Realities of Resistance: Hizballah, the Palestinian Rejectionists, and al-Qa`ida Compared

VOL. 34


No. 3
P. 23
Realities of Resistance: Hizballah, the Palestinian Rejectionists, and al-Qa`ida Compared

In response to al-Qa`ida’s 11 September 2001 attacks, the United States declared war not merely against those who had set upon it, but against an open-ended range of “terrorist organizations and those who harbor and support them.” [1] Within two weeks of the attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush informed Congress that the new war “begins with al Qaeda, but . . . will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” [2] The target range quickly widened to include those without global reach and do not operate outside their direct theaters of conflict. Thus, the Lebanese Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionist factions—that is, the factions that rejected the Oslo accords and continue to engage in military struggle [3]—all long-standing fiends in U.S. political demonology, found themselves pushed to the head of the list of key enemies in the new war. In January 2002, Bush talked of “a terrorist underworld” that included “groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad,” and exhorted the world community to “eliminate the terrorist parasites.” [4]

It mattered little that neither Hizballah nor any Palestinian faction had been involved in the attack against the United States or that their longstanding policy positions explicitly rejected the ideology and modus operandi represented by al-Qa`ida as well as attacks against the United States on American soil. Sayyed Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, the senior-most Shi`a cleric in Lebanon with significant ties to the resistance, immediately condemned the 11 September attacks as religiously unjustifiable. [5] Hizballah’s deputy secretary general Shaykh Na`im Qassem contrasted Bin Laden’s al-Qa`ida organization with what he called “the true base” for armed struggle: popular support for a project of national liberation, as opposed to a grandiose war for Islamic world domination. [6] Ramadan `Abdallah, the secretary general of Islamic Jihad, called the attacks morally reprehensible and politically unwarranted. [7] `Imad al-`Alami, a senior member of Hamas politburo, declared his organization’s support for the U.S. right to pursue the perpetrators and bring them to justice. [8] The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), along with all other significant secular Palestinian rejectionist factions, denounced the attacks. [9]

Much of Western punditry nevertheless scrambled to make sense of the 11 September atrocities by ignoring such differences, focusing instead on a selection of iconic but superficial parallels. Al-Qa`ida’s airplane hijackings, suicide attacks, rogue state sponsors, and so forth were used to conjure images of the historic and current activities of Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionists. Thus, given the global political importance of the new war, it seems useful to examine its underlying narratives and assumptions by comparing and contrasting key aspects of the ideology, activities, and agenda of al-Qa`ida and its affiliates, on the one hand, with those of Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionist factions—principally the Islamist organizations—on the other.

The U.S. designation of the Palestinian rejectionists and Hizballah as enemies of the United States following the 11 September attacks owes much to the power of the stereotypes and simplifications on which the American war rhetoric was constructed. In this discourse, the entrenched notion that all those classified as “terrorists” somehow share a “terrorist code of ethics” and work toward some transcendent “terrorist objective” is grafted onto the equally ingrained Orientalist ideas of “the Arab mind” and “the nature of Islam.” [10] The result is a range of interlocking neo-Orientalist imaginings of a global Arab-Islamic terrorist cabal, a monolithic and evil Enemy Other, and the negation of “Western” culture and values confirming Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations theory. In this Manichean model, Hizballah, the Palestinian rejectionists, and their state allies Syria and Iran are lumped together without distinction with Osama Bin Laden, al-Qa`ida, and the Taliban as “enemies of the civilized world.” [11]

Applied to the Arab Middle East, today’s neo-Orientalist terrorism discourse is part of a long tradition of Western “scientific” vilification of subaltern critics and opponents. [12] Dag Tuastad has identified it as an instrument of “symbolic power” that sustains neocolonial interests through what he refers to as the “new barbarism thesis”—“presentations of political violence that omit political and economic interests and contexts when describing that violence, and present the violence as resulting from traits embedded in local cultures.” [13] Particularly glaring cases in point are the efforts to develop psychological profiles of “terrorists” that depict them as acting out mental disorders, rather than reacting to sociopolitical stimuli that can make political sense of their actions. [14] Suicide bombers have attracted particular attention over the last decade, and an illustrative “diagnosis” offered by Joan Lachkar suggests that they suffer from borderline personality disorder brought on by “Islamic child rearing practices.” [15] Thus, suicide bombers are presented as terminal cases of a general Muslim malady. The image of “the crazy terrorist” does not so much describe an individual as degrade an entire society—native culture as a patient in need of Western medicine.

Such narratives complement the clash of civilizations theory, which tells a story of fundamentally incompatible and geographically bounded ideals. The West is defined in terms of its most “agreeable” principles—Enlightenment rationalism, individualism, democracy, tolerance (all without reference to pogroms or the Holocaust)—while the non-West is depicted as emotional, communitarian, despotic, violent, and traditionalist. [16] These grotesque caricatures obscure the sociopolitical diversity involved in any and all cross-cultural analysis. Yet distortion of native cultures and their debilitating effects on individuals has always formed a crucial element in colonial and neocolonial domination. As Amilcar Cabral observed, it is “within the culture that we find the seed of opposition” and “whatever the material aspects of [foreign] domination, it can be maintained only by the permanent, organized repression of the cultural life of the concerned people.” [17] For this reason, Frantz Fanon noted, “the native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values. He is, let us dare to admit, the enemy of values, and in this sense he is the absolute evil.” [18]

The dehumanizing and disempowering discourse that Cabral and Fanon identified is perhaps most blatant in the works of the psychologists of terrorism, but its impact is far greater in the narratives of prominent scholars who define Western imaginations of the Middle East and underpin the war on terrorism, including Bernard Lewis, [19] Fouad Ajami, [20] and Barry Rubin. [21] Their images of the Muslim Arab as irrational, irresponsible, and belligerent, fanatically religious but prey to wicked passions, differ in degree, not in kind, from the anthropological treatises that once spoke of the “childlike” or “primitive Negro” in order to legitimize colonial domination of Africa under the guise of a grande mission civilisatrice.

