From Arab Spring to Islamic Winter
By Raphael Israeli
(New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2013) pp. 317.

Reviewed by Prof. Eliezer Tauber, Professor of Middle Eastern History, Bar-Ilan University

One may consider Israeli’s book a concise introductory course for the general reader about the current Middle East and some components of the Islamic religion. However, the main importance of Israeli’s book is as a user guide for Western policy makers, who always seem not to understand anything about the Middle East.

The book is divided into two parts, the first five chapters of a more general nature, while the other five somewhat artificially divide the countries of the Middle East into five models: the republican model, the monarchical model, the tribal model, the Shi‘ite model, and the revolutionary model. (The author himself admits that each of the Middle Eastern states has some components of the other models.)

The author establishes that the Arab Spring only existed in the imagination of media men “hopelessly shackled to their political correctness.” Islam came out victorious from the so-called Arab Spring while the other alternatives, “cultivated by the West,” were defeated. The Arab Spring resulted in states that wish to promote the shari‘a (the Islamic law) and to advance their ideologies by means of jihad (holy war).

Israeli points out that the West tends to make an artificial distinction between an extremist Islam and a normative Islam, while in practice there is no such distinction. One should mention the term ‘political Islam,’ lately invented by Western scholarship to differentiate between the Islamic extremists advancing terror and the supposedly moderate normative Islam. As there exists no separation between state and religion in Islam, the term ‘political Islam,’ intended to denote some political usurpation of Islam, is a mere invention of scholars trying to defend their wishful thinking regarding a moderate Islam. Instead of confining themselves to study their field subject, these scholars turned themselves into some sort of ambassadors and defenders of Islam. While in places where Islamists were afraid for their future or even existence, they took part in civil life, promoting their ideas by ostensibly peaceful da‘wa (propaganda), education and social welfare enterprises, the moment they rose to power they would enforce the shari‘a. Even so-called moderate Muslims await the time they will be able to take over. While in the West one dreams of living together with Muslims as neighbors, letting them establish institutions in the heart of the West, the very essence of Islam is to achieve world domination. As Israeli puts it, Western understanding of Islam and the Middle East “does not have any legs to stand on.”

According to Sunni Islam, one must rely on the holy scriptures of the past and the discretion of the ancestors. A new interpretation of Islam to suit the present is forbidden; the gates of ijtihad (freethinking in religious matters) were closed in the tenth century. The result is, according to Israeli, that Islam drives the Muslims in the Middle East into “built-in chronic backwardness.” Furthermore, many states in the Middle East are artificial, as their Arab society remained tribal. Tribal identity refuses to die out. Revolution based on tribal identities (as in Libya, for example) would lead to the disintegration of the state or at least to continuous bloody civil wars.

Islam sees expansion and world domination as its right. While Muslim states are afraid to say this in the open in order not to antagonize the West (which proved to be dangerous, see the examples of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq), this is the ultimate goal of all the fundamentalists, like the Salafis, Hamas, and Hizballah. Even the ‘moderate’ Muslim Brethren seek a shari‘a state and oppose a human-made democracy. Western values are foreign to Arab and Islamic traditions. Western democracy is incompatible with the shari‘a. Muslim ‘democracy’ lacks human rights, equality for women, freedom of expression, free elections, and tolerance toward non-Muslims. In Western democracy, the people are the sovereign and the source of legitimacy. Islam has never heard of such an arrangement. Sovereignty belongs only to Allah. Muslim states that follows the shari‘a cannot recognize the people’s sovereignty but only that of Allah’s.

Authoritarian rule prevalent in Muslim states actually followed the example of Muhammad. All Arab states in the Middle East had an affinity to autocracy. Elections held were fake. The constitutions suited the rulers and parliaments were dissolved at their will. The judiciary, too, followed the dictators’ will. Arab tyrants regarded their countries as their own property and counted their subjects as dust. However, while some of the young, frustrated demonstrators in the Arab Spring sincerely sought to change the regimes, the better-organized Islamic movements took over, and the Spring was bound to turn into an Islamic Winter.

Western reactions to the Arab Spring were hypocrite and cynical. Qaddafi was bombed, but not Assad. It was a matter of sheer interests, or what was thought to be Western interests. Western presidents sought human rights everywhere on the globe, but turned speechless when it concerned Saudi Arabia, for example. Islamic violence only increased following the Arab Spring, facing Western administrations completely ignorant of the true realities of the Middle East. Israeli defines President Obama as “a liberal who was mugged by reality.” His Middle Eastern policy was disastrous for American interests. He let Hizballah take over Lebanon, he abandoned America’s loyal ally Mubarak, he hypocritically advocated human rights while cooperating with some of the most backward Arab regimes, and he allowed Iran to advance its nuclear program. While during the Cold War the fear of mutual destruction prevented atomic war, mutual deterrence would not work in the case of irrational leaders motivated by religious fanaticism.

Israel is a “villa in the heart of a bad neighborhood,” according to Israeli. The Muslim regimes surrounding it are almost by definition inimical to the Jewish state. When the Israelis see what happens around them, and the way Arabs are treating their brothers, they can only imagine what Arabs would do to them if only given the opportunity. The bloodthirsty character of groups, peoples, and regimes around them, makes the Israelis determined to stand on their own. Yet in the European media, the Palestinians are the underdogs, no matter what they are doing, and Israel is the culprit. Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel. The PLO willingness to reach an agreement with Israel (Oslo) is compared by Israeli to Muhammad’s treaty of Hudaibiya (628 CE), in effect so long as the Muslims could not overcome their rivals, but not later. Palestinian propaganda demonizes all the Jews (not just Zionists or Israelis) as irremediably satanic and treacherous. The Palestinians were never looking for compromise but for the elimination of Israel, a “lone island” of security, freedom and sanity “in the middle of all that madness.” The Muslim world has never accepted the Israeli existence, and therefore the Islamic Winter bodes Israel more difficulties to come.

Books of this kind can never be up-to-date. When Israeli finished writing his book in 2012, Mursi and the Muslim Brethren were still in power in Egypt. This is no longer the case, which attests that the Arab Middle East faces another option — back to square one and the return of military dictatorships. Having said this, Israeli’s book is still a must for any American policy maker that wishes to understand the basics of the current Middle East.