Surmounting Sectarianism in the Middle East: An Interview with Hisham Bustani

In a recent interview with the Qatari daily al-Raya, the Jordanian Marxist writer and activist Hisham Bustani analyses current issues: the situation in the Arab region; threats against Iran; the “Broader Middle East Initiative”; the U.S., Arab regimes, and Islamists; and prospects of the Arab liberation project.  This interview, conducted by the journalist As’ad al-Azzouni, clarifies the internal processes of subjection and their connection with external processes.  It also sheds light on positions of Arab progressives and how they perceive their objective reality and future.  Bustani emphasizes the need for Left unity in building a pan-Arab, de-sectarianized movement of principled resistance to imperialism.  — Bill Templer

Q: We see what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank, in Lebanon, and Iraq.  How do you read the current state of affairs in the Arab region, and how do you see the future?  Is there a way out of this situation?

HB: The Arab region is a space where two projects and variables connected to them compete.  Unfortunately, both these projects have nothing to do with Arab liberation.

The first and more dangerous of the two, the one of “first priority” on the agenda of confrontation, is the old/new imperialist/Zionist project.  It builds on continuation of colonialist domination and the divisions it created in the Arab homeland, with its resultant fragmentation into the existing fabricated pseudo-states that cannot bring to realization a true liberation project.

The new variables in the evolution of imperialism are: 1) its unipolarity, 2) its urgent need to reshape the political geography that was relatively stable in the post-colonialist period and throughout the Cold War, and 3) its effort to cripple newly ascending powers, in the main China, India, and Europe.

The new political rule in the Arab region is fragmentation, and reshaping post-colonialist  societies into smaller, sectarian religious, ethnic, clan and family units.  The oppressive Arab states and their patriarchal, tyrant regimes have played a major role in paving the way for fragmentation through destroying people’s civil and social structures.  Here we can clearly discern the highly functional role of the Arab regimes as helpers in the context of imperialism and its agendas for control.

In addition to the examples of Iraq and Lebanon, currently in turmoil, the objective observer can find divisions primed for possible detonation in many of the Arab states.  One need but scan them for potential internal contradictions: in the Gulf states and Yemen (on the basis of Sunni vs. Shi’i), in Syria (on the basis of Sunni/Alawi/Durzi/Kurdish), in Jordan (on the basis of Jordanian vs. Palestinian and clan/family divisions), Egypt (Muslim vs. Coptic), and in the Maghreb states (on the basis of Arab vs. Amazigh).

It is worth noting that the areas already riven with internal fragmentation and exploding with conflicts are those where organized resistance exists (Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine).  This clearly suggests a dynamism of cause and effect: one of the most important reasons for generating and reproducing fragmented social structures is to contain and eliminate  phenomena of resistance and to prevent or control the emergence of new foci of resistance.

The second prime project in the Arab region is the Iranian project.  Its problematic aspect  is that it is not a liberation project, but rather it is predicated on an agenda of expansion with nationalist and sectarian aspects.  Although it collides with the U.S. and its imperialist orientation, the Iranian regime’s struggle with imperialism is on the basis of benefits and spheres of influence, not geared to a politics of liberation.  In this way, we can better understand the emergent contradictions in Iranian politics: the regime’s support for the resistances in Lebanon and Palestine; its facilitation of the U.S. invasion and occupation in Afghanistan; and its destructive role in Iraq, sponsoring sectarian militias and politics which have caused the destruction of the country and the death of countless Iraqis.

For these reasons, the Arabs cannot look for their liberation to the Iranian project, and they cannot but be clients and subordinates if they opt for the imperialist/Zionist project.  Moreover, they cannot play on the powerful contradictions between the two projects either, simply because they are weaker than both.  In this geopolitical equation, a project that is grounded on weakness, let alone one that does not exist, cannot confront powerful global and regional projects.

The only perspective for the future is one oriented to resistance, with all the dimensions  this concept entails.  resistance as a prime agenda is the only mechanism capable of pushing towards collective regeneration and empowerment.  Even if some parts of the resistance adopt a sectarian guise and compass, it will never be victorious unless it can eliminate this sectarianism, because it is the main obstacle standing in its way.  Surmounting sectarianism inside a program of resistance is the key to the future.

resistance in the Arab region is found in three spaces of struggle.  These three resistances carry the burden of transforming the status quo.  The Zionists were defeated twice in Lebanon (2000, 2006); Washington’s military might and its credibility are being badly mauled in Iraq, so badly that many analysts and politicians stateside are openly talking about a withdrawal.  In Palestine, the splitting and fragmentation of resistance and the brutal oppression by Zionism maintain and reproduce a tragic situation that represents the grim future scenario.