Osama Bin Laden was a godsend to this tradition of stereotyping and vilification. Fiercely militant and zealously devout, he and his men dwelled in caves, sported turbans, kept their beards long, and appeared to shun the modern world. Their chilling rhetoric seemed ripped from the pages of the most patently Orientalist textbook. Their spectacular and atrocious actions indicated no discernible program beyond a rejection of the West. After 11 September, Bin Laden’s image within the neo-Orientalist narrative was elevated to the status of icon, empirical proof, explanatory matrix, trend indicator, and warning sign all rolled into one. Thus assisted by Bin Laden, neo-Orientalist scholars succeeded, particularly in the United States, in defining and promoting the twenty-first century version of the “white man’s burden”: pacifying Middle Eastern terrorism; bringing secularism, democracy, and free market economics to the natives; and making the region safe for that eastern outpost of Western values, Israel. This agenda has become the master narrative of the war on terrorism and the so-called Broader Middle East project, putting an idealistic gloss on the continuing economic exploitation and deepening political domination of the Arab Middle East. [22] The image of a monolithic and culturally conditioned terrorist enemy is crucial to the neocolonial effort.


Cabral noted that national liberation movements “are not exportable commodities,” but “the outcome of local and national elaboration . . . essentially determined and formed by the historical reality of each people.” [23] The neo-Orientalist narrative, however, can survive only if removed from the local and specific. Thus, its image of a homogeneous and monolithic terrorist enemy loses all credibility when the nature and agendas of Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionists are compared, even briefly, to those of al-Qa`ida and its affiliates. The struggles of the former are territorially based, against a specific enemy, and rooted in the needs and aspirations of specific peoples. The specific national projects of these movements aim at developing institutions and empowering their constituents; they stand accountable to those they represent; and they form part of, and cooperate within, a pluralistic spectrum of ideologies and creeds. In sharp contrast but with equal specificity, al-Qa`ida’s struggle is rooted in Wahhabi theology, the tribal legacies of the Hijaz and the Najd, and the cumulative experiences of Afghanistan, the Balkans, Somalia, and other theaters of war. Bin Laden’s movement stands accountable to no specific constituency because it limits its struggle to no specific territory; it seeks to create an alternative to the institutions and thought of modernity; and it rejects, other than on tactical grounds, political and religious pluralism as those outside the group are seen as kuffar (infidels) or murtadun (apostates).

While both Hizballah/the Palestinian rejectionists and al-Qa`ida and its affiliates are engaged in a resistance project, they are not engaged in the same resistance project. Briefly stated, the former have adopted what could be called a “third worldist” agenda, while the latter could be said to be practicing a form of “neo–third worldism.”

Neo–third worldism is perhaps easiest to understand in relation to third worldism, which Robert Malley has described as

a specific ideological and political construct linked intimately to colonialism and its overthrow. It was the paradigm within which individual existences were made collective, a space in which the oppressed (colonized and poor) were able to reappropriate precious means of discourse and of action. Key here is dignity, the yearning of equal status and worth that both was impelled by and grew out of decolonialization. [24]
Neo–third worldism, as described by Vedi R. Hadiz writing about Indonesia, is not a polar opposite to third worldism but “a more inward-looking version” of it, “characterized by indigenism, reactionary populism and strong inclination towards cultural insularism . . . nostalgia for a romanticized, indigenous, pre-capitalist past.” It emerged with the decline of third worldism in the post–cold war era as a “sorry riposte to the triumphalism of unbridled U.S. power.” [25] Hadiz uses the term “neo–third worldist” to signify Islamist groups and movements that define non-Islamist counterparts as enemies that must be confronted regardless of any commonalities within a “national dimension.” Neo–third worldism is thus an extreme form of nativism, “the doctrine that calls for the resurgence, reinstatement or continuance of native or indigenous cultural customs, beliefs, and values.” [26] 

Third worldist scholars and practitioners appear always to have been cognizant of the dangers of lapsing into neo–third worldism, for within the third worldist understanding of  the anticolonial struggle, group-specific ideologies and religious doctrines often overlap with the national whole so as “to preserve the positive cultural values of every well-defined social group . . . and to achieve the confluence of these values in the service of the struggle, giving it a new dimension—the national dimension.” [27] But although anticolonial movements historically may have walked a fine line between indigenism and universalism, perhaps the most fundamental division today between Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionists on the one hand and al-Qa`ida and its affiliates on the other is precisely the culturally inclusive and universalistic understanding of struggle of the first, versus the culturally insular and chauvinistic approach of the second.

Al-Qa`ida’s unleavened cultural insularity has been clear from the outset. In 1996, for instance, Osama Bin Laden, as head of the Saudi dissident Organization for Advice and Rectification, identified a “fierce Judeo-Christian campaign against the Muslim world” as its primary political challenge and argued that “the highest priority, after faith, is to repel the incursive enemy which corrupts the religion and the world, and nothing deserves a higher priority after faith [than to] unite our ranks so that we can repel the greater kufr,” that is, godlessness and atheism. [28] This “cosmic” and sectarian dimension of Bin Laden’s struggle was reinforced in 1998 when he participated in the launch of the World Islamic Front Declaration of Jihad against Crusaders and Jews. In a statement issued as a fatwa, the front announced that the “ruling to kill Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” Ultimate justification, it was argued, was found in “the words of Almighty Allah,” in whose name Bin Laden and his cohorts called on Muslims to “fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together.” [29]

It is noteworthy that “pagans” and “infidels” are not only Christians, Jews, and Muslim-born apostates such as nationalists and socialists, but also Shi`a Muslims. “They hate us even more than they hate the Jews,” Shi`a cleric Shaykh Hani Fahs observed. [30] Indeed, while the five groups belonging to the World Islamic Front are geographically dispersed, all are adherents of the Wahhabi interpretation of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, whose aggressive animosity against Shi`a Islam is deeply rooted and well documented. A significant part of the armed activity of al-Qa`ida and its affiliates in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere has targeted Shi`a communities and institutions. At the time of the World Islamic Front statement, one Saudi Islamist remarked that Hamas would be a welcome addition to the worldwide jihad if it were prepared to “reject cooperation with those engaged in kufr”—meaning all its secular and nationalist partners in the Palestinian national movement, plus Syria, Iran, and Hizballah. [31] Such expressions and actions are emblematic of the insularity of neo–third worldism.

Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in early 2003, this wholesale rejection of cooperation with pagans and infidels was modified, but only for clearly delineated tactical purposes. [32] Shi`a Muslims, however, remained beyond the pale and continued to be seen as fair game for attack. After the al-Qa`ida affiliated Jihad wa Tawhid (“Holy War and Unity”) had carried out coordinated suicide attacks in Karbala and Baghdad in March 2004, killing close to 300 Shi`a pilgrims and wounding almost 400, [33] Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hizballah, railed against the “fanatic, radical, and tyrannical groups that still live in the Middle Ages, lacking brain, mind, religion, morals, but that are Muslims or claim their affiliation to Islam.” Arguing that focus on sectarianism rather than national liberation was divisive and destructive, he added that “if we can surmount, isolate, and besiege this [intra-Muslim] sedition, we will bring down the gravest weapon possessed by America and Israel.” [34] Restating his point, he later remarked, with reference to the targeting of Iraqis, that,
I cannot say that this is ignorance; it is treason. . . . Those who kill and target the occupiers can be classified as Islamic fighters and loyal patriots. On the other hand, those who target the Iraqis are assassins belonging to the American caravan. They are accomplices in the American crime. [35]
Nasrallah’s lambasting of al-Qa`ida’s so-called religious purity clearly demonstrates the essential “nationalism” of the third worldist perspective, be it secular or Islamist. The explanation by `Ali Fayyad, Hizballah’s leading intellectual, of the theological and philosophical foundation of his party’s condemnation of neo–third worldist activism emphasizes the contrast between the cultural “insularity” of the Bin Laden approach and the inclusiveness and sense of pluralism of Hizballah, as well as the Palestinian Islamist resistance groups:
We practice the idea of umma [“nation”], taken from the root amma, which means “to go,” “to move forward,” “to have some place as your destination.” The idea is that a group has a common objective, a common goal to struggle for. This means that the umma must be a flexible and not rigidly conceived. . . . There may be many roads towards reaching this goal, not just one. This differs from the conception of the umma as a group, which is held by the Wahhabis. Their conception of the umma does not imply plurality, they believe in one solid entity. Our conception involves plurality. Taking this from the theoretical to the practical level, it enables us to say that the umma includes a variety of parties, currents and sects. All these are Muslims, those concerned with the faith and those who are not. Even secular Muslims are a part of this umma. This is completely different from the thought of the Wahhabi movements. . . . By extension, this implies that the conception of the umma may also include non-Muslims, Christians and Jews. . . . If we apply this notion of the umma, we can never endorse the notion of takfir [declaring Muslims to be apostates]. [36]

Osama Hamdan, Hamas’s representative in Beirut, similarly suggested that Wahhabi militancy as embodied by al-Qa`ida and Jihad wa Tawhid “are efforts to create a fitna [‘brotherly strife’] or crises within this umma, which would naturally benefit U.S. interests and contradict the interests of the resistance in the region.” [37] Since the early 1990s, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have pursued a strategy of infitah (“opening”) aimed at establishing and maintaining a Palestinian national dialogue across sectarian and factional divides, thereby creating momentum for a territorially based national liberation struggle. [38] As Islamists, they have adopted, and incorporated themselves into, a national project, consistent with the “outreach” approach of third worldism.

One way of understanding these differences in the use of Islam as an instrument of resistance has been suggested by the Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush. He has argued that “one of the greatest theoretical plagues in the Islamic world” is that some Muslims are “gradually coming to understand Islam as an identity rather than truth.” [39] Describing what is certainly a neo–third worldist trend, Soroush deplores the tendency of growing numbers of Muslims to commit themselves to Islam as a means of resisting the centrifugal powers of globalization, rather than as divinely revealed truth. To him, the commitment to Islam as identity is, “by its very nature, belligerent and bellicose,” while a commitment to Islam as truth—in the sense of the divinely revealed foundation of knowledge and action—“can coexist with other truths. . . . I don’t argue that Muslims have no identity but that Islam should not be chosen for the sake of identity.” [40] 

The Palestinian Islamists were not always open to such pluralism. In the early years of its existence, Hamas activists clashed with members of the secular Palestinian factions, especially the PFLP, in part due to power rivalries, but also because of a view of the atheist Marxists as apostates. As the PFLP’s Abu Khalil recalled, “Hamas was rallying around slogans such as ‘The people of the book’—the Jews—‘are closer to us than the reds.’” [41] While Hamas’s initially high-pitched religious rhetoric was successful in creating a distinct group identity, eventually it became clear that the focus on “authentic Islamic identity” and confrontation with other nationalist forces hampered its own national project. After all, Hamas’s central indictment of the PLO was based on the latter’s failure to bring about national liberation, and Hamas’s own emergence was intended to provide a more effective channel for that project. Indeed, Hamas’s founding charter stated that “nationalism, from the point of view of the Islamic Resistance Movement, is part and parcel of religious ideology.” [42] Hamas’s realization that undue emphasis on identity was counterproductive set in motion a process of political adaptation that changed its relations with the secular resistance. The change is clear in the distinction made by a senior cadre from the PFLP—itself fiercely opposed to Islamic politics—between the “enlightened Islamism” of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizballah on the one hand, and the “darkness and irrational fanaticism” of al-Qa`ida, on the other. [43]

