Jihad by other means

For those who are really seeking to understand political Islam, they would most probably admit the diversity of this phenomenon, which has emerged in the first place as a reaction to the failure of the post-colonial Arab state to provide security and social equality for venerable and poor societies.

They must also admit that Islamist groups and movements in the Arab Middle East have not been trying to hijack the primary functions of the state as much as they tried to present a viable alternative to a corrupt and crumbling system.

In terms of providing a defensive shield against foreign aggression, Islamic movements outmanoeuvred the Arab official system, causing huge embarrassment to it in several occasions.

The firm resistance put by Hezbollah in the face of the Israeli aggression against Lebanon last summer drew wide support in the Arab and Muslim world, turning Hassan Nasrallah into the most popular and influential figure among Sunnis and Shiites alike.

Yet most Islamist parties have not won support only because of their stubborn resistance against foreign aggression. They won even more respect by using their social and economic networks to help the poor and the needy, challenging the state in yet another area, which has been until recently a solely state domain.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah was not only hailed for holding the world’s fourth strongest army at bay for 33 days, but was so impressive in terms of providing aid and services for tens of thousands of displaced families.

Jihad Al Binaa (struggle for construction) the social arm of Hezbollah worked relentlessly to rebuild destroyed houses and public utilities after the Israeli offensive. The organisation provided services for at least half a million Lebanese during the war free of charge.

It also paid compensation for thousands of families whose properties weren damaged during hostilities. The target audience of the organisation was not only the Shiite community, estimated at two million people, but every Lebanese regardless of his sect and religious allegiances.

These people felt that the organisation cared about them more than the state, which claims to represent and protect them.

Major role

Jihad Al Binaa is sometimes accused of inciting sectarian divisions in the region because most of its financial power comes from Iran, giving it a major role to play in Lebanese politics.

Yet we believe that the organisation played a positive role for precisely the same reason, for it encouraged many Arab governments to rush to provide humanitarian aid for Lebanese to counteract Iran’s rising influence.

Indeed, Hezbollah has learnt a lot from the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and from Hamas in Palestine.

The two Islamic movements have won admiration in their countries not because of the political agenda they uphold but for their effectiveness in dealing with what ordinary people care most about, i.e., food, shelter, medical care, social security and other services.

During the 1992 Cairo earthquake, the Muslim Brotherhood embarrassed the Egyptian government by its prompt reaction to the natural crisis at the time when the state institutions were still debating how to remove the debris and rescue the survived.

The government appeared so weak to the extent that its only reaction was to accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of trying to score political points against it. A law was consequently passed, banning all nongovernmental organisations from providing any sort of humanitarian aid to the public.

The efficiency of Islamists in dealing with the economic and social concerns of the people exposed Arab governments in many ways. It also acted as a catalyst for the increasing popularity of Islamic movements.

Widespread corruption, social injustice, rising unemployment and congested and underdeveloped slums made many young people find refuge in political Islam.

Taking advantage of this widespread public discontent with their government’s policies, Islamists pledged to provide a replacement for the corrupt regimes. For them this was another way of waging jihad and they are indeed gaining ground.

Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations, Faculty of Political Science and Media, Damascus University, Syria.