Friday, February 27, 2009

The Shi'a in the Modern World

Twelver Shi'i religious scholars ('ulama) and seminary (al-Hawza al-'Ilmiyya) students in the Shi'i shrine city of al-Najaf al-Ashraf in southern Iraq.

Draft version of my encyclopedia article published in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2008). The article was supposed to cover the modern history of the Shi'a, all groups, in approximately 600-750 words. A tall order, indeed!

The Shī‘a coalesced as a distinct movement in the centuries following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 and in opposition to the majority of the Muslim community, the Sunnīs, over the nature of his succession. Unlike the Sunnīs, the Shī‘a believed that political and religious authority should be handed down through a predetermined line of infallible leaders (Imams) through the bloodline of the Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib and his wife, Fātimah, the prophet’s daughter. Internal divisions within the Shī‘ī community over the succession to the fourth Imam, ‘Alī Zayn al-‘Ābidīn, and the sixth Imam, Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq during the seventh and eighth centuries led to the separation of the Ismā‘īliyya and Zaydīyya sects from the majority Imāmiyya “Twelver” Shī‘a (hereafter Shī‘ī)

During the twentieth century, the Imāmiyya Shī‘ī communities in Iran, Syria-Lebanon, and Iraq, where they are the largest single sectarian group, have emerged at the forefront of world affairs. The Shī‘a are also a majority in Bahrāyn and Azerbaijan and are a significant minority in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Pakistan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Afghanistan. Today the Ismā‘īlis are divided into several groups with the most prominent of them being the Nizarīs led by the fourth Āghā Khān. The Zaydīs make up upwards of 30 percent of Yemen’s population

̣Under the Safavids in Iran (1501-1736), whose founder Ismā‘īl declared Imāmi Shi‘ism the state religion of his empire and invited Shī‘ī clerics (‘ulamā’) from Syria, Iraq, and eastern Arabia to settle in his realm, the ‘ulamā’s societal role was solidified and they began to play a political as well as religious role in society. Under the Qājārs (1796-1926) the hierarchical structure of the ‘ulamā’ was formalized and Ụsūlīsm, whose practitioners supported the reasoned interpretation (ijtihād) of the Qur’an and religious legal sources, became the dominant school of thought over the literalist Akhbārīs, who had risen to prominence during the late Ṣafavid period.

Ayatullah al-Sayyid al-Shahid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, father of Muqtada al-Sadr. He was assassinated with two of his four sons in 1999 by agents of Saddam Husayn's regime. He was mortally wounded (shown here) and died soon thereafter in the hospital of his wounds.

Under the Qājārs the ‘ulamā’ often played an oppositional role and they were at the forefront of the Tobacco Revolt (1890-1892) in protest to the monarchy’s concession to a British company and the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1909) that forced the Qājārs to institute governmental reforms. The ‘ulamā’ were repressed under Reza Shah (1926-1941), who overthrew the Qājārs in 1926 and instituted a series of laws that weakened the legal, social, and educational role played by the ‘ulamā’. Repression of the ‘ulamā’ continued under the Pahlavis (1926-1979) and the ‘ulamā’ began to actively oppose the monarchy. In January 1979 the last Pahlavi shah, Muhammad Reza, was forced to abdicate and Grand Āyatu’llāh Ruḥu’llāh Khumaynī, the fiery clerical opponent to the Pahlavis, and his supporters successfully took control of the fledgling revolutionary state and formed the Islamic Republic of Iran. During the decades since the revolution, the traditionalist Iranian Shī‘ī ‘ulamā’ have been marginalized by their revolutionary colleagues currently led by Iran’s supreme leader, Āyatu’llāh ‘Alī Khāmana‘ī, though several prominent traditionalist clerics began to challenge the religious basis of the regime during the 1990s.

In Ottoman Syria the Shī‘a were concentrated in the Jabal ‘Āmil region of present day southern Lebanon. During the Ottoman-Ṣafavid wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Shī‘a were regarded with suspicion and were largely neglected up to the formation of the modern nation-state of Lebanon in 1926. After the arrival of the Iranian cleric Mūsa al-Ṣadr in 1959, whose family had immigrated to Iran during the Ṣafavid period, the Lebanese Shī‘a formed their own political and social organizations, most importantly the AMAL movement, that agitated successfully for their greater inclusion in national politics.

Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, the senior Twelver Shi'i scholar in Lebanon. He has presented himself, justifiably, as a leader for "modern Shi'is," a leader who is knowledgeable in both religious and temporal issues. Fadlallah is often erroneously described in Israel and the U.S. to be the "spiritual leader" of Hizbullah, a claim denied both by the grand ayatullah and the party. This claim is based on an ignorance about the modes of Twelver Shi'i religious authority and clerical structures.

The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and subsequent 18-year occupation of a large part of southern Lebanon, which came in the midst of a brutal civil war (1975-1990), radicalized large segments of the country’s Shī‘ī population and resulted to the formation of Hizbu’llah (Party of God) between 1983 and 1985. Through its constant attacks on the Israeli military and its Lebanese proxies Hizbu’llah forced Israel to withdraw unilaterally in May 2000. Throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century Hizbu’llah has participated in the Lebanese political process and in May 2005 the party won a record 14 parliamentary seats. In July-August 2006 the party emerged from a short but devastating conflict with Israel with renewed popularity amongst the country’s Shī‘a, now its largest single sectarian group as well as large segments of the country’s non- Shī‘ī population.

The location of several major Shī‘ī shrines, Iraq has been home to Shī‘ī communities since the mid seventh century. After the signing of the Treaty of Ama
sya in 1555 in which the Ṣafavids ceded control of Iraq to the Ottomans, the public practice of Shi‘ism was curtailed and the Shī‘a were subjected to Sunnī rule. In response to Ottoman attempts to forcibly sedentarize Iraq’s nomadic southern tribes, the Shī‘ī ‘ulamā’ successfully converted many of them and by the early twentieth century available data suggests that the Shī‘a formed the majority of Iraq’s population.

Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid al-Shahid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, a key activist against Saddam Husayn's autocratic rule, who was executed by the Iraqi Ba'th in April 1980, along with his sister, al-Shahida Zaynab bint Haydar al-Sadr. They came from a well-known Iraqi Arab clerical family. He is arguably the most important Twelver Shi'i scholar, and one of the most influential and prolific, in modern history. His many books, including the acclaimed Iqtisaduna (Our Economics), Falsafatuna (Our Philosophy), al-Islam yaqud al-Hayah (Islam Guides Life), and his several textbooks on jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh), are widely read today by both Shi'is and Sunnis.

Under the Iraqi Hāshimīyya monarchy (1932-1958),
the republic (1958-1968), and particularly under the Iraqi Ba‘th Party and its leader Saddam Ḥusayn (1968-April 2003) the Shī‘a, who made up upwards of 60 percent of the population, were marginalized and oppressed despite their numerical majority. After the collapse of the Ba‘th following the American and British-led invasion in March 2003, the Iraqi Shī‘a experienced a political and cultural revival. Since 2003 an internal leadership struggle has developed between the traditionalist ‘ulamā’ represented by Grand Āyatu’llāh ‘Alī al-Sīstānī, the populist radical leadership of Muqtada al-Ṣadr, and powerful Shī‘ī political parties like the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Ḥizb al-Da‘wa al-Islāmīyya over who should lead the country’s Shī‘a.


Arjomand, Said Amir. The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York, 1989.

Dabashi, Hamid. Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York, 1993.

