Monthly Archives: April 2012

Unsolicited advice for Mona Eltahawy

Mona Eltahawy has sparked a long overdue debate over misogyny in the Arab world through her hard-hitting and intentionally provocative article in Foreign Policy, “Why Do They Hate Us?” Eltahawy’s commentary is what both Arabs and non-Arabs alike needed to hear: a cri de coeur about widespread, unacceptable, abusive attitudes, practices and indeed government policies directed against women.

The article not only brought into the public sphere gender-related subjects that have been largely restricted to the academic world, but, crucially, Eltahawy also placed the question in the context of the Arab uprisings. These “revolutions,” she was quick to point out, have yet to promise any improvement and, in many cases, actually threaten the already unacceptable status most women face in most Arab societies.

We should praise Eltahawy for her stimulating intervention. However, I would like to offer her some unsolicited advice, which I hope will be taken in the constructive spirit in which it is presented.

Eltahawy should and undoubtedly will use this article as the basis for a book. But there are some very important pitfalls I would urge her to avoid. Her polemic was appropriately angry and provocative. But it was also, perhaps unavoidably, reductive and over-simplified. A book should give her the opportunity to expand on her fully justified anger, but also correct such oversimplification.

First, Eltahawy should pay close attention to critiques by other Arab feminists. Arab women younger and less established than her, such as the Kuwaiti blogger Mona Kareem, and those older and more accomplished, like the Egyptian-American Harvard professor Leila Ahmed, offered insightful critiques that greatly enriched the debate, challenging Eltahawy on some key points that she did not take into consideration. Kareem points out that she paints both Arab males and devout Muslim women in broad brushstrokes, stereotyping them. Ahmed adds that the causes of Arab misogyny and the nature of Arab feminism are both more complex than the article acknowledges.

Second, Eltahawy is going to have to pay a great deal more attention to the diversity of Arab women’s experiences in different countries, communities and social classes, among other crucial distinctions. She’s also going to have to take into consideration how attitudes toward women have evolved in postcolonial Arab societies.

A telling example of this is a revelatory video of the late Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in the mid-1950s mocking the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for, he claimed, placing the issue of the hijab at the center of its national priorities. Both Nasser and his audience found the idea uproariously funny. Whether the story he tells was true or not, the fact that he used the hijab issue to dismiss the Muslim Brotherhood as a serious political player demonstrates the enormous changes, and indeed deterioration, that attitudes toward women and “modesty” have undergone in many Arab societies in recent decades. What is now regarded as “traditional” is either new or a dramatic reversion to attitudes toward women that had been dispensed with in many Arab societies decades ago, but that have since returned with a vengeance.

Third, Eltahawy has to go much further in interrogating the role that Arab women themselves play in enforcing misogynistic practices. No doubt this is a form of “false consciousness,” an idea that feels natural but is ultimately self-delusional. But it has to be accounted for, even if it is to be seen as a kind of “internalized patriarchy.” For this, Eltahawy can draw on a large body of scholarly work that has investigated the question. A more detailed investigation cannot simply be about why some of them hate us, but also why some of us hate ourselves.

Fourth, Eltahawy must give more serious consideration to the socioeconomic basis for the epidemic of sexual harassment in many Arab societies. Her article seemed to dismiss this factor, which is a mistake. Moreover, she needs to consider that sexual repression affects Arab men as well as women, and that as long as young Arab men are denied a healthy degree of sexual freedom, women will more likely be viewed as prey rather than potential partners. By anticipating harassment or other forms of sexual mischief as inevitable, social repression shuts down healthy sexuality for both genders, and abuse therefore becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Finally, it’s vital that Eltahawy not fall into the trap of pathologizing the Arabs, and repeating Orientalist stereotypes, for a largely Western audience. Otherwise, she could find herself repeating the mistake of Canadian writer Irshad Manji, who published a book that appealed to Westerners ill-disposed toward Arabs, but ultimately did little to affect Arab thinking and discourse because her attitude was seen as opportunistic and fundamentally hostile rather than constructive.

The article published by Eltahawy is an excellent beginning. A book-length treatment on misogyny will give her the opportunity to produce a politically important work. She will have to pay close attention to her Arab feminist interlocutors and approach the topic with the nuance and complexity it merits, as much as with reasonable outrage.

