On the meaning of “secular” in Arab discourse: Benny Morris and Palestinian identity

One of the most dangerous mistakes that Europeans — and more broadly, the gatekeepers of the public sphere in the West — made in late 2000 was to view the Intifada as a nationalist uprising against Israeli oppression, a cry of despair at the oppression of occupation. In so doing, they operated from certain basic axiomatic principles that had no real support in reality (independent evidence) and only appeared within the rhetorical world of Palestinian discourse tailored for Western audiences. Among the most dangerous of these axioms was the idea that Palestinians wanted their own independent state, to be, as the Israeli national anthem puts it, “free people in our own land.”

And the key corollary to this nationalist assumption was that such a nation would be a secular one, that it would separate “mosque and state” and grant everyone freedom of religion.

Nothing better illustrates liberal cognitive egocentrism, and the easy assumption that others share such liberal perspectives than this willingness to believe that Arab culture shares our commitment to separating “church and state.”

Benny Morris wrote a book on the War of Independence, 1948, during the research for which, much to his surprise, he found that it was not a “nationalist” war between Israel and Palestine, but, in the Arabs’ eyes, a Jihad, a religious war. Not only was the “secular discourse” a late phenomenon (under the influence of Soviet propaganda techniques), but never seriously held among Arab Muslims.

This came as something of an unwelcome surprise to his publishers who did not like the idea of spreading such awful and anomalous evidence to the public. They refused the book and it was only after that that Morris found the Yale University Press willing to publish it. If the gatekeepers had their way, we wouldn’t know about Jihad.

So when the Intifada broke out in 2000, the Europeans in particular were eager to believe that this was a) a local conflict between two nationalist movements, and b) by siding with the Palestinians, they would curry favor with their Muslim populations. Instead, it was the beginning of a new stage of global Jihad which targeted the Europeans as much (if slightly later) than the Israelis, and by siding with the Palestinians (actually the Jihadis) the Europeans showed just how cowardly and feckless they were — attacking their friends/allies and siding with their enemies. As a result they speeded up the process of weaponizing their own immigrant Muslim populations against them.

Benny Morris: The myth of a secular Palestine
Posted: May 13, 2009, 7:02 AM by NP Editor

Excerpted from One State, Two States by Benny Morris. Published by Yale University Press. © 2009 by Benny Morris. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.

The Palestinian national movement started life with a vision and goal of a Palestinian Muslim Arab-majority state in all of Palestine — a one-state “solution” — and continues to espouse and aim to establish such a state down to the present day. Moreover, and as a corollary, al-Husseini, the Palestinian national leader during the 1930s and 1940s; the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which led the national movement from the 1960s to Yasser Arafat’s death in November, 2004; and Hamas today — all sought and seek to vastly reduce the number of Jewish inhabitants in the country, in other words, to ethnically cleanse Palestine.

Al-Husseini and the PLO explicitly declared the aim of limiting Palestinian citizenship to those Jews who had lived in Palestine permanently before 1917 (or, in another version, to limit it to those 50,000-odd Jews and their descendants). This goal was spelled out clearly in the Palestinian National Charter and in other documents. Hamas has been publicly more reserved on this issue, but its intentions are clear.

The Palestinian vision was never — as described by various Palestinian spokesmen in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to Western journalists — of a “secular, democratic Palestine” (though it certainly sounded more palatable than, say, the “destruction of Israel,” which was the goal it was meant to paper over or camouflage). Indeed, “a secular democratic Palestine” had never been the goal of Fatah or the so-called moderate groups that dominated the PLO between the 1960s and the 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power.

Middle East historian Rashid Khalidi has written that “in 1969 [the PLO] amended [its previous goal and henceforward advocated] the establishment of a secular democratic state in Palestine for Muslims, Christians and Jews, replacing Israel.” And Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah has written, in his recent book, One Country: “The PLO did ultimately adopt [in the late 1960s or 1970s] the goal of a secular, democratic state in all Palestine as its official stance.”