Halm, Heinz. Shi‘ism, 2nd ed. Translated by Janet Watson. New York, 2004.

Jaber, Faleh A. The Shi‘ite Movement in Iraq. London, 2004.

Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shi‘i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi‘ism. New Haven, 1987.

Nakash, Yitzhak. The Shi‘is of Iraq, rev. ed. Princeton, 2003.

Shanahan, Rodger. The Shi‘a of Lebanon: Clans, Parties and Clerics. New York, 2006.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Art of the Martyr & Mujahid: Draft Research Project (Preview)

Bint Jbeil, Lebanon

Gaza, Occupied Palestine

فنّ الشَهيد وَ المجاهد

View a preview of initial work for my current research project, tentatively titled, "The Art of the Martyr & Mujahid." Images and text in the linked document COPYRIGHT by Christopher Anzalone. No duplication for any purpose without prior permission of the author. Click HERE to view working early draft

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Rise of the Arab 'Neo' Conservatives: Salafis Ascendant in the Arab World

'Abd al-'Aziz ibn 'Abdullah al-Shaykh, the grand mufti (chief state religious jurist) of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom's state creed is a vein of the Salafi interpretative trend in Sunni Islam. The best two studies on Salafism and the kingdom are David Commins' The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, and Madawi al-Rasheed's Contesting the Saudi State: Islamist Voices from a New Generation.

By Khalil al-Anani

Brookings Institution, Todd G. Patkin Visiting Fellow,
Saban Center for Middle East Policy

In Kuwait, followers of the Salafi current won a majority of parliamentary seats in the 17 May elections. In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood elected a conservative, Hammam Said, to be their general guide. He is the first Jordanian of Palestinian origin to lead the group since it was founded in 1946. In Egypt, conservatives running the Muslim Brotherhood show no intention of allowing a new generation of younger reformists to take over. In Palestine, Hamas's hawks have been consolidating their position since the movement seized Gaza a year ago, while "pragmatists" are being increasingly sidelined. Wherever you look in the Arab world, Islamist conservatism of the brand known as "Salafist" is gaining ground while moderates seem to be running out of steam. Even regional satellite television stations seem more interested in conservatives than in the mainstream or opposition moderates. Also, many social institutions have fallen into the hands of the Salafis.

Recently, the Salafist trend has widened its appeal to the Arab public. No longer confining themselves to their conventional preaching places, such as the mosque and home gatherings, conservatives are using hi-tech methods, including blogging and Facebook. I have met a few Salafist young men who haven't the slightest interest in updating the content of their beliefs, but nonetheless are computer savvy and networking online all the time. The moment has come for their brand of Salafist discourse, they believe. And they are using the latest technology to connect with thousands of their generation.

As an ideal or a scholarly pursuit, Salafism as such is not a problem, especially if it focuses on safeguarding religious tradition and keeping it pure and alive. But Salafi discourse is full of pitfalls. First, it sublimates a message of "isolation" amongst Arab society. Followers of this current tend to focus solely on the afterlife, rather than on today's issues. In other words, they are willing to "accommodate" hardships rather than turn things around. Second, it is politically "anti-social", for its followers often turn their back on political involvement and public debate. Instead of recognising and analysing reality, they come up with "mystical" interpretations for deteriorating economic and social conditions in the Arab world. Third, it is a culturally isolationist, for its followers view the world in terms of "godly and sinful" or "love and hate". In doing so, they end up alienating anyone with a different faith or mind.

Influential Saudi Salafi scholar Salman al-'Awda (or "Ouda"), one of the "Awakening" (Sahwa Islamiyya) shaykhs of the 1990s, who has since been co-opted by the Saudi monarchy.

So why is the public lapping it all up? In my opinion, a major part of the blame rests with Arab regimes that have been clamping down on other relatively moderate political and Islamist options. The "scorched earth" policies of Arab regimes played a major part in the growth of the Salafi trend in the Arab world. Arab regimes have consistently repressed moderate Islamists, especially those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, in countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Jordan. For the past year or so, moderate Islamists have been relegated to a minor role in pubic life at best. The moderates are becoming marginalised, both intellectually and organisationally, and they seem to have lost all hope in ever becoming influential again.

The regimes tolerated Salafis, sometimes even encouraged them, at the expense of other politically active religious currents. This is true in Jordan, Egypt and Kuwait, among other places. Some regimes are actually fine with the rise of conservative Islam. For one thing, conservatives are not politically active, and therefore less of a threat to authorities. Also, ruling regimes hope to use conservatives to undermine moderate Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. The attitude of the Egyptian regime to the Muslim Brotherhood reminds me of the way president Anwar El-Sadat encouraged Islamists in order to undermine leftists, a course that turned out disastrous in hindsight.

More alarming is the possibility that the ascendance of conservative Salafis would polarise the Arab world. Even if they don't pose an immediate threat to governments, Salafis are bound to alienate all other religious and political groups. Should this happen, violent conservatism, or jihad-based Salafism, may follow. The "literal" interpretations of religion, which Salafis seem quite skilled at, could combine with the militant zeal of well-organised jihad groups, and the mixture could be lethal. This may already be happening in countries such as Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where "conventional" Salafi groups are starting to dabble in political and controversial issues, including the hijab (veil), the mixing of sexes, and the rules of political succession. Salafis were also quite impressed by Hizbullah's recent show of force in Beirut.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other moderate groups are losing their appeal before the Arab public, perhaps because they are focussing on politics and neglecting religion. And mainstream religious organisations, such as Al-Azhar and Muslim youth societies, are not doing so well either. No wonder Salafis are sidling up to centre stage. If anything, this is a moment of truth for moderates. Either they connect once again with the public, or they embrace irrelevance.


Kuwaiti Salafi blog HERE.

Salafi message board HERE.

It should be stressed that the majority of Salafis are not violent jihadis, though they have been portrayed as such by idiotic Western (American) journalists and conservative idio...pundits.

Salafism Rising in Mideast

Associated Press (in the Kuwait Times) October 20, 2008

CAIRO, Egypt: The call to prayer fills the halls of a Cairo computer shopping center, followed immediately by the click of locking doors as the young, bearded tech salesmen close up shop and line up in rows to pray together. Business grinding to a halt for daily prayers is not unusual in conservative Saudi Arabia, but until recently it was rare in the Egyptian capital, especially in affluent commercial districts like Mohandiseen, where the mall is located.

Independent Saudi Salafi scholar Nasir al-'Umar (or "Nasser al-Omar"), who supports armed resistance against foreign occupation in Iraq.

But nearly the entire three-storey mall is made up of computer stores run by Salafis, an ultraconservative Islamic movement that has grown dramatically across the Middle East in recent years. "We all pray together," said Yasser Mandi, a salesman at the Nour El-Hoda computer store. "When we know someone who is good and prays, we invite them to open a shop here in this mall." Even the name of Mandi's store is religious, meaning "Light of Guidance".

The rise of Salafists has critics worried that their beliefs will crowd out the more liberal and tolerant version of Islam long practiced in some Middle East countries, particularly Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. They also warn that its doctrine is only a few shades away from that of violent groups like Al-Qaeda - that it effectively preaches, "Yes to jihad, just not now." In the broad spectrum of Islamic thought, Salafism is on the extreme conservative end. Saudi Arabia's puritanical Wahhabi interpretation is considered the forerunner of modern Salafism, and Saudi preachers on satellite TV - and more recently the Internet - have been key to the spread of Salafism.

