Fundamentalisms

Malise Ruthven

  • Two Minutes over Baghdad by Amos Perlmutter, Michael Handel and Uri Bar-Joseph
    Corgi, 192 pp, £1.75, April 1982, ISBN 0 552 11939 3
  • Inside the Middle East by Dilip Hiro
    Routledge, 471 pp, £12.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 7100 9030 7
  • America Held Hostage: The Secret Negotiations by Pierre Salinger
    Deutsch, 349 pp, £10.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 233 97456 3

No one contemplating the events of the past few weeks can doubt that the complex and intractable conflicts of the Middle East pose a far greater threat to world peace than the ugly fight in the South Atlantic ever did. Despite the windy rhetoric about principles, the Falklands conflict has been a comparatively simple one about sovereignty over disputed territory, involving national prestige – and therefore the political survival of two governments (or rather juntas, one has been tempted to add, as the Westminster variety increasingly resembled its Argentine counterpart in shrillness and implacability). The Middle East is a sweltering miasma of political conflicts where sovereignty is only one among a number of issues. Disputed territory in the Shatt el Arab, official cause of the Iran-Iraq war, or on the West Bank of the Jordan, is only an element in much deeper conflicts involving allegiance, ideology and group identity, exacerbated by the existence of oil and strategic assets which keep the super-powers waiting anxiously on the side-lines, hesitating to intervene directly, yet too opportunistic, or unsure of their interests, to blow the final whistle.

The emergence of Israel as a monopolist nuclear power in the region, as documented by Professor Perlmutter and his two collaborators, adds a new, alarming dimension to the picture. Having secured its south-western flank by the peace treaty with Egypt, the embattled Jewish state is currently arranging its solution to the Palestinian problem. After removing the PLO bases in Lebanon, it will soon be free to absorb the West Bank within Begin’s ‘Greater Isráel’ and to defend its gains, including a portion of Southern Lebanon, with nuclear weapons. From now on, so it would seem, the Palestine problem will be ‘internal’ to Israel – a struggle to be waged on the streets and in the prisons, away from the eyes of the international community. The ‘autonomy’ envisaged by the Camp David agreements is unlikely to extend beyond garbage collection.

Ostensibly Two Minutes over Baghdad is a True Life Adventure Story in the ‘Entebbe’ tradition, in which an author trades his skills as a publicist against ‘inside’ information supplied by intelligence sources. The effect, like that of the Entebbe books, will be to enhance the Israeli Defence Forces’ reputation for skilled planning, training and derring-do. The operation, which knocked out Iraq’s Tammuz reactor on 7 June 1981, was brilliantly executed; the authors, all of whom are academics, tell the story in a competent, rather than inspired manner. The book, however, also has a more serious purpose, which is to announce, semi-officially, that Israel is a member of the nuclear club and intends to retain its monopoly so long as its neighbours are ‘irrational’ enough not to recognise its existence as a state within those frontiers it chooses to define for itself. The book is openly partisan, often tendentious, and carefully avoids drawing attention to such inconvenient facts as Israel’s refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty which would, of course, allow international inspection of its own nuclear facilities at Dimona. The authors follow Mr Begin’s line, treated sceptically by some Israeli nuclear experts, that the Tammuz reactor was on the point of being able to produce weapons-grade material, although any such conversion to weapons use would instantly have set the alarm bells ringing in the International Atomic Energy Authority. As a signatory to the NPT, Iraq is obliged to open its reactors to IAEA inspectors.

More significant than its unconvincing justification of the Baghdad raid (which enabled Mr Begin to win an election he would otherwise almost certainly have lost) is the light the book throws on Israel’s current nuclear policy. Officially the Government’s position remains that ‘Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East,’ although the deterrent effect of its own bombs, now thought to number several dozen, depends, of course, upon others knowing about them. Interestingly, the authors suggest that President Sadat’s decision to pursue limited military objectives in the 1973 war, as well as his spectacular visit to Jerusalem in 1977, was prompted by his very real alarm at Israel’s nuclear capacity. The authors also suggest that in 1973 the US was ‘blackmailed’ into ferrying massive arms deliveries to Israel during the early, and dangerous, days of the war because of Mrs Meir’s threats to use nuclear weapons.

Obviously the authors received permission to reveal the facts contained in the book in order to enhance Israel’s nuclear credibility. There is always the possibility, however, that the authorities have in some cases deliberately exaggerated this capability in order to put the fear of God into Israel’s enemies. What is one to make of the hair-raising conjecture that Israel – with South Africa and Taiwan – has developed a cruise-missile system with a range of 1500 miles? Consciously or otherwise, the authors continually resort to double standards in accusing Arab governments of ‘irrationality’ and terrorism, while documenting the terrorist activities, including acts of murder and sabotage, with which Israeli intelligence agencies sought to neutralise the nuclear opposition. At the same time they fail to mention the fact, reported in the specialist literature, that President Saddam Hussein’s decision to ‘go nuclear’ derived in part from his perception of Israel’s nuclear capability. Even these authors, however, are unable to sustain the argument that Israel’s monopolist doctrine can be maintained indefinitely. At best, the Baghdad raid can have brought Israel a year or two’s breathing-space: at worst, it will encourage Iraq and other Arab governments to speed up their nuclear programmes, and to ensure that their installations are better protected in future. The authors, for all their support for Begin’s action, do not effectively dispose of the argument that its main effect will have been to accelerate the process of nuclear proliferation in the region.

