When I was a 14-year-old jihadist wannabe in Cairo in 2003, I didn’t care about Egyptian politics, Arabs, Hosni Mubarak, regional powers, Arab monarchy, Arab republicanism, capitalism, or any of the issues that animate worldly observers of Middle East politics. I cared about one thing and one thing alone: Palestine. All I needed to hear was the word “Palestine” in order to pledge my immediate unconditional loyalty to whoever was speaking. Few words—none, really—were fused with the fascinations, aspirations, emotions, longings, and mystical forces that the term “Palestine” summoned in me. Palestine was never merely a disputed geographical territory; it was a claim to the absolute fulfillment of the Islamic political vision, an eternal moral truth, secularized in Arab nationalism and sanctified in Islamism. Palestine meant el-helm el-Arabi (the Arab dream), the tajj ‘alras (the crown on top [of Arab-ness]), and the beating heart of Islam. To evoke Palestine was to evoke Islamic brotherhood and Arab honor, for it was a reservoir of identity and a proof of faith. Palestine was the fulfillment of a state of spiritual purity of the Muslim individual and the whole body of Islam. The Arab will to Palestine was a Nietzschean will to power. It was the epistemological glue of the disparate components making up Arab political consciousness.
And I wasn’t alone. To the political and religious Arab minds of the 20th century, the idea of Palestine was everything. The dream of Arab nationalism, which had come to represent Arab-ness itself, and the cult of Islamism, which posed as the religion of Islam, both chose Palestine as their primary cause. This essentially consecrated Palestine as the psychological bond between Arab identity and Islam.
Much has changed in the past decade, however, and we are now entering the age of a post-Palestine Middle East. And as the region moves on to its post-Palestine reality, the world will move on to post-Islamism, and Islam itself will exert an ever-smaller influence over international politics. For the ideological forces that once caused terror in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, London, Madrid, and New York are slowly shrinking in history’s rearview mirror.
But before we can sketch a fuller portrait of post-Palestine reality, we must first examine the fantastical and once sacred notion of Palestine that fed the Middle East’s most lethal pathologies.
WHEN I talk about a post-Palestine reality or post-Palestine-era politics, I refer to the Palestine that was a constant psychological phenomenon dominating the Arab political imagination. It was a consistent presence through consecutive and varying political projects. It has been at the core of Arab nationalism, secular Arab revolutionary ideology, the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist jihadism, Iranian Islamism, and Turkish regional aspirations, to name a few.
In the Arab political vision, Palestine was the embodiment of moral truth. In the always-shifting Middle East, where every day can bring a new coup and yesterday’s heroes are suddenly today’s traitors, Palestine was an anchor. It was the object of longing for the anxious Arab and Muslim intellectual and a means of belonging for the Arab and Muslim everyman. The status of Palestine was akin to that of the Messiah in Jewish mysticism. “When Palestine is lib-erated” was a modern colloquial Arabic phrase for “when the Messiah comes.”
It was in Palestine that the architects of Baathist Arabism, the engineers of Nasserism, the visionaries of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the pioneers of jihadism all chose to vest their competing claims. For each, Palestine was the sole and final representation of the essence of the Arabs and of Islam. It was also, more practically, what legitimized their own claims of eternal rule over Arab peoples.
The mythical power of Palestine was further enhanced by the grotesque volume of blood that many Arabs and Muslims poured into it. For the cause of a liberated Palestine, countless men chose their own doom, as was demanded in the fatwas of even “moderate” Islamic clerics in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. They all spoke of the permissibility of suicide bombers during the first and second intifadas. Islamist terrorist organizations in Israel, such as the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, are revered by Arabs and Muslims in Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Mecca, Baghdad, Tehran, and Ankara—and also in Birmingham, London, Detroit, Minneapolis, New York, and Southern California.
The liberation of Palestine played a role in every Arab coup and counter-coup of the past 70 years. It was the same cause that devastated coffee shops, buses, and restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It manifested in a threat to the life of King Hussein in Amman in 1970 and took the life of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in Cairo in 1981. It was for Palestine that Iraqi soldiers, many of them illiterate peasants, marched into Kuwait in 1990. For decades, nearly every four-year-old Arab has known that the road to Jerusalem went through Kuwait—or Beirut, or Damascus, or Baghdad. It was this vision of Palestine that inspired the Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Places, which tore through Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam in 1998. It was this sacred Palestine that helped send al-Qaida terrorists (once known as the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders) into the skies over New York City and Washington on the morning of September 11, 2001. And it is the very same Palestine that today inspires the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran.
The countless deaths, oceans of blood, and endless human suffering were perversely woven into tales of heroic martyrdom to bolster the myth of Palestine. All the religious, intellectual, and political maladies of the Middle East were swiftly justified by religious and political leaders as necessary to the cause.
THIS VERY abbreviated summary of devastation and fanatical violence should help explain why Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, is one of the most courageous and heroic men to have walked the sands of the present-day Middle East. In August, the United Arab Emirates, led by bin Zayed, announced the normalization of relations with Israel. In the eyes of the Islamist, he betrayed Islam itself and stabbed the entire Islamic world in the back. And for the Arab nationalist, he sold Arab dignity cheap to Zionism. But to the Arab infant or the Arab yet to be born, he is the best hope for salvation and a better tomorrow.