Salafist groups are gaining in numbers and influence across the Middle East. In Jordan, a Salafist was chosen as head of the old-line opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. In Kuwait, Salafists were elected to parliament and are leading the resistance to any change that would threaten traditional Islamic values. The gains for Salafists are part of a trend of turning back to conservatism and religion after major political movements like Arab nationalism and Democratic reform failed to fulfill promises to improve the lives of average people. Egypt has been at the forefront of change in both directions, toward liberalization in the 1950s and '60s and back to conservatism more recently.

The growth of Salafism is visible in many parts of Cairo since its adherents set themselves apart with their dress. Women wear the "niqab", a veil which shows only the eyes - if even that - rather than the "hijab" scarf that merely covers the hair. The men grow their beards long and often shave off mustaches to imitate Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The word "salafi" in Arabic means "ancestor", hearkening back to a supposedly purer form of Islam said to have been practiced by Muhammad (PBUH) and his companions in the 7th century. Salafism preaches strict segregation of the sexes and resists any innovation in religion or adoption of Western ways seen as immoral.

When you are filled with stress and uncertainty, black and white is very good, it's very easy to manage," said Selma Cook, an Australian convert to Islam who for more than a decade described herself as a Salafi. "They want to make sure everything is authentic," said Cook, who has moved away from Salafist thought but still works for a Cairo-based Salafi satellite channel Hoda. In most of the region, Salafism has been a purely social movement calling for an ultraconservative lifestyle. Most Salafis shun politics - in fact, many argue that Islamic parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinians' Hamas are too willing to compromise their religion for political gain.

Its preachers often glorify martyrdom and jihad - or holy war - but always with the caveat that Muslims should not launch jihad until their leaders call for it. The idea is that the decision to overturn the political order is up to God, not the average citizen. But critics warn that Salafis could easily slide into more violent, jihadist forms. In North Africa, some already have - the Algerian Salafi Group for Call and Combat has allied itself with al-Qaida and has been blamed for bombings and other attacks. Small pockets of Salafis in northern Lebanon and Gaza have also taken up weapons and formed jihadi-style groups.

I am afraid that this Salafism may be transferred to be a Jihadi Salafism, especially with the current hard socio-economic conditions in Egypt," says Khalil El-Anani, a visiting scholar at Washington's Brookings Institution. The Salafi way contrasts with Islam as it's long been practiced in Egypt, where the population is religious but with a relatively liberal slant. Traditionally, Egyptian men and women mix rather freely and Islamic doctrine has been influenced by local, traditional practices and an easygoing attitude to moral foibles. But Salafism has proved highly adaptable, appealing to Egypt's wealthy businessmen, the middle class and even the urban poor - cutting across class in an otherwise rigidly hierarchical society.

In Cairo's wealthy enclaves of Maadi and Nasr City, upper-class Salafis dressed in traditional robes can be seen driving BMWs to their engineering firms, while their wives stay inside large homes surrounded by servants and children. Sara Soliman and her businessman husband Ahmed el-Shafei both received the best education Egypt had to offer, first at a German-run school, then at the elite American University in Cairo, but they have now chosen the Salafi path.

We were losing our identity. Our identity is Islamic," 27-year-old Soliman said from behind an all-covering black niqab as she sat with her husband in a Maadi restaurant. "In our (social) class, none of us are brought up to be strongly practicing," el-Shafei, also 27, added in American-accented English, a legacy of living in the US until he was 8. Now, he and his wife said, they live Islam as "a whole way of life", rather than just a set of obligations such as daily prayers and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

A dozen satellite TV channels - most Saudi-funded - are perhaps the most effective way Salafism has been spread. They feature conservative preachers, call-in advice shows and discussion programs on proper Islamic behavior. Numerous Salafist mosques in Cairo are packed on Fridays, the day of weekly communal prayers. Outside downtown Cairo's Shaeriyah mosque, a bookstall featured dozens of cassettes by Mohammed Hasaan, a prolific conservative preacher who sermonizes on the necessity of jihad and the injustices inflicted on Muslims.

Alongside the cassettes were rows of books espousing Salafi themes about sin and Western decadence. One book, "The Sinful Behaviors of Women", displayed lipstick, playing cards, perfumes and mobile phones on the cover to make its point. Another was titled "The Excesses of American Hubris". Critics of Salafism say it has spread so quickly in part because of encouragement by the Egyptian and Saudi governments, which see it as an apolitical, nonviolent alternative to hard-line jihadi groups.

Critics warn that the governments are playing with fire, saying Salafism creates an environment that breed extremism. Al-Qaeda continues to try to draw Salafists into jihad, and the terror network's No. 2, the Egyptian Ayman Al-Zawahiri, praised Salafists in an Internet statement in April, urging them to take up arms. "The Salafi line is not that jihad is not a good thing, it is just not a good thing right now," said Richard Gauvain, a lecturer in comparative religion at the American University in Cairo.

The Salafis' talk of eventual jihad focuses on fighting Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, not on overthrowing pro-US Arab governments denounced by Al-Qaeda. Most Salafi clerics preach loyalty to their countries' rulers and some sharply denounce Al-Qaeda. Egypt, with Saudi help, sought to rehabilitate jailed Islamic militants, in part by providing them with Salafi books. Critics say the regime of President Hosni Mubarak sees the Salafists as a counterbalance to the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

The political quietism of the Salafis and their injunctions to always obey the ruler are too good an opportunity for established Arab rulers to pass up, said novelist Alaa Aswani, one of the most prominent critics of rising conservatism in Egypt. "That was a kind of Christmas present for the dictators because now they can rule with both the army and the religion," he said.

The new wave of conservatism is not inevitable, Aswani maintains, noting that his books - including his most popular, "The Yacoubian Building" - have risqué themes and condemnations of conservatives, and yet are bestsellers in Egypt. "The battle is not over, because Egypt is too big to be fitting in this very, very little, very small vision of a religion," he said.

The Brotherhood in the Salafist Universe
By Professor Gilles Kepel
April 2, 2008

Nineteen-seventy-one was a watershed year in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist movement at large. The Egyptian ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser had died the year before, and his successor, Anwar Sadat, adopted an altogether more conciliatory approach toward the Muslim Brotherhood. This effectively brought the era of the Nasserist repression of the Islamist movement in the 1950s and '60s to a formal close. Although the Brotherhood had been almost entirely destroyed during Nasser's reign, the era produced several important outcomes that helped to shape the Brotherhood's rebound and the future development of the Islamist movement as a whole.

First of all, Nasser's brutal policies helped to elevate those Brotherhood leaders whom Nasser had imprisoned and hanged to the status of Muslim martyrs. These Brothers became widely revered as the first martyrs of the post-colonial Muslim world, and after 1971, this helped to improve the Brotherhood movement's political prospects as a whole. Said Qutb, who is still often referred to as "the martyr Said Qutb," is especially significant in this regard. His martyrdom automatically conferred upon him enormous respect, and this in turn helped the Brotherhood tremendously in their efforts to reach out to ordinary Muslims and to build political legitimacy.

University student-supporters of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood

Nasser's authoritarian policies also helped to delegitimize the secular Arab regimes that had been formed after the end of the colonial period. The fact that many of the Brothers were sent to prison or concentration camps and then executed came to be seen widely as a metaphor: Arab society was imprisoned by secular Arab rulers, who were betraying all the popular ideals of post-colonial independence.

