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Temps et espaces en Palestine

Roger Heacock

III. Histoire du temps présent

Of the Advantages (and Perils) of the Deficit of Securalism in Contemporary Palestinian Political Culture

Roger Heacock

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“The present epoch will perhaps be
above all the epoch of space”

Michel Foucault

“If Orientalism teaches us anything,
it is that Orientalism is secularism”

Gil Anidjar

1When Aristotle noted that man is a social (koinonikós) animal, he meant a cluster of things in modern parlance, including political, social and cultural. There was no distinction between political and social, between political and civil; in fact the word for civil is politicós and politismós is culture or civilization. In the classical context, there was a strict identity between culture and politics. Politics comes from polis and is therefore everything having to do with the city, that is to say the country; the citizen is the polités; and of course the metropolis is the mother city (mitera), on which the colonies depend and which bears within it civilization (from the Latin civis, citizen; civitas being the city-state, the polis). And civilization, for its part, includes religion, from Latin ligare, what ties people together, or brings them back together – re-ligare – in other words the premise of citizenship. Interestingly enough, there is not even a word for religion in ancient Greek (in the modern language, it is threskeía), ties among citizens in the polis are taken for granted, requiring no heavenly reinsurance. This does not mean that there were not different and discrete “planes”, or “fields” in Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology, including cultural ones, among which figured notably otherworldly planes. But all evolved within a single seamless structure.

2The Reformation and following it, the Enlightenment (which some consider the Catholic version of the Reformation: Zizek 2006, p. 238-240), then the French revolution progressively pried open a chasm in Western Europe between these spheres of culture, citizenship and religion. By personalizing the relationship between humans and their God the Protestants were staging a coup, or rather, mounting the final assault, against the clergy, although only in matters of sovereignty, and began the process of locking the Deity into the believers’ hearts, or their guilty conscience. The 18th century did something similar for Catholics, using a variety of methods (notably the Deist argumentation) through which to banish God to the heavenly sphere. Meantime, the rise and expansion of Western colonially based capitalism spread the notions of Western epistemology “in all of its ramifications, from the instrumental reason that went along with capitalism and the industrial revolution, to the theories of the state…” (Mignolo 2002, p. 59). Among these notions was that of secularism, which purported to mean the very separation of church and state that had emerged from the 15th through the 18th centuries. A closer examination of the concept of secularism, undertaken more recently, demonstrates that it is in fact by its very nature, and by definition a Christian notion, Christianity triumphant, one might say, with the creation of the Iberian and then European-based world system. Secularism is thus a concept elaborated by western Christianity as its own inversion, established as the West’s trump card, and utilized as a weapon ever since in the physical and ideological colonization of the world. Given this proposition, there can be no other type, no other geographical or ideational location for secularism, certainly not in the Arab-Islamic world. This is stated succinctly by Gil Anidjar: “To repeat, then. Secularism is Orientalism. And Orientalism is Christianity. It is Christian imperialism” (Anidjar 2006, p. 66). In fact, this insight is not a new one, as it mirrors Edward Said’s own view whereby those elements of European cultures that were at the forefront of the secularization process constituted the origins of Orientalism (Said 2003). Historically speaking, the secularist-Christian link was always clear to the colonized, for example in the French mandate over Syria, where the insurgents were dealing with overlords representing the clearly secular Third Republic. Islamic parties called for protests against any number of the measures that they could not accept. But their educational protests drew most support, and these were directed against Christian schools, seen as the unmasked and insidious face of European rule (Thompson 1999, p. 106-108).

3The nationalism of the European elites, one of the key discursive tools of European supremacy, was and largely remains predicated upon this divorce between religion on the one hand, culture, politics, society on the other. In the words of Talal Asad regarding the British case:

The life of the English governing classes – its values, codes, and sensibilities – is the core of British culture. It is therefore only others who need to be warned against the treacherous lure of dual loyalties…In nationalist vocabularies, the term loyalty has the useful quality of fusing two meanings: legal subjection and moral attachment…[What John Patten, the minister responsible for race relations at the time of the Rushdie affair, in 1989, seeks to articulate in criticizing the reaction of British Muslims to the publication of the Satanic Verses] is the notion of a culture, a common way of life, that defines at once the substantive values of a secular British identity and the formal basis of a diversified and rationally justifiable society. (Asad 1993, p. 247-248.)

