Hamas: Islamic Democracy and National Liberation
The Hamas election victory in January 2006 has led to an increased interest in the Islamic Resistance Movement. Hitherto little had been understood of Hamas’ history, political and social strategy and tactics. Rather rumors and cheap prejudice against Hamas have been rampant across the political spectrum in the West. Regrettably, progressives in the West have largely dodged the challenges of internationalism and anti-racism in the context of neocolonialism’s racist campaign focused on Muslims and Islam, of which the maligning and criminalisation of Hamas is a component. Democrat-minded and progressive people who challenge the criminalisation of Hamas by the West, in so doing confront the Eurocentric idea that legitimacy is only bestowed upon those that the West consider democratic rather then what the people in the given country have chosen. This article seeks to demonstrate that Hamas’ ideology has as much claim to the values and practices of democracy and human rights as those political movements in the West. The difference is that these values are inspired and rooted in their own religious, cultural and social contexts.
The Oslo peace process failed to secure any lasting and just peace for the long-suffering and long-struggling Palestinians, thus creating the conditions in which Hamas came to the forefront of the Palestinian national struggle. Since the start of the Oslo process in the early 1990s Palestinians could see elements in the Fatah leadership living relatively opulent lives, involved in all kinds of moral and financial corruption and arresting and torturing Islamists. In stark contrast Hamas were proving increasingly popular due to their record of dedication to serving the people through their civil institutions, lack of financial corruption and frugal living of their leadership and being morally upright, all in accordance to their Islamic principles. The devastating suicide attacks inside Israel conducted by Hamas’ armed wing – the Al-Qassem Brigades – at a time when the negotiations were proving to be fruitless in deterring Israeli aggression, also raised Hamas’ prestige as the defenders of the Palestinian people. This dedication to the people and struggle translated into electoral support. Hamas gained half of all votes in municipal elections by the time of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000.
Hamas withheld from participating in the presidential and national elections due to their opposition to Oslo, as they saw these elections as being an integral part of a process which they perceived as a sell-out to the Palestinian national revolution. Eventually in a historic decision they decided to stand in the 2006 elections, and even more momentous was the fact that they achieved a resounding victory at the polls.
Those interested in a more detailed analysis of Hamas’ election campaign should read Khaled Hroub’s study, A “New Hamas” through its New Documents. Hroub states that documents issued at the time of the 2006 election campaign revealed that Hamas showed a greater commitment to unity of all Palestinian movements, a desire for a national government and a de-emphasis on Islamic rhetoric. In no way should this be interpreted as meaning that Hamas abandoned its objectives of an Islamic state as the best solution for Palestinian society and liberation, but it was a recognition by Hamas that they must operate in a spirit of democratic tolerance and respect for other secular factions and the Palestinian electorate. Hroub also argues that these developments and documents of have been largely ignored in the West. This study is particularly pertinent at this time of national discord between Hamas and Fatah, with many portraying Hamas as ‘coupists’, Hroub’s study shows on the contrary that Hamas have for some time been calling for strategic unity amongst patriotic Palestinian ranks.
Hamas have their own Islamic strategic objectives, but they promote these by democratic and civil means. They have always maintained that the Palestinian people are the ones who have the final say on these issues by means of democratic elections. Dr Salah Bardawil leader of Hamas in southern Gaza said in the Arabic language edition of Ashasrq al-Awsat, January 30, 2006: “…Hamas has absolutely never and is absolutely not thinking of the enactment of any laws that impose Islamic teachings and force it upon society.” He said religious teachings are followed when they are accepted by the people “not when they are imposed by terrorizing and frightening”. He explained that the Palestinian people know of the lenient approach of Hamas which has resulted in the movement winning more Christian votes than some of the other secular movements and considered the accusations that Hamas were planning religious coercion to be “a wide propaganda campaign that national, international and Israeli sides are engaged in, in order to disfigure the movement’s image.”
Hamas’ commitment to democracy is nothing new. Ever since its inception Hamas has expressed its commitment to the democratic will of the people no matter what their decision. The paraplegic leader of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin who was killed by an Israeli air strike in March 2004, stated back in 1989 in the Arabic language daily Al-Nahar: ”I want a multi-party democratic state, and I want whomever wins those elections to assume power.” When asked by the interviewer if this would still be the case if the Communist Party were to win the elections Sheikh Yassin replied “I would respect the wishes of the Palestinian people even if the Communist Party won.”