Qutb, for example, was incarcerated in Nasser's prisons until 1965 and then, after a brief reprieve, jailed yet again and hanged in 1966. This sort of betrayal of a Muslim martyr lent new credibility to the Brotherhood's claims that secular Arab regimes did not deserve popular support.

Another important outcome of the Nasserite era was that it sent many Egyptian Brothers into exile. The Egyptians fled to a number of countries—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others on the Arabian Peninsula; Pakistan and Afghanistan in Southwest Asia; and countries in North Africa and Europe. This Brotherhood Diaspora facilitated not only the spread of the movement's ideology, but also the establishment of its very strong international networks. In addition to dawa or missionary networks, the Brothers built financial, educational and university networks as well. In this way, the era of Nasserite repression actually fostered the growth of the Brotherhood's "world web."

And yet, despite these improvements in the Brotherhood's overall political prospects after Nasser, the Brotherhood also had new challengers to contend with after 1971—including Islamists themselves. From its founding in the late 1920s to the early days of Nasser's regime, the Muslim Brotherhood was the single most prominent Islamist organization. With virtually no organized competition or alternatives, the Brotherhood was seen as the quintessential point of reference among Islamist sympathizers. But as the Brotherhood was being crushed in Egypt, it came under increasing criticism from within its own ranks and from Islamists outside, and was held accountable for its failures. Why had the Brotherhood been unable to resist Nasser's oppression when they were such a strong mass movement in the early 1950s? What kind of mistakes had they made? Wasn't it time for the Islamist movement to find and adopt a new course in order to overcome its shortcomings?

These questions created deep disputes and, ultimately, a schism within the Brotherhood movement itself that came increasingly to the fore after 1971. On the one hand were those who supported the more radical ideas of Said Qutb, and on the other, those who supported the more traditional, politically-oriented views of Hasan Hudaybi, the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide in the 1960s. That ideological schism, combined with the general autonomy that the Brotherhood's international branches gained after its central leadership in Egypt was crushed by Nasser, created even more rifts within the Islamist movement, and led to the formation of a diverse new range of organizations.

Today, the Brotherhood itself can no longer be considered the single, unified entity that it once had been before Nasser's repression. The divergent roles of the Brotherhood's branches in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and a number of other countries attest to this fact. Several Islamic political movements—the AKP in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, the Algerian Hamas movement, among others—are ideologically and politically indebted to the Brotherhood, though they don't necessarily claim the lineage and can not be considered "true green" Brothers. Similarly, the jihadist wing of the Salafist movement, which is today led by al-Qaeda, is clearly an ideological offspring of the Brotherhood, though they have emphatically repudiated their connections totheir parent body. To understand this diversification within the Brotherhood and the Islamic movement as a whole, it is important to understand the new political realities and dynamics that emerged in post-Nasserist Arab societies after 1971.

The Islamist Revival

It is important to remember that Egypt in the early 1970s was still in a state of shock from its devastating defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967. Among Islamists, it was commonly felt that this humiliation was a punishment visited on Egypt by God for its persecution of Islam and martyrs like Said Qutb. More broadly, reality had put the nationalist and socialist ideas that had held sway in Nasser's era on trial, and those secular ideals had been judged wanting. This produced a sort of ideological vacuum in Egypt that the Brotherhood felt assured that it could fill.

An additional boon to the Brotherhood came from the sweeping policy reforms implemented by Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat. In 1971, Sadat launched his "rectification revolution"—which is, of course, an oxymoron. At the time, Sadat was in- tent on weakening Nasser's pro-Soviet entourage so that he could disentangle Egypt from its existing alliances in the Middle East, curry favor with the United States, and seek rapprochement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Sadat saw the anti-communist Brotherhood as a potential conservative ally in these efforts, and he sought to win their support.

University student rally in support of the Egypt Muslim Brotherhood, which the "Pharaoh" Hosni Mubarak has banned, since it is the only credible opposition movement to the ruling party.

Sadat freed most of the Brothers from prison, and many of them soon wound up on university campuses, where the government granted them relative freedom to organize and propagate their message, as Sadat needed conservative allies to help him break the bones of the left in the academy. Sadat also sent for Omar al-Telmesani, a lawyer who was then the Brothers' Supreme Guide, and offered to give him a license to publish the Brotherhood's long-suppressed monthly bulletin, Call to Islam. The Egyptian Mukhabarat, or intelligence organization, also subsequently befriended the Brotherhood, and in addition to receiving support from the state apparatus, they were freed to mobilize new funding channels in the Gulf.

Taken together, these activities helped bring about the spirit of religious conservatism that characterized Egypt in the first half of the 1970s. This popular embrace of Islamic sentiment and sensibilities in the wake of Nasserism's collapse was in fact due to many factors and dynamics, although the Brotherhood played an important role in spearheading and shaping the tenor of the revival. On university campuses, for instance, the Brotherhood not only opposed the leftists, but also advocated, among other things, for the inclusion of prayers during classes, the wearing of veils by female students, and the segregation of classes by sex.

In this, the Brotherhood's new lease on life unleashed far more than Egypt's new rulers had originally intended. Despite this, Sadat's regime persisted in the belief that it could ultimately outsmart, manipulate and co-opt the Brothers to serve its own, very different interests. That view rubbed off on other regimes as well, and in the early 1970s, pro-Western regimes in the Middle East showed little hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood. This favorable disposition toward the Brotherhood developed even more strongly in the 1980s, when Gulf countries and the CIA provided the financial fuel for the jihad in Afghanistan. That effort was ideologically led, devised, heralded and championed by Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian from Jenin who became one of the most important exponents of the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology in the late twentieth century, as well as the intellectual father of the contemporary jihadist movement.

The Brotherhood's Standing in Saudi Arabia

After being driven out of Egypt in the 1950s and '60s, many Brothers found shelter in Saudi Arabia. The Saud family establishment was extremely hesitant and cautious vis-à-vis the Brotherhood, and they were never permitted access to the core of Saudi society, and to deal openly with religious issues. This was seen as the exclusive domain of the Wahhabis, who had formed an alliance with the ruling family.

But the Saudi elites nonetheless saw the Brothers as useful because—to put it bluntly—they could read and write. While the Wahhabi ulama were ill at ease in dealing with the modern world, the Brothers were well traveled and relatively so- phisticated. They knew foreign languages and, unlike the Wahhabi ulama, were aware that the earth was not flat. The Brothers had been in jail, had political experience, and were skilled in modern polemics that resonated widely with ordinary people. Most of all, they had stood courageously against Saudi Arabia's archenemies, the communists and secularists, and were eager to continue the fight. At the behest of the World Muslim League—which Saudi Arabia created in 1962 to counter Nasser's attempts to internationalize Al Azhar University and promote the view that Islam was compatible with socialism—the Brothers argued in a variety of public forums that communism and socialism were totally antithetical to Islam.

As in Egypt, the Brothers became especially active in the field of education, which was considered by Saudi and Gulf rulers to be innocuous at the time. Like many political leaders, the Arabian rulers looked down their noses at academics because they didn't deal with serious people, only with students. But as we know, those students eventually grow up, and some come to power. This is exactly what happened in Saudi Arabia. Most notoriously, the exiled Egyptian Muhammad Qutb, Said Qutb's brother, was a prominent member of the faculty at the University of Medina and also at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. He was the supervisor of Safar al-Hawali, who would later emerge as a keyleader of theSahwa, or "Awakening," shaykhs, a religious movement known for its open support of rebellion against the Saudi monarchy and support of al-Qaeda.