The Arab liberation project can experience a rebirth only under the following conditions:

  • That the Iraqi resistance groups succeed in forming a true national coalition front with a collective strategic agenda.  This front should formulate a practical vision for a post-Occupation transition (a transformation government that answers to an executive council representing all anti-Occupation groups, in addition to different social structures, and the fixing of a future date for a general election).  The strategy must necessarily confront the main reason for defeat: sectarianism and post-colonial statism (the confinement of the liberation effort within the borders of the fabricated post-colonial state, where it will be objectively buried — one  recent striking example: Hamas in Gaza).
  • That the Lebanese resistance embodied in Hezbollah proves able to transform itself into a national supra-sectarian liberation movement, moving far beyond the vortex of sectarianism where it has been trapped by its opponents since the victory of 2006, preventing Hezbollah from moving on to reap the political gains of that victory over U.S. and Israeli imperialism.
  • That the Palestinian resistance come to comprehend the lessons of Fatah and Hamas: namely that the so-called Palestinian National Authority is not an authority at all, and can never be “national” as long as it is under the influence of the Zionist occupiers and their agendas for domination over all of Palestine, even in the most trivial matters.  As long as its basis is grounded on the Oslo agreements, which unequivocally mean acknowledgement of the Zionist occupation and state entity, its bid for hegemony over any political, economic, or security process in the truncated “Palestinian territories” is fundamentally compromised.  The PA is actually the highway leading to effective subordination to the Zionist center and its strategies of control.  If the Palestinians comprehend this, they will be able to move on to devise a strategic program that refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Zionist entity and the legitimacy of any political process that recognizes or is dominated by it.  The struggle would then be returned to its pan-Arab incubator,  instead of the post-colonial state horizon that inevitably leads to yet another “Madrid” or “Oslo.”  Pan-Arabism beyond the bogus existing states is the matrix for effective resistance in Palestine and across the region.

If all of the above preconditions are not met, it is likely that we will be seeing the current Palestinian scenario (disintegrated, fragmented structures completely under the control of the occupier, even without direct occupation) spread, generalized along frontlines of struggle (Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine), followed by similar transformations of disunity in other Arab states.

Q: There are threats of looming U.S. “aggression” against Iran. If these threats are made reality, what will the consequences be in the Gulf and the rest of the region?

We oppose any imperialist aggression or intervention anywhere in the world and are opposed to any U.S. designs on Iran.  But I doubt that U.S. threats can be readily realized.  There are a number of primary reasons for that, among which are:

  • The U.S. currently maintains more than 160,000 soldiers in Iraq.  If we consider the huge Iranian influence inside Iraq, these soldiers will become instant hostages, and the average daily death toll of U.S. troops will jump from the current daily number of 5-10 to more than 100 per day in the event of an attack by air or other modalities on Iran.  If the current death toll of U.S. soldiers causes major problems for the Bush administration, what will happen if it increases tenfold?
  • Iran has close relations with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine.  All of these are armed organizations that can inflict painful harm on the main U.S. ally in the region “Israel” should hostilities against Iran be launched.
  • The U.S. maintains huge military bases in the Gulf countries; all are within reach of the direct firepower of Iran, and thus at risk.
  • Iran can easily stop the flow of oil in the Gulf through the Straits of Hormuz, and along the Iranian coast, thus crippling world oil supplies at a time when the cost of oil has reached a new high in international markets.
  • Iran has strong positive diplomatic and economic relations with key international players (Germany, Russia, China), and they can act to serve a supportive or pacifying function.

For all of the above reasons, I surmise that a full-scale U.S. aggression against Iran is unlikely because of the high geopolitical costs it entails.  I also think that the U.S. threats to Iran are directed towards accomplishing some “progress” on the Iraqi front.  We hear of numerous U.S.-Iranian meetings to discuss the arrangements in Iraq, and despite the bitter irony of these meetings (American and Iranian officials discussing the future of Occupied Iraq!), they not only point up the absence of an influential Arab project in the region but also suggest that a major U.S. attack on Iran is unlikely.

Q: What happened to the Broader Middle East project?  And why are we seeing the American administration deflected from the path in its approach to this issue?

The Broader (or New) Middle East is confronted by massive obstacles, the most prominent of those being armed resistance that is capable of defeating the enemy on the ground.  This is mainly present in Iraq and Lebanon.  If the Israeli aggression against Lebanon in July 2006 marked the “birth pangs of a new Middle East,” as Condoleezza Rice put it, and the Occupation of Iraq was its prime paradigm, then, judging from the failure in both the aggression and the occupation, the project of the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMEI), with its “forward strategy of freedom,” was stillborn from conception.  And it remains so, at least for the moment.

