Cross-posted from Gush Shalom
National conflicts are basically rational. They concern territory. They can usually be solved by compromise.
Religious conflicts are irrational. Each side believes in an absolute truth, and automatically considers everybody else as infidels, enemies of the only true God.
There can be no compromise between True Believers, who believe that they are fighting for God and get their orders straight from Heaven. "God Wills It" shouted the Crusaders and butchered Muslims and Jews. "Allah is the Greatest" shout fanatical Muslims and behead their enemies. "Who is like you among the Gods!" cried the Maccabees, and annihilated all fellow Jews who had adopted Greek manners.
THE ZIONIST movement was created by secularized Jews, after the victory of the European Enlightenment. Almost all the founders were convinced atheists. They were mostly quite ready to use religious symbols for decoration, but were roundly denounced by all the great religious sages of their time.
Indeed, before the creation of the State of Israel, the Zionist enterprise was remarkably free of religious dogmas. Even today, extreme Zionists talk about the "Nation State of the Jewish People," not of the "Religious State of the Jewish Faith." Even for the "national religious" camp, the forerunners of today's settlers and semi-fascists, religion was subordinate to the national goal -- the creation of a national Jewish state in all the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
This national onslaught met, of course, with the resolute resistance of the Arab national movement. After some initial hesitation, Arab national leaders turned against it. This resistance had very little to do with religion. True, for some time the Palestinian resistance was led by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini -- not because of his religious standing but because he was the leader of Jerusalem's most aristocratic clan.
The Arab national movement was always decidedly secular. Some of its most outstanding leaders were Christians. The pan-Arab Baath ("Resurrection") party, which came to dominate both Syria and Iraq, was founded by Christians.
The great hero of the Arab masses at that time, Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, though formally Muslim, was quite un-religious. Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO, was a pious Muslim in private, but under his leadership the PLO remained a secular body with many Christian ingredients. He spoke about liberating East Jerusalem's "mosques and churches." For some time the official aim of the PLO was to create in Palestine a "democratic and non-denominational" state.
SO WHAT has happened? How did a nationalist movement turn into a violent, fanatical religious one?
Karen Armstrong, the nun-turned-historian, pointed out that the same thing happened practically simultaneously in all three monotheistic religions. In the US, evangelical Christians now play a large role in politics, in close cooperation with the Jewish right-wing establishment. All over the Muslim world, fundamentalist movements are gaining strength. And in Israel, a messianic Jewish fundamentalism is now playing a larger and larger role.
When the same thing happens in such diverse countries and religions, there must be a common cause. What is it?
It is easy to speak about something nebulous with the German title of Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, but that really explains very little.
In the Muslim world, the bankruptcy of liberal, secular nationalism has created a spiritual void, an economic breakdown and national humiliation. The shining promise of Nasserism ended in abject stagnation under Hosny Mubarak. The Baath dictators in Baghdad and Damascus failed in creating modern states. The militaries in Algeria and Turkey did not do much better. After the overthrow of the elected democratic Iranian leader, Mohammed Mossadeq by oil-grabbing Western powers, the luckless Shah could not fill the void.
And, all the time, there was the humiliating sight of Israel, which grew from a despised little foreign implant into a formidable military and economic power, and which easily trounces Arab states again and again.