This is hogwash. The Palestine National Council (PNC) never amended the Palestine National Charter to the effect that the goal of the PLO was “a secular democratic state in Palestine.” The words and notion never figured in the charter or in any PNC or PLO Central Committee or Fatah Executive Committee resolutions, at any time. It is a spin invented for gullible Westerners and was never part of Palestinian mainstream ideology. The Palestinian leadership has never, at any time, endorsed a “secular, democratic Palestine.”

The PNC did amend the charter, in 1968 (not 1969). But the thrust of the emendation was to limit non-Arab citizenship in a future Arab-liberated Palestine to “Jews who had normally resided in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion” — that is, 1917.

True, the amended charter also guaranteed, in the future State of Palestine, “freedom of worship and of visit” to holy sites to all, “without discrimination of race, colour, language or religion.” And, no doubt, this was music to liberal Western ears. But it had no connection to the reality or history of contemporary Muslim Arab societies. What Muslim Arab society in the modern age has treated Christians, Jews, pagans, Buddhists and Hindus with tolerance and as equals? Why should anyone believe that Palestinian Muslim Arabs would behave any differently?

Morris makes a critical distinction here between what people say and what they do. The track record of Arabs in democratic experiments is abysmal, and believing that they will do what they say when it’s about democratic promises of, say, religious tolerance, offers us a virtual definition of what it means to be a dupe of demopaths.

Western liberals like, or pretend, to view Palestinian Arabs, indeed all Arabs, as Scandinavians, and refuse to recognize that peoples, for good historical, cultural and social reasons, are different and behave differently in similar or identical sets of circumstances.

In other words, if you project your liberal assumptions onto people who don’t share them, you will lose to cognitive war that is being waged against you. No creature, no matter how big or powerful or (supposedly) invulnerable, can long survive if its own senses betray it, if it cannot distinguish between benevolent and malevolent behavior from others.

So where did the slogan of “a secular, democratic Palestine” originate? That goal was first explicitly proposed in 1969 by the small Marxist splinter group the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). According to Khalidi, “It was [then] discreetly but effectively backed by the leaders of the mainstream, dominant Fatah movement … The democratic secular state model eventually became the official position of the PLO.” As I have said, this is pure invention. The PNC, PLO and Fatah turned down the DFLP proposal, and it was never adopted or enunciated by any important Palestinian leader or body — though the Western media during the 1970s were forever attributing it to the Palestinians. As a result, however, the myth has taken hold that this was the PLO’s official goal through the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Here’s an excellent example of how media dysfunctions plague our understanding. I have it from a friend that when the PLO allegedly voted to amend its charter for the sake of the Oslo Peace Process, and Hanan Ashrawi voted against the amendment, the reporter who provided the information was dismissed because Ashrawi — a media-designated “moderate” — could not have so voted. Don’t confuse me with the facts, I know the story already.

And today, again, and for the same reasons — the phrase retains its good, multicultural, liberal ring — “a secular, democratic Palestine” is bandied about by Palestinian one-state supporters. And a few one-statists, indeed, may sincerely believe in and desire such a denouement. But given the realities of Palestinian politics and behaviour, the phrase objectively serves merely as camouflage for the goal of a Muslim Arab–dominated polity to replace Israel. And, as in the past, the goal of “a secular democratic Palestine” is not the platform or policy of any major Palestinian political institution or party.

Indeed, the idea of a “secular democratic Palestine” is as much a nonstarter today as it was three decades ago. It is a nonstarter primarily because the Palestinian Arabs, like the world’s other Muslim Arab communities, are deeply religious and have no respect for democratic values and no tradition of democratic governance.

Ten years ago (even five), saying this would have earned you the epithet racist and demonizer. How will it strike audiences today?

And matters have only gotten worse since the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. For anyone who has missed the significance of Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006 and the violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, a mere glance at the West Bank and Gaza today (and, indeed, at Israel’s Arab minority villages and towns) reveals a landscape dominated by rapidly multiplying mosque minarets, the air filled with the calls to prayer of the muezzins and alleyways filled with hijab-ed women. Only fools and children were persuaded in 2006–07 that Hamas beat Fatah merely because they had an uncorrupt image or dispensed aid to the poor.

Lots of fools, still. “Idealists” like Jimmy Carter, and “realists” like Walt and Mearsheimer… and Obama? Hillary Clinton?

