After the 1967 catastrophe, several particularly mean jokes started making the rounds about Gamal Abd al Nasser. Even we, nappies barely dry, would throw them around laughing, as if to usher in the post-Nasser era.
The meanest of the jokes went like this:
After the ’67 defeat, Nasser stood, chastened, on the presidential balcony to deliver a speech to the throngs.
“The fundamental question is not the land,” he sang. "The main question is to be or not to be”—ann nakouna aw la nakouna. In Arabic, nakouna can be flipped into one nasty mother of a pun: a straight up “they f---- us.”
And the people, of course, chanted back: “Nakouna, nakouna, nakouna!”
From that infamous June onwards it was downhill for the champ. The rejection was not immediately perceptible. Millions turned out for Gamal’s funeral in 1970, a few dying crushed by the crowds. And the subsequent decades paraded various wanna be Nassers—Arafat, Saddam, Pa Assad, Qaddafi…--each terrible in his own way, all authors of wrongs infinitely worse than the big man’s. In these mimics, it seemed, was proof of the lingering appeal of the Nasser model: the military strongman-cum-daddy-cum-poet-cum-philosopher-cum-wizard-cum-ghoul here to make it all go away, even if it meant life itself. A Faustian bargain of a sort, if you like. For if the longevity of these despots has been a testimony to anything, it’s not their success in lifting up their struggling societies to soaring heights but in the efficacy of their tyranny in beating them to the ground.
So much so that 40 years on, the post-‘67 sharp pivot towards political Islam is the easiest takeaway from Nasser’s bequest; so easy, in fact, it’s the first thing experts blurt out, Pavlovian like, every time they’re asked about Nasserism. Were it not for the myriad disappointments with the bombastic Arab nationalist, pseudo secular, fake socialist promise, Islamism would not have stood such an attractive suitor at the Arab door.
This, needless to say, is a gross oversimplification of the factors—some grassroots and unbidden, others high-powered, moneyed and very purposeful--that implanted Islam at the heart of Arab life: our laws, our streets, our living rooms, pants, panties, bedrooms, bathrooms. But it works well enough for this post’s point: 20-30 years from now, when our grandchildren pick through the history nearest to them for clues about the demise of Islamism, it will be today’s jokes that will give the story away--the jokes, first and foremost, and then the frightening vistas, the loud anecdotes and the frantic whispers that, together, betray a narrative much larger than each on its own tells.
Rather idiotic of me—wouldn’t you say?--to venture such predictions in the boisterous presence of ISIS and the Nusra Front and Hezbollah and the Mahdi Army and Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, to mention only a few of the leading stars in this seemingly flourishing universe. Idiotic as well in full view of the swords cutting off infidel heads, machetes bringing down idols, girls being sold off as sex slaves and black flags running over government buildings while the tax man collects dues from the town’s dhimmis. Idiotic, no doubt, while we spectate a crude Iranian-Saudi joust presumably pitting Shiites against Sunnis in an apocalyptic fight; equally, when the three powers (Iran, Turkey and Israel) presiding over the region are each run by a paranoid and voracious politico-religious cabal.
Still more idiotic, when eight Middle Eastern states are either avowedly or officially Islamist, and when the other ostensibly secular outfits have all but incorporated the bulk of Islamist maxims into the fabric of their polities. Worse, when the only successful democratization process we have been experiencing is in the fatwa industry, giving every other turbaned and bearded fool the platform to issue forth…on boob sucking your way into blessed male-female office relations, the various hidden meanings of farts, the evilness of Mickey Mouse.
And, of course, Hazem Amin, in a recent al Hayat piece, is right. Much like its weaker—no, wait, which month is this?--siblings, ISIS lives precisely because of withering life in our wastelands: fringe towns and cities across the Middle Eastern expanse long ago abandoned by autocracies retreating in the shadow of their betrayals and failures. This applies to states still standing and those all but gone.
