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World Council for the Cedars Revolution

Apr 15th
Home arrow News Content arrow Blog arrow Blog Items arrow Opinions and Editorials arrow Taking Refuge in Dangerous Passions
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Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Everyday Jihad
Everyday Jihad

Taking Refuge in Dangerous Passions
June 26, 2007; Wall Street Journal, Page D5

Bernard Rougier is the kind of scholar of political Islam that 9/11 should have created.

A Frenchman who teaches political science at the Université d'Auvergne in Clermont-Ferrand, he is fluent in Arabic and is willing to supplement his theoretical knowledge with analytical creativity and intrepid reporting. His "Everyday Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam Among Palestinians in Lebanon" looks at a fascinating, under-investigated microcosm of the Islamist landscape.

The world of the Lebanese refugee camps is tremendously convoluted. It has today become, much like Lebanon itself, a battleground in a regional confrontation between Iran, Syria and their allies, on the one hand, and the U.S., the Sunni-majority Arab states and their allies, on the other. Mr. Rougier is very good at examining the genesis of outside influences in Ain al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp, near Sidon, which is the focus of his study. Perhaps the most striking of those influences was that of Iran, which as long ago as 1982 created a grouping of Sunni and Shiite clerics to help advance its own interests in Lebanon.

That a theocratic Shiite regime should have had the foresight to make inroads into the Sunni clergy and prompt them to collaborate with Iran's Shiite Lebanese allies showed not only that Tehran could think strategically and contrapuntally but also that the camps were even in the 1980s regarded as fertile ground for regional exploitation. This process continues more intensely than ever, with Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan and others manipulating key aspects of Palestinian refugee politics in the Lebanon camps. Mr. Rougier's valuable backgrounder makes this roiling activity more comprehensible.

"Everyday Jihad" is highly recommended, even if it contains two flaws worth noting. The first has to do with the inconsistency of its updating. The book, a version of Mr. Rougier's doctoral dissertation, arrives in U.S. stores three years after its publication in France. This chronology is important, because in 2005 Syria withdrew its army and intelligence agents from Lebanon, ending decades of debilitating hegemony from Damascus.

The Syrian withdrawal, by removing the final arbiter of politics in Lebanon, also substantially altered the political environment of the Palestinian refugee camps. Groups that the Syrians had stifled received a breath of fresh oxygen, and the PLO, hitherto opposed by Syria, even appointed a representative in Beirut. That environment has been transformed yet again in recent months as Syria, in an effort to reimpose its authority in Lebanon, has provoked instability in some of the camps, hoping to weaken the Lebanese government. While in several of the book's passages the post-2005 situation is acknowledged, in others the original text is left unchanged, leaving us with jarring anachronism.


Everyday Jihad
By Bernard Rougier
(Harvard University Press, 333 pages, $28.95)The second problem, more profound, goes to the heart of the book's thesis. This Mr. Rougier sums up in his introduction: "Today, it is no longer possible to speak of a Palestinian society in Lebanon's camps, so deep is the fracture between the [Palestine Liberation Organization] and its hard core (Fatah), on the one hand, and the Salafist militants, on the other." Salafist jihadists seek, through moral or violent action, a return to a purer (also largely mythical) Islamic past. Mr. Rougier's argument is that the Salafists, with their transnational ties to distant militant centers, such as Peshawar, Pakistan, and their loathing for nationalisms dividing the body of Muslim believers, have so gained in the camps that "a considerable part of the population has freed itself from the national Palestinian framework and is no longer governed by a nationalist universe."

This is quite a statement. It is all the more so in that Mr. Rougier correctly places Palestinian Islamist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the "nationalist" camp. The ideological commitment of these groups to Islam is subsumed in what they regard as the national struggle against Israel. But if the "nationalist universe" of the mainstream Palestinian secular and Islamist nationalist groups is crumbling -- as Mr. Rougier claims -- then presumably the Salafists represent quite a few refugees.

In fact, all signs are that Palestinian nationalism remains dominant in the camps and still enjoys support from most refugees. It's true that when Mr. Rougier wrote his book in 2004, Salafist groups had expanded their influence. It is also true that during recent fighting in Lebanon at Ain al-Hilweh and, most significantly, in the northern camp of Nahr al-Bared, the deep degeneration of Fatah was on full display -- a result of years of Syrian coercion, internal corruption, cutbacks in income and much else.

But Mr. Rougier never provides us with persuasive indicators proving the potency of the Salafist phenomenon when compared with the nationalist one. Palestinians may be increasingly mistrustful of their mainstream parties, particularly Fatah and Hamas, but that does not mean they have swapped decades of nationalism for a global Salafism in which Palestine is only one among many struggles on the path toward a new Islamic millennium.

Despite these caveats, "Everyday Jihad" is admirable for the density of its sociological detail and, not least, for the thoroughness of Mr. Rougier's method. He has immersed himself in a difficult topic, pursuing it with scholarly rigor and near-obsessive passion. For example, in the vaults of the Center for the Study of the Modern Arab World at St. Joseph's University in Beirut he unearthed an obscure newsletter published by Islamists in the Ain al-Hilweh camp. Few others would have done so, though what better way to understand the Salafists than to read what they write about themselves? More important, Mr. Rougier visited the camp -- never easy, particularly for a Westerner asking about Islamists. Perhaps most commendably, he explored the curricula of the main Sunni Islamic institutes in Lebanon, read dissertations by students and perused lists on the gate of one such school to gather information on the students themselves, their ages, origins and places of residence.

"Everyday Jihad" is the work of a true sociologist, not someone manacled to a desk satisfied with postmodernist circumlocutions on "Orientalist discourse." One can challenge some of Mr. Rougier's contentions, but not the integrity of his research or the importance of his subject. The title of the book, though a literal translation, is misleading in English idiom. "Everyday Jihad" (from the original, "Le Jihad au quotidien") implies something banal, routine. Mr. Rougier's merit is to have shown the contrary and to have braved forbidding subcultures to do so.

Mr. Young is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the U.S.


Last Updated ( Tuesday, 26 June 2007 )
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