Crafty Electioneering by Mousa Abu Marzook

While the Forward’s unprecedented interview with Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook didn’t demonstrate any shift in Hamas’s policies, it provides some insight into Hamas’s internal politics. The organization is now badly divided because its Political Bureau, including Abu Marzook, had to abandon its long-standing headquarters in Damascus. The external leadership has been attempting to reintegrate Hamas into the mainstream Sunni Arab political sphere by cultivating ties with states like Qatar, Jordan and Egypt. The Gaza-based Hamas leadership has been strongly pushing back against these efforts and attempting to keep ties open with Iran.

Hamas’s de facto prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, was elected head of the Gaza Political Bureau in a secret vote this April. The secret election for membership in and leadership of Hamas’s external and politically pre-eminent Politburo is scheduled to take place soon. Abu Marzook may well have been doing some crafty campaigning by speaking to the Forward, and in the positions he adopted.

Highly controversial moves by the external Hamas leadership have been closely associated with current Politburo chief Khaled Meshal. He angered many in the movement, particularly in Gaza, by seemingly abandoning the relationship with Iran in favor of closer ties with Arab states; cutting a Qatar-brokered deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on terms highly favorable to the P.A., and repeatedly invoking the virtue of “popular resistance” as opposed to armed struggle.

Abu Marzook may well be trying to position himself as a compromise candidate between Gaza-based leaders, whose policies wouldn’t be appealing to most Arab governments, and Meshal, who is seen by many as having gone too far too quickly. In his interview, Abu Marzook presented himself as pragmatic and flexible, and ready to reach out to the West, including Jewish Americans — positions that would appeal to Arab governments and relative moderates in Hamas. But he was categorical in insisting on Hamas’s core positions of not recognizing Israel, not seeking a conflict-ending agreement but rather an open-ended truce, and the centrality of armed struggle — stances that would reassure hard-liners, including Gaza-based leaders.
The Forward noted that he was “at pains to knock down suggestions in numerous media outlets that Hamas is preparing to abandon armed resistance against Israel in favor of mass popular resistance.” Given the sharp contrast with some highly controversial comments in favor of popular resistance by Meshal, Abu Marzook may well be trying to distinguish himself from his former deputy and send the message that while he recognizes the need for Hamas to adapt to new realities, his approach will be more palatable to the leaders in Gaza and to the hard-liners.

Meshal has said he won’t run for re-election as leader of the Political Bureau, but most observers expect he will. If Meshal does run, Abu Marzook might be trying to position himself as a compromise candidate. If Meshal doesn’t, Abu Marzook might be presenting himself as simply the most important and visionary of Hamas’s current leadership. Either way, it reads very much like some pretty crafty electioneering.

A fraud at the Council on Foreign Relations

The Council on Foreign Relations, one of the most respected international affairs organizations in the United States, now finds itself in the grip of an exceptionally embarrassing scandal. Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, recently generated an uproar among Middle East specialists with a bizarre series of tweets from a brief visit to Bahrain, in which he warmly supported the government while harshly condemning the opposition as stooges of Iran.

Displaying an astounding blindness to the aggressive violence and sectarian rhetoric of the government and its supporters, Husain painted the opposition as uniformly violent, sectarian Iranian agents. There is no evidence of this, as the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry noted in a report last year. Nonetheless, Husain accused the mainstream Shia opposition group Al-Wefaq of running a campaign of “intimidation” against other Shia. But all the evidence suggests that Al-Wefaq has been steadily losing support because of its moderation and refusal to call for the dissolution of the monarchy.

Husain promotes a ridiculous binary: “Bottom line on Bahrain: support the al-Khalifah monarchy with more reforms, or create a pro-Iran colony through [Shia cleric] Isa Qasim. Choose.” As evidence, he cites an extremely dubious story in the pro-Saudi and anti-Shia Kuwaiti paper Al-Seyassa claiming that hundreds of Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia agents have been assembled in Bahrain by the opposition to lead a terrorist campaign.

In reality, the mainstream Bahraini opposition appears to have been trying to keep Iran at arm’s length because it realizes that Bahrain—including its Shia population—is inextricably tied into the Arab Gulf political, social and economic system.

Husain explains his indefensibly uncritical embrace of the monarchy and its paranoid and unfounded rhetoric about the opposition by claiming, “There is a cold war raging across the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” and “Bahrain [is] in the eye of the storm.”