The melding of religious and nationalist objectives had already been introduced into the Palestinian arena by Islamic Jihad, which, since its establishment in 1979, worked within an ideological framework influenced by the Islamic revolution in Iran. [44] Situating itself within the Khomeini school of Shi`a Islamic thought, the Sunni Islamic Jihad demonstrated not only cross-sectarian tolerance but also incorporated a strong commitment to the themes of social justice, egalitarianism, and national liberation that permeate Shi`a political thought and activism. It was therefore able to cooperate with, as well as challenge, the PLO leftists. [45] 

The Palestinian Islamists’ focus on nationalism became evident at the time of the 1993 Oslo accords. Speaking about the Alliance of Palestinian Forces, the cross-factional assembly established in response to Oslo’s Declaration of Principles, `Imad al-`Alami noted that, “we did not need to debate whether alcohol should be permitted in a future Palestinian state or whether banks should be allowed to charge interest. The first step had to be to work together to guide the national movement back onto a correct course.” [46] Osama Hamdan has similarly noted that “the Palestinian situation requires all these forces and trends to center on one common objective, to end the occupation. There is no monopoly on the cause, and it is important that everybody is in the movement so that, if it is shaken, it is, as a whole, able to stay the course because of the firm principles shared by all, the liberation of the homeland.” [47]


As noted above, the neo-Orientalist insistence that Arab-Islamic “terrorism” is part of an ongoing clash of civilizations rests on the notion of culturally conditioned differences between “our” and “their” fundamental values—secular versus sacred, modern versus primitive. This dichotomy in turn draws on the notion that modernity is universal in application but necessarily Western in form and content: to be modern, one has to act, think, and consume like a Westerner (or, rather, like the idealized self-image of the civilization theorists). [48] This perspective has been evangelized with increased political fervor since the war on terror was declared.

Al-Qa`ida’s understanding of Islam as identity arguably validates the clash of civilizations hypothesis insofar as it constitutes an inverse version of it. [49] However, this position is fundamentally challenged by the Palestinian rejectionists and Hizballah, whose main quarrel is not with the Enlightenment ideals per se but with the Western failure to apply those ideals to subordinates in the neocolonial order. This distinction is in part connected to divergent understandings of the legitimacy of the current structures of global politics: al-Qa`ida rejects the so-called Westphalian nation-state system in its entirety, attacking it “from the outside” with an ultimate aim of bringing about a new Islamic order. Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionists, on the other hand, accept the basic parameters of nation-state geopolitics and seek to rectify its flaws rather than destroy it wholesale. This difference is perhaps natural, as Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionists are rooted in the political experiences of constituencies defined by the nation-state, while al-Qa`ida’s struggle is simultaneously rootless and transnational and therefore transcends any specific nation-state context. In the words of Olivier Roy, al-Qa`ida adherents “are indifferent to their own nationalities. Some have several. . . . They all define themselves as Muslim internationalists and link their militancy to no particular national cause.” [50]

To al-Qa`ida and its affiliates, the West and Islam represent fundamentally irreconcilable values that are pitted against each other in a struggle for cultural and religious supremacy and survival. By contrast, Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionists view the rhetoric of “the clash of civilizations,” like that of “terrorism,” as a cover for Western, specifically U.S., neocolonialist interests and actions. Hizballah’s Na`im Qassem, for example, sees the Huntingtonian paradigm as a “smokescreen” for dodging discussion about the ongoing battle between those who seek to “rule by strength” and those resisting political and economic subordination. “This battle has a history that stretches far back in time,” he noted, but “it is not a clash of civilizations, but rather one of influence and hegemony, of new markets being created in favor of the arrogant powers.” [51] 

The argument that the Arabs need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps—what Barry Rubin calls their “paralyzing and obsessive” preoccupation with blaming the West for their predicaments [52]—rings hollow to those who know that any activism against a neocolonial system that perpetuates the region’s democratic deficit will be instantly crushed. In the words of Fadlallah,
We do not see that there is any conflict between us and the West concerning the intellectual outline on the idea of civilization, yet we do have problems with the Western . . . regimes that seek to control the economies and policies and security of the Muslim world. [For them,] talk of freedom and democracy is the talk of freedom to implement Western interests and a superficial kind of democracy, rather than democracy in any profound sense of the word. These regimes do not wish the people around here to practice real freedom because that practice may well contradict the interests of these Western regimes, the big business monopolies, and prevailing economic, political, and security interests. . . . We believe that the Arab world and the Muslim world—maybe the whole third world—suffer from the problem of having to move in circles that place obstacles in the way of their development and self-determination. There is a situation where the foreign powers, the great arrogant states, impose conditions on the people of these parts of the world, like placing an iron necklace around their necks, in terms of economy, politics, knowledge. . . . The various kinds of dictatorships that are present in the Arab, Muslim, and the third world are linked to colonialization or the issue of hegemony. [53]