Ours is, indeed, a drama of collapse that stretches over decades. Invasions, civil wars and uprisings, these are only the last straws that broke this haggard camel’s back.
But herein stands a truth so glaring and yet so muddied by the orgy of extremist violence. Much lies in ruin in the region today--regimes, states, dime-a-dozen ideologies…--and Islamism is no exception. The vacuums that dot our landscapes may be multiplying but they’re not new and neither are the fundamentalists that have inhabited them like scavengers would swamps. The recent fury that is mesmerizing the crowds is not of an explosive idea that has arrived, but of a battered one that is finally dying.
Islam has, over the course of half a century, been mercilessly thrown into the public arena. The result is a religion that reigns over the masses, graceless, face a million scars, name sullied, hands bloodied, at once ridiculous and mystifying in its cruelty to followers and adversaries alike. Islam, thanks to Islamism and its patrons, domestic and foreign, has by turns become an ogre and a joke to its own flock.
Professor Asef Bayat, one of the scholars who first detected the creeping blowback in Iran in the mid-1990s, has bestowed a rather sweet label on the shifting trends. Post-Islamism, he called the emerging mindset—the subtle, incremental pushback of the pious, partly in search of a middle ground between the dictates of increasingly invasive and suffocating strictures and the demands of modern life, and partly in an effort to extricate Islam (rescue it, really) from the political machinations and shenanigans of its enforcers.
But this! This is all out war within the Islamist family. They’re at each others’ throats: zealous states versus even more zealous non-state actors, Shiite versus Sunni paymasters, official Islamist parties versus Jihadi insurgent movements, Islamist presidents versus former darling mentors and preachers, firebrand grand ayatollahs versus reformed ex-prime ministers.
And the fatwas? Pretty much like trinkets and firecrackers at the fun park.
There is more disruption ahead, to be sure. Ruptures, flight, tormented children, smothered youth, harassed minorities, blood and anguish, corpses and mass graves are often the stuff of upheaval, and ours is one on the grandest of scales. But what makes this moment extraordinary is that, for the first time in practically a century, systems of life, deeply held beliefs, are passing and, as yet, there are no new petitioners anywhere in sight. It’s as if we’ve taken to the proverbial broom to sweep away every broken promise in the house. And no promise has proved more lethal than that of Islamism, especially to Islam itself.
It is foolhardy to underestimate the extent to which Islamic fundamentalism has managed to frame the terms of the debate on culture, gender and identity; the success it has had in peppering every aspect of the day with Islamist dos and don’ts and sensibilities; the determination with which it has vilified secularism as sheer heresy, labeling it the devil’s currency. There was never anything to be dismissive about when political Islam rose, and there certainly is nothing to be flippant about now that it is falling. When such mighty ideas crumble the damage is invariably severe and the pile up is guaranteed to be high.
So I take the Islamist fratricide very seriously--but the jokes as well. I take seriously also the quieter tales of dissent in conservative societies never more dumbfounded by the abuses and excesses of the Savonarolas in suits and ties. Aside from the obvious example of Egypt in 2012 (this is in reference to the street-level resistance to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule and not Sisi’s coup), I take seriously the current campaign by Jordanian educators against Islamist creeds that have long pervaded Jordan’s curricula. I take seriously the polls that show 75% of Iranians have folded the prayer rug. I take seriously the news coming out of Mosul about the faithful staying away from the mosque. Every episode that is a peephole into communities revisiting once unshakable convictions, I take seriously.
The dogmas that have shaped thought and dominated politics for 50 years are, one by one, crashing, and we are watching the wreckage in real time. True, there are regimes still standing, some even thriving, and authoritarianisms on the rebound, strongly suggesting that the Arab status quo is showing resilience and bounce. But this argument is premature and beside the point. The collapse need not be wholesale and indiscriminate for it to be catastrophic to the very precepts that underpinned and gave impetus to the old order. The fact is our slate has never been wiped this clean.
And the future? For that, one has to stay close and stay tuned.