Bernard Rougier, Everyday Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam Among Palestinians in Lebanon (translated by Pascale Ghazaleh) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
The May 2007 publication of Everyday Jihad in the United States coincided almost exactly with the massive firefights between radical Islamists of Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese military in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Barid in northern Lebanon. Proponents of the clash of civilizations (whether radical Islamists or Euro-American imperialists) saw these battles as another harbinger of the apocalypse. Anti-Syrian forces in Lebanon saw them as yet another example of Damascus’ perfidy. Those Lebanese allied to the government and the US supported both views, despite the inherent implausibility of the Syrian regime supporting a radical Islamist organization, given its history of bloody suppression of such groups. A more nuanced view would have to take into account the shifting alliances of small Islamist organizations in Lebanon, take their claims of connection to Jihad International with a grain of salt and examine the role of the imperial metropole—the US and its local allies—not just in creating the political environment that nurtures Islamist sentiments, but in the making of these organizations.
Bernard Rougier does not include Fatah al-Islam in his study of Islamists in Palestinian camps. But in his discussion of similar groups, he does not supplant superficial explanations for their rise. Nor does he persuasively explain the relationship between them and the various political families and institutions that represent sectarian politics in Lebanon, their location in the complex cartography of political allegiances in the Middle East or how we can understand the 2007 clashes as part of a broader geopolitical conflagration consuming the region.
Rougier argues that the death of Palestinian nationalism in the refugee camps of Lebanon has transformed these camps into islands of insecurity in “the global geography of jihadi Islamism” and that the alleged barring of the Lebanese military from the camps “has become a resource for religious militants who seek to escape the control of the Lebanese state and its ‘impious’ institutions.” Rougier gives Syria a starring role in the unfolding drama, sometimes as the Islamists’ nemesis, but mostly as their prime benefactor. Focusing on a militant salafi organization called ‘Usbat al-Ansar, he traces the rise of Islamism in the camps to revolutionary Iranian influences on the one hand and global jihadi Islamism—incubated in Peshawar, Pakistan—on the other. He concludes by recommending the restart of “the peace process” as the solution to the rise of jihadi Islamism.
Everyday Jihad is built around a series of self-contained and generally sensitive ethnographic narratives. Such vignettes include discussion of al-Nur mosque and al-Huda bookstore in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa camp in southern Lebanon, interpretation of a handful of sermons preached in the same mosque and analysis of the role of Islamic educational institutes in and around Beirut. As far as they go, these ethnographic interludes can be useful in understanding the ideology of ‘Usbat al-Ansar and their sympathizers. They are encased, however, in a text of unclear scope that is rife with conceptual flaws and unwarranted generalizations.
Rougier says that the book is about Palestinian Islamism, but includes various Lebanese Islamist groups without a clear explanation why or what their relation is to the Palestinians. An entire chapter is devoted to the Lebanese Diniyya group, which was responsible for the largest attack by a Lebanese group against the army between the end of the civil war in 1991 and the conflagrations of 2007. Rougier admits that, other than a series of contacts and an exchange of software, there was very little concrete connection between ‘Usbat al-Ansar and the Diniyya group. In fact, he says that despite their similar rhetoric, their alleged “cooperation” was a series of proposed joint ventures that never got off the ground. So why include them, if this is a book about Palestinian Islamism?
Indeed, in a book where the most persuasive ethnography concerns one Islamist group in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa camp (the discussion of Nahr al-Barid in a few pages at the end seems like an afterthought), the author keeps referring to “the Palestinians,” the “refugee population” or “the Palestinian youth” as if these were monolithic groups, all of them engaged in radical jihadism. Rougier gives the reader no sense of how many people are involved in Islamist mobilization. A 2000 survey about the role of women in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa is the only data cited as proof that Palestinian teenagers have now turned to Islamism. He does not say how many and what sort of people attend the Islamist mosques in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa. Are there pious Muslims in the camp who come to the mosques but have no sympathy with the preachers? If not, where do most pious Muslims without jihadi sympathies go for their Friday prayers? Rougier does not reveal the ratio of Lebanese to Palestinians within ‘Usbat al-Ansar (even if later he says that two out of three members of the Usbat executed for murder were actually Lebanese).