More broadly speaking, a cross-fertilization of ideas took place between the exiled Brotherhood and the austere teachings of what might be described as the Wahhabi rank and file. That interaction, combined with the new organizational and financial backing of groups like the Muslim World League, would eventually lead to the rise of a new, internationalist form of Salafism. The Brotherhood played a crucial role in shaping this new ideological universe, which is now, in important ways, the dominant cultural force in the Arab Middle East.

The Influence of Said Qutb

In this new, post-Nasser Salafist universe, Brotherhood thinkers like Said Qutb became—and remain to this day—extremely important influences, whereas men like Hasan Hudaybi have been nearly completely forgotten. Hudaybi's legacy may perhaps still be seen in some of the more pragmatic aspects and trends of the Brotherhood's political organization, but today, his writings are seldom read and no one cares about them.

In the early 1970s, the Brotherhood's establishment in Egypt by and large responded warmly to Sadat's conciliatory policies and efforts to court them. These Brothers were pursuing a reformist agenda, hoping that access to the regime would allow them to manipulate it from the inside and eventually cause it to fall. But the memory of Nasser's repression was still strong in the minds of many, and many Brothers saw political participation as a foolish strategy that Sadat would ultimately win.

These Brothers looked to Qutb for an alternate vision.

Said Qutb was executed before he was able to explain his ideas fully, and because of this, his writings remain open to considerable interpretation. His main contribution was to insist that the contemporary world could rightly be declared jahiliyya— that is, synonymous with the pre-Islamic world of ignorance in Arabia that was destroyed by the Prophet Muhammad. Qutb claimed that modern jahiliyyasociety must also be destroyed so that true Islam could once again be built on its ruins.

Qutb's teachings inspired many of the Islamist groups that emerged in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world in the 1970s, and especially those whose leaders came up through the universities. Among those groups was the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which was responsible for the assassination of Sadat in 1981. One of the key figures in that group was, of course, Ayman al-Zawahiri, although he did not actually favor Sadat's assassination at the time.

Zawahiriis the Egyptian-born scion of very prominent aristocratic families on both his maternal and paternal sides. On his mother's side, his great uncle was the founder of the Arab League, and members of the family had married into Saudi royalty. On his father's side, several relatives were prominent academics, and a great-uncle had held one of the leading chairs at Al Azhar University. From an early age, Zawahiri himself was very much taken with Qutb's ideas, and one of his uncles was actually Qutb's lawyer. Zawahiri and his young associates believed that Qutb's ideas had to be developed into a worldview—one that would have nothing to do with the Brothers' political activities and purported compromises with the jahillya state. After Sadat was assassinated, they spent time in jail, but once freed, they fled to Saudi Arabia where they caught connecting flights to Peshawar.

The Afghan Crucible

In Afghanistan all the different factions within the Islamist movement, which had been smashed open by Nasser's repression and unable to reconcile under Sadat, found common ground under the banner of armed jihad. The ultimate success of the jihad in Afghanistan dealt serious blows not only to the communist world, but also helped to silence Ayatollah Khomeini's claim to hegemony in the Muslim world after the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979.

By the end of the 1980s, therefore, the Brothers and other Islamist radicals who were in Afghanistan were convinced that the sky was the limit. The Brothers had invested heavily in Afghanistan—sending university students, doctors from their medical associations, money, weapons—and they cherished their part in the victory. The Soviet Union had been defeated and its empire destroyed. As some saw it, it was now even possible to turn against the other enemy: the United States.

But the old questions remained: how should one proceed? Should the success and impetus of the Afghan jihad be used to bring more pressure to bear on the regimes at home from within? Or, in the spirit of Qutb's vision of struggling against jahiliyya, should an effort be made to duplicate the Afghan model and develop guerrilla cells in Egypt, Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, and wherever else there was an opportunity to topple a regime in the name of Islam?

These were open questions at the time, and remain very much so to this day. On the one hand, the radicals insisted that the Brothers had sold out, and that there was no reason to have anything to do with them. Zawahiri, for instance, wrote a long book in the early 1990s entitled Al-Hasad Al Mur Muslimin (The Bitter Harvest), that very strongly criticized the Muslim Brotherhood's participation in politics. This strategy, Zawahiri argued, had led nowhere for sixty years, and it was pointless for the Islamic movement to continue along this path.

Just as the Brotherhood was rejected by the more radical Islamists, they were not embraced by secular Arab rulers and the West as they had been in the past. Whereas during the Cold War the Brothers tried to extend their hands to the Arab regimes and present themselves as the bulwark against both leftists and radicals, a new game had started. The Soviet Union had disappeared, as had Communism and the leftist threat. In the 1990s, the question in the West became how to deal with the Brothers: should they be enlisted to help Arab regimes, as well as the United States and Europe, to contend with the Islamist radicals? Or, on the contrary, should they be perceived as part and parcel of the threat? What, exactly, is the place of the Brotherhood in the Salafist universe that emerged since 1971?

The MB Today and the Lessons of Palestine

How, then, does the Muslim Brotherhood now function in terms of violence, politics, and the like? To what extent is it different from more radical groups, and to what extent is it similar? Hamas provides an interesting example. Because of the weakness of the Brotherhood in the wake of Nasser's persecution, most of the local factions gained autonomy. Hamas, for example, while technically the Brotherhood's Palestinian branch, makes it own decisions. Hamas has gained such preeminence within the Islamist world that it no longer needs to take orders from the Egyptians, though it may accept the Egyptian Brothers' financial help.

The Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zaharhave recently made it clear that their movement in Gaza focuses first and foremost on national Palestinian issues. Despite paying lip service to the problem of Muslim persecution everywhere, Hamas is not at all interested in the global issues of the Muslim Umma that dominate al-Qaeda's ideology. The strong national agenda of the Brotherhood's Palestinian branch led the organization to clash with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the two sides struggled to gain hegemony over the Palestinian political field. But before the first Intifada of 1987, the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine caused Israel no real concern.

On the contrary, the Israelis appreciated the Brothers because they offered an alternative to the PLO, and because they seemed to be primarily concerned with missionary activities and social service. They were perceived favorably, as they had been by Sadat early on, as enemies of their enemies. In the case of the Israelis, those enemies were Fatah and the PLO.

When the first Intifada started in December 1987, however, the Brothers created Hamas and took part as an opponent of Israel. This new incarnation of the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood now advocated violence, but its primary goal remained the ouster of the PLO from power within Palestine. This became a rather long campaign, and it is evident in hindsight that the Oslo peace process was actually an attempt by both the PLO and the Israelis to marginalize Hamas—to keep it from becoming a part of the ruling Palestine establishment. The failure of the Oslo peace process and the second Intifada put this matter on the table again, of course, and ultimately led to the political failure of the PLO and to Hamas's political victory in the elections of late January 2006.

Martyr poster for Sa'id Siyyam, interior minister of the Palestinian National Authority before Fatah took over the PNA, negating a democratic election in 2007. Siyyam was assassinated in January 2009 by the Israeli military and security forces. Contrary to the BBC obituary article, HAMAS acted before a Fatah-planned coup, routing Fatah's paramilitaries and the "Dahlan gangs" of Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan. Siyyam was one of two senior HAMAS leaders to be assassinated by Israel, the other being Nizar 'Abd al-Qadir Rayyan, the leader of the Islamist movement's paramilitary wing, the Martyr 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, in Gaza.