The extreme Zionist ideology represented by Begin and his Defence Minister Sharon is a kind of inverted anti-semitism, founded in the belief that ‘Jewishness’, and the supposed historic rights associated with it, absolutely transcend other values, including those of rational self-interest. Rational interests dictate that Israel should integrate itself into the region by making sufficient accommodation with the Palestinians to satisfy the minimum desire of the latter for self-determination. Such a policy would involve encouraging those moderate elements within the Palestinian leadership who have already indicated a willingness to trade recognition of Israel against a sovereign state on the West Bank. Unfortunately such rational self-interest conflicts with the Biblical premise of Zionist ideology that Jews, wherever they are or whoever they happen to be, have an absolute and unconditional right to settle in any part of ‘historic’ Israel. The criterion of Jewishness being birth rather than choice, ethnicity rather than religious faith or affiliation, Israel’s critics have accused it of being, along with South Africa, one of two modern states openly founded on racialist principles. The charge, though plausible, is imprecise. The notion that Jewishness has a biological, as distinct from a cultural and religious basis, is false: those who hold it have assimilated, consciously or otherwise, the categories of the Nazis.

The Arabs, like the Jews, are a people whose self-image has been developed out of a religious identification. The Quran – God’s ‘final revelation’ to mankind – was revealed in Arabic: a fact which the majority took as meaning that Arabic is the language of God; for centuries religious scholars, whatever their national origins, denounced as infidels anyone who translated the Quran into another language. The divine text is ambiguous on this, as on many other topics: reference to an Arabic Quran, or Discourse, has been taken by non-Arabs to mean that God’s messages, which are universal, were delivered in the local language. For Arabs, however, Arab and Muslim identities have tended to merge imperceptibly into each other. Christian Arabs, protected along with the Jews as one of the ‘Peoples of the Book’, were by and large culturally assimilated to ‘Islamdom’ until the European powers, principally France and Russia, chose to extend their ‘protection’ to them during the declining years of the Ottoman Empire. Islam’s religious pluralism became the principal means by which the colonial powers first undermined, then destroyed Islam’s cultural hegemony. (The process continues today as Israel publicly takes on France’s 19th-century role of ‘protector’ of the Lebanese Maronites.)

The effect of this weakening of Islam had catastrophic results for the peoples of the Middle East, because for many centures Islamic law and culture had been the binding force that held them together in the face of endemic political instability. The reasons for such instability were partly geographic: in a region of low rainfall pastoral elements, because they cannot be subdued politically, pose a continuous challenge to central government. Military dynasties came and went, but at the urban level society retained a relatively cohesive and international character: state and society were not co-extensive as in Western Europe. Since the First World War the political fragmentation of the region has been accentuated by ideological confusion, as new élites, assimilating European ideas, sought in nationalism a source of legitimacy comparable to the old criteria of Islamic government. With the possible exception of Turkey, the effort failed, not least because, unlike their counterparts in Western Europe, the indigenous middle classes had never come to think of themselves as distinctive national groupings with corporate identities. Islamic law, a powerful moral, though not necessarily legal, force, never gave formal acknowledgment to corporate status. The result has been that older sectarian or tribal group allegiances have continued to predominate, as they did in the past, but without the social constraints of the common ‘Islamicate’ culture. The disastrous consequences can be seen most clearly in Lebanon, where the state disintegrated completely when faced with the challenge of armed Palestinians; and in Syria, where the Baath Party, despite its secular ideals, has fallen under the control of a small group of Alawi sectarians who rule by terror. The pattern is repeated, with local variations, in most other parts of the region, where tribal and sectarian loyalties compete with ideologies imported from abroad or dug up from a mythical past, as is the case with ‘revived’ Islam.

It is a great pity that Dilip Hiro’s carefully written book has so little to say about these underlying conflicts. Without adequate analysis of the region’s recent history and structural problems, the picture he presents is confusing. The book’s weakness is evident from the bibliography: this fails to include any of the important works which would have given him the historical and cultural perspective necesary to understand contemporary events. More attention to the background, and a less assiduous reading of the Western press, would have warned him against the facile use of ‘right’ and ‘left’, ‘monarchy’ and ‘republic’: these terms are not quite meaningless, but they need to be treated very cautiously, and to be supplemented by categories deriving from indigenous cultural traditions. Despite its superficiality, however, the book contains a quantity of factual information diligently acquired. It is helpful to know, for example, that President Carter’s speech, shortly before Sadat’s famous visit to Jerusalem in 1977, in which he dared to express himself in favour of the ‘legitimate rights of the Palestinian people’, elicited, 827 phone-calls to the White House and 7,268 protest telegrams. Statistics like these flesh out the clichés about the Zionist lobby wagging the dog of US foreign policy.