It is this situation that explains, according to Fadlallah on another occasion, “why aborting democracy is associated with the West.” [54] Moreover, the economic interests and rising consumerism promoted under neocolonial domination have obvious implications for nationalist-oriented political activism and the entire resistance project to the obvious benefit of the local gendarme, Israel. In this regard, according to the analysis of a senior PFLP cadre:
The new American culture here is intended to separate individuals and groups from each other—“I control this, he controls that”—so that everyone may have a new suit of clothes as well as a new way of thinking, both of which would make you a foreigner to the region. This is what Israel needs, aggravating ethnic and sectarian problems, taking a mosaic and making sure that none of the pieces fit together anymore. This has been started in Iraq. If they succeed, they will transfer it to the next arena in the region, smash it to pieces, move on, and so forth. Meanwhile, Israel can sit back and watch the resistance against it disappear . . . [55] 
The clash of civilizations theory fails to explain how Hizballah and the Palestinian Islamists have bridged the supposedly unbridgeable gap between secular and sacred, or the longstanding overlap between the two, in the manner of Eric Rouleau’s suggestion that Islamism is “the continuation of the [nationalist] movements that failed, although with an Islamic face.” [56] Indeed, Gamal Abdel Nasser himself spoke of Islam as one of “the three circles” that “should be the theater of our [revolutionary] activity” (the other two circles being the Arab world and Africa). [57] “In the West, you sometimes find a diffuse and generalized image of Islam as excluding or rejecting ‘others,’ but this view is wrong,” argued Na`im Qassem. “Within Islam,” he explained,
there is a flexibility that allows for the concord between Islamic, nationalist, and patriotic topics, as these may cover common ground. If, from a religious point of view, the declared topic is to liberate the land, then one should liberate the land. From a nationalist viewpoint we believe in independence, and from a patriotic standpoint we cooperate with those who, like us, are damned, for the sake of our common geographical origins. So there is no clash or conflict between us, there is instead a sanctioned policy among us. [58]
Robert C. Young, a leading theorist of postcolonialism, has suggested that violence in the course of anticolonial resistance fills, in part, a psychological function. It offers “a primary form of agency through which the subject moves from non-being to being, from being an object to subject.” [59] The colonial and neocolonial system brutalizes its subjects—natives and settlers alike—by consecrating violence as the sole available mechanism for settling conflicts, while proscribing only the violence by those who resist the status quo. Yet for these latter, violence is seen as a desperate means to stand up for oneself and one’s community. “Wherever people feel that their dignity is trampled upon,” argued Abu `Imad al-Rifa`i, Islamic Jihad’s chief representative in Lebanon, people will rise and resist.
Look at the killings [in Palestine], the destruction of homes, the checkpoints, the unethical practice by Israeli soldiers against women and children. Palestinians cannot sit idle while they see these violations of their dignity. . . . A human being without dignity has no life. I don’t think that a human being can live without dignity, and if he does, then he ceases to be a human being.” [60] 
Beyond its psychological function, revolutionary violence also has a more “traditional,” instrumental function: to inflict damage on the enemy. This is true both for the third worldist Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionists and the neo–third worldist al-Qa`ida. Given the asymmetry between them and their antagonists within their respective theatres of conflict, they seek to create and maintain a painful balance of terror; to “level the playing field.” Thus, following the attacks of 11 September, Bin Laden stated that
just as they’re killing us, we have to kill them so that there will be a balance of terror. This is the first time the balance of terror has been close between the two parties, between Muslims and Americans, in the modern age. American politicians used to do whatever they wanted with us. The victim was forbidden to scream or to moan . . . [61]

Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionist factions also talk of a balance of terror, but there is a crucial difference: Because the struggle is territorially defined and politically limited, it can be brought to an end. Abu Ahmad, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, argued:
We have told the Israelis numerous times that if they stop attacking our civilians we will stop attacking their civilians. . . . Then give us our land and our rights and we will live in peace and security. Yet they don’t want that. . . . So what should we, as Palestinians, do? In Lebanon, Hizballah forced the Israelis to withdraw from the land, and after the withdrawal they did not go after the Jews. We also want the Israelis to withdraw from our land. If our rights cannot be given to us in peace, then we’ll have to fight for them. . . . We only want to live like humans. If the Israelis recognized our rights and left us alone so we could establish our state, we would not kill one single Jew, neither civilian nor military. This is our standpoint. [62] 
The Palestinian rejectionist factions have repeatedly declared a willingness to implement a hudna (“truce”) with Israel. From the early 1990s onwards, Hamas leaders have openly declared their conditions for a long-term truce with Israel. [63] While it is true that al-Qa`ida and its affiliates see themselves as engaged in an eternal struggle against infidels and pagans, it is simply not true that Hamas (or any other Palestinian rejectionist faction or Hizballah) “has pitted itself in a mortal confrontation” with the Jews. [64] The same applies to confrontation with Israel’s primary political backer and material supplier, the United States. While al-Qa`ida and its affiliates seek to attack American civilians on American soil, Hizballah and the Palestinian factions have deemed such action both immoral and fruitless. Nai`m Qassem explained that

al-Qa`ida has adopted a position against the Americans to go after them directly. They have declared this and expressed that they will confront the American presence wherever the U.S. may be present in the whole world, whereas Hizballah’s choice has been entirely different. Hizballah perceives that the confrontation must be restricted to the Israelis where they are occupiers of the land, and that does not involve going after all the Jews in the world, or even going after the Israelis wherever they may be present in the world. Therefore Hizballah’s [and al-Qa`ida’s] projects are poles apart. . . . Hizballah’s project has to do with liberating the occupied land whereas al-Qa`ida’s project is about confronting the U.S. directly as an international hegemon. So those who examine the background closely will find a clear distinction between these movements. . . . Yet the American view does not distinguish between Hizballah and [al-Qa`ida] and one main reason for that is America’s global ambition: Any one who disagrees with U.S. policy is classified as “terrorist,” regardless of whether he attacks U.S. directly or whether he only promotes a conviction contrary to the American order. [65]


