saps the authority of the Lebanese state and its Western backers and complicates the resolution of other problems. With a tense situation on its southern frontier, resulting from the Israeli-Hezbollah standoff, and with Syria continuing "to play its cards" in Lebanon, the prospects for a resolution of any one of these issues, let alone for the construction of a coherent and capable Lebanese state, appear farther away than ever.

To understand this new outbreak there is nowhere better to look than at this book by Bernard Rougier, originally published in French in 2004 and now available, in a fluent and almost flawless translation, in English.

In essence, this is the story of how, beginning in the 1980s, the political leadership among the 350,000 or so Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, grouped in half a dozen major camps since the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, passed from the secular nationalist Palestine Liberation Organisation and al-Fath to a group of Sunni fundamentalist groups. Fatah al-Islam, the group that has been fighting in the Nahr al-Barede camp in Tripoli, is one of these. Inspired if not controlled by al-Qaeda, and with a militant and elaborated ideology that refuses any compromise with Israel, rejects the authority of the Lebanese state and seeks to impose fierce social norms, these militias have, over time, come to cast off the loose control that Syria and Iran once exercised. To complicate matters further, the Sunni jihadis, while capable of forming tactical alliances with established Sunni forces in Lebanon and at times with the Shia forces of Hezbollah, are in general profoundly hostile to Shia Muslims whom, in line with the thinking of al-Qaeda, they regard as renegades and polytheists within the monotheistic framework of Islam.

This is a story Rougier tells extremely well. It contains many observed details of life and mores in the Palestinian camps, a rich use of Islamist materials in Arabic, detailed biographical portraits of many of the main figures and a sure sense of how it is not religion or nationalism but violence, political power, the changing forces of ideology, regional war and funding that shape the evolution of these groups.

The key to understanding how radical Sunni Islamism came to be ensconced in the Palestinian camps lies in the determination of Syria and Iran, from the early 1980s on, to drive out Yasser Arafat and his supporters. At first the Syrians tried to use secular breakaway and client groups, then they encouraged Islamist militias and educational centres, originally with the backing of Iran. The Oslo peace accords of 1993 between Israel and the PLO provided a golden opportunity to prosecute this factional campaign further, as the "Arafatist-Zionist" conspiracy was portrayed as a betrayal both of Islam in general - because it ceded Muslim land to the Jewish state - and of the rights of the Palestinian refugees to their property lost in 1948-49.

Rougier goes beyond his rich and - to my knowledge - unique ethnographic account to make a set of more general arguments: that the Islamism of the Palestinian groups is increasingly deterritorialised, refusing to accept, as Hezbollah partly does, the legitimacy of Lebanese politics or of the Lebanese state, and decreasingly focusing itself on Palestinian matters. Not only are these groups opposed to Hezbollah, but they also have little to do with Hamas, even though it too is a radical Sunni group. They are indeed more concerned with issues of education, social practice and identity than with the more conventional goals of politics, revolving around the control of states and land, to which, for all their differences, the PLO, Hamas and Hezbollah all remain committed.

This is a most timely, fine, perceptive and brilliantly researched book but above all an ominous introduction to yet another sub-world of violence, illusion and intransigence that has been brewing among the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, almost unnoticed by the outside world, these past two decades or more. It is doubtful if anything good for Lebanese or Palestinians or, indeed, for anyone else in the Middle East will emerge from this story.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations, London School of Economics.

Everyday Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam among Palestinians in Lebanon

Author - Bernard Rougier
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 360
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 9780674025295

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