The end of Nasserism: How the 1967 War opened new space for Islamism in the Arab world

50 Years: Legacies of the 1967 WarBorn in 1929, the Islamist writer Muhammad Galal Kishk saw the triumph of religion nearly everywhere, even in the most unlikely of places. In the June 1967 war, Israel handily defeated the three Arab nations not simply because of its military prowess, but because it had something that the Arabs didn’t: the certainty and clarity of religious devotion. As Fouad Ajami writes: “In Kishk’s account there is grudging admiration for the clarity with which the Israelis saw the war, for the fact that young Israeli soldiers prayed behind their rabbis at the Wailing Wall after their capture of Jerusalem.” This may not have been the most accurate reading of Israeli society—Israel wasn’t a particularly religious country at the time—but it was one of the more telling.

It is difficult to overstate the shock of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria’s almost instantaneous defeat, which is why it is often called the “Six-Day War.” Wars almost never run this quickly. With the partial exception of the Iraqi army, Arab states are almost uniformly weak and militarily feckless today, but 50 years ago there was Gamal Abdul Nasser, the president of Egypt, and he had carefully nurtured the illusion of Arab military prowess. He was making the Arabs great again. Everyone, or it seemed like everyone, loved Nasser—or, if you were victim of his repression, grudgingly admired him. My parents grew up in Nasser’s Egypt. Like many of their fellow citizens, they weren’t particularly political, but the fact of Nasser, and his larger-than-life persona, dominated Egyptians’ sense of who they were and who they were trying to become.

When Nasser, and by extension Egypt, lost, there was relatively little left to say. The starting premise of Arab nationalism had been fatally undermined, 15 years into the 1952 revolution. Nasser’s speech on June 9, 1967, announcing a defeat that Egyptians just a day earlier had assumed would be a victory, was a solemn and memorable speech, but one fixated on assigning blame. Although Nasser ostensibly offered to resign, he reserved most of his remarks for explaining why, for example, the “enemy was operating on an air force three times its normal strength.” A conspiracy was a foot and at the head of it was the United States.

Intellectuals are usually the first to willingly process defeats, and presumably military defeats are also intellectual ones. To ascribe Israel’s victory to supernatural forces, as Muhammad Galal Kishk did, might have seemed odd, but God, from an Islamic theological perspective, wasn’t a disinterested observer. There had to be a reason. Perhaps God had forsaken the Muslims, punishing them from straying from the straight path. This temporal link between devotion to God—and also, for many, to his Law—and economic and military success is a longstanding one among not just Islamists but Muslims more generally. There isn’t a developed literature exploring the precise nature of the link in part because it seems so self-evident.

As I argue in my recent book on Islamic exceptionalism, the “religiosity-success link” is built-in to Islam’s founding. Prophet Mohammed and his early followers, while initially persecuted by the Meccans, were soon enough able to establish a new proto-state in Medina, after the emigration (hijra) of 622, around 12 years after Mohammed’s first revelations from God. Prophet Mohammed’s death did not provoke an existential crisis; instead the Muslims began a dramatic expansion across North Africa and as far as Spain and even France during Islam’s first century. Presumably, the religion of the Muslims (and the closeness to the Prophet in behavior and proximity) was not merely incidental to this early history. Territorial conquest came to be seen as evidence of righteousness. Naturally, then, the disappearance of empires—and the resounding defeats at the hands of imperial powers and then, in 1967, Israel—must have meant the opposite. (Arab secularists made a similar argument but with a different reference point, arguing that if embracing secular nationalism had led to Europe’s ascendance, why shouldn’t it do the same for the Middle East?)

Christianity and Judaism’s formative moments couldn’t have been more different, defined as they were by immediate hardship, evidenced most vividly on the cross. As Jacob Bronsther writes: “Jews and Christians, by comparison, experienced existential crises early in their histories and, as a result, developed narratives whereby God regularly tests his people with hardship or exists in a realm separate from man’s tribulations.”

It is worth noting that, in the Islamic context, individual leaders didn’t need to be particularly religious for the link between righteousness and success to hold. The second caliph of the Umayyad Empire had, after all, ordered the beheading of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Hussein, at the Battle of Karbala. During the Abbasid Empire, the peak of Muslim greatness in science and philosophy, many Caliphs were known for prodigious wine drinking. Private behavior in the comfort of a far-flung royal court was one thing, but public law was unmistakably “Islamic,” and shariah, or Islamic law, provided the overarching moral culture and legal structure.

Even at the height of Nasserism, where competing expressions of Islam were brutally suppressed, most Egyptians would have been at least vaguely aware of this history. While Nasser remained president, it would have been difficult to express such sentiments too openly or publicly, tying them explicitly to Nasser’s own failures as a leader. When Nasser died in 1970 at the age of 52, millions of Egyptians gathered to mourn him in a six-mile procession. It was perhaps the last unifying moment in Egypt’s modern history, before the resurgence of Islamism—and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood—opened up a new fault line in Egyptian society.