Yasser Arafat’s legacy to Palestine, though he is the father of Palestinian nationalism and the last hero of the struggle for decolonization, is complicated.
It is easy to understand his political legacy: a dream unfinished. He has left behind a nation on the threshold of nationhood. But he has also left behind chaos, confusion, bloodshed, despair, anger and people without established leaders and without enduring institutions. While nationalism can be sustained through rhetoric and passion, nation states cannot be built in vacuum.
What is difficult to decipher is his religious legacy. Arafat was a secular leader, but he did not hesitate to use Islam to advance his political causes whenever convenient. Although he launched the Fatah movement for Palestinian Liberation in 1959, it was only after the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 that it began to capture Muslim thought.
Linking Jerusalem, a profoundly holy city for Muslims, with the Palestinian struggle has given the cause a particularly special, and even sacred, place in the Muslim psyche. Arafat, though inspired by leftist liberation ideologies, did not hesitate to use the loss of Jerusalem to attract sympathy and support from Muslims who initially saw the Palestinian cause as an Arab-Israeli affair.
After Arafat’s death, Palestinians wanted to bury him in Jerusalem, near the Noble Sanctuary. The Israeli government did not allow it, fearing his burial in East Jerusalem would give the city additional symbolic value for the Palestinians. Instead, he was buried in his headquarters in Ramallah. Palestinians, however, are hopeful that once the Palestinian state is established with East Jerusalem as its capital, Arafat’s remains will be moved to his family gravesite there. If so, his legacy will be tied to the glory of the Noble Sanctuary, perhaps forever.
Arafat died in the month of Ramadán, which carries deep religious and spiritual significance for Muslims. To die in this month is considered a special blessing from Allah. As time passes, and Muslims reflect on Arafat’s life from some distance and with greater compassion, this fact will play an important role in enhancing his station in Muslim and Arab history.
Arafat’s life can be summed as one of great successes and great failures. His greatest success is the fact that the Palestinian cause has become one of the most important global political issues; global peace is not possible without the resolution of the Palestinian crisis. Much of the credit for sustaining and globalizing Palestinian nationalism for more than half a century must go to Arafat. However, he failed to bring the struggle to fruition and failed to demonstrate democratic and effective leadership when he became the president of the Palestinian Authority.
Arafat’s most enduring failure may be his inability to keep the Palestinian struggle united. With the rise of Islamic movements and militias, the Palestinian struggle has split into Islamic and non-Islamic struggle. Over the years, Hamas has managed to develop a strong constituency for itself, completely independent of Arafat’s influence. While some may point out that perhaps Arafat allowed Hamas to grow in order to create a good-cop bad-cop scenario to deal with Israel, the ramifications of this split could cause, and perhaps already have caused a rift in the Palestinian society that may not be healed, even after a Palestinian state emerges and Palestinians become free.
Once that society does emerge, it is safe to assume that Islamic groups will demand a share in governance and probably the “Islamization” of the new state, which would be under international pressure to remain secular and democratic. The secular-Islamic split in the Palestinian society will be the greatest religious impact of Arafat’s legacy.