The second obstacle is that many international and regional powers find a contradiction between their interests and the Broader Middle East.  The neo-liberal administration now at the helm in Washington is so overbearing in its arrogance and self-confidence that it no longer coordinates or consults with its closest allies.  This unilateralism is counter-productive for any such project.

Europeans (much closer geographically to the Arab region, and thus more likely to be affected directly by the outcome of any change) have their own project, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, which does not directly mesh with the Broader Middle East.

China, Russia, and Iran see a strategic threat in a geopolitical reshuffle at their borders, and we can conclude that the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and its military exercises are part of confronting the accelerating U.S. expansion eastward after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the fall of Eastern Europe and the Baltic republics into the American lap, and the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The third obstacle is the uncompromised popular Arab refusal to “normalize” the Zionist entity by considering it a “normal and acceptable part” of the region.  Normalization implies accepting the abnormal, unjust, and contradictory to the interest of the people as a fact to be dealt with, as an acceptable status quo.  Normalization means promoting a fake edition of history that prompts people to believe and act accordingly, and it functions to supplement other enormous lies (or other “normalizations”), like “international legitimacy” which really represents the political will of the imperialist powers, with the U.S. at their helm .  Normalization will tremendously facilitate the pathway for “Israel” to become the capitalist center of hegemony in the region that then controls a number of fragmented social structures.  Since its creation as a settler-colonial entity, “Israel” has accomplished nothing on this issue, except a breach of unity on the level of the regimes (where it struck three “peace” agreements and secured a recognition of all Arab League governments).  That recognition is of minor importance, because the Arab regimes are in fact part of the Zionist/imperialist project and not antagonistic to it.

Q: The American administration’s talk about “democratizing” the Arab region has been frozen.  Was George W. Bush honest about this “democratization”?  Why does the U.S. talk on democracy stop when it reaches the Islamists, despite the fact that political Islam was an ally of the U.S. against the Soviets in Afghanistan and other locales?  Why is the U.S. so openly anti-Islamic today?

In their entirety, the Arab regimes are political frameworks suspended in the air.  They have no representative legitimacy, and they are set up in their places by the “continuation” of rule in nexus with the colonial era.  The continuation in their level of authority is tied to the degree to which they can perform their main function as servants and facilitators for the imperialist project.  The Arab regimes are not “sacred icons” in the eyes of the United States, and they are not an organic part of imperialism (unlike the Zionist entity, for example); therefore, they are expendable at any point where it is no longer beneficial to the U.S. or it begins to become a political or a propaganda burden.

The U.S. rhetoric on democracy is a blatant lie.  Its function is to subject the authoritarian but cooperative Arab regimes (that are oppressive in nature) to more embezzlement for greater subordination.  Nothing horrifies oppressive regimes that have no popular legitimacy more than the talk about “democracy,” therefore, it is one of the important tools of embezzlement.

In addition, “democracy” keeps the U.S. options open towards any other force that aspires for a chance to grab authority, opening channels for “understandings,” and exploring their potential of conforming to U.S. requirements and interests.

From a third perspective, the illusion of “democracy” plays an important role in U.S. propaganda internally and for part of the third world audience, and in this way it becomes a basic excuse for interventionism and hegemony in the name of abstracted “ideals.”

For all of the above reasons, the Arab regimes are entrapped in a vortex of fear and embezzlement: external embezzlement from external powers capable of overturning them at any point; and internal fear of any political current that carries popular legitimacy (such as Islamic movements), especially if these currents might represent an acceptable alternative to the Americans and a modicum of “understanding” can be achieved with them.

In Iraq, the Iraqi Islamic Party is one of the pillars of the Occupation-sponsored political process; while the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood sides with Syria’s version of Ahmad el-Jalabi: Abdul-Halim Khaddam, the ex-Syrian vice president who defected to France and is close to French and U.S. circles as the possible replacement for Bashar el-Asad.

The Islamists of Jordan, while they declare radical political positions on Iraq and Palestine, fiercely confront any discussion on the role of their Iraqi counterpart and find no compunctions (for example) about meeting with the second assistant to the U.S. Secretary of State in 2001 just after 9-11.  They still meet with emissaries from right-wing circles like representatives of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and participate in the activities of local NGOs well known for being funded by USAID and other similar “imperially tainted” sources.

Hamas in Palestine has agreed to take part in “elections,” participate in a “legislative council,” and form a “government” — all within the framework of the political process dominated by the Zionist Occupation and based on the Oslo agreements.  It has started now to talk about a “Palestinian state in the borders of 1967,” meaning it has begun to move down the slippery slope of dealing with the status quo as an authoritative “installed” political power in need of preserving its trivial accomplishments (a road pioneered by Fatah).  The alternative of principle is to openly acknowledge instead that the “Palestinian Authority” is no authority at all and to preserve itself in the trenches of the Principled resistance.

