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Almost as soon as it achieved power in the 1960s, however, the Ba’ath split into a Sunni-dominated branch in Iraq (where Sunni Arabs were a minority) and an Alawite-dominated branch in Syria (where Sunni Arabs were the majority). From that point forward, the rival Ba’ath parties became little more than tools that one organic nation used to suppress the other organic nations living within the lines of the state it controlled. Syrian Sunnis, and Iraqi Shias and Kurds, fared particularly poorly during the decades of Ba’ath rule.

In the 1950s, Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser became the central figure of pan-Arab unity. Nasser’s popularity, and the confidence that Arabs placed in his ability to unify their lands, opened a deep strategic rift in the Sunni Arab world. On one side were the Pan-Arabists, like Nasser and the Ba’ath, fighting to make the imperial dream a reality. On the other were the various Sunni royal families who had grown accustomed to ruling. The bloody Yemeni civil war of 1962-70 (now largely forgotten in the West), for example, was actually a proxy war between Egypt and Saudi Arabia; pan-Arabists seeking unity fighting Arab royals hoping to retain their thrones.

A second front in the Egyptian-Saudi conflict involved the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Brotherhood’s goal from inception was reinstating the caliphate that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had abolished less than a decade earlier. What it sought was not simply a religious institution akin to the Papacy. The caliphate it envisaged harkened back to the days of the Prophet: a full-blown Islamic Empire, spread as a matter of religious imperative.

Though many of the Brotherhood’s beliefs trace back to earlier schools of Islamic thought, its 1928 founding marked the birth of modern Islamism. From that point forward, a violent, supremacist, imperialist movement assumed an important place in Sunni thought. In its early days, the Brotherhood allied itself with Nazi Germany and called for massacring Jews and Christians. It also joined with various other anti-royalist factions to agitate against the Egyptian monarchy. When pan-Arabists succeeded in deposing King Farouk in 1952, however, the rift between secular pan-Arab imperialists and the Islamist imperialists of the Brotherhood became an unbridgeable chasm. Nasser banned the Brotherhood, jailed its leadership, and might well have crushed it — had it not been for the Saudis.

Saudi Wahhabism shares some, but far from all, of the Brotherhood’s religious and philosophical convictions. That overlap has led the two to have a love/hate relationship. Though Saudi Arabia today regards the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, Saudi largesse in the 1950s and ’60s kept the organisation alive. More than alive — Saudi funding helped the Brotherhood build an international infrastructure, with particular strength among European Muslims during a period of significant Islamic immigration to Europe.
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Lawrence James
September 5th, 2018
9:09 AM
The baleful history of the Balkan states after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and the greater Serbia created in 1918-1919 suggest the history of the nation states in the Middle East will be unhappy. Whatever their faults, the British and French administrations in the Levant, Palestine and Egypt kept their inhabitants from each other's throats and dampened down religious antipathies.

Mitch S.
April 5th, 2018
11:04 PM
Excellent article pointing out the folly of the Western "statist" approach to the Middle East. But before looking to nationalism as a road to cease fires and peace, it's important to consider the influence of religion in the area. Yes Muslims are divided into Sunni, Shia etc, but they are still united in the belief in Islam's need to dominate especially in the greater Middle East (the "Ummah"). So secularists such as Nasser and Sadaam Hussein along with religious hardliners such as the Iranian Ayatollahs, saw ending the Jewish state as a vital act that would bring them power and prestige in the Mid-East and throughout the Muslim world. Even looking at the "nation-state" of Israel, the influence of religion must be kept in mind. The Jewish nation settled in Israel because of the religion's 2000 plus year dream of "the promised land". Secular imperial ambitions don't have that staying power. The Jews aren't imperialists because the religion is focused on the land of Israel with no aspiration for greater conquest. Still, religion has had an affect on the secular state's policy. Religious Jews don't look toward taking over Jordan or Egypt but there are religious Jewish groups who see it as forbidden to give up parts of the "Holy land" once Jews are in control. So taking Jews from parts of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and putting them in non-Jewish hands is something they strongly oppose, making such a deal more politically difficult (though I believe those groups don't have the power to stop such a deal on their own). Indeed the death of Yitschok Rabin can be seen as a result of religious passion rather than a purely political act. So what could possibly create conditions for some kind of peace? I agree the nation state is a good route but the religious imperative will have to be held in check. One possibility is accepting a view that world domination is the ultimate goal - but not for the current life. It is only something to be achieved after divine intervention. Just as Jews believe in the coming of the Messiah and Christians in the return of Jesus. In fact there is a small minority of Jews that believe the return to the Holy Land is only for messianic times and they oppose the current Jewish state. This would be the best possible way and while I hardly have the knowledge of Islam to speak with any authority, I have heard this is an approach some Muslims accept. The other, and perhaps prerequisite step would be to remove the religious obligation to drive the Jews out of Israel (or subjugate them) by making it seem impossible. I don't know how much is Arab practicality or Islamic doctrine but when Israel is seen as an undefeatable the door opens for negotiation. When Israel is put under pressure and appears vulnerable negotiations end. This is another thing Western states continually misunderstand. Israel's ties to the West, especially the United States are seen as a vital part of it's defensive power by the Arab world. When Western leaders try to create an atmosphere for peace by holding back support of Israel and reaching out to hardline regimes such as Iran it raises the possibility that Israel may not be invulnerable and there may be a religious obligation to pursue it's destruction

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