For this regional Arab power to formally accept the Jewish State of Israel is to inaugurate the end of the long Arab march toward self-destruction and catastrophe that has devastated the region. The promise of bin Zayed’s decision will reverberate in Tehran, Doha, Ankara, and beyond. It could well save the region from its native predatory powers, secure the legitimacy of standing Arab states, and even rescue Islam from the lunacy of Islamism. In future history books, the years between 1948 and 2020—which saw the rise of Arab nationalism, Islamism, jihadism, global Islamic terrorism, a theocratic Iran, and the Arab Spring—will be viewed as the Palestine age. And it is the Arab powers that were able to survive the Palestine age that are now declaring its death.
To make the transition to a post-Palestine Middle East is also to move the world into a post-Islamist future. In such a future, Islamism and its ideological and theological foundations will gradually become obsolete along with the fantastical cause that Islamists once so highly revered. This transition will be painful and costly, and it will take time. Remnants of Palestine-era politics will continue to live on; the two largest and most obvious examples are the bellicosity of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the hegemonic ambitions of Turkey.
Regional terrorism, religious and otherwise, is likely to continue so long as both countries proceed on their present courses. This means that Middle East tensions will grow in the foreseeable future. But as the emerging post-Palestine Middle Eastern order develops strategies for mutual security, probably through a formal military coalition, it will be better able to isolate and contain (and perhaps eventually eliminate) the threats posed by both countries. This future coalition could even form the basis of a future regional organization to replace the dysfunctional Arab League, a remnant of the past era. As it gains in strength and competence, the new coalition could increasingly compensate for the attenuated American presence that would result from a more secure region. This could significantly reduce Arab dependency on U.S. military support and create a new homeostasis.
Elements of Islamic extremism and terrorism will also live on in Arab society. But these should gradually diminish as terrorists and ideologues lose their state sponsors in the post-Palestine era. And the pull of pan-Arab politics should also wither as the idea of a single and beleaguered Arab mass will no longer apply to the regional reality. In its place, we are likely to see the rise of state-based nationalism. This is not without its obvious dangers, but it will also allow Arab states to be more open and transparent about pursuing their national interests. Such openness could rescue Arab politics from endemic suspicion, conspiratorial thought, and pathological mistrust. After all, the open acceptance of a non-Arab Jewish state into the organic geopolitical fabric of the region will render much of the Middle East’s characteristic paranoia obsolete. If not at first, certainly once Arab countries find themselves benefiting from their deeper ties to Israel.
As Muslim public opinion adjusts and accommodates the new political reality, we shouldn’t be surprised if conditions improve for non-Muslim minorities in the region. Ethnic and religious diversity, a source of severe historical tension, may come to be seen in a more positive light.
As for the actual Palestinians, their historical rejectionism toward Israel will cease to be the asset it once was. Neighboring Arab states will no longer be held hostage to the fiscal needs of the Palestinian leadership. As the new reality sets in, Palestinians will have to decide between having total power in a dead fantasy world or some power in a real place. The new dispensation could, in time, force them into real negotiations. This, in turn, would shake up the ranks of Palestinian leadership and put an end to the disastrous politics of the Palestine dream. Palestinian terrorism would, in all probability, still persist, requiring joint action by Israel and the new Palestinian leadership to suppress it. But as Israelis and Palestinians move further away from the poisonous dream of a maximalist “Palestine,” improving security conditions could have a transformative effect on their relationship.
FOLLOWING the usual course of history, political reality is merely catching up to what is already understood in Middle Eastern society. On the so-called Arab street, the transition to a post-Palestine reality began about a decade ago. Among Arabs who pay attention to such things, it is already banal to note that Palestine is not the most pressing issue in the region. Palestine lost its centrality with the advent of the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. Today, Arab countries are focused on issues of security, stability, and, increasingly, the Iranian threat. The Arab Spring, in which polities began to challenge dominant totalitarian philosophies, marked the breakdown and atomization of political doctrine in the Arab world. The question of tradition vs. modernity has been supplanted by issues of human rights, the condition of women in society, sectarianism, and economic development. Religion is increasingly understood as a component of the sociological realm and not an overarching deterministic principle. In the post-Palestine Middle East, Islam itself will have an opportunity to detach itself from politics and settle more firmly into the sphere of society. Such a shift would be a historical leap forward and, if it solidifies, will go down as the most important development in Islamic history since the inception of the first Islamic political community in seventh-century Arabia.
The post-Palestine era will finally create an opportunity for an open internal examination of Arab and Islamic history, free of the ideological determinism of Palestine-era politics. This, too, could produce a paradigm shift, replacing a stale but widely held understanding of tradition with a modern one. Such a process would allow for a fuller recognition of those elements of Islamic tradition that have stunted the progress of many in the Arab world.
Indeed, if we are very lucky, it will no longer be appropriate to speak of an “Arab world,” as Arabs themselves will recognize that they are made up of distinct regional and cultural clusters and political identities. As traditional Arab societies in wealthy monarchies continue to move toward urbanization, they will inevitably lose their tribal character and modernize politically. Political modernization, ironically, will be a bigger challenge for those Arab countries that are not kingdoms. Less wealthy than the monarchies, they will need help with economic development if they are to enact political reforms as the threat of Islamism diminishes.
This is the future of the post-Palestine Middle East as I see it. Of course, we are only in the middle of its birth. While the baby looks beautiful so far, this is largely because of the ugliness of what came before. But most Middle East observers never believed they would witness a moment of such promise in their lifetime. This is, then, a time for realistic optimism, not gauzy dreams. Indeed, the promise of a post-Palestine Middle East is to be found in the official renunciation of a very dark fantasy.