4The national movements as carried by the vast majority among the people, are, however, not symbiotically navigating in the wake of their social, political and economic overlords, pace Benedict Anderson and Jürgen Habermas, whose constructs are based on sophisticated communications structures proper to the highly literate bourgeoisie, also expected to be highly articulate (Anderson 1993, Habermas 1991). As Marx had already sensed, elite and subaltern forms of nationalism and nation-building are in their essence different. He saw the national as being incarnated and carried forward by the ruling class. The bourgeoisie had powerfully centralized the means of production, and

The necessary consequence of this was political centralization. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class interest, one frontier, and one customs tariff. (Marx and Engels 1959, p. 12.)

5For him, the masses create and operate social movements against the national bourgeoisie (…the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle.”) (Marx and Engels 1959, p. 14), but thereafter, against the nation itself, in the name of internationalism (“Workingmen of all countries, Unite!”). His analysis was by and large not borne out, for a variety of reasons linked to the spatial, increasingly national, enclosure of social movements, even though it remains a potentiality, both theoretical (Hardt and Negri 2000, Hardt and Negri 2004),and with the development of a new type of social formation, the European Union. Be that as it may, there is a world of difference between elite-based nationalism and that of the popular classes, as illustrated over the last quarter-century by the writings of the South Asian Subaltern Studies group and likeminded scholars working on other parts of the world. They have convincingly demonstrated how qualitatively different and even divorced indigenous and mass-based liberation movements were, how qualitatively different from the nationalism of the Indian elites, who follow in the footsteps, although they reverse them sometimes, of the western colonizers.

6In the Arab world the process has from the outset been very different. In Islam as in Protestantism, the believer relies on a direct (although not necessarily a private) and not a mediated connection with God. But Allah is not enclosed in the believer’s heart (Protestantism), nor confined to the skies (enlightenment Catholicism). Somewhat like early Protestantism, Islam’s clergy is not clearly structured and lacks ultimate authority. The relationship to God is direct between Him and the believer. But He occupies all the space from the underworld to earth to sky and the heavens, encompassing all of nature and humanity in the process. Hence the depth of misunderstanding between the Lutheran Danes of the cartoons and the Muslims of the world. In the words of Mahmood Mamdani,

[t]hose who followed the controversy over the Danish cartoons must have been struck by how fast the issues moved from the question of free speech, to that of defense of civilization. Both sides lined up, one in defense of a secular civilization, another in defense of a religious heritage (Mamdani 2006, p. 13).

7There is no clear border between this and the other world. And of course there are no clearly delineated borders within this world either. Indeed, borders in the fullness of their contemporary connotation are colonial-imperial inventions, challenging space by means of space (Schmitt 1994). It matters little whether or not, as George Antonius thought, the notables who developed the Arab national idea and launched its national movements were Protestant, or whether, as Albert Hourani and others would have it, they were predominantly Muslims following the call of Muhammed ‘Abduh (both strains are summarized in Dawn 1993). The important thing is that in much of the Mashreq and indeed the Maghreb, by the time when, in the twentieth century, they were able to assume control of their countries, the elite-based nationalist movements, impregnated as they were with social or socialist ideals (and Social Darwinist notions of Western-based progress), posited that Enlightenment split between the secular and the religious. We have tried to show that the split was not proper to the Middle East, since it belonged by definition to a western European tradition, and more specifically, to western European methods of colonial rule.

8The Syrianist-nationalist elites, the Ba’thist movement, Nasserism, and the Algerian FLN, as well as the leaders of other likeminded anti-colonial parties, all defined themselves as fundamentally secular rather than religious. It didn’t seem to matter that Anwar al-Sadat came from the Muslim Brotherhood, nor that someone like Ben Bella later found religion. It didn’t seem to matter that in Nasser’s Philosophy of the Revolution the third and largest of the three circles in which he encased Egypt was Islam. In Nasser’s words,

There remains the third circle, which circumscribes continents and oceans, and which is the domain of our brothers in faith, who, wherever under the sun they may be, turn as we do, in the direction of Mecca, and whose devout lips speak the same prayers (Abdel Nasser 1955, p. 111).