The refusal by the global powers to recognize the lack of, and need for, self-determination, equality, and dignity in the Arab world is perhaps best encapsulated in the nonresolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the West’s willingness to overlook Israel’s ongoing defiance of international norms. Israel was created and enlarged by territorial conquest, ethnic cleansing, and annexation in violation of the Geneva Conventions and UN resolutions, yet the world community has for half a century been unable or unwilling to force it into compliance with international law. Tuastad argues that Israel’s deftly marketed emphasis on self-defense against “barbarism”—Arab aggression and Islamic terrorism—has allowed it to “diverge from questions concerning refugee return or giving up conquered territories,” and that “racist imagery and ‘terrorist’ or ‘Arab mind’ labels serve as powerful images of a non-civilized Other” that understands only brute force and repression. [66] Because of the seeming carte blanche Israel has been accorded by the international community, it has come to be seen by many in the third world as the most glaring symbol of Western colonial impositions and neocolonial hypocrisy. It is for this reason that, in the words of Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad:
For Muslims, Palestine is a cause. It represents the demand for the right of a people to self-determination, democracy and freedom. It is also the demand that the West recognize that an Arab person is equal to a European person, or as some Palestinians put it, that a European Jew is not better than a Palestinian Christian or Muslim and has no superior right to rob, destroy, expel, kidnap, or kill without consequences. [67]

It is Israel’s symbolic value that allows Islamist groups and individuals removed from the actual conflict, such as those within the al-Qa`ida network, to identify it as a primary enemy. In their embrace of Islam as identity rather than truth, as Soroush put it, these neo–third worldist Islamist groups see Israel as symbolic of the Jewish people, which justifies in their minds attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions wherever they may be. A similar justificatory mechanism is applied to the United States and Americans.

For the constituencies of Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionists, on the other hand, Israel is not simply a symbol of their woes but the direct source of dispossession and humiliation. Consequently, they are not engaged in some symbolic reaffirmation of “authentic identity,” but an actual life-and-death struggle. Hence, their rejection of Israel and its legitimacy bears little resemblance to that of al-Qa`ida. While the policy position of al-Qa`ida is squarely anti-Jewish, the policy positions of Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionist factions are anti-Zionist, and, regardless of the populist conflation of the two terms, there is a clear conceptual difference. [68] Thus, the factions base their refusal to recognize Israel on their direct experience of Zionism as Jewish ethno-religious hegemony and oppression, not on some wish to expel Jews from the region. Some factions have always espoused this position. Already in the late 1960s, the PFLP, for instance, argued that
The Palestinian liberation movement is not racist or hostile to the Jews. It is not aimed at the Jewish people. Its aim is to break the Israeli military, political and economic entity which is based on aggression, expansion and organic unity with the interests of imperialism in our homeland. It is against Zionism as a racist aggressive movement in alliance with imperialism. . . . The aim of the Palestinian liberation movement is the establishment of a national democratic state in Palestine in which the Arabs and Jews can live as equal citizens with regard to rights and duties . . . [69]
Even factions that have been more ambivalent or more radical have gravitated toward similar positions, a process that has gone largely unnoticed among those whose narratives define the Western debate. A significant building block in this intellectual process was the success of the African National Congress (ANC) in bringing about an end to apartheid in South Africa. Leaders of secular rejectionist factions repeatedly invoke the parallel and point out that a unitary South African state for all citizens did not lead to the exodus or expulsion of the whites. “We want the same solution as in South Africa,” explained Fadl Shururu, politburo secretary of the PFLP-GC and senior editor of al-Quds Palestinian Arab Radio.
No one told the ANC to accept that the blacks should be relegated to the Bantustans, to accept the legitimacy of the apartheid state just because it was strong. . . . Now they have one state for one people, the South Africans, blacks and whites. No one pushed the whites into the sea. This is what we want in Palestine. [70]
This rejection of ethnic exclusivism is shared by Hizballah and the Palestinian Islamists. Naof Musawi, a high-ranking Hizballah official, for instance, emphasizes that his movement’s calls for “eliminating Israel” do not imply ethnic cleansing but “the destruction of a racist system founded upon Zionism. . . . This is comparable to what happened in South Africa where the elimination of a racist system did not involve the killing or expelling of whites. So why not eliminating a racially defined state in Palestine?” [71] Even Islamic Jihad, generally regarded as the most radical and hard-line of the resistance organizations, sees South Africa as an example to be emulated, while nonetheless doubting its feasibility. Abu `Imad explained:
I don’t see that such solution in Palestine is possible [although] we accept coexistence with the Jews in this land, especially the Jews and their descendants who lived here before the first Zionist conference in 1897, which proclaimed Palestine to be the land of the Jews. Throughout Islamic history Jews have been able to live in this region in dignity; they lived in peace and their situation here was far better than that of the Jews in Europe. . . . We have nothing against Jews as Jews; we are hostile against the occupiers as occupiers. We accept coexistence with Jews because they are a part of the regional environment; we accept them as human beings, but will not accept them when they become criminals and killers. [72]
The rejectionist factions’ own view of their position on Israel can be summarized as the “rejection of Israel’s right to practice state racism.” From their perspective, recognition of Israel as a Zionist state—founded on the expulsion without redress of 750,000 Palestinians and self defined as a “state for the Jews”—would concede the racial superiority of one group over another. It would also endorse the ethno-religiously based “right of return” for world Jewry to its biblical homeland after well over a millennium at the expense of the Palestinians’ right of return to the homes and properties from which they were expelled scarcely a half century ago. “If they want to end Palestinian rejection of Israel’s right to exist,” suggested Suhayl Natur, member of the DFLP’s central committee, “they simply have to give us the minimum rights that enable us to live next to each other in mutual acceptance. . . . We want our inalienable rights as laid out by the international community through the UN. We don’t demand anything more than the UN resolutions, but we will not accept anything less.” [73]

All the evidence, as manifested in declarations and actions, suggests that the objectives, ideologies, and modi operandi held by the al-Qa`ida network, on the one hand, and the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements, on the other, are virtually antipolar. According to the neo-Orientalist narrative, however, they are all essentially identical; they are all bent on the destruction of the West, and must therefore all be hunted down and destroyed. Is this narrative the result of poor research and scholarship, or a willingness to serve as “intellectual hit men,” deliberately conjuring up distorted and fraudulent images in the service of neocolonialist agendas?