The problem for Husain—and, by extension, the Council on Foreign Relations—is that while condemning the Bahraini opposition in the name of combating largely imaginary “Iranian influence,” Husain has simultaneously been among the strongest cheerleaders for Iran’s closest ally in the region: the Syrian dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad. The Assad-Tehran axis is not a subject of speculation, debate or paranoid rhetoric. It’s an established fact, and by far the most important feature of any “cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” if one views Middle Eastern strategic realities through that lens.

Indeed, Husain has acknowledged that “Assad is an Iranian stooge” but insists that he is popular among the majority of Syrians (based on totally debunked, absurd “polling data”), good for Western and Israeli security, and his continued rule “the least worst option” in Syria. His attitude is distilled in the amazing inversion of reality in his claim that “Assad’s supporters are just as brutal and vicious as the opposition.” This outrageously suggests the opposition rather than the government is the primary source and gold standard of the horrifying violence that has taken at least 9,000 Syrian lives over the past year.

The Council on Foreign Relations is employing a “Middle East specialist” who enthusiastically supports the minority Sunni ruling family of Bahrain because he uncritically accepts undocumented and dubious accusations that the members of the mainstream opposition are Iranian agents. And at the same time, he ardently defends what actually is a brutal “pro-Iran colony” run by the minority Alawite regime of Assad in Syria. So all of his rhetoric about “cold war” and “Iranian colonies” is so much disingenuous balderdash.

It seems that any sectarian minority government brutally suppressing a majority struggling for its freedom is irresistible catnip for Husain.

Husain, a British Muslim of Bangladeshi origin, launched his career by claiming to have been “an Islamist” and, at times, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. But at most he may have once been associated with a far different group, Hizb ut Tahrir. Though Hizb ut Tahrir denies he was ever a member, he may well have once been a street-level leaflet-distributer for them.

Much of his “Islamist” past seems at best highly exaggerated, if not fabricated, for shameless self-promotion. According to his own memoir, The Islamist, he developed a disturbing relationship with the Syrian secret police, which included identifying possible British Hizb members. His evident appreciation of multicultural polities held together by an atmosphere of fear and intimidation is also reflected in his advocacy that the British government systematically spy on all British Muslims, whether or not they are suspected of any wrongdoing.

The Council on Foreign Relations must act quickly to save itself from the ravages of a loose cannon wildly careening around the decks, repeatedly smashing into the hull of its own reputation. Whatever compelled them to hire such a transparent fraud, and to compound the insult by entitling his blog “The Arab Street,” they must at last recognize that their disastrous mistake needs to be corrected forthwith.

Hamas: Still Not Ready for Prime Time Players

In a wide-ranging interview with the Jewish Daily Forward, Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook again demonstrated the difficult position in which his organization finds itself. Due to the Arab uprisings, the region’s strategic landscape is now primarily defined by sectarian allegiances. As a result, Hamas’s external leadership is trying to reintegrate the organization into the mainstream Sunni Arab fold, cultivating closer ties with states like Qatar, Jordan and Egypt, while distancing itself from Iran and abandoning Syria altogether.

The leadership in exile, including Abu Marzook, therefore finds itself at odds with much of the Gaza-based leadership, which does not have the same urgent need to find either new headquarters and patrons or a new regional brand and identity. Their rule in Gaza is uncontested. They have income from smuggling, and through efforts by Gaza-based Hamas leaders like Mahmoud Zahar and Ismail Hanniyeh, they maintain relationships, and at least some funding from, Iran. So, they see much less need to make radical changes.

Dr Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook of Hamas in 1997 in a New York prison (Jon Levy / AFP / Getty Images)

Reaching out to a major American Jewish publication to explain his thinking serves many functions for Abu Marzook. His carefully calibrated and mixed message walks the tightrope the external leadership now has to traverse: adopt positions the Arab states can tolerate; align more closely with in the policies of other Muslim Brotherhood parties, especially Egypt’s; and help to create a softer image in the West and Israel, without abandoning the organization’s core principles.

For many years Abu Marzook has been eclipsed by his former deputy, Khaled Mishaal. But the current crisis has produced a complex power struggle within Hamas, both inside and outside Gaza. This interview may also have been part of an effort to position himself as a compromise figure between Mishaal and more hard-line leaders.

The external leadership of Hamas knows it has to pay a price for adapting to the new regional realities, but it wishes to keep this to a minimum. Hamas leaders want to avoid being perceived by other Palestinians as adopting policies towards Israel indistinguishable in practice from the mainstream national leadership in Ramallah—especially the goal of a two-state solution. If it openly accepted that this was its strategy for national liberation, Hamas would then have to compete with Fatah largely on the basis of religious and social conservatism. But its social and religious agenda in Gaza, the most conservative part of Palestinian society, has not proved popular. If Hamas is to retain a competitive political advantage over Fatah, it must be by outbidding them on Israel.