9Despite their profoundly anchored religious roots, these leaders all eventually defined the ultimate Other, not in the communist left or the liberal pro-American right, but in the religiously based movements. Liberals and communists either in these countries stayed on board through the independence and post-independence period, or were jailed for varying periods, then released and generally repented and joined. The reason this was possible was that these movements did not and certainly, as time went along, did not anymore have deep roots among the subaltern classes, that is to say, speaking of the third world, the people in their crushing majority. On the other hand, the religiously based movements were correctly seen as political rivals because social rivals, and in most cases mercilessly repressed. These regimes adopted de facto the Enlightenment existential split so dear to the Europeans.

10The problem with this unquestioning adoption of secularism by several Arab regimes during the twentieth century struggle for and accession to independence, with their appropriation of post-colonial administration, lies in the nature of the secular itself, as it emerged historically. International law slowly developed in the modern era as the law of western Christianity in its relationship to itself, and then to the non-Christian (non-European) Other. It is therefore the set of legal norms applied in relations between Christians and non-Christians, later the civilized and the uncivilized, an argument made most cogently by Carl Schmitt (Schmitt 1954) then taken up by others, most recently Gil Anidjar, whose interest is not in law but in hermeneutics, and who demonstrates that secularism itself is the Christian ideological tool justifying control over the non-Christian world.

11Therefore, in adopting a secular-religious dichotomy along with so many aspects of the dominant European value system found wanting in the Arab world by Orientalist scholarship and imperial politicians, then projected through what Joseph Massad, following Foucault, calls “incitement to discourse”, by which he means the transposition of Western values to the rest of the world by demanding their universal acceptance as “civilized” norms, on pain of being taxed with “uncivilized” comportment. (Massad 2007, p. 37 and passim) This incitement to discourse, directed at the Arab elites, pervades the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Western or Westernized values were largely internalized by the latter to constitute the outlines of what they defined as their nahda, and then most of their contemporary projects. In the process, these modernizing Middle Eastern elites accepted as a political axiom a structure – secularism – that was by definition Western, rooted as in Western Christianity, and therefore exclusive most particularly of Islam, the central faith of the Middle East.

12Certainly, this is not denying the truth of Sadiq Jalal al-Azm’s assertion that there are degrees of secularism, or rather, that one can place specific cases along a continuum (Ataturk more than Nasser, etc.), nor that there is a cyclical pattern involving the rise and decline of religious thematics in polity and governance (al-AzmandFakhr 1998, p. 68-80). But this is not primordial in the context of our present argument.

13As Nazih Ayubi points out, Arab nationalism and political Islam are not in fact contradictory (in his words, “competitive”). This is even true, of course, at the level of the elites, since it cannot be excluded that

the [Egyptian] high command would take over power under the pretence of restoring law and order (possibly adopting an Islamic stance in the Pakistani style), while alternatively, a deal could be struck between segments of the military and segments of the Islamic movement to run the country jointly (Ayubi 1995, p. 273).

14The problem was, and continues to be, that such a reuniting of ingredients as is involved when the elites touch base, as it were, with their indigenous roots, a potential clash is present, constituted by the possible takeover of a given movement by the marginalized majority. In Ayubi’s terms, such a joining of nationalism and Islamism would have unpredictable results because it would by necessity not be limited to the elites. One of the methods used in dealing with this potentiality has been the attempt by leaders, in much of the Arab world, to counter the mounting popularity of political Islam through the distinction they increasingly draw between the “civil” and the “civic,” only the latter being considered acceptable in an advanced society, and the retrograde nature of much of the former (its tribalism, its obscurantism), which most notably includes Islamism, justifying a greater or lesser quantity of suppressive acts being taken against it.

The Palestinian Exception

15One exception to this rule of the alienation between the national elites and the broad masses is to be located in the Palestinian national movement. What the reasons for the exception are may be a matter for debate: is it because the Palestinian authorities didn’t have the statist apparatus needed to crush these rivals? Or is it, as I would suggest, because Palestine, for historical and cultural reasons has a “deficit” of lay culture or secularism which has prevented the polity from falling victim to the violent split characterizing so many? At any rate, the Islamic movement is not perceived as the deadly enemy of the national movement, although the failed and fallen leaders of the national movement do today temporarily claim to see them that way, but basically out of a desire for revenge.