Whatever the case, the influence wielded by the neo-Orientalists in the corridors of power contributes to and sustains policies that are not only flawed and misguided, but ultimately dangerous. At the receiving end are peoples whose dispossession, humiliation, and anger are quietly reinforced. These are the “voices of the periphery,” robbed of legitimacy by neo-Orientalist teachings and pushed further to the margins of political discourse. In Palestine, demands that the West take seriously its own standards of human and political rights are condemned as extremism. The objective of replacing ethnocracy with democracy is written off as genocidal yearnings. The struggle for a life in dignity in accordance with UN resolutions is condemned as terrorism. What will be achieved? Once the third worldist movements have been sufficiently weakened and muted, the stage is set for the emergence of neo–third worldist groups willing to channel the frustration and hopelessness of Palestine as an enduring symbol of neocolonial hubris and domination into a pitched battle between races, sects, and religions. The neo-Orientalists will then be able to turn around and say, “you see, we said so all along. They really do hate us for our values. . .”


Anders Strindberg is the United Nations correspondent for Jane’s Intelligence Review and a consultant on Middle East security. Mats Warn is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Stockholm University. The authors are co-founders of the Levant Center for Documentation.

1. George W. Bush, “Radio Address of the President to the Nation,” 15 September 2001. Transcript online at

2. George W. Bush, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People,” Washington, DC, 20 September 2001. Transcript online at

3. The term rejectionist is a simplification, used herein only for reasons of brevity. It draws on the lowest common denominator (that is, rejection) of the ten ideologically disparate factions that responded to the Oslo agreement by reiterating their commitment to armed struggle and establishing the Damascus-based Alliance of Palestinian Forces. The factions were Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the PFLP–General Command (PFLP-GC), Fateh-Uprising, al-Sa`iqa, the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front (PPSF), the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF), and the Palestinian Revolutionary Communist Party (PRCP). For an overview of the alliance, see Anders Strindberg, “The Damascus-Based Alliance of Palestinian Forces: A Primer,” JPS 29, no. 3 (Spring 2000), pp. 60–76.

4. George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, 29 January 2002. Transcript online at

5. In a statement on his Web site only hours after the attacks, Sayyed Fadlallah stated: “No rational man can accept that any people in the world should face what the American people did. These methods are not accepted by any religion or any message.” Accessed at

6. Speech by Na`im Qassem at a public rally in Damascus, November 2001; AS’s original transcripts.

7. Speech by Ramadan `Abdallah Shallah at a public rally in Damascus, November 2001; AS’s original transcripts.

8. See Anders Strindberg, “Interview with `Imad al-`Alami,” Jane’s Intelligence Review 13, no. 11 (Nov. 2001), p. 64.

9. See al-Hurriyya, no. 864, 16 September 2001, p. 3.

10. For an overview and critique of this hypothesis, see David W. Brannan et al., “Talking to Terrorists: Towards an Independent Analytical Framework for the Study of Violent Sub-State Activism,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 24, no. 1 (Jan. 2001), pp. 3–24.

11. For a lucid discussion of neo-Orientalist discourse on terrorism, see Dag Tuastad, “Neo-Orientalism and the New Barbarism Thesis: Aspects of Symbolic Violence in the Middle East Conflict(s),” Third World Quarterly 24, no. 4 (2003), pp. 591–99.

12. See, for instance, Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 2d ed., trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).

13. Tuastad, “Neo-Orientalism and the New Barbarism Thesis,” p. 595. According to Tuastad, symbolic power is “power to construct version of reality. The means of production in this sense is also the means to produce distorted images of a dominated people.”

14. See Brannan et al., “Talking to Terrorists,” p. 6. Cf. Edward F. Mickolus, The Literature of Terrorism (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980), p. 361.

15. For this argument, see Joan Lachkar, “The Psychological Make-up of a Suicide Bomber,” Journal of Psychohistory, no. 20 (2002), pp. 349–67. For a selection of other “diagnoses,” see John Rosenberger, “Discerning the Behavior of the Suicide Bomber,” Journal of Religion and Health 42, no. 1 (Spring 2003), pp. 13–20; Raphael Israeli, “Islamikaze and Their Significance,” Terrorism and Political Violence 9, no. 3 (Autumn 1997), pp. 96–121; Harvey Kushner, “Suicide Bombers,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, no. 19 (1996), pp. 329–37.

16. For the foundational text, see Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (Summer 1993), pp. 22–49. For Huntington’s own update, see “The West Unique, Not Universal,” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 5 (Nov.–Dec. 1993), pp. 29–46.

17. Amilcar Cabral, “National Liberation and Culture” in Return to the Source: Selected Speeches by Amilcar Cabral (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1973), pp. 43, 39.

18. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 5th English ed. (London: Penguin Classics, 2001), p. 32.

19. Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

20. Fouad Ajami, “Iraq and the Arabs’ Future,” Foreign Affairs 82, no. 1 (Jan.–Feb. 2003), pp. 2–28. For the argument that Ajami provides “the native’s seal of approval on policies of exploitation and domination,” see Adam Schatz, “The Native Informant,” The Nation 276, no. 16 (28 April 2003), online at, posted 10 April 2003.

21. Barry Rubin, The Tragedy of the Middle East (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

22. See, for instance, George W. Bush’s speech at the National Defense University, 8 March 2005. Transcript online at

23. Amilcar Cabral, Revolution in Guinea: An African People’s Struggle (London: Stage 1, 1969), pp. 74–75.

24. Robert Malley, The Call from Algeria: Third Worldism, Revolution, and the Turn to Islam (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 232–33.