The second conceptual problem lies in the lack of clear definitions of Islamism, jihadism or salafism—none of them uncontested terms. Rougier glides among the three terms as if they are synonyms. He does say that the distinction between Hamas and ‘Usbat al-Ansar is the former’s adherence to nationalist sentiments, and the latter’s affiliation with a transnational network, but his ethnography points to the flimsiest of connections between ‘Usbat al-Ansar and the supposedly global jihadi conspiracy. Granted, such connections are difficult to excavate, but then claims about ‘Usbat al-Ansar belonging to Jihad International should be made with some modesty.
A third conceptual problem is perhaps the most serious: Rougier constantly elides the distinctions between Islam as sectarian identity, as faith, as political ideology and as a cynically used instrument of mobilization. Rougier uses “Sunni” or “Muslim” as shorthand for any of these categories. Has Sunnism been transformed from a communitarian identity into an Islamist ideology? Where does that leave many secular or pious Sunnis? Rougier does not say, and so a reader who is not familiar with the intricacies of Lebanese identity politics would assume that all Sunnis are supporters of either the quasi-Sufi Ahbash or the salafi Islamists Rougier encounters. Even when Rougier’s own ethnography shows complexity, the broader arguments he derives from it are reductive and obfuscating.
Theoretically, the basic argument of the book is that Islamism has replaced Palestinian nationalism as a mobilizing ideology. But we do not learn why or how. Fouad Ajami argued the same for Arab nationalism some 30 years ago, and like Rougier, did not examine the demand for self-determination and some measure of independence from imperial or neo-colonial control that lies at the heart of both ideologies. This absence makes the argument of one-for-one replacement superficial and implausible.
Throughout the book, Rougier grants the Syrian regime vast amounts of agency in influencing actors and driving events forward. But Rougier does not convincingly establish the ultimate culpability of Syria, and furthermore, he seems to contradict himself. Whereas the prevalent argument is that “ultimately, nothing could be achieved without the approval of the Syrians,” in one instance, as he tries to explain the phenomenon of Islamist informants, he tells us that Syria is “far from constituting a deus ex machina manipulating all the sources of authority in Lebanese society.”
A significant shortcoming underlying all these problems is Rougier’s selective use of evidence. Whatever confirms his thesis that Palestinian nationalism has died in Lebanon and transnational jihadi Islamism has risen from its ashes is taken at face value (including the jihadis’ statements), whereas contradictory materials (regarding Palestine, Syria or indeed jihadism) are subjected to critically deconstructive readings. This means that facts and events are interpreted in strange ways. When writing about the Iranian influence on the rise of Islamism, Rougier casts a particular cleric’s Sunni sectarianism as part of his allegiance to Iran. When talking about the rise of Islam, he portrays Gamal Abdel Nasser — whose death was celebrated by the Muslim Brotherhood—as an idol of the “Muslim street.” Fatah is designated a founder of the Shi‘i Amal movement, where all they did was to provide military training to Amal fighters.
Rougier writes in an alarmist tone that “significant numbers of young Palestinians have chosen to study at Islamic institutes in Beirut, Tripoli or Saida” and that “Islamic institutes…have been taken over by young Palestinians.” Yet his own data shows that at any given time, there are a total of around 400 such students at the two to three largest Islamic institutes in Beirut—less than 50 percent of the student body even in those institutions where they are the most numerous. Nor does his breathless prose allow any room for interpreting the rise in the number of Palestinian youth in preaching courses as one of the few possible career options open to Palestinians in Lebanon.
The absence of citation for some evidence makes it difficult to verify the facts. Rougier claims, without citing any sources, that in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa incest is a “fairly frequent occurrence.” How does he know this? He tells us that “in the religious schools, a young person is taught…to see himself as better than the others” (emphasis in the original). Did his interviewees tell him this? Is this documented in the religious schools’ curricula? He speaks of Islamist fighters in the 1970s and a “Shaykhs’ camp” in Jordan established to serve them. Where does he get this fascinating tidbit?
Similarly, when Rougier avers that “Islamist pressure can be felt in all areas of life” in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa, what is the evidence? The reliability of this statement is undermined when as an example he cites a satellite installer in this camp who is “not allowed” to install foreign channels. What is left out of the narrative is that even other camps rarely watch European channels, as these are often not included in the package for which the satellite receiver is tuned. Moreover, have the Islamists he talks about never seen some of the Arabic-language channels beamed in by satellite? The music video channels in particular, with their panoply of scantily clad Arab pop stars, put any foreign channel to shame.