16The Palestinian exception is grounded in culture and history (see for example Reilly 1981). There is not, on the one hand, the kind of sectarian divide that can threaten the social fabric in other cases (Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt). And that element is therefore also absent in the social divide. The Palestinian exception was reconfirmed, not with the birth of the PLO (as an offshoot of Nasserism) but with its takeover by Fateh in 1968. As in previous periods (the thirties with ‘Izzeddine al-Qassam, the forties with Haj Amin al-Huseini), Islam is integral to the movement, and does not stand against it.

17Historically Fateh, as a principal agent of Palestinian nationalism after 1967, never knew this dichotomy between secular and religious cultures. Most if not all Fateh leaders had been close to, or members of, the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1940s and 1950s. The culture continued to pervade the movement. And the Christian-nationalist leadership was likewise co-opted with the 1967-1968 creation of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which played a major but dissident role, always within the PLO, never outside of it. There are many empirical examples of this combination of secular and religious cultures going back centuries in Palestinian history.

18Adel Manna’ points to the three most significant popular insurrections in eighteenth and nineteenth century Palestine: the 1703-1705 naqib al-ashraf rebellion, the 1825-1826 uprising, both Jerusalem-based, and the 1825-1826 uprising against Muhammad Ali (Manna’ 1994). Let us contemplate them together with the two principal twentieth century revolts and the first one of the twenty-first century 1936-1939, 1987-1993, 2000-2005. All six cases were predicated on a widespread unity of religious and secular elements. Together they symbolized Palestinian resistance, and those of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries also embodied the Palestinian nation standing in lieu of the absent secular authority.

19Any residual pan-Arab or socialist secularism was shed with the outbreak of the revolution of the stones, the 1987 intifada, as nationalism and religion drew even closer in opposition to the occupation. A perusal of the language of the intifada communiqués demonstrates this, as does the drafting of PLO Central Committee documents in Tunis, beginning in the same period. By early 1988 these documents began to invoke the name of God and quote the Koran (Sayigh 1997, p. 625).

20On the ground, the people assembled asserted their citizenship, just as the Mufti of Jerusalem in 1988, by breaking the siege and curfew, to get to Beit Sahour on a Sunday and be present as mass was being read to hundreds of people, was recognizing and asserting his responsibility as a Palestinian leader for his suffering people. Who can speak there of a secular/religious split? The same was proved again and again by the weekly demonstrations after prayers in mosque or church on Fridays and Sundays during the entire period of the first intifada.

21During the Al-Aqsa intifada, things went differently because of the predominance of the class element, and the great social chasm created by six years of Palestinian Authority misrule. This was an uprising of the subaltern classes against their indigenous exploiters as well as against the Israeli occupier (Heacock 2005). Certainly it was less socially inclusive, proving too much for many of the elites, particularly the returnees among them, to join. Large numbers of them fled the country. On the other hand, it was a deeply entrenched and mass-based uprising. It may also have been slightly less religiously inclusive (although the case of Ramallah in the intifada proved that it was still largely unified in this way as well). But in terms of secular/religious unity, it was even more inclusive. Written commentaries over-emphasized the religious-secular split in the first intifada (regarding the imposition of the veil, for example, which had in fact become an issue well before 1987), but this could not be done for the al-Aqsa intifada although attempts were at first made to do so. To quote Anidjar (2006, p. 67) once again:

[i]s it possible not to notice – in spite of Azmi Bishara’s tireless efforts to remind us – that American foreign policy, like its British, French, and other seasoned and enduring counterparts, has long been intent on strategically playing Islam against Arab nationalism, ethnicity against religion, and national against religious unity? Is it possible not to notice that religion and nationalism are strategically divided and must therefore be considered in their joined operations?