Tensions did exist between Hamas and other factions, and one should not cover-up or forget the political and cultural nature of the internal tensions that have always existed within the Palestinian national camp. There have been many cases of violent clashes between Hamas, Fatah and other factions such as the Popular Front and Democratic Front. These tensions are not always a simple case of over-zealous Islamist youth attacking those whose only crime is that they are secularists as the following anecdote illustrates.
A Palestinian political leader of a Marxist faction was often seen drunk in the streets in Gaza during the first Intifada. He was brutally attacked by Hamas youth in the first Intifada which left him hospitalized in a critical condition for weeks. He stated however that he held no grudges against Hamas and even sympathized with their actions as he felt that his behavior was unacceptable at a time when the whole community was making immense sacrifices. This is reminiscent of the scene in the film Battle of Algiers when a group of around twenty children of the Casbah attack the local drunk and expel him from the community. In a time of mass struggle, especially in a society which frowns upon such behavior at the best of times, liberation movements often take harsh although popular measures to ensure social cohesion and unity within the community.
Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, which the West and Israel hoped would do their job for them by repressing Palestinian revolutionaries, Hamas members were being detained, tortured and at times killed by the PA, but they never resorted to revenge attacks. The leadership always held back from the rank and file’s occasional demands of retribution against the PA and Fatah. Hamas has shown a remarkable amount of patience throughout its years of existence, especially as they have been treated as a veritable enemy within, by the Palestinian Authority dominated by Fatah. Hamas activists and fighters, along with those of other factions, were routinely jailed and tortured by the PA, although such was their strength and support amongst the masses, Arafat always referred to Hamas as brothers in the struggle and held back from a complete crackdown. A similar situation of repression and arbitrary arrests by Fatah against Hamas activists is taking place today in the West Bank. While Fatah and other opposition forces are generally allowed to demonstrate hold rallies and meetings in Hamas-ruled Gaza, in the Fatah-controlled West Bank, Fatah has arrested scores of Hamas activists, with Hamas accusing Fatah of torturing many of these detainees.
Back in 2006 after winning the elections Hamas requested Fatah and other factions to join them in a unity government. Hamas leader Mesh’al was quoted on the Palestinian Information Center website when he addressed Fatah; “Be with us, and don’t abandon political partnership. Our hearts are open for you; our hands are extended to you. Let us turn a new page, and work together for the best of our people based on mutual respect and cooperation. We are one people, united in the resistance, and must unite in the political arena as well.”
The English-language Al-Jazeera website reported that newly elected Palestinian Prime Minister and Gaza-based Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyah, emphasized Hamas’ desire for unity in the Palestinian patriotic camp, again highlighting Hamas’ aspirations of unity with the other largest Palestinian movement; “Hamas ran in the race on the basis of political multiplicity. We don’t deal with the political issues based on one party coming into power and another leaving. We want to come and work with each other because the challenges in front of Palestinians are so big and the war with the occupation still going on.”
Even now after Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, Hamas continues to call on Fatah in joining them to build a joint Palestinian government and political leadership. Far from reciprocating, Abbas and the group around him have decided to ally closer to Israel and the West in an attempt to strangle and starve the Palestinian people away from Hamas. There is no indication that this ploy is bearing any fruits. While Abbas is widely seen as participating in inappropriately convivial meetings with Olmert while Gaza is labeled a ‘enemy entity’ by Israel, many commentators are remarking that far from gaining support from Palestinians, Abbas will be seen as a Judas to the national cause. One can only guess as to what Abbas thinks he has to gain in pursuing this strategy.
Some who thought Hamas were going to enact an intolerant and stereotypical religious fundamentalist society have been disappointed by events in Gaza. They haven’t enforced a Taliban-style regime; on the contrary, their leadership often states that this is not in their line of thinking. Possibly confounding another prejudice against the movement, some may be surprised to know that Hamas women have been developing their political leadership in championing women’s rights in the struggle for liberation and in the context of their Islamic principles.
During the time of the Palestinian elections in January 2006 the Hamas aligned PIC website stated, “The Palestinian woman must assume her real role. It is high time that society appreciated the extent of her sacrifices and jihad.” The article went on to explain that Hamas will give women their role in the Legislative Council side by side with men in the struggle against the occupation. The article continued: “Hamas will seek to pass legislation to protect women and their rights. Hamas will resist any attempts to marginalize the role of women.”
After Hamas’ election victory The Guardian in 2006 ran two articles, one written by Hamas MP Jameela al-Shanti writing from Beit Hanoun in Gaza, and another written by Chris McGreal in Bureij refugee camp in Gaza. In the article entitled ‘Women MPs vow to change face of Hamas,’ Al-Shanti argued passionately on how unarmed women, including herself, faced an Israeli assault on their community which saw the killing of many Palestinian men women and children, including her own sister-in-law, a mother of eight. She said defiantly that her people’s struggle for freedom will not be surrendered for a handful of rice. McGreal wrote about the struggle of Palestinian women in Hamas that sought to change the face of Hamas, reporting that the movement comprised of new women Palestinian leaders who are confident, intelligent and resilient and are challenging sexual discrimination in Palestinian society, discrimination which is not a product of Islam, they contended, but of outmoded traditions.
The writer has met one female Gaza resident who graduated from the Islamic University and whose lecturers included Hamas leaders Abdel Aziz Rantisi (assassinated by Hellfire missiles launched from an Israeli Apache helicopter on April 17, 2004) and Mahmoud al-Zahar. She was a proficient student and confident student organizer. Hamas students tried to get her to join the Hamas-affiliated student organization, but she refused as she did not share all of Hamas’ views. Recognizing her abilities they nevertheless helped her to set-up a new independent student body with her initiative. This is an anecdotal example of how Hamas is able to act in a democratic manner in developing peoples’ contribution to Palestinian struggle and society.
These positions of Hamas on the role of women in society and struggle also distinguishes the movement from the radical Islamist movements who are affiliated or openly sympathetic to Al-Qaeda, who do not expound any social role for women in society and in the struggle for independence, but rather encourage women to withdraw from society. This perhaps can be understood in some instances as being more a result of the influence of tribal culture such as in Afghanistan, and in the context of brutal wars such as in Iraq where women often bear the brunt of the ensuing social calamities which occupation brings. The Palestinians in contrast are an example of a people enduring a decades-long military occupation and protracted civil and armed struggle, in which the women in the Islamic Resistance movements of Hamas, as well as in Islamic Jihad, have a social role in the community, society and in the struggle encouraged by these Islamist political parties.
Hamas’ political ideology and practice is one that shares many principles with Western democratic and progressive ideas. Instead of being inspired by the secular democratic, bourgeois and socialist traditions of the Western context, Hamas is inspired by similar principles in the cultural context and traditions of Arab and Islamic history. One should bear in mind that the political ideologies which are leading the struggle for independence and progress in the Middle East are doing so in the context of more than a century of brutal colonial and neocolonial oppression, whereas the democratic and left-wing ideas in the West have developed out of a privileged intellectual atmosphere on the basis of a society which has stolen all of the America’s gold, exterminated indigenous populations on two continents, and ‘turned Africa into a warren for the hunting of black skins’.
We in the West must accept that secularism is not going to become a leading political force in the Middle East any time soon, due not least in part as it was brought to the region by colonialists. Arab and Muslim people, and by many more across the world who desire independence from US hegemony, see in the West many social and moral conditions that they don’t want to emulate but which Westerners often see as examples of the superiority of their societies. People around the world are developing their own political identities from their own cultural and political roots. Morales, Chavez, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas are a few such examples. In the process of developing these indigenous movements, there is a move away from the uniform cultural and political forms of Western secular and Marxist models. However it must be stressed that there remain universal principles that these liberation ideologies and Western democratic and progressive ideas share, and there exists the possibility of developing mutual respect, solidarity and unity between the two. This dialogue and solidarity is jeopardized by the twin problems and challenges of Eurocentric prejudice and Western oppression of Third World peoples.
Sukant Chandan is a London-based freelance journalist, researcher and political analyst. He has contributed to several publications including Al-Ahram Weekly, Counterpunch and the Kuala Lumpur-based Third World Network. He runs two websites: ouraim.blogspot.com and sonsofmalcolm.blogspot.com and can be contacted at email@example.com