The book also suffers from a series of historical inaccuracies and omissions. Throughout, the Lebanese civil war is presented as a struggle between Christians and Muslims, and Palestinians are said to have been the “‘armed wing’ of Lebanon’s Sunnis.” Rougier claims that “Christian Lebanists” were proponents of Lebanese territorial integrity in the 1970s notwithstanding the Phalangist plan (in conjunction with Israel) to partition the country. He writes that Islamist organizations in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa spearheaded the defense of the camp in 1982 (they did not), while omitting any sustained discussion of the tactical 1983 alliance made between Fatah and the Lebanese Islamist Tawhid group against Syria except in an irrelevant footnote. There is nothing about the direct involvement of the Rafiq al-Hariri family in the rise of Islamism, and if one can be excused for not delving into this murky area, Rougier could have at least cited the fact that in 2005 more than two dozen Diniyya prisoners were granted pardon through the intervention of the assassinated ex-premier’s son Saad. Other factual errors: The Da‘wa Party is Iraqi, not Iranian. Hizballah does not encourage, but actively discourages, self-flagellation at ‘Ashura ceremonies. Israel occupied the Golan in 1967, not Lebanon. And when Rougier mentions a United Arab Republic existing in the 1990s, does he mean Egypt?
Finally, the book’s style is sensationalist. The cover image is an egregious example of what the late Edward Said criticized in his Covering Islam: One angry Islamist carries an automatic weapon, the second is screaming and the third holds up a pocket-sized Qur’an. Whereas the picture is printed in black and white, the Qur’an is rendered in color, implying its centrality to the subject matter of the book. The juxtaposition of the Qur’an with the gun and the angry Islamist immediately reminds one of the distant, unfamiliar and threatening “mobs” of Iranian revolutionaries frequently pictured in the US media in the early 1980s.
The text itself has a jarringly condescending tone that portrays Palestinians as backward and uneducated handmaidens of the Syrian regime. The camps are presented without qualification as “ungovernable zones of poverty and delinquency.” The very same Palestinians who have satellite TV and everyday encounters with foreign visitors are actually said to live “in isolation from the outside world.” Hagiographies of ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, a Palestinian Islamist credited with being a forebear of al-Qaeda, are “intended for a readership with a low overall level of education,” but the fact is that many educated, middle-class people also revere ‘Azzam. The Islamists are portrayed as irrational actors with “fevered imagination” and adherence to “emotional cause[s].” Rougier writes that the feared and loathed Syrian mukhabarat representative in Lebanon, Rustum Ghazala, had “many Palestinian contacts” without indicating that some of the more senior people on his payroll are today among the leaders of the anti-Syrian March 14 movement. His contempt is not just reserved for Palestinians. When writing about the Shi‘a, in a sarcastic aside, Rougier trots out the tired Orientalist cliché of taqiyya. He uses scare quotes when writing about the “liberation” of south Lebanon in 2000 where he could simply have written about “Israeli withdrawal.” On the same page, however, he does not place scare quotes around the much discredited “peace process.” One could go on.
In the end, what most jars ethnographers who have lived in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon is the claim that the lives of a few militant radicals somehow represent the everyday struggles of the nearly 200,000 Palestinians who live in and outside these camps. The impression that Rougier gives of Palestinians sitting “jobless and anyhow barred, under Lebanese law, from most decent trades, in a cinderblock shack in one of the country’s archipelago of little Gazas, dreaming of jihad” (as another reviewer wrote in the New York Review of Books) bears very little resemblance to reality. The Palestinians who live in the refugee camps of Lebanon are certainly barred from jobs and they are undoubtedly assaulted by the Lebanese authorities, but they do not all sit around thinking of armed struggle (represented here, in the best Orientalist tradition, as jihad). They worry about the possibility of further education, of finding a job or finding a life partner for themselves or their children. Yes, they think about politics, and politics shapes so many aspects of their lives. But their everyday lives are like the everyday lives of most people, also filled with quotidian worries and pleasures. Those of us who have lived in the camps are struck by the good humor, resilience and strength of the Palestinian refugees we have known. To reduce the complexities of their joys, sorrows and struggles to angry dreams of jihad does them a great disservice.