Abu Marzook was careful not to cede too much. He insisted that the most Hamas could accept is a long-term truce (“hudna”), but not peace, with Israel; that it would not be bound by any agreements made by the PLO (the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people); and that Hamas would not recognize Israel.

On this last point, he hedged in a manner indicative of the need to placate both Western and Arab governments committed to a two-state outcome, and those parts of his own constituency unalterably opposed to it. He cagily noted, “Maybe my answer right now [about recognizing Israel] is completely different to my answer after 10 years.” This can be read as leaving the door open for an evolution towards recognition of Israel, or as leaving the door open for a resumption of armed struggle and a cancellation of the truce. The Forward emphasized, “Abu Marzook was at pains to knock down suggestions… [that] Hamas is preparing to abandon armed resistance against Israel…”

Suffice it to say, the Abu Marzook interview was not reassuring. Hamas is in crisis, and it’s trying to adapt. Still, even its external leaders, as they are trying to project a softer image, in fact are still clinging to a hard line that rejects the conditions laid out by the Middle East Quartet—the US, the EU, the UN and Russia—for it to be recognized as a legitimate political actor: renunciation of violence; recognition of Israel’s right to exist; and acceptance of the validity of existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

From the point of view of the Palestinian national interest, Hamas is still part of the problem, not part of the solution. Its fundamental positions, even in theory, are strictly dysfunctional with regard to the international community. They cannot serve as the basis of serious negotiations with Israel. And they are out of sync with the consensus of the Arab world, as reflected in the Arab Peace Initiative and the policies of most Arab governments.

Abu Marzook’s interview demonstrates that as far as Palestinian national leadership is concerned, Hamas is still very much not ready for prime time, and neither is he.

The New Pushback Against Arab Sectarianism

During the course of 2011, it became increasingly apparent that the regional strategic order in the Middle East was being reshaped along sectarian lines. This generally pitted Arab Sunni Muslims against confessional minorities. However, a series of recent developments has started to undermine this dominant narrative and push back against a regional system too starkly defined by sectarianism.

The sectarian narrative was, more than anything else, an extension of the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and their respective allies. It was no longer possible for an organization like Hamas, for instance, to remain comfortably a part of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood network and, simultaneously, a key ally of Tehran and its non-Sunni clients. The popularity and regional influence of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah nosedived, while those of Turkey, led by a Sunni Islamist party, soared. Across the Arab world, governments and organizations took sides based on religious affiliation, most notably in the conflicts in Syria and Bahrain.

Many Western observers framed the rise of sectarianism simply as “counterrevolution,” and accused the Saudis of being behind it. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states promoted a sectarian narrative, but so did Iran and many of its allies, including the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, while Saudi Arabia was appalled by the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, it also supported the uprisings against Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi and Assad. Therefore, its policies have been selectively counterrevolutionary, but not necessarily so.

Throughout 2011, both the Saudis and Iranians, and most other players in the Middle East, either tried to exploit sectarianism or wittingly or unwittingly fell into its trap. Few if any emerged with clean hands. However, there were always other considerations lurking under the surface of what appeared to be a sectarian binary. New developments have brought some of those issues to the forefront and are allowing us to look beyond the interpretation of a regional order divided along strict sectarian lines.

One challenge to the sectarian paradigm is Iraq’s role in the Arab world. By adhering to a purely sectarian narrative, the Sunni Arab world could have virtually ceded Shia-dominated Iraq to Iran’s sphere of influence. However, the successful holding of the Arab League summit in Baghdad, which was attended by the emir of Kuwait no less, as well as the appointment of a Saudi ambassador to Iraq, clearly reflected an interest among Sunni Arab states to reintegrate Iraq into the Arab mainstream. Iraq’s leaders, too, have shown a significant interest in reintegrating with the Arab world and pursuing policies that keep Iran’s influence at arm’s length.

The uprising in Syria has also frayed what had been a united Sunni Arab front categorically in favor of regime change. There has been discernible uneasiness with the potential consequences of civil conflict inside the country and its potential to destabilize the region. This hesitation, which is shared by some Sunni Arab states, has been fueled by a lack of confidence in the Syrian opposition, and a growing sense that the costs of regime change may outweigh its benefits.

