Op-Ed

A Growing Muslim Identity

Shibley Telhami

One of the most stunning moments after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime was the rush of tens of thousands of celebrating Iraqi Shiites into the streets in response to the call of their most revered leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. It was a stark demonstration of Shiite power, one that may have unnerved those Americans who believe in the possibility of a secular, democratic Iraq. The moment was also a harbinger of a larger trend across the Middle East, one that poses difficult, long-term challenges for U.S. foreign policy: More and more Arabs identify themselves as Muslims first.

This trend is evident in a survey I conducted last month in six Arab countries — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. It is related to another, more enduring phenomenon: the Arab public’s perception of their mostly authoritarian governments. Respondents to my survey believe that the war in Iraq has made the region even less democratic. A possible — and remarkable — consequence of this perception is that most Arabs polled said that they wanted the clergy to play a bigger role in politics.

How can this be?

Historically, Arabs have had three political options: Islam, pan-Arabism or nationalism linked to individual states. Hussein’s appeal in the Arab world, such as it was, principally flowed from his embrace of secular Arab nationalism. After the death of Egypt’s pan-Arab leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in 1970, secular Arab nationalism never regained the influence it had in the 1950s and 1960s. But it still had adherents and government advocates, most notably the Baathists in Syria and Iraq, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. But the demise of the Baathists in Iraq, the weakening of Syria’s hand and the paralysis of the Palestinian government and its leader, Yasser Arafat, have further eroded the movement’s appeal. One consequence has been evident in Iraq. Once the Baath institutions collapsed, the primary organizations capable of mobilizing large crowds were religious.

Still, the trends are not all heading in one direction. There is much to suggest that secular Arab nationalism remains a significant political force. For example, few in the Arab world admire religious figures as leaders. In my survey, I asked respondents to name the world leaders they most admired. The most frequently mentioned were Nasser and French President Jacques Chirac, despite the fact that he has banned the veil in French schools. In Jordan, the deposed Hussein topped the list with 20%. The most popular leaders identified with an Islamic agenda were Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, and Osama bin Laden. The common image running through these choices is that of a leader defying the United States. Not surprisingly, President Bush was the second most disliked leader, after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Furthermore, the preeminence of Islamic identity in the region varies from country to country. In Egypt and Lebanon, most respondents identify themselves as Egyptians and Lebanese more so than Arab or Muslim. But in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, majorities or pluralities cited their Islamic identity above all others.

These results suggest that the desire for a greater role for clerics in regional politics is driven by two factors: the absence of alternative means to organize opposition to Arab governments, and the belief that clerics would be less susceptible to corruption in a region where rulers’ corruption is a major issue. Whatever the reasons for many Arabs looking to Muslim clerics to lead them, it’s clear that this sentiment will enhance the influence of religious authority in the region, despite a widespread public recognition that the model of rule by clergy in Iran has been mostly a failure.

Arabs’ increasing embrace of Islam as the primary source of their identity did not begin with the Iraq war or even after Sept. 11. The phenomenon has intermittently occurred over the last several decades. But its accelerated growth today is in part the result of the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2000, the subsequent rise of the latest Palestinian intifada and the Israeli response to it. Not only did the breakdown of talks weaken the PLO and empower its Islamist opponents, especially Hamas, but the conflict with Israel also began to be seen increasingly in religious, rather than nationalist, terms. Both the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ focus on the status of Jerusalem in the negotiations, coupled with the need to broaden support for the Palestinian cause among Arabs and Muslims, helped turn the issue into an Islamic one as well. Today, Palestine is far more important in non-Arab states such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey than it was only a few years ago.

The Iraq war and the way the war on terrorism have been perceived in much of the Islamic world have further intensified identification with being a Muslim. Increasingly, Muslims view the war on terrorism as a war on Islam. Conversely, many Americans now regard Islam as the source of the terrorist problem. These trends have provided Islamic groups with increasing grass-roots potential limited only by the operating space allowed them by insecure authoritarian governments.

The increasing tendency to frame issues in religious terms does not augur well for U.S. relations in the region. The hope for a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one rooted in the idea of two states living side by side in peace, is a nationalist one. If the conflict becomes religious, it’s difficult to envision a peaceful solution.

Some conflict of interest is inevitable in U.S. relations with Arab and Muslim countries. Traditionally, however, they have found ways to accommodate their interests. But it is harder to envision any accommodation when the stakes are religious. Nothing should be of higher foreign-policy priority for the U.S. than to avoid such an outcome.

More