The main reasons for the Hamas victory were religious and political: the growing religiosity of the Palestinian masses and their “recognition” that Hamas embodies the “truth” and, with Allah’s help, will lead them to final victory over the infidels, much as Hamas achieved, through armed struggle, the withdrawal of the infidels from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

The obvious issue here is not “who is right?” since so many people will take sides based not on evidence, but on what they’d like to believe. And in that sense, the most critical audience, are good people who want to believe that the Palestinians are basically like us, that they want their own country, that they’ll be satisfied with the “occupied territories” (ie, to us, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), and if they had it all, they’d be considerate of their minorities.

The key question such well-intentioned folks need to consider before they launch into their kind-hearted generosity, is: “What if I get this wrong? What if Benny Morris, whose current arguments I find so repulsive, is right?” What then are the consequences of my insistence on believing things that make me feel good about myself — look how generous and understanding I am towards these poor people — but may be at variance with the historical and current reality?”

Is the solution to America Alone, to become more like Europe?

21 Responses to On the meaning of “secular” in Arab discourse: Benny Morris and Palestinian identity

  1. Barry Meislin says:

    The key question such well-intentioned folks need to consider before they launch into their kind-hearted generosity, is: “What if I get this wrong? What if Benny Morris, whose current arguments I find so repulsive, is right?” What then are the consequences of my insistence on believing things that make me feel good about myself — look how generous and understanding I am towards these poor people — but may be at variance with the historical and current reality?”

    Actually, I think it’s too late for that, no matter how much we broadly liberal, mostly Jewish supporters of Israel’s right to exist would like to believe otherwise. The truth is no longer an issue. The issue now, worldwide (except for the relatively small number of people who support Israel’s right to exist) is how can Israel can be dismantled and/or destroyed without causing too much destruction in the region. To be sure, even such destruction (including deaths of Palestinians) will be justified as long as Israel is erased from the map. (“Dying to live,” etc….)

    As for Benny Morris…, well good for him (finally); but the damage he and his numerous non-contextual historical distillations have wrought is done. And it is, alas, considerable, and irreparable.

  2. Lorenz Gude says:

    I don’t think Israel’s demise is certain. If it continues to allow itself to be slowly boiled like the proverbial frog its done for, but I think it will dawn on the Israeli leadership that it has little to lose by acting decisively at some point over the next few years.

  3. E.G. says:

    It is perhaps time to introduce doubt into the established narrative, in a similar way as the “New historians” did about Israel. Start asking interesting questions like “who are the Palestinians?” and “what do Palestinians want?” or “Is occupation the real and unique cause of Palestinian suffering?”
    Since each narrative legitimately has an alternative, equally valid, narrative…

  4. sshender says:

    I think your conclusions that it was not a “nationalist” war between Israel and Palestine, but, in the Arabs’ eyes, a Jihad, a religious war. is a bit premature. Yoav Gelber, an historian I would trade Morris for any day of the week, has a review of his book 1948 titles “The Jihad the Wasn’t” http://www.azure.org.il/article.php?id=475&page=1 where he disagrees with some of Morris analysis, in particular with the idea that the context of the 1948 war was more a “clash of civilisation with Islam” rather than a “nationalist struggle”, an analysis for which he considers Morris has no enough material.

    As much as I appreciate Morris’ timely works, intellectual integrity and his recent sobering up from his post-zionist delusions (which he claims he never had), Karsh and others have shown his at times sdoddy scholarship making it hard to take him more seriously than well establidhed “old” historians like Gelber and Shapira.

    I confess to not reading this particular book (have read Righteous Victims and both editions of Birth), but having read many other accounts of 48 by Karsh, Gelber, Walter Laqueur and David Tal just to name a few, I can’t accept Morris’ emphasis on Islamisn as the driving force behind the Palestinian rejectionism. Islamism no doubt plays a central role in the conflict, but only in recent decades it has become the central Palestinian narrative. I believe that the overwhelming evidence points in the direction of nationalism, not Islamism, although the latter was undoubtedly present as well.

