The Power of Protests and Religious Nationalism in The Middle East

By Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh is a retired Senior Intelligence Service Officer, a founding director of the CIA's Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program and the Global and the National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico. Since retiring from the government, Nakhleh has consulted on national security issues, particularly Islamic radicalization, terrorism, and the Arab states of the Middle East. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

OPINION — On-going mass protests in Iran and Israel have taken a contrasting view on religious nationalism and the role of political Islam and religious Zionism in politics.

In Iran, street demonstrations have attacked the Islamic foundations of the theocratic regime and are demanding a secular, more democratic basis of government. Political Islam is being discarded as the foundational cornerstone of governance. The Islamic Republic of Iran is being viewed by protesters as a relic of the past.

In Israel, massive protests in Tel Aviv and elsewhere have denounced the ultraconservative ideology of the Netanyahu-led government because, in their view, ultra-conservative religious ideology undermines Israeli democracy, the heretofore independent judiciary, and the inclusive Jewish identity.

Under the new government, religious Zionism becomes the key pillar of the state and society. Inclusion and democracy, as understood globally and as has been practiced in the country, will be curtailed.  Human rights—especially, women’s rights, same-sex marriage, civil marriage and divorce, as well as LGBTQ lifestyle—will be restricted and in some cases, banned. The Israeli supreme court’s rulings will be subject to parliamentary (Knesset) control.

The current 120-member Israeli Knesset is controlled by the most ultraconservative parties led by Itamar Bin Gvir’s Jewish Power Party, Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party, and Aryeh Dori’s ultra-orthodox Sephardic Shas party.

The Israeli Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday, January 18 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must fire his senior minister Aryeh Dori because of “extreme unreasonability.” Dori was convicted of tax fraud and given a suspended prison sentence. Netanyahu removed Dori from the cabinet four days later.

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Two Differing Narratives on Religious Nationalism

In Iran, religious nationalism is being vilified, where in Israel it’s being ushered in by the new government. The public protests across Iran and the regime’s brutal response were never truly about the hijab. What started as a “women’s protest movement” against being forced to wear a head cover, has developed into a national wave of demonstrations across all segments of society—young, old; women and men; laborers and educators; shopkeepers (bazaris) and office employees.

It’s a revolution against the Islamic foundations of the state and the rule of the ayatollahs. Calling for replacing theocracy with secular democracy, the mass protests are reflecting the growing support for secularization and the separation of church and state.

A recent public opinion study by Iranian scholar Mansoor Moaddell shows that 70 percent of Iranian adults support separation of church and state and a surge of conversions to Christianity and Sufism.  Another Iranian scholar argues that the “current protests in Iran sound the death knell of the Islamic Republic.”

These trends could signal the demise of political Islam in Iran and the unraveling of the Ayatollah’s reign of terror. Should this happen, Iranian women would not be required to don the hijab.  A post-ayatollahs Iran would pursue new and more friendly relations toward the United States and Israel.

In Israel, by contrast, Netanyahu’s extremist government aims at redefining Jewish identity and re-writing the foundational pillars of the state. Since its founding in 1948, Israel has relied on free elections, communal diversity, and independent judiciary. It generally adhered to a mainstream, liberal ideology that allowed for reasonable space for its Palestinian community.

Although Palestinian Arabs in Israel have suffered systemic discrimination in housing, planning and zoning, infrastructure, public utilities, and infrastructure, among other things, they have managed to vote in local and national elections and send their representatives to the Israeli parliament or Knesset. In fact, a small Islamic party was included in the Bennett-Lapid coalition government. Arab elected representatives are no longer welcome in the new government.

The three extremist parties in the Knesset are intent on enacting new discriminatory laws that would render Israeli Palestinians as second-class citizens. These parties consider Israel a state only for the Jews. Political rights of non-Jews will be curtailed. Palestinian activists would be subject to deportation if their “loyalty” to the state becomes “suspect.” Lawful activities of Palestinian civil society institutions and non-governmental organizations will be subject to scrutiny by a newly empowered Israeli police force under the control of Itamar Bin Gvir.

The Netanyahu-Bin Gvir-Smotrich government poses a clear and present danger to democracy and the rule of law in Israel. Governed by religious nationalist Zionism, Israel could become another theocratic state in the Middle East ruled by a fundamentalist, exclusivist, intolerant ideology like what the region has experienced in Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

It will also pose severe challenges to American interests and policies in the greater Middle East and will contribute to the splintering of Israeli society, fueling more Jewish-Palestinian violence inside Israel and across the Occupied Territories.  

The expected Jewish-centric policies of the new government could undercut the promise of regional cooperation and economic integration between Israel and its Arab neighbors on oil and gas exploration, technological collaboration, major business deals in health, insurance, and public services. The collaboration on climate change, particularly in the Jordan River valley between Israel, Jordan, the Palestinians, and the United Arab Emirates could come to a halt.

Since the World Cup in Qatar and the visible support of the Palestinian cause among players and fans, public support for the Abraham Accords in the signatory Arab countries has dwindled. Equally disappointing to Israel’s tourism sector has been the dearth in tourism from the UAE. If, as expected, the new government pursues aggressive policies toward the Palestinians, the Abraham Accords will devolve into another “cold peace” agreement much like the peace with Egypt and Jordan.

The Way Forward

Developments in Iran and Israel present challenges and opportunities for the United States. They also call for creative approaches. Washington could reassert its commitment to human rights, especially women and minority rights. American diplomacy should become more robust toward Iran and Israel—moving both countries away from theocracy. As in previous decades, especially during the cold war, American diplomacy should return to engagement with civil society institutions as agents of change.

It’s ironic that as protests in Iran push the country toward democracy, liberalism, and inclusion, Netanyahu’s government is pushing Israel toward theocracy, extremism, and exclusion. Yet, it’s encouraging to see that massive demonstrations in Iranian and Israeli cities share the same goal: liberate their countries from theocratic rule and re-instate democracy and the rule of law for all citizens.

The Cipher Brief is committed to publishing a range of perspectives on national security issues submitted by deeply experienced national security professionals.  Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views or opinions of The Cipher Brief.

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