Islam nips at Arab leaders that have ties to Israel

For the first time in 20 years, Iranians marking the annual "Struggle Against World Arrogance" day shifted their avowed hatred from the United States to Israel. This celebration is held every November to commemorate the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran and the capture of American hostages. Iranians historically mark the event by burning American flags and effigies of Uncle Sam.

But this year, protesters jammed a registration booth decorated with a hanging doll bearing the Star of David. They were volunteering to join the Palestinians in their latest uprising against Israel. Others carried placards with drawings of the now-famous 12-year-old Palestinian boy allegedly killed by Israeli gunfire as his father tried to shield him.

Public opinion in Iran, as in much of the Muslim world, has taken a more ferocious turn since the worst violence in years erupted between Palestinians and Israelis. In the streets of Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Rabat, and Riyadh, an explosion of hatred has sparked spontaneous demonstrations, despite state bans on public protest. In Amman, tens of thousands of demonstrators clashed with police, leaving one protester dead. Around 20,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood staged a protest rally in early October.

In Egypt, students from two of Cairo's Islamic universities took to the streets. Even students from the American University of Cairo, once a finishing school for the country's elite and a bastion of secularism, joined their more religious brothers.

In the case of Iran, public opinion is completely in sync with state policy toward Israel: President Mohamad Khatami and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei believe the Muslim world should sever all ties with the Zionist state.

But public demands in Arab capitals pose a great challenge to governments with economic and political relations with Israel. In the past, Arab governments were quick to dismiss public opinion. Now, the streets across the Arab world are united in their position: The Palestinian intifadah is as much about the expression of Islamic duty and principle as it is about territory. Now the Muslim people and their governments must defend the faith by taking extreme action to stop Israel from continuing its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem.

The Islamic dimension of the street demonstrations is pressuring moderate Arab governments to demonstrate their religious credentials. Public outcry may force states not only to change their policies toward Israel, but also to alter their domestic agendas to include the desires of moderate Islamic activists whom they have aggressively excluded for decades.

Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state, is under more strain than its neighbors. Egyptian officials say they have halted almost all official contact with Israel, but this is not enough to satisfy a powerful and demanding Islamic movement that is calling for the end of all ties.

At the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which was held mid-November in Qatar, there was a clear split between those countries that want to cut all ties with Israel and those that want to maintain relations. Egypt, Jordan, and other states that benefit from relations with Israel overruled Syria, Iran, and other governments advocating an end to any contact with the Jewish state

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose administration has tried to quash the moderate Islamic movement by preventing Islamic activists from running in elections or holding government positions, knows his time is running out. In recent parliamentary polls, Islamists captured the largest number ever of seats in the 454-member assembly, taking 17 places against 388 seats won by Mubarak supporters.

While this will hardly influence what has traditionally been a rubber-stamp legislature, the inroads made by the Islamists are significant: They won seats despite an alleged pattern of police harassment and ballot manipulation designed to deprive the Islamic candidates of victory.

The electoral result for the Islamists is only a small sign of their growing power. Over the past 10 years, broad Islamic sentiment has penetrated the judiciary, the universities, and the professional unions representing millions of doctors, engineers, and lawyers. Even at Egypt's al-Azhar, a 1,000-year-old center of learning for the Sunni Islamic world, sheikhs who traditionally issued religious edicts in line with state policy are now defying the government. In recent years they have issued fatwas, or legal decrees, on issues such as female circumcision, bank interest, and women's rights which openly contradict state policies.

With Islamists now enjoying expanding support within society, Mubarak has been forced to pay attention to the demonstrators in the streets shouting for the destruction of Israel. And this is no easy task.

For 20 years, Egypt has played the role of peace broker for the US. In exchange for its cooperation, the US has rewarded Egypt with $2.1 billion in annual aid. Since the Oslo peace accord was signed in 1993, Mubarak has tried to serve as a mediator between Yasser Arafat and his Israeli counterparts during crises. He has done so with little consideration of the views of his own people, who have rejected Oslo from the start and remained adamantly opposed to Egypt's 1979 peace deal with Israel.

The uprising under way has deprived Arafat of any notion he might have entertained of trying to control the Hamas bombers infiltrating west Jerusalem. Likewise, Arab states can no longer rely on their constituencies to remain passive to the injustices toward Palestinians - even when dressed up as "peace accords."

Geneive Abdo is Tehran correspondent for London The Guardian and author of 'No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam' (Oxford University Press).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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