Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Arab-Israeli Wars and Islamic Anti-Semitism

In an earlier post I wrote about Lawrence Wright's new book on the origins of the September 11 attacks, The Looming Towers: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. I suggested in that entry how I was tempted to run out and buy the book, which I did a couple of days later. Classes started for me on August 21, and I've been working on the blog quite a bit, so I've only read about 40 pages, although the book is turning out to be a page-turner for sure.

I've got to admit that Islamic fundamentalism was never the focus of my formal political science training. In the 1980s and early-1990s, as an undergraduate, I took numerous classes and read widely in Soviet politics and foreign policy, one of the most popular topics in governmental studies at the time. Further, in my courses in American foreign policy and international relations, I developed some expertise in strategic nuclear doctrine. It was during my senior year that the Soviet Union disintegrated and the end of the Cold War was proclaimed. What a fascinating time it was, then, to enter graduate training in 1992.

In any case, I currently read articles in the policy journals on radical Islam, and I've read chapters on Islam from various specialized texts here and there. Wright's book is turning out to be a very accessible read for the non-expert. The Looming Tower comes across as a serious work of scholarship, even though Wright's a journalist by training. I like the book's structure, and the nice background he provides on the founders of radical Islam, particularly Sayyid Qutb and Ayman al Zawahiri, both Egyptians who were central to the growth of 20th-century Muslum fundamentalism.

The book's biographical sections are interspersed with historical developments in the Middle East, and I was impressed with Wright's discussion of the effects of the 1967 Six Day War on the origins of anti-Semitism in contemporary fundamentalist Islam:
After years of rhetorical attacks on Israel, [Egytian President Gamel Abdul] Nasser demanded the removal of U.N. peacekeepers in the Sinai and then blockaded the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Israel responded with an overwhelming preemptive attack that destroyed the entire Egyptian air force within two hours. When Jordan, Iraq, and Syria joined the war against Israel, their air forces were also wiped out that same afternoon. In the next few days Israel captured all of the Sinai, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, while crushing the forces of the frontline Arab states. It was a psychological turning point in the history of the modern Middle East. The speed and decisiveness of the Israeli victory in the Six Day War humiliated many Muslims who believed until then God favored their cause. They had lost not only their armies and their territories but also their faith in their leaders, in their countries, and in themselves. The profound appeal of Islamic fundamentalism in Eygpt [where Zawahiri was actively mobilizing] and elsewhere was born in this shocking decade. A newly strident voice was being heard in the mosques; the voice said that they had been defeated by a force far larger than the tiny country of Israel. God had turned against Muslims. The only way back to Him was to return to pure religion. The voice answered despair a the simple formulation: Islam is the solution.
Wright goes on to indicate that Islamic anti-Semitism was virtually non-existent before World War II, although Nazi propaganda was widespread in Egypt in the 1930s, and following the defeat of the Axis the Islamic movement in Egypt kept some of the Nazi doctrines alive. The founding of Israel hardened the Islamists, and they swore first to defeat the Egyptian secular regime, then they would turn with full force on the United States and the West.

Note that before 2006, Israel had appeared invincible to the populations of the Arab states in the Middle East. However, as
Uriel Heilman indicates in today's New York Post, the Arab masses have been emboldened by Hezbollah's resilence in the recent Mideast War, and Arab hopes are rising that with Israeli power no longer dominant, the Jewish state can finally be wiped out, once and for all.

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