Here is an English version of my latest piece for Al-Hurra
Arthur James Balfour
One hundred years ago this month, on November 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, sent a letter to the Jewish community leader, Lord Rothschild, expressing support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. One of the unintended consequences of Balfour’s gesture of support was that it triggered an obsession among many in the Arab world, particularly political Islamists, with the subject of Zionism. Despite their deep hatred to Zionism, Islamists, from their earliest days, have studied Zionism with a surprising zeal, and exhibited a deep desire to emulate its success.
There’s one simple reason for this: Islamists have regarded Zionism as a template that can be replicated. They believe that if Zionists can unite Jews, regardless of their nationality, and create a homeland, and then they [the Islamists] can do the same and unite most, if not all, Muslims in one “Ummah.”
Uriya Shavit and Ofir Winter wrote about how Islamists regarded certain aspects of Zionism as examples that should be followed. Indeed, by examining the Islamists’ renaissance project, one can easily spot many elements borrowed from Zionism. As Shavit and Winter wrote, some Islamists believe that Israel defeated the Arabs because it implemented principals that they [the Islamists] wished to implement in Arab societies, such as religious devotion, activism, and strong ties with the diaspora.
Other aspects of Zionism Islamists have observed with some envy and admiration is how Jewish nationalism revived Hebrew, and how the Jews started to use it as a modern language. The task for Islamists, however, has not been that easy. Beyond just reviving or reinvigorating the already existing classic Arabic, modern Islamic scholars have had to try to unearth medieval Arabic, once used during the ancient Caliphates. Unfortunately, the use of this ancient Arabic has been limited to history and religious books. In spite of the paucity of these texts, some Islamic scholars have hoped to incorporate medieval vocabularies into everyday conversations, with the aim of giving their followers a distinct character that differentiates them from other Muslims.
More importantly, these Islamists have wanted to emulate the success Zionism has achieved in Western capitals. A focal obsession in the Arab world has been the Zionists’ lobbying ability, an obsession many Islamists have taken to another level. The goal for these Islamists was to rewire Western minds to accept Islamism as a combination of religion, a way of life, and a political identity. It is, in fact, just such a combination of attributes Zionism represents in the world today. Islamists have also tried to convince Westerners that their groups scattered around the Muslim world are the answer to the Middle Eastern ills of tribalism and tyranny and that, disparate as they are, these groups can be a force to unite the Middle East so that the region and its Muslim populations can reliably connect with the West. Before and during the Arab Spring, groups such as The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia succeeded to a certain degree in gaining a sympathetic ear from many Western academics.
This success was short lived. Political Islam failed to prove its self–proclaimed popularity in many Muslim countries. Many factors have contributed to that failure, not the least of which is Islamism’s inability to copy Zionism’s template for success.
Islamists’ perceptions of Zionism over time have been based on few facts, and many myths and illusions. Many Islamists have naively assumed that borrowing some tools from Zionism, such as activism and lobbying, is enough to guarantee similar success. That assumption is fundamentally flawed. Tactics alone without a clear vision are not enough to help any movement prevail.
The success of Zionism rests not in its ideology or its ability to lobby, but in its success in modernising the link between religion and the state. In an article for Al-Hurra, researcher Samuel Tadros wrote how the founders of Zionism have realised the crisis of modernity. Indeed, in their quest to establish a homeland for Jews, Zionists have managed to resurrect Judaism. But in that process they have managed to divorce literalism from religion to enable the state to accommodate modern liberal values.
Islamists, on the other hand, have failed on that front. Their inability to articulate a clear, modern vision for a Muslim state has morphed their renaissance project into a rocket without a trajectory that has fallen short of the expectations of the wider public outside the hard-core supporters of Islamism.
There is no doubt that Zionism’s success was a fateful blow to the Arab and Muslim world. The emotional trauma of the Balfour declaration is still bleeding anger and resentment, and Arab anger has dominated the centenary anniversary.
But this anger is not new and is frankly futile. In 1925, Arabs protested against Balfour’s visit to Damascus with the same anger and hostility. This agitation, however, failed to change the Zionist discourse 100 years ago, and is unlikely to have any impact now.
It would be far better for Arabs, practically Islamists, to re-channel their frustration with the Balfour declaration into a more honest process of soul searching. Learning from the Zionist experience is not wrong; it is just that the right lessons should be learned. Zionism prevailed because it modernised Judaism. Islamism, in all its shapes and forms, has only medievalized Islam and failed to fundamentally embrace the core values of modernity, which espouse equality, diversity, and freedom. One hundred years after the Balfour Declaration, the lessons of Zionism have not yet been learned or implemented.