Sunday, April 23, 2006

Odd man out in a three-hand game

In the Jihadist world, once you declare war on Israel, everyone wants to get in on the action.

Hamas’ tightrope walk just got dicier, and soon they will be looking for a net. In his new tape broadcast today on Al Jazeera, Osama Bin Laden embraced Hamas as a rallying cry for his Sunni Muslim Jihadist movement. By framing the freezing of aid to the Palestinian Authority by the west as proof of a “crusader war” against Islam, Bin Laden sought to reassert himself and his Al Qaeda movement onto the international scene.

Can it be a coincidence that Bin Laden felt compelled to go public just one week after Iran convened a conference on Palestine and committed funds to Hamas? Bin Laden, after all, is struggling to maintain the supremacy of his Al Qaeda movement as the vanguard of the Jihadist struggle in the face of Iran’s successful efforts to encroach on Al Qaeda’s––and Bin Ladin’s––turf.

In the Jihadist universe, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad brings strong credentials and troops to the Jihadist cause. After all, he is a product of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps––the Pasdaran––that was founded by Ayatollah Khomenei in the wake of the Iranian revolution, and that has grown to rival the Iranian military in size and counts the home-grown international terrorist groups Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad among its assets.

The battle for Jihadist hegemony between Iran and Al Qaeda is just the latest chapter in the thousand-year struggle between the Shi’a and Sunni for the mantle of the Prophet. Since their rejection of the Caliphate in the formative years of Islam, the Shi’a have struggled under the thumb of Sunni rule, and any temporal alliance between the Shi’a and the Sunni––such as their apparent alliance in opposition to the west––is only a tactical detour from their doctrinal wars. The Shi’a hold fast to their opposition to the Sunni ecclesiastic and legal order, while Sunni fundamentalists, including Al Qaeda and their Taliban sponsors, view the Shi’a as apostates to be beheaded in traditional fashion.

Since his election just nine months ago, Ahmadinejad has swiftly displaced Bin Laden as the poster boy for the Global War on Terror as he has pushed Iran’s nuclear program forward. Faced with international consternation over the prospects of a nuclear Iran, Bin Laden has found himself struggling for airtime.

Bin Laden’s audio tapes seem almost quaint in a world where the GWOT has been escalated to the nuclear stage. Trapped in the mountains of Waziristan, Bin Laden has become a bystander in the continuing international drama that is 21st century Islam. Faced with the prospect of withering into irrelevance, he did the only thing struggling Arab leaders seem to be able to do in such circumstances––he played the Palestinian card.

But a sign of how things have changed in the miasma of Middle East politics can be seen in the Hamas reaction to Bin Laden’s tape. In the wake of the first airing of Bin Laden’s latest recording on Al Jazeera, Hamas leaders took no time in distancing them from the former top dog in the Jihadist struggle. Appealing directly to the western audience, Hamas spokesmen Sami Abu Zuhri declared Hamas’ philosophy to be "totally different" from Bin Laden’s and that Hamas was "very keen to have good relations with the West."

Hamas is trying to avoid becoming a pawn in a game that it surely wants no part of. They might share Shi’a Iran’s dream that Israel be wiped off the face of the earth, as they also share Al Qaeda’s Sunni Islamist orientation. But Iran and Al Qaeda’s antipathy is deeply rooted, and their interest in Hamas is purely tactical and self-interested. Hamas will only lose if it becomes embroiled in the tug of war between Iran and Al Qaeda, particularly at a time when it is trying to shed its Jihadist mantle for a cloak of statesmanship in hope of finding a middle ground that wins it western acceptance without totally neutering its Islamist politics.

In decades past, the Palestinian leadership––a term whose oxymoronic essence Hamas is struggling to shed––bartered its services between competing patrons. But in the wake of tactical missteps at Taba and Wye River, support for the wrong side in the Gulf War, and images of cheering masses on 9/11, the Palestinians may finally have seen the folly of hooking their star to patrons seeking to rally the Muslim world on the aching Palestinian backs. In a matter of minutes following the Al Jazeera broadcast, Hamas spoke out and declined Bin Laden’s advances, and the audience whose approval they sought were Bin Laden’s western adversaries in the Battle of Civilizations.

There remains for Hamas to address the matter of Israel. The future of the Palestinian people lies in partnership with Israel, the single economic engine of a region bereft of economic life. Perhaps their evident fear of Bin Laden’s embrace will open Hamas’ eyes before they continue their march down a road that leads nowhere.

No comments: