Why Hamas is no ‘Extremist’
Article posted on Open Democracy, March 11, 2009
In the mechanistic template imposed by western leaders on the Middle East, of ‘moderates’ who must be supported versus ‘extremists’ who must be isolated and undermined, Hamas has to be painted, by mechanical necessity alone, as ‘extremists’. Hamas has become the ‘extremists’ to answer in neat symmetry to the ‘moderates’ of Ramallah, who for other reasons American and European leaders wish in any event to support.
But such models, once generally accepted, force a deterministic interpretation that can blind its advocates to the perverse results of such narrow and rigid conceptualising: a defeated and humbled Hamas, western leaders suggested, was to be ‘welcomed’ as a blow to Hesballah, which in turn represented a strike at Syria, which weakened Iran – all of which strengthened the ‘moderates’; and, the model implies, serves to make Israel safer. It is a narrative that has reduced the Palestinian crisis to no more than a pawn in the new ‘Great Game’ of an existential global struggle waged against ‘extremism’.
The appealing clarity of such a simple, and simplistic, model-making has however obscured its overriding flaw. The pursuit of this narrow formulation of moderates versus extremists has yielded the perverse result – not of bringing nearer a Palestinian state – but of pushing it beyond reach, possibly for good.
On the one hand, Mahmoud Abbas is left discredited, lacking the legitimacy to take forward any political solution: on the other, the ‘extremist’ branding of Hamas has enabled the West to block Hamas’ and other factions’ access to the Palestinian leadership institutions. Palestinian leadership institutions remain captive to one section of Fatah in Ramallah. In short, western policy has brought about a void in which no Palestinian leader, and no Palestinian movement, now has the potential to achieve a credible mandate – or to move forward politically.
Attempts to undermine Hamas have all failed – be they economic siege, political cleansing (with British and American experts grooming a special operations militia around Abbas in order to politically-cleanse the West Bank of Hamas influence), the repression of Hamas’ political and charitable institutions, or, more recently, the Israeli military onslaught on Gaza.
The prospect of a Palestinian state has been sacrificed to a flawed political model, thus only serving further to radicalise the region. Hesballah, Syria and Iran have not been weakened: they have emerged stronger. The region has become more polarised and less stable.
But the conceptual failure of the moderate/extremist template extends well beyond Palestine. In essence, the West has got it wrong: It has the wrong Islamists cast as ‘moderates’ and the wrong movements cast as ‘extremist’.
We are not here dealing with secularist movements when referring to the western desire to empower ‘moderates’ as their allies: These secularist movements, as opposed to the occasional individual, are almost all seen as western proxies, and have little or no influence now. Nor are we writing of certain immoderate ‘moderate’ Arab leaders who will do almost anything to ensure their survival; and who will do almost anything to undermine the Islamist movements that challenge them.
The moderate/extremist template is so crucially flawed because it misidentifies the mechanism by which a narrow hatred of all heterodoxy and heresy evolves into something truly dangerous.
This transformation of a narrow literalism into a more dangerous form occurs because the West has tried to use a particular puritan current – Saudi-orientated Salafism – for its own political ends. An oil and military coincidence of interest has given rise to a fifty year Saudi alliance; but also to one of two flawed premises underlying the moderate/extremist template of today: in which Hamas is deemed the ‘extremist’ to be hollowed out and contained – ‘contained’ incongruously by the very forces that have proved, time and time again, to be the root from which the truly dangerous splinters of extremism have emerged.
Salafists of this type – that is, those who follow a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an, certain sayings attributed to the Prophet, and who try to practice an exact imitation of the conduct of early Muslim believers – are for the most part, peaceful, pious and reformist Islamists who stand aloof from politics and from national and local elections. They are properly ‘apolitical’. But America and Britain have used this current for the past fifty years in order to try to contain trends emerging in the region to which they have taken a dislike.