Such concerns have been expressed more forthrightly in private than in public. However, the divisions within the Arab League over how vigorously to pursue regime-change policies in Syria are no longer, as they once were, simply defined by sectarianism.

A further example of an anti-sectarian push back comes from the other side. Iran has strived to keep parts of Hamas, especially some of its Gaza-based leadership, within its orbit. Hamas leaders not in exile have appeared receptive. For example, Mahmoud Zahhar and Ismail Haniyeh have both made well-publicized, very friendly visits to Tehran in recent months.

Zahhar and Haniyeh have seemed willing to scupper the efforts of Hamas leaders in exile, notably the head of the Political Bureau, Khaled Meshaal, to integrate Hamas into a purely Sunni Arab camp by cultivating states such as Qatar, Jordan and Egypt. There are others, too, who, for their own reasons, hope to revive the comatose “axis of resistance” narrative that allowed for an extremist trans-sectarian Middle Eastern alliance, or at least keep it on life support.

National interests, ideology, concerns about regional stability, personal and political rivalries, and a growing understanding of the costs of a regional order strictly divided along sectarian lines are increasingly disrupting the new sectarian narrative. Regional sectarian divisions are still the biggest single factor in the new Middle East, but other considerations are finally starting to make a significant comeback.

Leave room for the unbelievers

As Islamists continue to gain ground in post-dictatorship Arab societies, alarming signs are emerging that real freedom of religion may not be among the dividends of the uprisings.

Even in Tunisia—the Arab society furthest along in transforming from dictatorship to a constitutional system, and which has a large secular constituency and tradition—severe attacks on religious dissidents are being carried out by the new government.

Two young bloggers, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, were both sentenced to an astonishing seven years in prison “for violation of morality and disturbing public order.” Their offense was to post images of a naked Prophet Mohamed on Facebook. Mejri is in jail, while Beji has reportedly fled the country. Meanwhile, the head of the Nessma television station is awaiting trial for “blasphemy” for airing the animated film “Persepolis,” which includes an image of God.

The situation in neighboring Egypt isn’t any more encouraging. In early April, a 17-year-old Coptic youth, Gamal Abdou Massoud, was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting Islam and its Prophet,” again through Facebook caricatures.

Islamists, especially those now touring Western capitals, never tire of professing a deep commitment to freedom, equality and democratic values. But at the same time, they insist that Islam must be the basis of all of these freedoms and that there is no contradiction between equal citizenship rights for every individual and the essential teachings of Islam as they interpret them.

The prosecutions in Tunisia and Egypt strongly suggest otherwise. What they indicate, instead, is a determination to intensify the use of religious intolerance as a tool of state power and social control.

Islamists, trying to portray themselves as moderates, speak in broad terms about tolerance, pluralism and the rights of individual citizens. But there are many areas in which their professed and long-established ideologies contradict these values, not least when it comes to preserving equal rights for women and religious minorities.

But these are not the most elemental test cases of their commitment to real equality. The issue of women’s rights can be negotiated or even finessed in many ways. There are many contemporary Arab Islamists who are far less invested in upholding traditional and oppressive gender roles than some of their older or more conservative comrades.

At the same time, since Islam traditionally regards Judaism and Christianity as legitimate, though imprecise, monotheistic faiths, it is not hard to imagine an Islamist-influenced Arab political order protecting the religious and civic rights of these relatively small minorities, even if the most extreme Islamists won’t want to do this. The question of political representation is important, but in most Arab countries also essentially symbolic, since members of minorities are unlikely to aspire to national power by winning, for example, a presidency.

What is most disturbing is that it is almost impossible to imagine an Islamist-influenced system protecting the religious rights of skeptics, agnostics and atheists. Blasphemy, satire, independent scholarly investigation of early Islamic history, or merely a profession of fundamental skepticism about faith in general (and not simply Islam) are all likely to remain criminal offenses. Protection for apostasy and conversion are another key test of real religious freedom.

Religious freedom was not generally well protected by the old dictatorships, and all the evidence suggests that the policing of independent thinking will intensify in the new systems. This means that there is a whole class of citizens virtually guaranteed of being denied its fundamental rights, and of being persecuted by Islamist-influenced regimes: agnostics, atheists, apostates and skeptics. Unless, of course, these individuals keep their mouths shut.