25. Vedi R. Hadiz, “The Rise of Neo–Third Worldism? The Indonesian Trajectory and the Consolidation of Illiberal Democracy,” Third World Quarterly 25, no. 1 (2004), p. 56.

26. Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Iranian Intellectuals and the West (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996), p. 14.

27. Cabral, “National Liberation and Culture,” p. 48.

28. “Interview with Mujahid Osama bin Laden,” Nida`ul Islam, no. 15 (Oct.–Nov. 1996).

29. “Nass Bayan al-Jabha al-Islamiya al-`Alamiya li-Jihad al-Yahud wal-Salibiyin” [World Islamic Front Statement for Jihad against Crusaders and Jews], al-Quds al-Arabi, 23 February 1998, p. 3.

30. Interview with MW, Beirut, March 2004.

31. Interview with AS, London, March 1998.

32. “Bin Laden Tape: Text,” BBC News Online, 12 February 2003, online at Senior Coalition Provisional Authority officials have attested, in conversations with AS, to the pervasive and effective Wahhabi-secularist cooperation against the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

33. “Iraqi Leader: Shrines’ Death Toll Much Higher,” MSNBC Online, online at

34. “Word of the Secretary-General of Hizballah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, March 2 2003,” online at

35. “Word of the Secretary-General of Hizballah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, May 15 2004,” online at

36. Interview with authors, Beirut, March 2004.

37. Interview with MW, Beirut, April 2004.

38. `Imad al-`Alami, interview with AS, 2 June 1999.

39. Abdolkarim Soroush, Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 34.

40. Ibid.

41. Interview with AS, Damascus, 5 June 1999.

42. Hamas Charter, article 12. For a discussion of its significance, see Khaled Hroub, Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (Washington: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000), p. 274.

43. Interview with authors, Beirut, April 2004.

44. See “Iran al-thawra wa al-dawla” [Iran, the revolution and the state] in Rifa`t Sidahmad, ed., Al-‘umal al-kamila al-shahid al-doktor Fathi al-Shiqaqi: al-majalad al-awwal [The Complete Works of the Martyr Doctor Fathi Shiqaqi: Part One] (Cairo: Markaz iafa lil-dirasat wal-abhath, 1997), pp. 190–99. Originally published in Majallah al-Mukhtar al-Islami, August 1980.

45. See “Ma hiya haraka al-jihad al-islami fi filastin?” [What is the Movement of Islamic Jihad in Palestine?] in Rifa`t Sidahmad, ed., Al-‘umal al-kamila al-shahid al-doktor Fathi al-Shiqaqi, pp. 346–55. Originally published in al-Mujahid, nos. 146–149 (June–July 1992).

46. Interview with AS, Damascus, 2 June 1999.

47. Interview with MW, Beirut, March 2004.

48. For a powerful critique of this perspective, see Ali Mirsepassi, Intellectual Discourse and the Politics of Modernization: Negotiating Modernity in Iran (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

49. A particularly lucid exposition of Bin Laden’s views on civilizational conflict can be seen in “Transcript of Bin Laden’s October Interview,” CNN Online, 5 February 2002, online at

50. Olivier Roy, “Fundamentalists Without a Common Cause,” Le Monde Diplomatique, 2 October 1998.

51. Interview with authors, Beirut, March 2004.

52. Rubin, The Tragedy of the Middle East, p. 4.

53. Interview with authors, Sitt Zeinab, March 2004

54. Interview with MW, Sitt Zeinab, May 2002.

55. Interview with authors, Beirut, March 2004.

56. Interview with Eric Rouleau in JPS 22, no. 4 (Summer 1993), pp. 45–61.

57. Gamal Abdel Nasser, Nasser Speaks: Basic Documents, trans. E. S. Farag, Middle East Monographs 1 (London: The Morssett Press, 1972), pp. 55–57.

58. Interview with authors, Beirut, March 2004.

59. Robert C. Young, Postcolonialism, p. 295. Cf. Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (Pantheon Books: New York, 2004), p. 9; Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 35.

60. Interview with authors, Beirut, March 2004.

61. “Transcript of Bin Laden’s October interview.”

62. Interview with authors, Damascus, April 2002.

63. See, for instance, Ahmad Mansour, ed., Al-shaykh Ahmad Yasin shadidu `asr al-intifada. Kitab al-jazeera—shahid `ala al-`asr (Beirut: Dar al-`arabiyya lil-`uloum, 2003), p. xx. Cf. Wendy Christiansen, “Challenge and Counterchallenge: Hamas Response to Oslo,” JPS 28, no. 3 (Spring 1999), p. 31.

64. Hilal Khashan, “Collective Palestinian Frustration and Suicide Bombings,” Third World Quarterly 24, no. 6 (2003), p. 1052. This view is also presented by Andrea Nusse, Muslim Palestine: The Ideology of Hamas (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1998); Meir Hattina, Islam and Salvation in Palestine: The Islamic Jihad Movement (Tel Aviv: The Moshe Dayan Center/Tel Aviv University, 2001).

65. Interview with authors, Beirut, March 2004.

66. Tuastad, “Neo-Orientalism and the New Barbarism Thesis,” p. 597.

67. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, “Islamist Perceptions of US Policy in the Middle East” in David W. Lesch, ed., The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment (Boulder: Westview, 1996), p. 433.

68. For an example of the effort to conflate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, see Mortimer B. Zuckerman, “Graffiti on History’s Walls,” U.S. News & World Report, 3 November 2003.

69. See Leila Khaled, My People Shall Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973), pp. 112–13.

70. Interview with AS, Beirut, 3 April 2004.

71. Interview with MW, Beirut, October 2003.

72. Interview with authors, Beirut, 26 March 2004.

73. Interview with authors, Beirut, 25 March 2004.