22Because it was a rising from below, where the distinction is not present even as discourse, this was not to be. Indeed, Tanzim (the younger Fateh militants) and Hamas coordinated from the start, separately from and largely in opposition to PA officialdom. Together they established the National/Islamic leadership to direct the intifada, made up of a dozen groups. Meantime, the PA dissolved for the most part, leaving Arafat alone as its symbol, with all of the consequences we know. The militarization of the intifada was supported by an overwhelming majority, whoever the actor, and regardless of class and religious or lay disposition of the citizens. What has not yet been entirely accepted is the dual nature of the 2000 intifada, anti-colonial and intra-Palestinian class against class. The secondary literature currently shies away from this view, something one may have to attribute to the biases of the usual sources (see for example Abu-Manneh 2008).

What Palestinian Civil War?

23In Palestine a culturally based civil war is unthinkable: there is no Algerian- or Egyptian- or Lebanese-style abyss between politics and religion. In the words of academic and PLO personality Sa’eb Erakat, speaking in 2006, before the events of June 2007 rendered such talk problematic, in Gaza Muhammad Dahlan’s social and political culture and environment are exactly the same as those of Hamas (Erakat 2006). This appreciation points to another, more exploitable, geographic division, about which more later on. And it is ironic in that Dahlan and Hamas in Gaza hated each other as only fierce rivals can, Dahlan claiming Hamas wanted to murder him. But here too one was dealing not with a deep cultural split (Erakat was proven right) but with the personal frustrations of a defeated warlord.

24Historically, there has been a transformation within the Islamic movement, with the gradual absorption of specifically Palestinian conceptions and objectives into the dominant Islamist ideology. The gradual evolution of such an outlook first took place within the context of the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially as it elaborated its outlook in the camps and villages, and in the Palestinian universities, especially Gaza Islamic University and An-Najah in Nablus, during the 1970s and 1980s. Nonetheless, the refusal to envisage acts of resistance to the Israelis, and the concentration on personal, familial and social piety, meant that the national movement saw in them a part of the problem rather than the solution, at least until the mid-eighties.

25The decisive push resulted from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, created and initially composed of the most marginalized sectors of the society. Their founder and leader, Fathi Shiqaqi, (Sayigh 1997, p627) was a Gaza refugee. Inspired by the Iranian revolution, they showed great flexibility in the theory and practice of religion. The idea of Jihad, that is to say struggle, was placed at the top of their priorities, with a decided rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood’s pietism. The combination of religious eclecticism and proclamation of the primacy of jihad which marked them spilled over onto the principal members of the national and the religious camps. Shiqaqi’s criticism of the Muslim Brothers for belief without jihad and Fateh for jihad without belief was duly registered by the parties in question. Both through its activism and because of the narrowing of tactical differences Islamic Jihad was a key to the launching of the 1987 intifada, even though the latter did not adopt the organization’s chosen tactic, armed struggle. The organization had been decimated within a few months of the beginning of the uprising. Nonetheless, it played an undeniable role in launching it, and in unifying (by force, as it were) the somewhat disparate strands of the resistance, precipitating the creation of Hamas within a fading Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, which from the beginning placed itself squarely within the field proper to the national camp.

26In contemporary Palestinian discourse, Islamism (or rather, religion more generally, listening to Mgr. Michel Sabbagh, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and Atallah Hanna, spokesperson of the Greek Orthodox church in Palestine) and nationalism are essentially rolled into one. There is no split. When an apparently excessively “secular” and still somewhat youngish group within the leadership of the PLO tried to move away from this synthesis at Camp David in July 2000, the street, which is the Eurocentric way of describing the subaltern majority, spoke a resounding “no,” which Arafat could not fail to hear, over the refugee and Jerusalem issues.

27This did not mean that the people or their various leaderships were against peace or the two-state solution during the al-Aqsa intifada. Marwan Barghouti stated repeatedly before being imprisoned, and no-one from Hamas contradicted him, that the 1967 borders represented a national consensus (Barghouti 2002). Interestingly, ultra-secular groups and leaders tried to avoid calling it the al-Aqsa intifada, run of the mill Palestinian Christians and Muslims alike had no problem with this. But the same ‘secular’ elements have realized how important this unity (or deficit) is, and turned to praying on Fridays during election campaigns (for example Dr. Mustapha Barghouti, the leader of the progressive-oppositional Palestinian National Initiative during the 2006 presidential campaign). They are going on the Hajj (as for example in 2006, when a top leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine residing in the West Bank attempted to cross the Jordan River bridge for that purpose; he was turned back, by the possibly incredulous Israelis).