The branding of Hamas and Hesballah as ‘extremists’ has its roots in a pattern of western behaviour established in the 1960s, well before Hamas was formed. This pattern of western behaviour consisted of reliance on ‘apolitical’ Salafism, managed and funded by Saudi patrons, to contain and circumscribe firstly, ‘Nasserist’ Arab nationalism; then to act as a counter-weight to the spread of Marxism in the region; to contain Soviet influence; to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; to contain the impact of Shi’ism and the Iranian Revolution; to contain the spread of ‘revolutionary’ Islam; and, in Iraq, to contain al-Qae’da and the Shi’i militias. With each successive manifestly political use, essentially in support of perceived western and al-Saud interests, these dissidents have not only become progressively more ‘political’ – they have become more violent, immoderate, intolerant and dangerous.
It is when this ‘apolitical’ orientation is used politically; or, when major political events impinge adversely on Islam, that it fractures under the stress. With each new fragmentation and splintering, the dissidents become angry, and begin to brood darkly on the predicament of Islam. From this introspection, begins their migration to the ideas and thinking of an earlier and particularly desperate period of Islamic history.
The truly dangerous movements that the West faces – the abu Musab al-Zarqawi affiliates – are all splinters from ‘apolitical’ Salafism. Western efforts to hollow-out mainstream Islamists, such as Hamas, have served only to open up the space for the entry of such Salafi splinters. Sunni groups such as al-Qae’da, the Taliban and movements such as Lashgar-i-Toiba are deeply influenced by Salafism, through Deobandism – effectively a form of Salafism transplanted to India.
The West has labelled the ‘wrong’ people as ‘extremist’. It is a case of apples and oranges: there is simply no comparison between an armed resistance movement such as Hamas or Hesballah on the one hand; and the violent splinters and haters of heterodoxy and heresy of dissident Salafism, on the other.
Dissident Salafism is the opposing current to that which emerged from the Islamist revolution. Dissident Salafism is counter-revolutionary ‘conservatism’: it is anti-reasoning; it is anti-philosophic; it is reductive; anti-heterodox and literalist. It is a current which, in its extreme form, so dislikes any divergence from a narrow literalist ‘puritan’ vision of Islam that it stands ready to kill other Muslims who are Sufi, Shi’i or in any way unorthodox: they are as much a danger to their own communities as to the West. It is the ideology of dogmatic closure imposed on all believers.
These forces have come about, have been created, by the practice of abusing a particularly fissiparous ‘apolitical’ strand of Islam through its deployment as western proxy – in a parody of a Cold War containment policy – charged with containing the forces of the Islamist revolution. The West bears some responsibility for lighting these fires of extremist schism and dogmatism; although it is no surprise that a western dogmatic closure on Islamism has in turn spewed Muslim movements of extreme dogmatism.
Paradoxically, the West has positioned itself on the wrong side of an ‘old struggle’: that between reasoning and philosophy on the one hand, and – on the other hand – literalism in Islamic revelation.
Hamas and Hesballah are not literalists or fundamentalists. We have it the wrong way around. They could not be more different in their thinking from those described above.
In Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution, I have argued that the Islamist revolution is capable of a clear and reasoned explanation. It is neither irrational, nor whimsical, as is often asserted.
It stemmed from the crisis in which Islam found itself in the aftermath of the First World War. Islam was in shock, it was disoriented, and it was struggling to find a solution to its predicament. It embarked on a journey to discover a new ‘Self’; it went back to its roots; and found new insights that gave it political, social and economic ‘solutions’ to its problems; it began to imagine itself in new ways. The revolution was about ways of thinking, understanding the human being, and the world in which we live.
It is, in short, a revolution of ideas, of philosophy and some of its conclusions put into question the purpose of politics. It is of course at the outset of this journey. Like any revolution, it remains vulnerable and with major shortcomings – as its architects acknowledge. But the key development is that Islamism has started to transform itself, after 300 years, to be a dynamic religious, social and political force again.
That the Europe of the Enlightenment should have assumed this posture is truly paradoxical. It has arrayed itself with the forces of narrow literalism, reductionism and dogmatism in its illusory quest for a de-politicised, pro-western Islam – against a dynamic questioning of thinking, of understanding and the purpose of politics.
But there is another strand to this story beyond the West’s slothful and habitual recourse to a form of Islam that they believed might curb and weaken the intellectual and religious renewal that so disconcerted western leaders. This is the second pillar and the second flawed premise that explains why Hamas, Hesballah and Muslim Brotherhood affiliates have had to stand in as the West’s ‘extremists’ – and not its ‘moderates’.
Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, evolved in the 1950s a defensive strategy of an ‘alliance of the periphery’. The aim was to balance the ‘vicinity’ of hostile Arab states by forming alliances with Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia. It was an attempt to strengthen Israeli deterrence, to reduce its isolation, and to add to her appeal as ‘an asset’ for the US.
It was against this background that Iran came to be seen firstly as a ‘natural ally’ for Israelis. It was rooted in an imagined cultural affinity between two non-Arab peoples. This sense of close affinity persisted beyond the Iranian Revolution, and prompted even hard-headed Israeli politicians of the Right to reach out to the new Iranian leadership.
But 1990 – 1992 witnessed two events that changed the outlook for the whole region – and set the scene for Iran’s demonisation by Israel.
In this brief period, the Soviet Union imploded, and Saddam Hussein was defeated in the first Gulf War. These two events removed both the Russian threat from Iran, and Iraq’s threat to Israel. This left Iran and Israel as unchallenged rivals for leadership and pre-eminence in the region. It also saw the US emerge as a unipolar, unchecked power.
Israel read the new map of the Middle East and realised that it needed a new role from that of America’s ally against the now-imploded Soviet Union – as the rationale justifying its strategic relationship with Washington.
Emergent Iran was now seen as a threat to Israel whose survival was deemed to depend on its military supremacy. Any prospect of an US-Iranian rapprochement risked undercutting Israel’s relationship with the US, and therefore Israel’s continued military supremacy too.
Israel, in 1992 in a dramatic move, decided to drop the strategy of wooing the periphery, and instead opted to make peace with the Arabs – a far-reaching and radical reverse of strategy. It was also a highly problematic strategy: whereas the periphery doctrine enjoyed broad popular consensus; its reversal – to seek affinities in the vicinity and to make peace with them – carried no such broad support.
This shift placed Israel and Iran on opposite sides in the new equation, and the change was as intense as it was unexpected: “Iran has to be identified as Enemy No.1,” Yossi Alpher, at the time an adviser to Rabin, told the New York Times four days after Clinton’s election victory. From this time, Israel and its allies in the US began insistently to accuse Iran of seeking nuclear weapons.
Iran had to be demonised as a part of an ideological shift in Israel. Israel needed to find a new, post-Soviet ‘purpose’ to justify its role to the US as indispensable vanguard and ally. It found it in the new war against Islamic ‘extremism’.
Israel’s re-configuring of its own template from ‘moderate periphery’ versus ‘extremist Arab vicinity’ to one defining Iran and political Islam as the new ‘extremists’, and certain states of the Arab vicinity as the ‘moderates’, inexorably led to Hamas’ branding as ‘extremist’ by the West too. It is no coincidence, therefore, that it is Israel’s own particular ‘enemies’ who have become the West’s ‘extremists’ also – and perhaps no coincidence that the outcome of this conceptualising is a Palestinian state pushed beyond reach.
Quartet Envoy Tony Blair’s proselytising around the world on this moderate/extremist theme has been a huge asset for an Israel who has always aspired to be the leading member of a ‘moderate’ bloc, rather than an isolated island in a hostile region; but Blair’s, and other Quartet members’ attempts to fit this simplistic and terribly flawed template over a complex Middle East has left the region a more dangerous and unstable place.