The top three lines read: Society of the Muslim Brothers (Muslim Brotherhood); Islamic Resistance Movement--HAMAS; and the Brigades of the Martyr 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam, named after a 1930s Arab Palestinian guerilla leader killed fighting the British in 1935. Siyyam is identified as "the Fighter-Leader for HAMAS," and as the "Wazir al-Dakhaliyya," the interior minister. HAMAS, and other Muslim socio-political movements in Palestine, particularly in Gaza and what is now southern Israel (former Palestine), emerged initially as branches of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. However, the organization today is independent.

Poster was obtained by and is the property of Christopher Anzalone and may not be reproduced without his express permission, and proper accreditation.

These developments have focused attention on a quintessential contradiction within the Muslim Brotherhood movement: Hamas is a group that has used violence, such as suicide bombings, to gain political clout but has nevertheless successfully fielded candidates in legitimate elections. The effect of Hamas's actions on the Islamist movement as a whole is striking. Illustrative of the reaction are Zawahiri's videos, which convey absolute fury with Hamas for taking part in and winning elections. He and others say that Hamas represents a betrayal of the Islamic cause, and have argued that Hamas's path would lead only to more catastrophes for the Islamic movement.

The Brotherhood in Crisis

While the Brotherhood faces big questions in this new era, so does the West. It must decide if Hamas is part of the problem in Palestine and Israel, or part of the solution. How should Western countries, which supported the Brothers in the past when they fought against the leftists, now see Hamas? How should they deal with a movement soaked in the blood of so many Israelis and other Palestinians as well? In the wake of the crisis that left the Gaza Strip entirely in the hands of Hamas and the West Bank more or less under the control of the PLO and Israel, these questions will not go away.

During a recent trip to Gaza, I interviewed Mahmoud Zahar and asked him how he saw the future of Palestine. Five years ago, in response to the same question, he had told me that the whole of Palestine would one day be Islamic; the Jews would either be driven out or be dead. This time around, however, Zahar insisted that he had become more pragmatic. He now recognized that Israel was indeed a fact and had to be dealt with. Hamas wants, he said, to be a part of any negotiations.

No one is obliged to believe him, of course. Some will surely argue that Zahar is insincere and simply compelled to say this because of Hamas's current position of weakness. But I think that such a statement is nonetheless significant because of what it reveals about the Brotherhood, not only in Palestine, but also in Egypt, Turkey and other countries—namely, that the Brothers' own political practice now stands in contradiction to its ideology. The Brothers are torn between radical politics, which have been somewhat discredited by al-Qaeda's failure to move forward, and a mode of dealing with the West and with the democratic system that they fear will destroy them.

In the 1930s and 40s, the Brotherhood was a cohesive movement with a coherent ideology. It had a very clear set of ideas that it sought to implement, and this attracted many followers. I would contend that today the doubts and contradictions arising from the Brothers' loss of a clear message, as well as from the divisions within the larger Islamist movement, have relegated the Brotherhood to a position of political and ideological weakness. In light of the Brothers' apparent strength in electoral terms, this conclusion may seem paradoxical. But a sound analysis of the Brothers' current thinking and activities is necessary to understand fully the reasons for this weakness.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Palestinian & Arab Israeli Christians Protest Israeli Television Channel's Anti-Christian Skit

Palestinian & Arab Israeli Christians Protest Israeli Television Channel's Anti-Christian Skit

By Jack Khoury
Ha'aretz [Israel]; 22 February 2009

A satiric sketch on Channel 10 television prompted dozens of Christians in the Galilee to demonstrate against the channel this weekend, while the heads of local Christian churches published a denunciation of their own.

In their denunciation, the clergymen accused the skit of fomenting interreligious hatred.

The skit, which aired on Lior Shlein's nightly program, was called "Like a Virgin," after the Madonna song.

It denied that Jesus had walked on water, as stated in the New Testament, and claimed that not only was Mary not a virgin when she gave birth to him, as Christian tradition holds, but that she was promiscuous and had sex with many men besides her husband.

These events followed a denunciation by the Vatican on Friday.

After the show aired, the local Christian community demanded an apology from Shlein and even threatened a lawsuit against him and Channel 10; attorneys are now examining whether there are legal grounds for such a suit. Christian and Muslim clergymen also urged Pope Benedict XVI to cancel his planned trip here later this year. In addition, two Knesset members, Hanna Swaid (Hadash) and Nadia Hilou (Labor), demanded that Attorney General Menachem Mazuz order a criminal investigation of Shlein and Channel 10.

The Vatican's statement said that in the skit, Mary and Jesus were "ridiculed with blasphemous words and images" that amounted to a "vulgar and offensive act of intolerance toward the religious sentiments of believers in Christ."The Tomb of Christ inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City during the Festival of Holy Fire, held every year by Orthodox Christians during Easter week.

It added that the Vatican was particularly saddened that such an attack had been directed at Jesus and Mary, who were themselves "children of Israel."

The statement by local clergymen, headed by Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, said the skit "causes rifts and divisions, foments hatred and distances values that the church professes, first and foremost tolerance and acceptance of the other."

It also said the skit was merely the latest in a series of disturbing anti-Christian incidents over the last year, such as the burning of several New Testaments in Or Yehuda.

"For years, Christianity has been fighting anti-Semitism, and now Christians find themselves under anti-Semitic attack," the statement said. It also urged the state to take action to prevent further affronts to Christian sensibilities.

The demonstration against the skit took place yesterday along the Acre-Safed highway in the Galilee. The organizers said they were very pleased by the Vatican's statement, and particularly by its conclusion that this was not acceptable satire, but an affront to the sensibilities of all Christians everywhere. "Shlein crossed red lines," said one, George Anton.

Both Shlein and Channel 10 issued apologies immediately after the storm erupted. Channel 10 also promised that the sketch would not be aired again.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Zionism's Internal Others: Israel and the Oriental Jews

Dawood Marhabi (C), a Yemeni Arab Jew from al-Salem village in the province of Saada, is seen with Muslim guests at the wedding party of fellow Yemeni Jew Yussef Saeed Hamdi (not in picture), in the village of Raydah in Yemen's Amran province, 70 kms north of Sanaa. Hamdi is completing his studies in Jerusalem but he came back home to get married to a young woman from his community, according to relatives. A few hundred Arab Jews still live in Yemen.

Zionism's Internal Others: Israel and the Oriental Jews

By Joseph Massad
Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics & Intellectual History Columbia University

Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4 (2007)

The creation of the State of Israel by European Jews was predicated upon reconfiguring Jewish identities. European Zionist leaders asserted that the creation of a Jewish state would normalize the abnormal situation of European Jewry insofar as it would give them, like Christian Europeans, a state of their own. In addition to defending European Jews against anti-Semitic attacks, Zionism was also going to make possible activity denied to them in Europe, especially in agriculture and soldiery. Hence, the objective of the Zionist movement was not simply to transplant European Jews in a new area, but to transform the very nature of their society as it had existed in the Diaspora, until then.

The type of Jewish culture that Zionism wanted to create had nothing to do with Diaspora culture, seen as a manifestation of oppressed Jewishness. Yiddish, stigmitized as a product of that culture, was and is actively discouraged in favor of Hebrew, while the Arabic of Arab Jews became the contemptible language of the enemy. In sum, Israel created a new Israeli identity and culture alien to Diaspora Jews. Zionism's commitment to cosmopolitan European gentile culture as the totalitarian basis for the New Jew led Georges Friedmann to assert that Israel "constitutes a new kind of assimilation liable to produce 'generations of Hebrew-speaking Gentiles.'"
NIF organizations protest discrimination against Mizrahi girls in
ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi schools.

