The conflict in Gaza has the potential of becoming a transformative
political event in the Middle East that allows Islamists to capture
the Arab political imagination for at least a generation. Along with
familiar appeals to religious and cultural “authenticity,” and dubious
claims regarding good governance and democracy, Islamists are
beginning to consolidate an exclusive claim to the most powerful Arab
political symbols: Palestine and nationalism.
Few observers in the West evince a full understanding of the
unprecedented cultural and political impact of Israel’s attack on
Gaza. The extraordinarily high civilian death toll and perceived
helplessness of the victims, combined with atrocities such as the
reported massacres at a UN school, and Israel’s apparent use of
phosphorus munitions in densely populated areas, paint the most
enraging images Arab television audiences have witnessed.
Although Arab public opinion has been aroused by several other
conflicts in recent decades, until now no hegemonic narrative has
given coherent shape and political focus to this anger. During the
Gaza war, we seem to have been witnessing the consolidation in most
Arab media and political discourse of a coherent narrative that
contains a prescription and a diagnosis: the Martyrs versus the
In this mythology, the present Arab world is defined by a conflict
between “the Martyrs,” led by the Islamist movement and its allies,
and “the Traitors,” which include most if not all Arab governments,
especially the Palestinian Authority, but also the governments in
Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The public, especially when
it becomes swept up in violent conflict, is counted among the ranks of
the Martyrs, but Islamist parties and militias are its vanguard.
Even if many in the West perceive Hamas to be fundamentally at fault
in the conflict, questions of responsibility for initiating the
fighting in the Arab political conversation have become an affront to
the dead and injured. Every outrage simply adds further anger, a
powerful form of political capital, to the Islamist account. They
serve to identify ordinary people, and their basic interests, with the
Islamist movement and underscore the righteous victimization of the
Martyrs as a category.
What gives this narrative its unique appeal and danger is its obvious
programmatic corollary: The Martyrs must defeat the Traitors, for the
nationalistic cause in general, and for Palestine in particular. The
Palestinian issue could become a decisive factor in internal power
struggles within states throughout the Arab world, and prove the
decisive legitimating factor in the frustrated efforts by Islamist
groups in the Sunni Arab world to capture or inherit state power.
This narrative has been developing in Arab political discourse for
many years and is based on long-standing resentments, but perceptions
regarding the war in Gaza—skillfully managed from the outset by those
pushing the Martyrs versus the Traitors mythology—could be sufficient
to establish it as the defining Arab political narrative for the
foreseeable future. Islamists are increasingly garnering support not
only from the devout Muslim constituency, but also to an unprecedented
degree from Arab nationalists in general, including many
self-described secularists, leftists and Christians.
Whether this narrative becomes hegemonic will not be decided by the
outcome of the war. It will instead rest upon the contrast between
what is offered by Hamas’ commitment to confrontation until victory
versus the Palestinian Authority’s policy of seeking a negotiated
agreement with Israel.
Even death and devastation in Gaza, but in the guise of religiously
and culturally authentic resistance, will be more appealing than
stagnation, failure and apparent surrender in the West Bank. Avoiding
this means not only moving immediately to improve the quality of life
in the West Bank, but also securing a settlement freeze that
constitutes significant political victories for those who wish to talk
rather than fight.
The most significant battle will be waged in the upcoming 12 to 18
months, when Palestinians and other Arabs will be carefully drawing
the contrast between the two approaches, especially with regard to
If the Palestinian cause is permanently lost to the Islamist movement,
theocratic reactionaries across the region could finally acquire the
broad political legitimacy and nationalist credentials that might well
enable them to begin to seriously threaten existing governments.
The United States and Israel must now choose which Palestinians, and
indeed what kind of Arab world, they want to deal with: one in which
forces of moderation have a fighting chance to rebuild political
legitimacy and credibility, or one in which the political imagination
is completely dominated by the myth of the Martyrs versus Traitors.