This is just the start of a showdown between the West and The Rest

MANY IN THE WEST see the mini-war between Israel and Hezbollah, now in its fourth week, as another episode in a tedious saga of an Arab-Jewish conflict that began with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, a political version of the “original sin”. The conventional wisdom in the West is that the whole tale would end if Israel were to return the occupied territories to the Palestinians, allowing them to create a state of their own.
But that analysis does not reflect the Middle East’s new realities. All the wars in that region of the past century, including the one between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, revolved around secular issues — border disputes, the control of territory and water resources, security and diplomatic relations. Although fought in the name of nationalism or pan-Arab aspirations, none had a messianic dimension.

The first two wars of the new century in the Middle East, however, were ideological ones. The United States toppled the Taleban in Afghanistan and the Saddamites in Iraq not in pursuit of territory but in the name of an idea: democracy.

Since 2001 the region has been turned into an ideological battleground between two rival camps with global ambitions. One camp, led by the United States, claims to represent the modern global system of open markets, free elections, religious freedoms and sexual equality. The other camp is represented by radical Islam, which regards the Western model as not only decadent but dangerous for the future of mankind. It hopes to unite the world under the banner of Islam, which it holds to be “ The Only True Faith”.

In the Lebanese conflict, Israel and Hezbollah are the junior proxies for the rival camps. Israel is not fighting to hold or win more land; nor is Hezbollah. But both realise that they cannot live in security and prosper as long as the other is in a position to threaten their existence. A Middle East dominated by Islamism could, in time, spell the death of Israel as a nation-state. A westernised, democratic Lebanon, on the other hand, could become the graveyard of Hezbollah and its messianic ideology. And if the US succeeds in fulfilling George W. Bush’s promise of a “new Middle East” there will be no place for regimes such as the Islamic Republic in Iran and Syria’s Baathist dictatorship.

The present rupture in Lebanon has much to do with who will lead the fightback against the West. For almost a quarter of a century there has been intense competition within the Islamist camp over who could claim leadership. For much of that period Sunni Salafist movements, backed by oil money, were in the ascendancy. They began to decline after the 9/11 attacks that deprived them of much of the support they received from Arab governments and charities. In the past five years Tehran has tried to seize the opportunity to advance its own leadership claims. The problem, however, is that Iran is a Shia power and thus regarded by Sunni Salafists as “heretical”. To compensate for that weakness, Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made the destruction of Israel a priority for his regime. The war triggered by Hezbollah is in part designed to show that President Ahmadinejad is not bluffing when he promises to wipe Israel off the map as the first step towards defeating the “infidel” West.

The broader aspects of the Lebanon crisis are better understood in the Middle East than in the West. For the first time, Israel is under attack from Islamist and Arab secular radicals as “an American proxy”. Writing in Asharq Alawsat, a pan-Arab daily, a Syrian Cabinet minister, makes it clear that the war in Lebanon today is between “the forces of Islam and America, with Israel acting as an American proxy”.

Iran’s “supreme guide”, Ali Khamenei, expressed a similar view this week during an audience he granted in Tehran to Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan President. “What we see in Lebanon today represents the revolt of Muslim nations against America,” he said. “Hezbollah is backed (by Iran and others) because it is fighting America.” President Chávez endorsed that analysis by calling on Muslims and non-Muslim revolutionaries to unite to “save the human race by finishing the US Empire”. Iran’s state-controlled media has said that Lebanon would become “the graveyard of the Bush plan for a new Middle East”.

Tehran believes that a victory for Hezbollah in Lebanon will strengthen President Ahmadinejad’s bid for the leadership of radical Islam. A number of recent events have made his attempt to wrest control more likely. This week several leading Sunni theologians at the Al-Azhar seminary in Cairo issued fatwas that allow Sunnis to fight alongside and under the command of Shia Muslims. The fatwas came in response to a Saudi fatwa that had declared any association with and support for Hezbollah to be haram (forbidden).

More significant was a message from Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two. The Salafist radical tried to get hold of Hezbollah’s tailcoats in the hope of winning a share of the expected spoils of victory. He endorsed the idea of a global campaign against the “infidel”, thus abandoning his previous strategy of focusing the jihad on countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. More significantly, he dropped the al-Qaeda claim of fighting a defensive war against the infidel by designating a vast area of jihad from Spain to India.

All that is good news for President Ahmadinejad, who claims that Sunni radicalism has reached the limits of its capabilities in the fight against the global system led by the US and that it is now the turn of the Shia, led by Iran, to be in the driving seat.

“Hezbollah has fought Israel longer than all the major Arab armies combined ever did,” President Ahmadinejad told a crowd in Tehran this week. He also promised that Muslims would soon hear “very good news” about the jihad against the United States.

The idea of Shia leadership for the jihad was further boosted this year when Iran took Hamas under its wings. As a branch of the global Muslim Brotherhood movement, a Sunni outfit, Hamas has exerted its influence to win wider support for Iranian leadership at least as a tactical choice.

Many in the Middle East are alarmed by these shifts of power and dread the prospect of the region entering a new dark age under radical Islamist regimes. For this reason, there seems to be much less hostility towards Israel in the wider Arab world than we might expect in the West. There may be no sympathy for Israel as such but many Arabs realise that the current war is over something bigger than a Jewish state with a tiny territory of 10,000 square miles, less than 1 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s land mass.

This war is one of many battles to be fought between those who wish to join the modern world, warts and all, and those who think they have an alternative. This is a war between the West and what one might describe as “The Rest”, this time represented by radical Islamism. All the talk of a ceasefire, all the diplomatic gesticulations may ultimately mean little in what is an existential conflict.