Professed commitment by Islamists to pluralism and tolerance is almost always framed in terms of faith. It seems beyond the scope of their imagination that, while people may belong to various religions, any sane person would question the very notion of religious belief, and view all religious claims with rational skepticism.

Yet without genuine religious freedom and pluralism, real freedom and equal citizenship will be illusory. What Islamists, and many other Arabs, have yet to accept is that in order for freedom of religion to be genuine, it must allow the freedom to reject faith entirely and to promote non-religious perspectives. Islamists might win broad popular support—and not just from Muslim but also Christian voters—in the name of the rule of a devout majority to deny  individuals the right to profess and promote religious skepticism.

The new Arab regimes may not be Islamic theocracies, but there’s every reason to fear that they will intensify the suppression of skeptical opinion and thereby fail to protect genuine religious freedom. This must include the freedom to reject religion entirely.

No, Of Course I’m Not a “Zionist”

Since the emergence of the one-state movement, I’ve been routinely described by the pro-Palestinian far right and ultra-left as a “Zionist,” and even a “traitor” and “collaborator,” because I remain committed to ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Of course, most of these people were, in the past, themselves supporters of a two state solution, so by their logic they were also once “traitors” and “collaborators.”

An Israeli soldier patrols near a Palestinian house in the center of the West Bank city of Hebron (Jack Juez / AFP / Getty Images)

Essentially, those Arabs who still support peace with Israel based on ending the occupation are being stigmatized for not changing our minds in the same way and at the same time as those who have abandoned all hope for, or any interest in, a two-state solution and have adopted, instead, a one-state agenda. There is more than a hint of a totalitarian mentality at work here, in which disagreement is a self-evident symptom of intentional wickedness.

The fact that support for a two state solution also represents, according to almost every existing poll, the Palestinian majority position, as well as that of the Palestine Liberation Organization (universally recognized as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”) doesn’t matter. In certain segments of pro-Palestinian discourse, any willingness to recognize the existence or legitimacy of Israel now immediately qualifies one simply as “a Zionist.”

Much of the pro-Israel right, of course, considers me an “anti-Semite,” and even a “jihadist,” to complete a perfect symmetry of ideological misrecognition.

To call me a “Zionist” because of commitment to peace is to strip language of all meaning. By this logic, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were “Maoists” because they made peace with Communist China. And any Israeli who is committed to Palestinian statehood alongside Israel is also, therefore, a “Palestinian nationalist.”

For some, the term “Zionist” is simply a useful pejorative to attack the reputation of Arabs who seek peace, or who deviate from the increasingly intolerant one-state dogma. I’ve been amazed at the number of one-state advocates who adamantly refuse to agree to disagree and I’ve lost a number of once very close personal friendships simply because I do not follow their new party line.

I don’t think Norman Finkelstein was exaggerating at all when he recently described this movement as “a cult” led by self-appointed “gurus.” Like all cults it recasts the world in simple binary terms: the good people who agree and the bad people who do not.

So, of course I’m not a “Zionist.” Whether or not to define oneself as a Zionist is really an issue for those who identify themselves as Jewish. However, as many Jews of varying backgrounds and perspectives have demonstrated, one can be staunchly pro-Israel, and in that sense “Zionist,” without supporting occupation, settlements or racism against Palestinians.

Zionism remains the dominant Jewish national narrative, and this narrative can and should be understood, by others, especially in the interests of peace. It is also necessary that Jewish Israelis and their allies understand the legitimacy of the Palestinian national narrative, even if they cannot embrace it.

All present-day national narratives and identities are ultimately based on fantasies about the past, present and future. From a historical, intellectual and philosophical perspective they are as firm and fixed as children’s sandcastles. But they serve the immediate needs, aspirations and yearnings of their constituencies and, as political realities, they must be respected, despite their well-concealed hollowness.

The real problems that must be dealt with are not the narratives informing Zionism or Palestinian nationalism, but rhetoric, policies and practices on all sides that are prolonging the conflict, especially Israel’s immoral, indefensible and unsustainable occupation. It is this occupation, more than anything else that sentences all of us to a grim and uncertain future if it is not resolved.

The only practicable, viable means to end the conflict is through ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state to live alongside Israel, with both states serving the interests of all of their citizens equally. So, without any illusions about the difficulties for achieving this, especially in the near term, I strongly support peace between Israel and a Palestinian state in the territories occupied in 1967. And that certainly doesn’t make me a “Zionist” in any meaningful way.

