With America in a moment of deep polarization, elections looming in Israel and the coronavirus still wreaking havoc around the world, the local and global situation seems murky. And yet, ironically, within this mud-swamp grows a beautiful flower of Middle East hope: The Abraham Accords—the beginnings of the Arab world’s normalization with Israel. The Abraham Accords are, in turn, an outward manifestation of an even broader movement happening within the Arab world: post-jihadism.
Jihad means struggle, and it represents the Islamic value of holy war against infidels. Post-jihadism, on the other hand, is the tendency away from pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism—the ideologies of Arab-Islamic conquest—and its replacement with the ideal of regional cooperation and the goals of societal and individual self-actualization and prosperity.
Post-jihadism has a long way to go, to be sure. But the old thinking is being challenged—and there are at least seven contributing factors that are helping ignite the imagination for a post-jihadist Middle East:
1. States running jihadism are a disaster
Regional Arabs are rethinking jihadism, because it doesn’t make sense in the modern industrial world. A posture of conquest simply does not equal power and wealth the way that it used to. Instead, the Arab street sees that the jihadist-leaning states and organizations, such as Iran and ISIS, eschew minimum freedoms, and bring misery, poverty and death to their people.
In other Arab states, rulers used jihadism as a national goal to draw popular ire away from inept leadership, endemic corruption, slothful bureaucracy and a stagnant pre-industrial economy. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser had a goal of defeating Israel, while Iraq’s Saddam Hussein dreamed of defeating Iran. But the jihad distraction is no longer working. People in Arab countries are no longer content to forfeit their own lives and upward mobility for their corrupt leaders’ dreams of victory.
Discontent with jihadism is also rocking the foundations of a related concept: anti-Israelism. Destroying Israel was once a reliable rallying cry in the Arab world.
However, as journalist and author Jake Wallis Simons recently wrote: “The most stunning development has been the change of feeling on the Arab street. Traditionally, levels of anti-Semitism have soared across the Middle East, with a seminal 2014 study finding that 74 percent of adults across the region harbored anti-Semitic beliefs. But as country after country has made peace with Israel, these attitudes have softened significantly. Recent polls report that about 80 percent of Saudis are now in favor of normalization, and 40 percent of citizens across a range of Arab countries want their leaders to take an active role in encouraging peace.”
Evidently, the old political belief that peace with Israel was not possible without satisfying Palestinian demands is now dead. Sunni-Arab leaders are tired of having their foreign policy shackled to the fickle whims of the PLO and Hamas, and therefore the accords between Israel and Sunni-Arab states simply circumvented the Palestinian issue, except for lip service. This, together with the Arab League’s refusal to condemn the Abraham Accords, spoke volumes about the acceptance of Israel, and of the Arab disgust with the corrupt and jihadist Palestinian leadership.
2. Deal with it—Israel is undefeatable
Another old premise, on which the 100-year Arab war on Israel was based, was that at some point Israel would be defeated; if only the Arab and Islamic world could get together, surely they could “throw the Jews into the sea.”
The conflict with Israel, however, diverted a lot of resources into the war effort and away from progress. Many Arabs were willing to swallow it, as long as the goal of defeating Israel appeared to be achievable.
But after 100 years, and countless attempts to destroy Israel, the realization has finally hit parts of the Arab world that Israel isn’t going anywhere. Many Arabs ask themselves a simple question: Why fight a pointless war that only hurts us? Why give up on the attainable goal of prosperity for the unattainable goal of destroying Israel? As the old adage goes: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
3. Oil hegemony is over
In the late 1970s, the Muslim Middle East had all the oil. With this gift from Allah, jihad could be subsidized.
But lo and behold, the energy monopoly has been broken. The United States has now become the world’s biggest oil producer, and the Arab states can no longer control the world by turning off the oil spigot. The economic engine of jihadism has run out of gas.
Moreover, oil is a finite commodity, and in order to assure their economic standing, forward-thinking Arab leaders are imagining a future not of jihadist conquest, but of regional and global cooperation. The “Saudi 2030 Vision” is “a strategic framework to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy.”