  5. oao says:

    The issue now, worldwide (except for the relatively small number of people who support Israel’s right to exist) is how can Israel can be dismantled and/or destroyed without causing too much destruction in the region.

    exactly. propaganda, fear and the strive to appease have created a new reality, convincing all those “ethically superior” people that israel is the root of the islamist violence and that eliminating israel will get rid of it.
    it is not different than what happened when the nazis emerged.

    but I think it will dawn on the Israeli leadership that it has little to lose by acting decisively at some point over the next few years.

    remember rabin’s and olmert’s “we’re tired of winning?”. with all the world against you it’s rather hard to act decisively.

    Start asking interesting questions like “who are the Palestinians?” and “what do Palestinians want?” or “Is occupation the real and unique cause of Palestinian suffering?”

    it’s been done and was overwhelmed by the counter propaganda or ignored. nobody cares about the pals’ legitimacy, only about israel’s. after all, israel does not blow up and/or invade the west.

  6. E.G. says:

    oao,

    I know it’s been done. But success or failure is also a matter of timing (and chance/luck, and packaging).

    Happy Yom Haatsmaut, Gregorian calendar.

  7. RfaelMoshe says:

    “Palestinianism”, the set of political thought, and the underlying “Palestinian narrative” deserves a modern, objective, review and analysis. Much in the same way that we have seen “Post-Zionism”, its time for “Post-Palestinianism.”

    It seems that the root of “Palestinanism” is in Islam, and attitudes of Moslem Supremacy. Under traditional Islam, land conquered became part of the Islamic “Wakf” (“trust”) forever. If later re-conquered, Moslems have the obligation of Jihad to take it back. Jews are supposed to dhimmi and subservient to Islam. When the early Zionists didn’t behave like subservient dhimmi, and expressed an interest in political rights,THATS when the Arabs began to resent the Zionists. It was, after all ,the Grand Mufti, using the pretense of the Al-Aksa Mosque to start the Arab Riots of 1926 and 1939. If Israel had the exact same history, but was Moslem rather than Jewish, we would not have the same level of problems.

  8. E.G. says:

    RfaelMoshe,

    But of course. Sixty-one years after Palestine ceased to exist, Post-Palestinianism is the natural framework within which the region’s history, sociology, politics, psychology, economy etc. are to be studied.

    RL, a colloquium/conference is the best way to launch this novel direction. It can even be a virtual one – just a site. Plus a special issue of an Academic journal for selected papers.
    When’s the 1st call for papers?

  9. […] recently posted a piece by Benny Morris on the false notion of “secular” when applied to Palestinian identity, intentions, or […]

  10. JD says:

    Forever, Benny will be the Jew pointed to as “proving” this or that against Israel.

    He has learned about anti-semitic ideation, one facet is the usage of one Jew as solid proof about whatever about Jews.

  11. Eliyahu says:

    RM mentions Amin el-Husseini [Husayni]. He was the chief leader of the palestinian Arabs AND a religious official, mufti of Jerusalem [by British appointment] and chairman of the Supreme Muslim Council [also courtesy of the British]. After WW2, Husseini was in France under a kind of protected residence. The Big Four powers [US, UK, USSR and France] refused to try him at Nuremberg despite his mass murderous war crimes. He was allowed to return to the Middle East where he resumed leadership of the palestinian Arabs. So the palestinian Arabs were led in 1948 by a MUFTI, a chief Muslim religious judge. And then Yoav Gelber says the movement –the war– was nationalist, not religious.

  12. E.G. says:

    Eliyahu,

    Don’t you think that the nationalist-religious debate is a major issue within the Post-Palestinianism framework?

    It seems that the Pope’s intellectual, scholarly attitude on his recent trip has just given the signal for this new approach. It’s about time the emotional treatment of the issue ends and that a cold headed examination of the suffering and wrongdoing replaces the warm hearted one. Ben Dror Yemini’s well documented “Jewish Nakba” paper in today’s Maariv goes in the same sense.

  13. Rich Rostrom says:

    Eliyahu: The Mufti claimed the leadership of Palestinian Arabs, but was by no means universally acknowledged as such. Abdullah of Jordan vetoed any suggestion of recognizing the Mufti and his “Arab Higher Council” as the government of Palestine. The Mufti had no control over the “Arab Liberation Army” which was mustered in Syria, under the command of Fawzi el-Kaukji. Kaukji had authority over all “Palestinian” operations in northern Palestine. His appointment by the Arab League was a deliberate move to undercut the Mufti; he and Kaukji had been bitter rivals for years.