Political Islam is not targeted by the United States — rather what is targeted is resistance under any label.  In South America and South East Asia, the resistance takes a leftist form (FARC, the Filipino and Nepalese Communist parties), so the U.S. attacks them.  In the Arab region, the resistance takes an Islamist form, so the U.S. attacks them as well.  The common factor is resistance to Washington’s hegemony and agenda for control, not Islam.

In reality, the U.S. finds no objections to dealing with a moderate Islam (such as the “Turkish model” and its copies).  It is worth noting that the Islamists of Turkey maintain their traditional strategic alliance with “Israel,” and I presume that the Americans favor delivering the Arab region to moderate Islamists for a variety of reasons.  Such Islamists represent a force with popular and social extensions; they can speak to people in a language the masses understand; and they can offer operative social/economic/political structures, contrary to the Arab regimes which have nothing comparable.  That is why the Arab regimes use techniques of oppression to preserve their authority and U.S. interests in the region.  This oppression can, under certain circumstances, cause explosive situations or generate uncontrollable phenomena.  Therefore, from this perspective, currying favor with “moderate” Islamists might be seen by the imperialist project to be a more viable and longer-lasting alternative.

This might explain the tremendous fear and loathing the Jordanian and Egyptian regimes have in regard to the Islamic movement (the Muslim Brotherhood), despite the fact that the latter is not completely radical, and still presents itself as a moderate wasati1 movement, still functioning within the “classical” understandings.  What is new is the regimes’ perception of a more potent alternative being formed.  Consequently, they seek to dismantle the Islamic movement internally, while at the same time fighting a fierce public relations campaign externally to convince the U.S. administration that these Islamists are in fact anything but moderate, and therefore part of the target and its bull’s-eye in the “war on terror.”

The double-sided problem here is that the authority-thirsty Islamic movement does not see that there is no prospect on the horizon in the current political formula but to obey and kowtow to the Americans and the Israelis, because the “authority” it is so eager to take hold of has a subordinate structure.  In this connection, the “Palestinian Authority” is the clearest example.  Within subordinate authority structures, it is very easy to embezzle or strangle whoever seeks to take firm hold of those structures.

On the other hand, the actions taken by the Arab regimes to dismantle the moderate Islamic movements propel segments of these movements into the underground to create violent groups and attitudes that erupt in destructiveness, ravaging society.  Moreover, Arab regimes may in fact engage in this deliberately, to prove their externally-directed “theory” that moderate Islamic movements have a “real core” that is basically violent and that “understandings” cannot be reached with them, while the broader society, in its vulnerability nurtured by the manufactured sense of threat, feels it needs the current regimes for preserving its security.  This way, the Arab regimes fabricate a sense of a “need” for them internally and externally.

I think here that political violence is a creation of the regimes to preserve their position in authority, because they enjoy no real popular legitimacy, and always need external and internal reasons to ensure their grip on power.

Islamists who see themselves on the side of political clarity must comprehend the impossibility of attaching a liberation program to a subordinate authority structure, and they must decide on their options by removing themselves from a so-called pragmatic approach that enables containment and manipulation by international and regional powers.  Islamists must open up internally to other non-religious forces (Marxist and nationalist) and espouse a civil, secular liberation program; and they must learn from the experiences in Lebanon and Iraq, where the religious and sectarian element was the basis for the game of hegemony and the foundation for fragmentation setting people against each other instead of being united against their common enemy.

This is not to say that Islamists are opportunists while secular forces are not.  My concentration on Islamists is because they are the only real political force on the Arab scene today.  There are two trends in the Islamic movement, one opportunist and the other principled.  And the principled Islamists should pay heed, because in the light of this analysis they will be the first to be sacrificed by their opportunist brethren in faith and struggle.

Of course, there are also opportunist leftists (NGO beneficiaries and Marxists-turned-liberals) and xenophobic nationalists (with fascist tendencies against Iranians, Kurds, and Turks), but these phenomena are only trivial, since their currents are too weak to take the streets and challenge existing power.

Overall and as a prime desideratum, there is a huge and pressing imperative today for Left unity, of all its currents: the left of the Islamic movement, the left of the nationalist movement, and the left of the leftist progressive and revolutionary movement, on the basis of a program of resistance, liberation, and political clarity.  The opposing Right of all those currents is already united and taking action.


1  In Arabic, wasati means middle.  It has religious and political implications in the sense that a wasati movement takes a middle position between two extremes.

Hisham Bustani is the Secretary of the Socialist Thought Forum in Jordan, and a member of the Coordination Committee of the Resistant Arab People’s Alliance.  The original Arabic version of this interview is available online at  The English version, slightly revised, is published here for the first time.

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