Saturday, September 17, 2011

Palestinian politics, unity and the role of religion

I attended the first day of Muwatin’s (the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy) two-day conference on the Arab revolutions and the political and intellectual challenges stemming from them yesterday.  I won’t be able to get to today’s presentations as I have other commitments.  Although the quality of the presentations and discussion was variable, it did present some useful insights and thoughts to consider.

First, I get the sense that there is very much a sense of disconnection from Palestinian society and the leadership.  The focus of the past few months (in case it’s escaped anyone’s attention!) has been on the Palestinian leadership’s drive to achieve recognition for a Palestinian state at the UN next week.  The last couple of weeks have seen reports coming out in the media which have raised a number of concerns in relation to this move, including the status of refugees who would be forgotten if the PLO’s status (which represents Palestinians everywhere, including in the diaspora) is revoked in favour of the PA.  There’s also the question of how to incorporate Gaza and East Jerusalem into the Palestinian state vote as well.

These sentiments were partly reflected in the conference with Hani al-Masri’s criticisms of the absence of national unity (despite the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas earlier this year its implementation has stalled and Hamas has chosen to remain silent on the UN vote).  Similarly, there’s a sense that the status quo cannot continue.  Negotiations have not been seen to work and popular resistance is perceived as the way forward.  Interestingly, Columbia University’s Joseph Massad suggests on Al Jazeera that part of the reason for the PA drive to statehood is to divert public activity towards grassroots action which it can’t control towards less threatening – and more manageable – protests and demonstrations in support of a state.

The separation between Palestinian leadership and public was reflected in a line of enquiry which (at least to me) seemed central during the conference yesterday: why has the Arab spring not led to a Palestinian spring?  The simple answer is the occupation.  In contrast to elsewhere in the region where protestors have a clear target in the government (e.g. Mubarak became closely personified with the increasingly perceived unresponsive and corrupt regime in Egypt), in Palestine the situation is more problematic.  Who are Palestinians – and especially the youth mobilisations which have emerged in the Arab spring including a Palestinian counterpart, the March 13 movement – campaigning against?  Israel and its occupation?  Or the Palestinian leadership which has become largely synonymous with the discredited Oslo process and seen as collaborators with Israel’s strategy?  Moreover, the Palestinian leadership – both the PA and Hamas in this respect – have not shown themselves open to public protests, with both having sought to clamp down on them in the West Bank and Gaza during March.

Second, religion is likely to be an important aspect of political life in the Arab world in the wake of the current uprisings.  Although how it will manifest itself remains open to question.  One presenter, George Giacaman, commented on the rise of the salafists in Egypt since February in terms of political activity, organisation and the dissemination of ideas.  At the same time, there’s a question mark against whether their more prominent position in Egyptian politics will be sustained, especially compared to the deeper political roots, organisation and ideological debate which is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.  Giacaman also expressed concern at the state of individual rights and liberties in relation to the salafist objectives, since these did not appear to be taken into account by their current assumptions of rule by the majority.  In contrast, Charles Hirschkind of UC Berkeley claimed that the secular-religious separation was not as stark as it has been characterised in Egypt.  He noted that this division has been portrayed by Mubarak and his predecessors as a means of building up secular (foreign?) support against the Islamists.  Hirschkind noted the work of Islamists like Tariq al-Bishri, Fatmi Huwaidy and Abdel Wahed al-Masiri and the way in which they have transcended the secular-religious divide.  He said that all three combine religion with politics, emphasising some aspects over others.  Moreover, their ideas have found organisational expression in the social movement, Kefayah (Enough in English), which began street protests and mobilisation between 2004 and 2006.  Kefayah’s activism and the subsequent protests in January and February of this year enabled both leftist and religious activists to join and work together, without feeling threatened by the other.  Although the focus is very much on the Egyptian case, it certainly has repercussions elsewhere in the region.  In Palestine for example, Hamas is not only a religious movement, but a national liberation one as well.  In that respect, it shares the same underlying objective of Fatah.

Finally, this reflection on Fatah-Hamas made me wonder about the determination for national unity.  I was struck by al-Masri’s demand that national unity is needed.  He didn’t say it, but I got the sense that he sees it as a pre-condition for any change in Palestinian strategy to end the occupation.  Yet I found myself wondering whether there has ever been a case of ‘national unity’ both generally and in the case of Palestinian specifically.  As far as I’m aware there is no such thing as complete consensus on any political issue.  Sure, there have existed large majorities in favour of a course of action, as in the case of the political class (British Labour and Conservatives) ahead of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  But agreement didn’t necessarily mean the wisest decision was made.  At the same time, I don’t think there’s ever been ideological or organisational unity in the Palestinian case.  To even hold up the PLO as a model for this would be inaccurate, especially given the differences between its Egyptian-dominated leadership and Fatah in the 1960s and the internal divisions and factions within it today – and Hamas’s continuing decision to sit outside it.

The discussion about national unity and the role of religion in politics made me wonder whether there is a connection between the two.  Might it be that the ideal of national unity goes beyond the immediacy of the current situation and occupation, to have at its base a more deep-rooted set of assumptions drawn from Islam here?  From what I understand, for many Islamists the aim of politics is to find a way to return to the original ummah (community) formed by Mohammed and the companions in the seventh century.  That first Muslim society is held up as the ideal to which all Muslims aspire and political Islam is determined to realise again.  Moreover, the original ummah was a deeply united one, which owed much to its small scale and external threats against it.  Islamic history since the time of Mohammed has been that of growing separation and division among Muslims as different individuals and groups have interpreted the Quran, the hadith, sunna, etc in different ways in order to return to those first days.  Consequently, implicit in Muslim thinking and societies is a desire for a simpler time, when everyone shared the same ideas, expectations and practices.  Today, with the land of Palestine and the status of its (mostly Muslim) people threatened, might this appeal towards national unity echo that historical search for consensus as well?

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