28Consolidating this picture are the succession of programs of Hamas since the electoral cycle began in 2005, through to their victory in 2006, and the establishment of the government they led. These included its fall 2005 electoral platform, its draft program for a coalition government, and its cabinet platform as presented on 27 March 2006, and their proposed national unity government platform (which all other parties and factions prudently refrained from accepting).

These three documents represent in themselves an evolution in Hamas’s political thinking toward pragmatism and the Palestinian “mainstream,” with the cabinet platform presented by Haniyeh reflecting very little inclination to radical positions. It is highly significant that the major reference to resistance in Haniyeh’s speech highlights its importance in the past. Instead, the emphasis in the new phase is on state building (Hroub 2006b, p. 6).

Conclusion: When/Where time becomes space

29The historic absence of a profound secular-religious split (and this is “de bonne guerre”) is replaced by other splits, the work of the occupation with American support, and of the Palestinian Authority, unable to accept electoral defeat.

30The first such other split is the growing class cleavage between a globalized elite – a new-old ruling class whose interests are indistinguishable from those of Western petty-bourgeois entrepreneurial or intellectual groups in general – and the subaltern classes, the marginalized.

31A series of elections reflected this, although the puzzled pollsters didn’t delve into the subject deeply. The elites were in denial: Hamas won because they represented these subaltern classes better than Fateh, and also took up the slack where Fateh had left off after the Oslo accords, embodying now the struggle-minded nationalist movement (see Hroub 2000, Hroub 2006). On this basis, after the patent failure of the gradualist and accommodationist approach of the Oslo process, they came to represent the majority. This is one of the reasons they won the municipal and legislative elections in 2005 and 2006, the other being the popular revulsion against Fateh corruption and inefficiency.

32In the face of the Hamas victory, the PLO-affiliated elites were hesitant and fearful. They feared the consequences of supporting Hamas, particularly in terms of access to their traditional US and European interlocutors. Whereas they were willing to join a government of national unity in which Fateh was represented, they would not go in against the US-supported PA. The elites, as is so often the case, showed themselves to be fearful of losing their tangible and intangible privileges.

33And so, whereas there cannot then be any talk of a religious divide among Palestinians in general (exception made of the Westernized-globalized class), and since the divide and rule strategies could not work through the adoption of such an artifice, the alternative, spatial strategy was adopted, and here the potential of notable success is far greater. The physical divide between Gaza and the West Bank is a real one, as is the historical experience under Egypt for the former and Jordan for the latter. The military orders which served from 1967 to 1996 as the legal system under Israeli occupation were also separate, applying only to each of the two areas separately. There has since been a notable concentration on this geographic divide, and in the absence of an ideological/theological one, it has shown promise, representing both a danger of division in the Palestinian quest for independence, and an indirect way of creating or broadening a virtually non-existent split over secularism, an absent factor. It falls within the strategy of the occupation and its international protector to resurrect through this spatial division the failed secular vs. religious split, whereby Gaza would be religious and the West Bank secular.

34Michel Foucault, in one of his lectures at the Collège de France, noted that the nineteenth century had been that of time, whereas the current era was that of space: “…the present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space” (Foucault 1986, p. 22). This second split, which in fact to a certain extent follows the growing social fault line, is thus the geographic one imposed by the occupation, and a most dangerous one. Its principal characteristic (over and above the cantonization of various parts of the West Bank) is the split between the West Bank and Gaza. Although this spatial/religious divide, except as a discursive artifice employed by the Ramallah authorities so as to obtain concessions, and, more importantly, financial assistance from the West, is not to happen, the geographic-social cleavage underway is a true threat to the capacity for struggle and resistance of the Palestinian people, because the true, social fault-line can be manipulated from the outside to coincide with a geographical one, with all of the implosive potentiality that accompanies such a mix.


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Professor of history, Birzeit University, Palestine.

© Presses de l’Ifpo, 2008

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