At first glance, the rise of Islamic ‘fundamentalism’ in the Middle East suggests that the thin veneer of nationalism is peeling off, revealing the masses’ deeper attachment to the values enshrined in a traditional way of life. There is some truth in this, but it is complicated by the extent to which ‘Islam’ can accommodate and sanctify competing nationalisms. In certain respects, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, embodied in the charismatic person of Ayatollah Khomeini, has reached over the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, appealing to the young, the poor and the dispossessed in the name of a socially radical Islam that denounces foreign manipulation, abuses of wealth and the corruption of princes. On the other hand, the internal dynamics of the Revolution have taken Iran in the opposite direction. For all his supposed radicalism and his rejection of the traditional Iranian clergy-state division in favour of a reintegrated ‘Islamic government’, Khomeini has largely succeeded in replacing the Shah’s secular dictatorship with a government of conservative mullahs, for whom the mosque is primarily an instrument for maintaining themselves in power. In its war with Iraq, won at the cost of some eighty thousand casualties, the Iranian Government received help from Israel and collaborated with Syria, despite President Assad’s wholesale massacre of the Islamic opposition in his country. (Estimates of recent massacres at Hama place the number of victims at between ten and thirty thousand.) Inevitably Khomeini’s image as a defender of renovated Islamic values will be tarnished by his actual record, especially if, as seems likely, mullah rule in Iran is followed by a strong anti-clerical reaction.

Pierre Salinger’s America Held Hostage, an account of the secret negotiations leading to the release of the hostages after 444 days’ captivity, provides a fascinating insight into the power struggle which led to the victory of the mullahs. The hostages were pawns, not so much in an international struggle between Iran and the United States, as between the factions fighting for supremacy in Iran in the aftermath of the revolution. At the beginning, the liberals, led by Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, assumed they were dealing with an ordinary student sit-in at the Embassy, triggered by Jimmy Carter’s ill-advised decision to admit the Shah to the United States for medical treatment. The students themselves may well have been acting in this spirit until they, and Khomeini, realised how enormously popular the action was in the current wave of xenophobia. After Bazargan’s resignation, the liberals, including Khomeini’s rival protégés Sadeq Gotzbadeh and Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, found themselves engaged in tortuous negotiations with the Americans through a number of intermediaries, principally a progressive French lawyer, Christian Bourguet, and Hector Villalon, an Argentine businessman. The difficulty was that neither side was really in a position to deliver: the Shah left the US for Panama, and when he got wind of plans for his arrest there, sensibly took off for Egypt, where he died. Once he had left the United States, the Americans were in no position to hand him over directly to the Iranians in exchange for the hostages, and were obliged instead to rely on the good offices of the Panamanian Government and the UN. There were serious errors on the Iranian side: for example, Gotzbadeh had got to the point of clinching a deal with the Panamanians, whereby they would arrest the Shah, when he allowed the news to be announced prematurely, with the result that the Panamanians went back on the deal. Bani-Sadr, who became President of Iran in 1980, with Khomeini’s apparent approval, worked out an arrangement according to which the Government would take custody of the hostages pending an investigation of the Shah’s ‘crimes’ by a UN commission, only to find himself outflanked by the two leading hard-liners, Ahmed Khomeni, son of the Ayatollah, and Ayatollah Beheshti, alleged ex-SAVAK agent who became leader of the Islamic Republic Party. Inspired by ‘popular’ demonstrations engineered by these two men, Khomeini ruled that the hostages remain in the hands of the militants. The US broke off relations with Iran and embarked on the action that ended with the military fiasco of operation ‘Eagle Claw’, which cost Carter a second term as President.

As Salinger says, during the struggle for power between Bani-Sadr and Gotzbadeh and the hard-liners, the former, who were fully aware of the international implications of the crisis, ‘wanted the hostages released, so that they could run a successful government’. Those who were not yet in power – the clerics – ‘did not want the hostages released because they wanted the government to fail’ and effectively used Khomeini’s authority, and remaining popular support for the students, to make sure that it did fail. By May 1980 the struggle was virtually over: the clerics had won an overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections and Bani-Sadr was forced to accept a hard-liner, Mohamed Ali Rajai, as his prime minister. With the victory of the clerical party, the political value of the hostages ended, and the way was open for the extraordinary financial dealings which eventually accompanied the release of the hostages just after Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration. Salinger recounts this story of undercover deals, labyrinthine false turns, personal conflicts and power politics with consummate skill and objectivity. His book is journalism at its best – accurate, lucid, balanced and entertaining. It shows, with devastating clarity, how the revolutionary intellectuals who thought they could use Khomeini for their own purposes, were outsmarted by him.