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Our failures in dealing with a dysfunctional Middle East in part result from a failure of imagination, our unwillingness to think beyond our own ideals and see beyond the duplicitous pretexts of our adversaries. The tactic of a “Palestinian homeland,” for example, exploits the Western ideal of the nation-state as forming the fundamental structure of a people and their collective identity. But nationalism is not an organic part of Islam, which recognizes no separation of church and state. A people are created by their adherence to Islam, by being members of the global umma or Muslim community. The PLO Charter makes this clear in Article 15: “The liberation of Palestine, from an Arab viewpoint, is a national (qawmi) duty and it attempts to repel the Zionist and imperialist aggression against the Arab homeland, and aims at the elimination of Zionism in Palestine. Absolute responsibility for this falls upon the Arab nation––peoples and governments––with the Arab people of Palestine in the vanguard.” Palestinian nationalism is an expression of Arab nationalism, in a way unimaginable for any Western country, for the simple reason that Arab nationalism is in fact another expression of universal Muslim identity.
In fact, every Middle Eastern Muslim country that has shaken off its kleptocratic dictators writes its government charters to reflect the religious foundations of Muslim nationalism. Iraq’s constitution––purchased with American blood and treasure––reads at the start, “Islam is the official religion of the state and is a basic source of legislation,” and asserts, “No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.” The second article proclaims, “This constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people.” In Afghanistan’s Constitution, Article 2 says, “The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam.” Article 3 adds, “In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” And these are the two states where the United States has provided billions of dollars, security, and a custodial presence all meant to create “freedom and democracy” in an Islamic state. We can imagine what will arise in Libya and Egypt, where Islamist parties dedicated to founding a state on shari’a law are driving events. Influential Egyptian cleric Safwat Higazi––who appeared on stage with Muslim Brother “Spiritual Guide” Yusuf al-Qaradawi when the latter returned in triumph to Cairo after Mubarak’s fall––has given us a clear indication of what to expect: “I am convinced that Islam is imminent, the caliphate is imminent. One of these days, the United States of Islam will be established. Allah willing, it will be soon. Egypt will be one state in this [United States of Islam.] Morocco and Saudi Arabia will be states as well.”
National identity, then, means something very different to most Muslims from what it means to us. For most Muslims in the Middle East, being Muslim takes precedence over being an Egyptian, a Libyan, or a Palestinian. And being Muslim means endorsing shari’a law, which is incompatible with Western notions of universal human rights and tolerance. The obsession with Palestinian “national identity” or “national aspirations” blinds us to the religious foundations of Arab hatred of Israel and Jews evident throughout the Middle East and driving policy toward Israel.
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