4. Big, bad Iran
A major motivator for the normalization with Israel—and therefore a catalyst for post-jihadism—is the realization that there are far greater and more concrete dangers to Sunni-Arab countries than the presence of a small, local Jewish state. Iran’s mullahs covet Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia and hope one day to rule the Muslim holy cities. With a 500,000-strong army, long-distance ballistic rocket capabilities and impressive victories in Yemen, the Iranian threats are not empty.
Sunni Arabs understand that the axis of defense against Iranian aggression runs right through the Jewish state, which has a capable defense apparatus, a self-interest in subduing Iranian power and close relations with the U.S.—an important strategic partner for Sunni states. The ability of Israel to operate unfettered off the shores of the United Arab Emirates—right across from Iran—is therefore a major defense asset. (Recently it was reported that an Israel Navy submarine went through the Suez Canal heading for the shores of the UAE.) And so, this rationale for Sunni-Arab détente with Israel can be reduced to another truism: My enemy’s enemy is my friend.
5. A new generation of Arab leaders
A new generation of energetic Arab leaders is coming into its own and for some of them, jihadism is a retarding force that keeps their realms locked into the pre-industrial mindset.
Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has begun building a new ultra-modern city—Neom on the Red Sea—with the vision of moving Saudi Arabia into the future. He has removed the ban on women driving, cracked down on jihadist imams, cleaned up radical textbooks and established a center to counter extremism. An excellent video on “Why Arab-Israeli ties are normalizing” discusses two “geo-economic mega-projects” between Israel and Saudi Arabia, both spearheaded by MBS. This is post-jihadism embodied.
6. U.S. President Donald Trump—a blessing for the region
Undoubtedly, the Trump administration was a catalyst of the Middle East’s post-jihadist mindset. One vector was the obvious pro-Israel bent that rejected the Arab denial of the Jewish state. The Trump administration frontally attacked the classic mechanisms of the anti-Israel narrative—such as the United Nations (UNESCO, UNRWA, etc.)—and then very publicly recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This served to strengthen the Arab realization that Israel was not at all on the path to being defeated.
But another side of Trump’s policy was the more pro-Arab vector: the art of the deal. The Trump-Jared Kushner team was able to bypass the tough religious-ethnic-national issues by appealing to the merchant nature of the Middle Eastern bazaar: “We are businessmen, not politicians,” they said.
“The leadership in the region recognize that the approach that’s been taken in the past hasn’t worked, and they realize that their people want to see a more vibrant and exciting future,” Kushner told reporters.
7. The Islamic rationale for post-jihadism
Post-jihadism and acceptance of Israel need a theological rationale for it to become a legitimate movement.
In a recent interview with the Tikvah Fund, Middle East expert Richard Goldberg described many conversations with Saudis who have taken to calling this post-jihadist Islamic outlook not “modern” or “reformed” Islam, but rather “true” Islam—the authentic Islam that harkens back to more tolerant periods of Muslim history. In that vein, new religious organizations are appearing on the Islamic map, such as the Baghdad-based Global Imams Council, which promote a tolerant agenda.
Indeed, the next years will probably see an increase in fatwas and clerical statements that extoll the beauty of the Abraham Accords and normalization with Israel—and that is exactly what is needed to give the Arab layman the “excuse” to drop the thinking of the past and enter the era of post-jihadism.
Hope for the Abrahamic region
The Arab Spring was a testament to the deep frustration that Arabs have with their societies and their leaders. But now, numerous factors have come together to help the Arab world transition out of the era of jihadism and into a mode of progress.
For leaders like the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (MBZ) and Saudi Arabia’s MBS, the totality of the above list—the disappointment with old-style jihadist regimes, the threat of Iran, the limits of the oil economy, the realization that Israel is not a foe but a partner and the deep yearning for Arab civilizational advancement—all coalesce into an outlook that prefers progress to jihadist regression.
Naturally, jihadist Islam, from the Iranian mullah-led regime to the Muslim Brotherhood, has identified this threat to its control, and will push back with plenty of religious fire-power and violent suppression to keep its school of thought dominant in the region. It will take a powerful vision, a willingness to take on reluctant forces and, of course, the blessings of Allah, for the ideals of post-jihadism to take root.