Thus the creation of Israel was to have far-reaching effects not only for Palestinian Arabs but also on the identity both of European Jews and of Asian and African Jews. Whereas non-European Jews were classified as Sephardim (Spaniards) and later Mizrahim (Easterners) and were juztaposed to the Yiddish-speaking Jews whose Ashkenazi identity preceded Zionism, Palestinians were divided into Druze, Bedouin, and Christian and Muslim Arabs. Israel, consequently, was based on a complete overhauling of the ethnic identities of the population over whom it was to have jurisdiction. The irony about the Mizrahi identity created by the Ashkenazi establishment is that it came to be internalized by the Mizrahim themselves, who launched ethnic protests based on it.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Will the Relationship Change? Yes it Can

An [I think] overly rosey-yet-still-interesting analysis of what U.S. President Barack Obama can do with regard to the Middle East "peace process," [so-called]...

Will the Relationship Change? Yes it Can

The Economist [February 12, 2009]

Israel and the Palestinians seem stuck in a poisonous morass, as Israeli voters shift to the right. President Barack Obama has a chance of hauling them out of it

AT FIRST glance, the chances of peace between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land look dimmer than ever. If Binyamin Netanyahu ends up as prime minister (see article), Israel’s voters will have elected a man who, on paper at least, is unwilling to let the Palestinians have anything more in the way of a state than a hollowed-out Swiss cheese of feebly linked cantons. He says the moderate Palestinians are too weak to control the West Bank and need to be strengthened, under Israeli supervision, before any more territory can be handed over to them.

Moreover, even if the centrist Tzipi Livni wins the day, with her support for talks leading to two states living peacefully side by side, the Palestinians are for the moment so sour and so divided that they have no government or leader strong enough to cut a deal and make it work. In any event, after Israel’s ferocious assault on the Gaza Strip in December and January, there is no certainty that the current ceasefire will hold with the Islamists of Hamas, which still rules that territory despite its pasting.

Yet hope persists, in part because Barack Obama has a chance of making American policy more even-handed and more effective, after eight years mostly wasted by George Bush and, before that, another eight years in which Bill Clinton tried but failed, to bring the two sides together. More even-handed means more sympathetic to Palestinians. But it also means more security, in the long run, for Israel.

True, nothing spectacular is likely to happen for months. For one thing, an Israeli government could take weeks or more to emerge, and could then prove hobbled by religious and other clamps. For another, Mr Obama, who sees the American economy as his priority, has yet to acquire his own Middle East team, let alone policy, under the dual aegis of Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state and George Mitchell as his special envoy. Besides, not just the Palestinians but also the Arabs and the wider region are in diplomatic disarray.

Many of those Americans urging Mr Obama to take a new approach towards Iran, for instance, admit that little of substance is likely to alter until after Iran’s presidential election in June, when the erratic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may—or may not—be ousted (see article). Iran, by the by, still eggs Hamas on to make negotiations with Israel difficult if not impossible.

Syria is more promising. Even Mr Netanyahu, if he succeeds in forming a government, is likely to respond favourably to American suggestions that he continue the efforts of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert of the Kadima party, led now by Ms Livni, to negotiate a deal with Syria, whereby Israel would give up the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty similar to those already signed with Jordan and Egypt. Opening a “Syrian track” is widely considered, by the new policymakers in Washington, to be a good idea. But an Israeli deal with Syria alone is no substitute for negotiations over the nub of the matter: a direct deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr Obama faces three early tests. The first, and perhaps the easiest, is to spell out his vision of a Palestinian state. Its outlines are well known and have been more or less agreed by sensible Palestinians and Israelis, including those in power, for the past decade. Israel would return to the armistice line that existed before the 1967 war, with minor adjustments and territorial swaps of equal size and quality, and would probably keep the three biggest Jewish settlement blocks that bulge out from the 1967 line. Jerusalem would be tortuously but fastidiously divided, allowing each side to have its capital there, with international oversight of the holy places. Palestinians would be granted a symbolic right for their refugees to return on the understanding that only a small and carefully calculated proportion of them would actually do so. Palestine would be sovereign but demilitarised, with an international force, perhaps led by NATO, securing its borders, both along the Jordan valley and maybe between Gaza and Egypt. A road-and-rail link, internationally monitored, might well connect the 50km (30 miles) or so between Gaza and the West Bank.

Mr Olmert himself recently announced, soon after his decision to leave office amid corruption allegations, his wholehearted adoption of the broad package described above. In particular, he mentioned a need to give back “all or nearly all” of the occupied territories and to let the Palestinians have their capital in Jerusalem, on its east side. The clear support of Mr Obama would bolster the region’s many moderates and put recalcitrant Israelis and Palestinians alike on the spot.

The president’s second big test, widely mooted, will be to warn the Israelis that further expansion of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, either by extension of boundaries or “natural growth”, is totally unacceptable—and will have painful repercussions if it goes on. It is unlikely, in the short run, that an American president, even Mr Obama, would have the nerve to cut military or other aid to Israel in a hurry. The only president to have threatened to do so was George Bush senior, in 1991, when he said he would withhold guarantees on loans. Since then, every Israeli leader has continued to allow settlement expansion, in contravention of international law, without a serious American reaction.

In a recent article in Newsweek one of Mr Bush’s advisers on Israel-Palestine, Aaron Miller, made a rueful confession:

In 25 years of working on this issue for six secretaries of state, I can’t recall one meeting where we had a serious discussion with an Israeli prime minister about the damage that settlement activity—including land confiscation, bypass roads and housing demolitions—does to the peacemaking process. There is a need to impose some accountability. And this can only come from the president. But Obama should make it clear that America will not lend its auspices to a peacemaking process in which the actions of either side wilfully undermine the chances of an agreement America is trying to broker. No process at all would be better than a dishonest one that hurts America’s credibility.

Cutting aid is not the only lever Mr Obama has for jolting Israel into acquiescence over the settlements. Louder verbal expressions of dismay than any of his predecessors have made would be one more. Letting Israel know that the United States cannot any longer be certain to veto finger-wagging resolutions at the United Nations would be another.

But Mr Obama’s hardest test of diplomacy will be drawing Hamas, directly or indirectly, into negotiations. As things stand, Hamas remains excluded because it has refused to meet three laid-in-concrete conditions: a disavowal of terrorism; accepting Israel’s right to exist; and going along with previous agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the nationalist umbrella group to which Hamas does not belong, which would imply acceptance of a two-state solution. Mr Obama during his election campaign and Mrs Clinton since her appointment as secretary of state have reiterated those conditions. Yet a growing body of fixers trying to solve the Israel-Palestine problem, including many Americans in the Obama camp, now think Hamas must be involved, while at the same time knowing that Hamas is certain not to meet those three conditions unambiguously or straight away.

On paper, Hamas rejects Israel’s existence outright. Its charter, which contains anti-Semitic slurs and slanders, seeks to establish sharia law on all the territory of mandated Palestine, between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean. It glories in martyrdom. Since 1993, and especially during the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) from 2001 to 2004, it has carried out more than 100 suicide attacks on Israeli civilians, killing at least 400. It has sanctioned the firing of rockets, though mostly home-made and rarely lethal, at Israeli towns across from Gaza. It reviles its secular rival, Fatah, for its supposed treachery in accepting the Jewish state and the principle of Palestine’s partition.

