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The Islamists really are true believers

Recently, we've heard Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, pick up on a theme dear to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It goes something like this, to borrow from Nasrallah's speech last Monday commemorating Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbullah's operations chief: "Now we are left with one question: Will Israel cease to exist one day? ... Yes ... Israel will cease to exist."

Nasrallah has often mentioned Israel's eventual evaporation. In 1992, following his appointment as head of Hizbullah, he described the party's long-term strategy as "fighting against Israel and liberating Jerusalem, as well as Imam Khomeini's proposal - namely ending Israel as a state."

One can debate the merits or demerits of such a pledge at great length. But the more interesting question, at least in this interregnum between thought and practice, between promise and fulfillment, is whether Nasrallah himself believes what he says. And then to ask what this tells us about armed Islamist movements located in Israel's neighborhood.

First, does Nasrallah believe? The answer would seem to be obvious. Rarely does the Sayyed utter a phrase that analysts will not quote with a rider firmly informing us that he says what he means and means what he says. One can certainly find quite numerous exceptions to that rule, particularly when Nasrallah pronounces on the slippery substance of Lebanese domestic politics. But when it comes to Israel, where the lines are far clearer, Nasrallah actually does mean what he says, and has been saying it with considerable consistency for quite a long time.

For example, in an interview with the newspaper Al-Wahda al-Islamiyya in February 1989, when Nasrallah was still only a Hizbullah field commander, he remarked: "The future is one of war [against Israel], not settlement; the line that [Yasser] Arafat is pursuing will only lead him to a closed door, and the day will come when warfare and the elimination of Israel will be the only options." (For a rundown of Nasrallah's statements translated into English, read the indispensible "Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah", edited by Nicholas Noe.)

Why is the topic important? Because over the years academics, analysts, journalists, and others, particularly the Westerners among them, who write about militant Islamist groups, have tended to project their own liberal attitudes and desires onto such groups, misinterpreting their intentions and largely ignoring what these groups say about themselves. Inasmuch as most such observers cannot really fathom the totalitarian strain in the aims and language of armed Islamists, totalitarian in the sense of pursuing a total idea, total in its purity, they cannot accept that the total idea can also be apocalyptic. Where Nasrallah and the leaders of Hamas will repeat that Israel's elimination is a quasi-religious duty, the sympathetic Westernized observer, for whom the concept of elimination is intolerable, will think much more benignly in terms of well-intentioned "bargaining." Hamas and Hizbullah are pragmatic, they will argue, so that their statements and deeds are only leverage to achieve specific political ends that, once attained, will allow a return to harmonious equilibrium.

This argument, so tirelessly made, is tiresomely irrelevant. No one has seriously suggested that Hizbullah or Hamas are not pragmatic. But one can be pragmatic in the means and not in the ends. If anything, pragmatism is obligatory in the pursuit of an absolute idea. And what characterizes those pursuing the absolute idea? In his essay "Terror and Liberalism", Paul Berman provides a partial answer, writing how French author Albert Camus noticed that out of the French Revolution and the 19th century had grown a modern impulse to rebel. That impulse, Berman wrote, "mutated into a cult of death. And the ideal was always the same. It was not skepticism and doubt. It was the ideal of submission ... it was the ideal of the one, instead of the many. The ideal of something godlike. The total state, the total doctrine, the total movement."

Hizbullah and Hamas are themselves products of rebellion - rebellion against what they took and still take to be a foul, unjust political order in Lebanon or Palestine or the Middle East in general. That drive has, naturally, even necessarily, pushed them to advocate the absolute negation of everything embodying that allegedly unjust order. Their motivating force is submission to the pursuit of the just idea, and this goes to the very heart of Islam itself, indeed denotes its very meaning, which is based on the embrace of total submission to God. Nasrallah may rarely employ religious terminology, but everything about the way he structures his thoughts, contentions, or vows reflects a deeply religious mindset.

One thing eternally confusing outside observers is that Hamas and Hizbullah are what have come to be described as "nationalist Islamists." Because nationalism started essentially as a Western notion, because its reference point is something reassuringly tangible like territory, not Armageddon, the Westernized writer will see something of himself or herself in such Islamists groups, and will resort to the terminology of modern nationalism to describe their actions. Hizbullah liberated South Lebanon, Hamas is trying to do the same in Palestine; their goals are no different than those of courageous patriots everywhere who have fought against foreign occupation. The American professor Norman Finkelstein recently went on Lebanese television to compare Hizbullah with the Red Army during World War II. Others liken Hamas to the National Liberation Front in Algeria - or why not its namesake in South Vietnam?

But what the observers won't grasp is that nationalism does not necessarily disqualify religion; time and again the two have advanced hand in hand, even in unlikely settings. Take the avowedly atheistic Vietnamese communists, for instance. Did they not pray at the secular altar of communism, so that their nationalist triumph was part of a higher historical movement toward the classless millennium? By the same token, when Hamas describes the land of Palestine as an endowment handed down from God (and in this agree with their foes, the religious Zionists), is it not terribly na•ve to suppose that the group's refusal to recognize Israel is just a ploy to strengthen its hand for a Camp David II or III?

One has to be careful in reading the statements of Islamist groups - or any political group for that matter. The flexibility of tactics counts for much. When Nasrallah argues that he will continue negotiating with Israel for the release of Arab prisoners, he's temporarily replacing his long-term undertaking to hasten Israel's demise with short-term gain. Ultimately, Hizbullah may fail in making Israel vanish, but it's what Hizbullah and Hamas say about themselves, the way they define their aspirations, that determines their behavior. For outside observers to ignore or reinterpret their words in order to justify a personal weakness for these groups' revolutionary seductions is both self-centered and analytically useless.


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