It is no easy task to comprehend the significance of religion in its political dimension. Here in the US, for instance, Black churches have played a vital and progressive role in the struggle for political and civil rights. More recently, fundamentalist and revivalist Christian churches have participated intimately in advancing the political fortunes of the new right. Other church people have been in the forefront of the campaigns against nuclear weapons. In Central and South America, “liberation theology” emerged out of fierce mass struggles against political oppression and. economic degradation, while the Catholic hierarchy remained committed, for the most part, to the ruling classes.
Religion in the Middle East is enmeshed with similarly divergent, even contradictory, political tendencies. But in considering the question of religion and politics in the Middle East, we are uniquely encumbered by our own cultural and political establishment, which ignores the social and doctrinal diversity represented by Muslim societies and the political role of non-Muslim communities there. It prefers to speak of Islam as an undifferentiated body of believers, coterminous geographically with the Middle East. This “Islam” is then appropriated as a window through which to glimpse and interpret the social turbulence and political struggles of the region.
In this issue, we explore the material conditions underlying concrete manifestations of Islam as a political force. Hanna Batatu draws on his lifelong engagement with Iraq’s history to delineate the social origins and political prospects of the Shi‘i underground movements there. Mary Hooglund takes us into an Iranian village to convey the intricate relationship of religious ritual to political struggle at that local level. We discuss with Mohammed Sid Ahmed some dilemmas posed to the Egyptian secular left by the Islamic opposition forces in that country. Ervand Abrahamian’s essay on ‘Ali Shariati illustrates the complex encounter of progressive Western political ideologies with the cultural-religious component of Iran’s revolutionary movement. Finally, Michael Gilsenan takes a critical eye to two recent academic studies of Iran’s religious institutions.
In our next issue, we intend to broaden our inquiry into the question of religion and politics, with materials on Israel and the US, as well as Egypt and Iran. The phenomenon of religious revival is not unique to the Muslim Middle East. Indeed, the most politically retrograde elements in Israel and the US are institutionally affiliated with religious forces, and use a religious idiom to formulate their political agendas. The warm relationship between Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Rev. Jerry Falwell is one expression of this affinity. Then there is Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Nazi-like diatribe against Palestinian Arabs, unambiguously titled They Must Go, was just published here by Grossett & Dunlap. The book cover declaims that Israel’s Arab population is “malignant and growing.” In its disgraceful promotional blurb, the publisher refers to Kahane as “an internationally known theologian.” The racist incitement of Rabbi Kahane finds a heightened level of application in Israel’s military occupation policies under the new defense minister, Ariel Sharon. The confrontation between the occupation and local popular resistance, now in its fifteenth year, seems to have intensified significantly. On November 1, Menachem Milson became the West Bank’s first “civilian” administrator, a major step toward unilateral implementation of Israel’s “autonomy” plan. Milson has been teaching Arabic at the Hebrew University, but from 1977 to 1979 he served as counselor for Arab affairs to the Israeli military commander for the occupied territories, and his rank in the IDF reserve was reportedly raised a notch with this latest appointment. As counselor, Milson energetically promoted the Village Leagues on the West Bank, a scheme to create a network of collaborationist Palestinians groomed to administer an “autonomous Judea and Samaria” on Israel’s behalf. In the May 1981 issue of Commentary, Milson outlined a policy of greater reward for West Bank collaborators and punishment for nationalists. Sharon has enthusiastically endorsed this rationalization of his own brutal tactics. He has, for instance, revived the practice of demolishing Palestinian homes as collective punishment for transgressions. There were at least seven such demolitions in the month of November alone.
West Bank Palestinians immediately greeted Milson’s “civilian” administration with demonstrations and public denunciations. These continued the following day, November 2, which was also the sixty-fourth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. At least 60 persons were arrested and 50 others detained as troops broke up rallies and seized “terrorist” rock throwers. Demonstrations continued on November 3, particularly against the Village Leagues. Israeli troops moved into the town of Birzeit that night, firing weapons and flares. When students responded the next morning with a peaceful protest march, troops broke it up with tear gas and bullets, and surrounded the university. That evening, after a day-long state of seiege, the troops broke into the campus to evict students and faculty. The Israeli military commander then ordered the university closed indefinitely. An Israeli court ordered the authorities to specify the period of closing, which was then set at two months, until January 4, 1982.
A few days later, occupation authorities shut down the Palestinian newspaper al-Fajr on November 10 for ten days and again on November 27 for 30 days. Mayors and other civic leaders have been completely muzzled and forbidden to attend meetings. Students and other youth have continued the protests, organizing different manifestations of resistance: on one day people blow their car horns at 4 pm; on another day everyone wears an olive twig on their jacket or dress.
One encouraging development in all this is the unprecedented support from progressive Israelis. At least 60 were arrested in late November at a support rally in Ramallah. Israeli students reportedly placed barbed wire around Milson’s classroom at Hebrew University (where he still teaches one session a week). Israeli faculty members have joined an appeal to end collective punishments, reopen Birzeit University, and rescind Order 854 of July 1980, which placed Palestinian universities under direct military control. We urge all our readers to join in similar efforts here.