But Hamas is probably indispensable if there is to be a breakthrough towards negotiation. For one thing, it may well be the most popular Palestinian group (see table to the left). It won the last general election in the Palestinian territories fair and square, with nearly 44% of the votes to Fatah’s 41%, getting a big majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament. And it still controls Gaza, despite its recent pummelling by the Israelis and despite a blockade and economic sanctions that have lasted intermittently for more than three years. Hamas says it would stop firing rockets, at least for a period, if the blockade were lifted.

In any event, Hamas is more pragmatic than its charter suggests. In conversations with various Western notables, including former President Jimmy Carter and a former head of the American Jewish Congress, Henry Siegman, and in articles in the Western press (in the Guardian, the Washington Post and elsewhere), its two most prominent leaders, Khaled Meshaal, its secretary-general, and Ismail Haniyeh, its prime minister, have edged towards meeting that trio of conditions.

They state that Hamas would accept Israel “as a reality” if it withdrew to the 1967 boundary and if the Palestinian people accepted the terms of a final deal in a referendum. Hamas would also agree to a hudna, a ceasefire plus a political engagement, which—depending on circumstances and on whom in Hamas you talk to—could be 18 months, ten years, or even 50.

Plainly, differences rumble within in Hamas. Its leadership is scattered, with Mr Meshaal in Damascus, Mr Haniyeh in Gaza and nearly all those elected to parliament and resident in the West Bank now in Israeli prisons. Some of the religious zealots may well believe in the obnoxious charter. Others, including Messrs Meshaal and Haniyeh, try to brush it off and then, if pressed, dangle it as an item for negotiation, much as Fatah used the dropping of the PLO’s charter, which equally rejected Israel’s existence, as a bargaining tool.

Most Palestinians who voted for Hamas also, judging by a raft of opinion polls, actually support the notion of two states. Hamas’s popularity is based not on its call for Israel’s annihilation, but on its reputation for honesty in contrast to Fatah’s for corruption, on its determination to fight against Israel and on Fatah’s failure, so far, to win a state by negotiation. Most Palestinians still want unity between Fatah and Hamas so that a broad government can prise a state out of Israel’s hands, on the West Bank and Gaza.

Nearly two years ago, at Mecca, the two groups did sign a short-lived unity accord. Hamas agreed, among other things, to “respect” previous PLO agreements, which implied an acceptance of Israel via a two-state solution, though the precise wording later got tangled up in angry semantics: did respect mean accept, and so on? In any event, a few months later, when Fatah was poised militarily to unseat Hamas from its control of Gaza, the Islamists—as they explain it—launched a pre-emptive coup, since when they have kept Fatah, often ruthlessly, out of power in the Strip.

There is little doubt that Mr Mitchell will seek to draw Hamas in. He learnt, during his successful peace-broking in Northern Ireland in 1995-98, that groups such as the Irish Republican Army could not be expected to meet preconditions, such as a definitive disavowal of violence, if an eventual peace was to be achieved. It would be astonishing if he did not apply similar logic—though necessarily, at this stage, in private—in dealing with Hamas. Britain’s Tony Blair, who as prime minister worked closely with Mr Mitchell for peace in Northern Ireland, may become more active as an international envoy for peace in Israel-Palestine. It is increasingly clear that no deal in that case will stick if only one half of the Palestinian movement is involved.

In mainstream American politics, especially Jewish-American circles, the idea of talking to Hamas has been virtually taboo. This is no longer true. After Mr Obama’s election, a group of senior bipartisan foreign-policy veterans handed a compelling letter, still unpublished, to the incoming president. Its signatories included Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, who headed the National Security Council in Mr Carter’s and George Bush senior’s White House; Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who for many years chaired the House committees on foreign affairs and intelligence; Sam Nunn, a Democrat who chaired the Senate’s armed services committee; Paul Volcker, a long-time chairman of the Federal Reserve; Mr Siegman; and James Wolfensohn, a former head of the World Bank who was more recently entrusted by the younger President Bush with reviving the Palestinian economy.

The letter’s three key demands were that Mr Obama should appoint an even-handed special envoy with real clout (done); that he should spell out a clear vision for a Palestinian state (awaited); and that he should seek to draw Hamas into talks (not so easy). A key member of Mr Mitchell’s staff, Fred Hof, who previously co-drafted Mr Mitchell’s famous report on the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2001, is close to the Scowcroft group.

Mr Mitchell’s appointment was warmly applauded by that group and greeted coolly by many in the old pro-Israeli lobbies, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). More to the point, though there have been other recent envoys to the Middle East, none has as much potential influence on the president as Mr Mitchell. General Jim Jones, too, Mr Obama’s new national security adviser, is a tough realist with recent experience in trying to improve security between Israel and Palestine. He is in hock to neither side.

No one is sure how Mrs Clinton, as secretary of state, will relate to Mr Mitchell—or to the Israelis and Palestinians. Since she became a senator for New York, she has ardently echoed more or less whatever AIPAC has said about Israel-Palestine. But some people recall how, when it was still controversial and her husband was president, Mrs Clinton called for a Palestinian state and even kissed Yasser Arafat’s wife after she had castigated Israel, a moment of horror in AIPAC’s eyes. Most probably, if Mrs Clinton sees a chance for a breakthrough to peace, she will go for it, whatever her previous constituents may think.

As for Mr Obama himself, no one is certain what he thinks; listening on such ticklish issues has been his forte. But those who have discussed Israel-Palestine with him reckon he is a lot more knowledgeable, even-handed and open-minded than his predecessor. He will not jump into the morass without careful preparation, but there is a fair chance, once Mr Mitchell has drawn up a plan, that the new president will engage quite soon.

Most Americans still strongly back Israel in its determination to defend itself. Expressions of support for the Israelis during the Gaza war and an inclination to blame the Palestinians for starting it ran nearly four-to-one in the Israelis’ favour. Evangelical Christians, a large and powerful constituency, still revere Israel as ordained by God to hold sway over the Holy Land.

But look harder at the polls and you see a striking shift in several sets of American attitudes, particularly among Democrats and liberal and younger Jews, which may give Mr Obama more room for manoeuvre. A big gap in support for Israel between Democrats and Republicans has opened up. Most striking is the emergence of a vigorous bunch called J Street, which declares itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace” but is far keener to see the Palestinian point of view. It is bluntly opposed to AIPAC and the array of groups that have backed Israel whatever the circumstances. In the new Obama era, the J Street people, together with a budding variety of other outfits, such as Americans for Peace Now, are on a roll, and are beginning to make at least some headway on Capitol Hill. Most strikingly, J Street has outspokenly called for Israel and its American friends to engage with Hamas.

AIPAC is still very powerful. Many congressmen who have lauded J Street for what it is doing are wary of backing it openly, though it says more than 40 (of 435 in the House of Representatives) have publicly accepted its endorsement. But AIPAC is rattled. The point that J Street makes most forcefully is that, in the end, AIPAC has been bad for Israel’s security by invariably encouraging it to pursue policies that will not lead to peace with Palestinians.

Mr Obama has many friends who passionately back the Israeli cause, not least his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. The new man is also close to many young Jewish Democrats who sympathise with J Street’s thesis that “tough love” is what Israel needs if it is to survive, by squeezing it into giving the Palestinians a fair deal. Many knowledgeable gloomsters think a two-state solution is too late already. Today’s picture is bleak. But maybe there is a last-chance opening for a new president with a new team, new tactics, and a different set of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian backers, including Jewish ones, back home.