This week has passed 20 years since the Second Intifada broke out. In the years that followed, buses and cafes were bombed by organizations wrapped in the banners of insurgent political Islam, most notably Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Their tactics – including suicide attacks and targeted combat against civilians – were adopted by an earlier generation of Islamists, the Shiite jihadists of Lebanon's Hezbollah.
The history of the past 20 years marks the rise of the revolutionary political idea of insurgent political Islam – but also its sudden decline. For a period, bottom-up Islamism was the main political ideology in the Middle East, capturing the energy previously invested in pan-Arab nationalism. The ongoing solar eclipse of Islamism is no less severe than the similar demise of its previous ideology.
The Second Intifada was the first outbreak of political Islam in its rebellious form against a Western democracy (Sunni Islamism had risen against the Syrian and Algerian regimes in the 1980s and 1990s and was defeated by them.) At first it felt unfamiliar on. but would quickly become a harbinger. A year later, when Israel was still in the middle of a suicide attack, Al-Qaeda destroyed the twin towers in New York. This attack, along with those that followed in Madrid, London and Paris, led to a global focus on the issue of insurgent political Islam.
From 2010 to 2014, the mobilization and uprising of the Islamist population arrived in mass form in the heartland of the Arab-Islamic world. This was evident in the rapid takeover of the Syrian uprising by Sunni-Islamist militias, in the brief triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and in its purest, unalloyed expression in the form of the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State. This was the height of insurgent Islamism in the Arab world – and also the beginning of its decline. The long-awaited reign of the Muslim Brotherhood turned out to be a brief interlude. The powerful allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran and Russia, held back the Islamist-dominated uprising in Syria. The Islamic State provoked a massive reaction against itself and ushered in the demise of its underlying ideology.
Take a look around the Arabic-speaking world today. Where do you find a bottom-up insurrection – a jihad, a popular insurrection – such as that premiered by Hamas and the PIJ during the Second Intifada and then on a larger scale by the Syrian-Sunni-Arab rebellion and the Islamic State in Syria and Syria Iraq, the Islamist-dominated uprising against the former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi and the mass uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia? Nowhere.
There is certainly disorder. The end result of the last 10 years of political chaos caused by Islamist uprisings is that large parts of the Arab-speaking world are smoking ruins. Today, in this ruin with its half-functioning or non-functioning governments in Libya, Yemen and in the only area that is still officially referred to as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, there is no popular uprising, but the machinations of states and states of their obedient Customers.
Paradoxically, the main legacy of the disintegration of the Arab world through Islamist uprisings is the ultimate weakening of a number of Arab states and their penetration by a multitude of regional and global non-Arab powers. These powers – Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the United States – are using the remaining insurgent organizations as contractors and cannon fodder for their own designs.
Political Islam itself has now entered a new phase. It is no longer an insurgent banner, but a decoration used by powerful states as part of their self-justification. Today it is carried by Turkey and Iran, and this is its main remaining relevance.
In both cases, however, political Islam is confused with some kind of imperial revanchism as the main reason for the idea of regimes. For the most part, this is a top-down affair, with insurgents being dismissed as military contractors. The former Sunni-Islamist rebels of northern Syria, for example, are now being flown to Libya and Azerbaijan by the Turkish state and the SADAT company from Adnan Tanriverdi. The various militias that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran, such as the Fatemiyoun Brigade and the Zeinabiyoun Brigade, work in exchange for tiny salaries and residency rights for the Shiite refugees that make up the ranks.
If this reminds you of something, it should. It is a phase that both Arab nationalism and Soviet-style communism went through before they finally dissolved. Long after its existence as a revolutionary idea, Arab nationalism became the empty excuse for a number of Arab police states for their existence and their oppression. And long after the days when it inspired millions, Soviet-style communism remained the justified ideology of a series of harsh and airless dictatorships in Europe, Asia and Africa.
Political Islam has now entered this phase of its existence. Which means that as an idea it is hardly important anymore. The states have returned. The Middle East is entering a phase of great power competition. The recent agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates was an important event in the process of crystallizing the alliance.
Three power blocs will now compete against each other in the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and the semi-governed areas of the Arabic-speaking world. Two of them – those led by Iran and Turkey – present political Islam in its post-uprising phase. The third, that of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, forms the camp of reaction against the insurgent political Islam that defeated it.
So it seems that we are at the end or in the final stages of a trajectory. The trajectory is that of an idea that came, rose and was conquered, and whose legacy is a broken region and two decades of insurrection and civil war. We did not know what would happen in Jerusalem in the summer of 2000 in the strange interim months between the end of the high hopes of the 1990s and what would replace them. We know now.
What will follow will have winners and losers. Iran and Turkey will continue to present themselves as representatives of Islamic authenticity and purity. There will be few buyers. One of the characteristics of ideologies in their senile phase, when they become part of the language that regimes use to justify themselves, is that no one is really convinced of them. Not even the people who serve them, and certainly no one else. The coming game is a great power competition run by ruling elites from above. There seems to be a very high level of cynicism among the up-and-coming generation, a perhaps healthy indifference to all these narratives and a search mainly for self-development.
Israel, like the other areas destroyed by insurgent political Islam in the past 20 years, has gone through this period. In the meantime, the idea that first became a real consequence for the Arab world in Jerusalem and that for a moment seemed to conquer the world has perished. In 2020, 20 years after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, the age of the Islamist uprising in the Middle East will be over.