However hard it may now seem to achieve, ending the occupation by creating a Palestinian state still offers the only workable conflict-ending solution. Recognizing and supporting that is not Zionism, Palestinian nationalism, or American imperialism. It’s not even buying into the deep logic of nationalism as a political or philosophical category. It’s a simple recognition of unavoidable political reality. It should be embraced by anyone who cares more about peace, preserving human life, and building a better future than about ideologies, narratives and slogans.

An Islamist bid for power in Egypt?

In the weeks following Egypt’s parliamentary elections, it seemed as if the country was beginning to stagger toward the orderly emergence of power-sharing agreements. But as events have developed more recently, especially the reversal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s pledge not to field a presidential candidate, the Egyptian political scene has become increasingly chaotic.

Efforts to craft a power-sharing arrangement acceptable to all three established power centers—the military, the “felool” (the remnants of the former regime, including the secret police) and the Muslim Brotherhood—along with the unorganized but socially powerful protest movement have essentially broken down.

The turning point appears to have been an exceptionally messy fight over the makeup of the Constituent Assembly created by the Islamist-dominated parliament to craft a new constitution for the country. Breaking earlier pledges not to align with the Salafist al-Nour Party, the Muslim Brotherhood joined with it to stack the hundred-member Assembly with at least 65 Islamists. Many non-Islamist members vowed not to participate.

With the apparent support of the military and possibly the Supreme Constitutional Court itself (which also withdrew its representative from the Constituent Assembly), non-Islamist groups have launched two lawsuits. The first challenges the electoral law that produced the current parliament, and the second the procedure for establishing the Constituent Assembly. Islamists had been attempting to shift the balance of power in Egypt’s political system away from the presidency and toward the parliament but were faced with multiple layers of opposition from all other forces in that effort.

This may be among the main reasons that the Muslim Brotherhood broke its long-standing pledge not to field a presidential candidate and nominated Khairat al-Shater for the position. The organization is going for broke and attempting to seize all levers of political authority rather than being satisfied with whatever increased powers it could negotiate for the parliament. Shater’s candidacy, however, is in question because, although he was released from prison, he is still serving out a criminal sentence and has not yet been pardoned.

The Muslim Brotherhood was also probably increasingly concerned with the rise in popularity of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who was expelled from the organization last year for disobeying orders that no member should stand for the presidency. Aboul Fotouh, a long-standing rival of the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, has been running significantly to the left of the organization as a “liberal Islamist.” He has apparently developed a significant following among Muslim Brotherhood youth members and some liberals who see him as both a less threatening figure and someone untainted by connections to the Mubarak regime.

Tensions between the military and the Islamists have boiled over into open confrontation. Real doubts now hover over the presidential prospects of the former head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa. A few months ago Moussa seemed exceptionally well-positioned to emerge as Egypt’s next president and has outstripped all rivals in every survey and opinion poll since the fall of Mubarak.

However, he will now have to contend with not only the rising popularity of Aboul Fotouh, but also the formidable organizational power of the Muslim Brotherhood behind the frankly uncharismatic Shater. Moussa’s connection with the former regime may have finally begun to undermine his candidacy, particularly given recent scandals over highly controversial charges brought against non-governmental organization workers by other former regime figures.

It’s also possible, however, that Moussa will benefit from a split within the Islamist vote given that Shater and Aboul Fotouh will be competing for such votes with at least two other significant candidates, the Salafist Hazem Abu Ismail, who has also demonstrated unexpectedly strong public support, and another “liberal Islamist” candidate, Mohamed Salim al-Awa. Awa has repeatedly warned, in vain, that a split in the Islamist vote would only benefit non-Islamist candidates such as Moussa.

If either of the pending lawsuits by the non-Islamist groups succeed, the emerging process for drafting a new constitution will be gutted. This is one path for the military and other non-Islamist forces to block an overt power-grab effort by Islamists.

The Muslim Brotherhood may well be overreaching and could have alienated even many of its supporters by so cynically breaking its word. But underestimating the organizational strength and discipline of the group, especially as other political forces are scrambling to play catch-up, would be highly unwise.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s bid for complete control of Egypt’s elected political power is facing the concerted opposition of virtually all non-Islamist forces in the country, in effect led by the military. The rest of Egyptian society would be reluctant to accept an Islamist president as well as an Islamist-dominated parliament. But the options for resisting or reversing that, should it come to pass, bode very ill for the emergence of an orderly, democratic system in the new Egypt.