COLLEGE PARK, MD. — One of the most stunning moments after the
collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime was the rush of tens of thousands of
celebrating Iraqi Shiites into the streets in response to the call of their
most revered leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. It was a stark
demonstration of Shiite power, one that may have unnerved those Americans
who believe in the possibility of a secular, democratic Iraq. The moment was
also a harbinger of a larger trend across the Middle East, one that poses
difficult, long-term challenges for U.S. foreign policy: More and more Arabs
identify themselves as Muslims first.
This trend is evident in a survey I conducted last month in six Arab
countries — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the United
It is related to another, more enduring phenomenon: the Arab public's
perception of their mostly authoritarian governments. Respondents to my
survey believe that the war in Iraq has made the region even less
democratic. A possible — and remarkable — consequence of this perception is
that most Arabs polled said that they wanted the clergy to play a bigger
role in politics.
How can this be?
Historically, Arabs have had three political options: Islam, pan-Arabism
or nationalism linked to individual states. Hussein's appeal in the Arab
world, such as it was, principally flowed from his embrace of secular Arab
nationalism. After the death of Egypt's pan-Arab leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser,
in 1970, secular Arab nationalism never regained the influence it had in the
1950s and 1960s. But it still had adherents and government advocates, most
notably the Baathists in Syria and Iraq, and the Palestinian Liberation
Organization. But the demise of the Baathists in Iraq, the weakening of
Syria's hand and the paralysis of the Palestinian government and its leader,
Yasser Arafat, have further eroded the movement's appeal. One consequence
has been evident in Iraq. Once the Baath institutions collapsed, the primary
organizations capable of mobilizing large crowds were religious.
Still, the trends are not all heading in one direction. There is much to
suggest that secular Arab nationalism remains a significant political force.
For example, few in the Arab world admire religious figures as leaders.
In my survey, I asked respondents to name the world leaders they most
admired. The most frequently mentioned were Nasser and French President
Jacques Chirac, despite the fact that he has banned the veil in French
schools. In Jordan, the deposed Hussein topped the list with 20%. The most
popular leaders identified with an Islamic agenda were Sheik Hassan
Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, and Osama bin Laden. The
common image running through these choices is that of a leader defying the
United States. Not surprisingly, President Bush was the second most disliked
leader, after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Furthermore, the preeminence of Islamic identity in the region varies
from country to country. In Egypt and Lebanon, most respondents identify
themselves as Egyptians and Lebanese more so than Arab or Muslim. But in
Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, majorities or
pluralities cited their Islamic identity above all others.
These results suggest that the desire for a greater role for clerics in
regional politics is driven by two factors: the absence of alternative means
to organize opposition to Arab governments, and the belief that clerics
would be less susceptible to corruption in a region where rulers' corruption
is a major issue. Whatever the reasons for many Arabs looking to Muslim
clerics to lead them, it's clear that this sentiment will enhance the
influence of religious authority in the region, despite a widespread public
recognition that the model of rule by clergy in Iran has been mostly a
Arabs' increasing embrace of Islam as the primary source of their
identity did not begin with the Iraq war or even after Sept. 11. The
phenomenon has intermittently occurred over the last several decades. But
its accelerated growth today is in part the result of the collapse of the
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2000, the subsequent rise of the latest
Palestinian intifada and the Israeli response to it. Not only did the
breakdown of talks weaken the PLO and empower its Islamist opponents,
especially Hamas, but the conflict with Israel also began to be seen
increasingly in religious, rather than nationalist, terms. Both the
Israelis' and Palestinians' focus on the status of Jerusalem in the
negotiations, coupled with the need to broaden support for the Palestinian
cause among Arabs and Muslims, helped turn the issue into an Islamic one as
well. Today, Palestine is far more important in non-Arab states such as
Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey than it was only a few years ago.
The Iraq war and the way the war on terrorism have been perceived in much
of the Islamic world have further intensified identification with being a
Increasingly, Muslims view the war on terrorism as a war on Islam.
Conversely, many Americans now regard Islam as the source of the terrorist
problem. These trends have provided Islamic groups with increasing
grass-roots potential limited only by the operating space allowed them by
insecure authoritarian governments.
The increasing tendency to frame issues in religious terms does not augur
well for U.S. relations in the region. The hope for a resolution of the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one rooted in the idea of two states living
side by side in peace, is a nationalist one. If the conflict becomes
religious, it's difficult to envision a peaceful solution.
Some conflict of interest is inevitable in U.S. relations with Arab and
Muslim countries. Traditionally, however, they have found ways to
accommodate their interests. But it is harder to envision any accommodation
when the stakes are religious. Nothing should be of higher foreign-policy
priority for the U.S. than to avoid such an outcome.