  14. Eliyahu says:

    RR, you’re right that the Mufti was not an undisputed leader. I was well aware of that. He had rivals even among the palestinian Arabs, especially the Nashashibi clan. The British, like the Ottoman officials before them, had played a game of playing off one clan-led faction against the other. My view is that the British quietly sided with the Husseinis although not explicitly. Now, during WW2, the German Nazis, Italian fascists and the Western media and diplomatic worlds tended to consider Amin el-Husseini the chief leader of the palestinian Arabs. Moreover, in the late 1940s, 1945-1949, Egypt and Syria promoted the Mufti, as I recall, especially against Abdullah of Transjordan. Further, the Husseinis seem to have had more rank and file support among Arabs in the country.

  15. oao says:

    He had rivals even among the palestinian Arabs, especially the Nashashibi clan.

    the reality is that hatred of the jews/israel is about the only thing that unifies the arabs. take that away and they’ll be at each other’s throat. not that they are not so even with israel there.

  16. Rich Rostrom says:

    Eliyahu: The Nashashibi clan were wiped out by the Mufti’s Husseini clan in 1936-39; they were not factors in 1948.

    And in 1948, both Egypt and Syria supported the appointment of Kaukji to lead the Arab Liberation Army (which was mustered in Syria) – directly against the Mufti’s wishes.

  17. E.G. says:

    Eliyahu,

    Now, during WW2, the German Nazis, Italian fascists and the Western media and diplomatic worlds tended to consider Amin el-Husseini the chief leader of the palestinian Arabs.

    Do you know why? Could you explain why (how) the Mufti got chosen?

    side note: Thank you, and Rich Rostrom and the other commentators for sharing your precious knowledge. I learn a lot!

  18. Eliyahu says:

    I think that the Mufti was in fact the chief leader of those Arabs, which does not mean that there were no other leaders or no rivals.

    As to his ties to Hitler and Mussolini, he was in contact with them during the 1930s, especially during the so-called Arab Revolt of 1936-39, which got support from them, from Charles R Crane [former US minister to China], etc. He also promoted himself as a Pan-Arab leader, not merely a local palestinian Arab leader. He broadcast over Radio Berlin to the Arabs during the war. You can find his interview with Hitler in the collection of documents edited by Walter Z Laqueur and Barry Rubin.

    EG, the Mufti was chosen to be Mufti of Jerusalem by the British high commissioner Herbert Samuel, on the advice of anti-Jewish aides, Ernest Richmond, Ronald Storrs, etc. Richmond and Storrs and other Brit officers knew what kind of person the Mufti was. That’s why they promoted him, in my opinion. Another factor was of course his belonging to the prominent Husseini clan which had already held the post of mufti of Jerusalem in the past under the Ottoman empire.

  19. E.G. says:

    Eliyahu,

    Are you suggesting that the Brits were counting on Mufti Husseini’s collaboration?

  20. Eliyahu says:

    I wouldn’t say that when the Brits appointed him in ca. 1921 they knew that he would become a Nazi collabo. But after WW2, the UK, USSR, USA, and France let him off without prosecution at Nuremberg. They in fact defied voices in the Western countries calling for him to be tried as a war criminal. Yugoslavia put him on a UN list of war criminals but were apparently persuaded to let this drop after the sec’y general of the Arab League, Abdul-Rahman Azzam Pasha requested that he be let alone.

    So the Big Four powers were not especially bothered by Husseini’s pro-genocide activities. Maybe too the UK wanted him to organize and inspire the palestinian Arabs against the Jews.

    by the way, he did not “escape” from France in 1946, as is sometimes erroneously claimed. He was allowed to leave and came to Egypt on an American plane, although there is a question of whether this plane was commercial [TWA] or military or perhaps a commercial plane [TWA] under US army supervision.

  21. Eliyahu says:

    EG, I should add that members of parliament/Congress/National Assembly/ were callng for Husseini to be tried for war crimes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *