Eddie Ford examines the roots of Hamas and looks at its programmatic charter
Once again, bloodshed and savagery has erupted inside Israel. At the end of last week, a Hamas suicide attacker killed himself and 26 others in Haifa - a mainly working class district characterised by a relatively high degree of jewish-Arab integration. Five of his victims were 'fellow' Arabs - and indeed young Arab workers were among the first to attend to the injured victims of this fanatical act. Since March, Hamas bombers - suicidal and non-suicidal - have targeted shopping malls, seaside discos, pizza restaurants and city buses.
In retaliation, Ariel Sharon unleashed his forces - attacking Yasser Arafat's headquarters. The Haifa suicide bomb was a gift. Last Wednesday night saw the Gaza Strip teeter on the brink of intra-Palestinian civil war, when the Palestinian authorities attempted to arrest the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Hundreds of his supporters eventually beat off the police, who shot dead one young activist.
Inevitably, the world's attention has focused on Hamas, who are challenging the authority of Arafat and his al Fatah administration. It is clear that Hamas has sunk deep roots amongst the oppressed masses in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with the figure of Ahmed Yassin himself inspiring deep devotion (not something you can say about Arafat any longer). So who exactly are Hamas?
Hamas is an abbreviation of Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic resistance movement) and it also means 'force and bravery'. Its origins are rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood movement and, more specifically, in its main institutional embodiment since the late 1970s - that is, in the Islamic Centre (al-Mujamma al-islami) located on the Gaza Strip.
Historically, islamicist political activity in British-ruled Palestine appeared as early as the 1920s in the form of local branches of the Egyptian-based Young Muslim Men's Association. In 1945, the first Palestinian branch of MB was opened in Jerusalem as an extension of the Egyptian movement. Soon, with the assistance of the its Egyptian mentors, and also because of its close affiliation with the then mufti of Jerusalem, al-Haj Amin al-Husseini, other branches were established in most of the major Palestinian towns and villages, and by 1947 there were 38 branches of the MB with more than 10,000 registered members. However, the Palestinian branch of MB suffered a rapid decline with the formation of the Jewish state of Israel and then the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948.
Between 1948 and 1967, Jordan and Egypt ruled the West Bank and the Gaza Strip respectively. This obviously shaped the development of the MB. In the Jordanian West Bank, the MB renewed its political activities. During the 1950s, the MB maintained a policy of essentially 'loyal opposition' to the Hashemite regime - participating in all the elections and official political life in general. The political truce between the Hashemite monarchy and the MB essentially boiled down to the fact that they had a shared ideology of social traditionalism - which meant, in practice, a rejection of the revolutionary Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdul Nasser.
What of Egyptian-ruled Gaza? Under its administration, the MB's activities in the Gaza Strip were either tolerated or repressed - in line with Egypt's policy towards the MB's mother movement in Egypt itself. Thus, during the short-lived honeymoon from 1952 to 1954, between the Free Officers regime and the MB, the latter's branch in the Gaza Strip flourished, attracting many young Palestinians from the refugee camps as well as Palestinian students from Egyptian universities. But a new ban on the MB in Egypt in 1954, following its attempt on Nasser's life, began a long period of brutal repression. Consequently, the MB in Gaza was forced to go underground.
Nasser's harsh policy against the MB reached its peak in the aftermath of the alleged coup attempt in 1965, which led to the arrest of thousands of the MB's activists in Egypt and the execution of leading figures. One of the most important of these 'martyrs' was Sayyid Qutb, whose writings, most notably in Sign posts, were adopted by many of the militant islamicist groups. Qutb 'saw the light' after visiting the United States in the 1950s, being particularly appalled by what he saw as the 'outrageous' freedoms enjoyed by American women. His violent and militant brand of islam viewed non-islamic rule as jahiliyya - the pre-islamic era portrayed by muslims as a period of darkness and ignorance. Therefore this sort of regime is inherently heretical and must be fought through a holy war (jihad). At the same time, Qutb argued, the true believers must separate themselves from this contaminated society by means of migration (hijra) and thus create their own pure islamic space, protected from the omnipotent state machine. A cardinal element of his theory was the concept of the "internal jihad" within the muslim community - spiritual purification if you like.
Qutb's writings had a great impact on the young Ahmad Yassin, who in 1965 was one of the MB members arrested in the Nasserite crackdown.
Undetered, Yassin assiduously built up the MB and then later the Islamic Centre. According to Hamas's own semi-official history, the 'first period' was between 1967 and 1976 - marked as it was by the meticulous construction of a social infrastructure under Yassin, who by 1968 was the most pre-eminent MB figure in Gaza. These years were characterised by his institutionally based efforts to imbue society with da'wa - that is, religious preaching and education. Operating out of his home in the Shati' refugee camp, Yassin embarked on a systematic penetration of the society by creating numerous cells of three members each throughout Gaza, reaching down to the neighbourhood level. With the expansion of the movement, Gaza was divided into five sub-districts under the responsibility of Yassin's close aides or disciples.
The most crucial act in the MB's 'institutionalisation' in the Gaza occurred in 1973 with the founding of the Islamic Centre - a voluntary association, which was formally legalised in 1978. The Centre became the base for administration and control of religious and educational islamic institutions in the Gaza - all under Yassin.
Return to islam
The project of Yassin and the Islamic Centre was to promote a "return to islam". Hence the intensive, Talibanite effort to eradicate "immoral" behaviour - pornographic material, the drinking of alcohol, prostitution, homosexuality, drug abuse and mixed-sex activities (especially the latter, it should be noted). In the words of two Israeli scholars, the Islamic Centre "employed violence to impose islamic norms on the population, particularly to prevent the consumption of alcohol and to ensure women's modesty" (Shaul Mishal, Avraham Sela The Palestinian Hamas: vision, violence and coexistence New York 2000, p23).
Hamas itself emerged out of the Islamic Centre. It was founded in late 1987 in reaction to the beginning of the intifada, essentially construing itself as the 'armed wing' of the MB. After declaring a jihad, in 1988 it issued its own charter - which was fundamentally a response to King Hussein's declaration in July of that year that Jordan would administratively disengage from the West Bank. This was in order to bring about an independent Palestinian state - alongside Israel - details to be worked out by a Jerusalem-based group of al Fatah activists led by Faisal al-Husseini.
Yassin denounced this two-state solution - arguing that allowing Israel would divide the Palestinian people between those "within" and "without". Yassin's Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement aimed to provide a political alternative to Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.
Naturally, it could not just flatly denounce the PLO leadership as a bunch of apostates and traitors, as that would have almost certainly have consigned Hamas to almost immediate political oblivion. So we have the following 'tactful' wording in article 27 of the Hamas charter, which damns with faint praise: "Due to the circumstances that surround the formation of [the PLO] and the ideological confusion that prevails in the Arab world as a result of the ideological invasion which has befallen the Arab world since the defeat of the Crusades and that has been intensified by orientalism, the [christian] mission and imperialism, the organisation has adopted the idea of a secular state, and this is how we view it. [But] secular thought is entirely contradictory to religious thought. Thought is the basis for positions, modes of conduct and decision making. Therefore, despite our respect for the PLO - and what it might become [in the future] - and without underestimating its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, we cannot use secular thought for the current and future islamic nature of Palestine. The islamic nature of Palestine is part of our religion, and everyone who neglects his religion is bound to lose" (all quotes from the Hamas charter are from Mishal and Sela ibid pp175-199).
In short, the establishment of the Islamic Centre by Yassin and his followers and then the publication of the Hamas Charter was an attempt to bridge the divide that separated Palestinian nationalism (particularism) and islamicism (universalism) - no easy theological-political task. Nationalism, according to Qutb - and the Salafiyya strain of religious thought which inspired him and others - constitutes polytheism or idolatry. Sovereignty belongs not to the nation but to god and the only legitimate political community is the umma (religious community). Pride in one's ethnic group is tolerable only so long as it does not divide the community of believers, who form an indivisible unit thanks to the sovereignty of the sharia (islamic law). One day, it is hoped, political boundaries will be erased and all muslims will live in one polity devoted to god's will. The priority though is to raise up the sharia and abolish secular law. Nationalism is idolatry because it divides the umma and replaces a sharia-centred consciousness with ethnic pride.
Hamas's more pragmatic interpretation of this theory, however, was that a thrust in the direction of one would hasten the realisation of the other. As Mishal and Sela write, "Hamas presented the liberation of Palestine and the Arab-islamic resurrection (nahda) as a dialectic in which the success of either depended on the advancement of the other" (ibid p42). Hamas thus embarked on the 'twin track' policy of a (purported) national liberation struggle and a jihad, which aims "to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine". The role of Hamas, according to its founders, was to serve as the vanguard of the Arab and muslim world - to rescue it from its state of servile inaction before the encroachment of the Zionist-imperialist enemy.
For anyone who retains doubts about the utterly reactionary nature of Hamas's anti-Zionism, and world view in general, a quick glance at its charter should serve as an ample corrective. For instance, article eight employs the old Muslim Brotherhood slogan - "Allah is its goal, the Prophet is the model, the koran its constitution, jihad its path and death for the sake of allah its most sublime belief." Not a very comforting thought to the non-muslims living in Palestine and the Middle East.
Much more indicative of Hamas's reactionary anti-Zionism (anti-semitism) is article 22, which boldly states:
"The enemy has been planning for a long time in order to achieve what it has [effectively] achieved, taking into account the elements affecting the current of events "¦ It [the enemy] stood behind the French revolution, the communist revolution, and most of the revolutions we have heard and hear about, here and there. It is with this money that it has formed secret organisations throughout the world, in order to destroy societies and achieve the Zionists' interests. Such organisations are the Masons, Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, b'nai B'rith and others. They all are destructive spying organisations. With this money, it [the enemy] has taken control of the imperialist states and persuaded them to colonise many countries in order to exploit their resources and spread their corruption there.
"In regard to local and world wars, it has become common knowledge that [the enemy] was [the trigger] behind the [outbreak of] World War I, in which it realised the abolition of the islamic Caliphate [namely the Ottoman empire, abolished by the Turkish republican government headed by Kemal Pasha - EF]. The enemy profited financially and took control of many sources of wealth, obtained the Balfour Declaration, and established the League of Nations in order to rule the world through that means. The enemy was also [the trigger] behind the [outbreak of] World War II, in which it made huge profits from trading material and prepared for establishing its state. It inspired the formation of the United Nations and the Security Council instead of the League of Nations, in order to rule the world through them. No war broke out anywhere without its fingerprints on it."
Does all this stuff about the world jewish (sorry - Zionist) conspiracy have a slightly familiar ring to it? For those a bit slow on the uptake, article 32 explicitly tells us that "the Zionist scheme has no limits, and after Palestine it will strive to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When it has digested the region it has consumed, it will look to further expansions, and so on. This plan outlined in the Protocol of the elders of Zion and [Zionism's] present [conduct] is the best witness to what is said there."
It seems that the spirit of Adolf Hitler stalks the Hamas charter.
Article 34 of the charter makes a naked grab for the mantle of Palestinian nationalism: "Since the dawn of history, Palestine has been the navel of the earth, the centre of the continents, and the object of greed for the greedy." For Hamas there clearly is a winner-takes-all clash of civilisations in this region.
Unsurprisingly, the Hamas view of women is akin to the Taliban's and are near perfectly encapsulated in articles 17 and 18, which declare: "The muslim woman has a no lesser role than that of the muslim man in the war of liberation; she is a manufacturer of men and plays a major role in guiding and educating the [new] generations. The enemies have realised her role, hence they think that if they can guide her and educate her in the way they wish, away from islam, they will have won the war. Therefore, you can see them attempting to do this through the mass media and movies, education and culture and using as their intermediaries their craftsmen, who are part of Zionist organisations that assume various names and shapes, such as the Masons, Rotary Clubs, and espionage gangs, all of which are nests of saboteurs and sabotage".
All in all, not a programme for Arab-Palestinian liberation, let alone universal human liberation. If Hamas were to come to power on such a basis it could only deliver oppression, tyranny and slaughter - first and foremost internally: ie, against Palestinians themselves.
The first manifestations of Hamas violence were directed against leftist rivals in the Gaza strip and women for not wearing the veil. The Israeli authorities were quite happy to give Hamas space and toleration. They were preferable to the PLO or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. However, now Hamas is a Frankenstein monster and is going from strength to strength. Essentially there are three factors driving it forward.
- The spiral of terror with Israel. Hamas specialises in attacking soft, not military targets. Ariel Sharon is only too willing to hit back in kind and the whole populations of Israel and Palestine are provoked into an irrational and self-consuming rage.
- The Arafat regime is repressive, corrupt and cash-strapped. The Palestinian Authority cannot meet the basic needs of the Palestinian masses - food, housing, education, clothing, etc. The most it can offer is cronyism and jobbery - handing out positions in the police force and (for what passes) as the government-state apparatus.
- Hamas is not short of money. Hamas can feed you and your family. Eg, the Islamic Youth Society, a Hamas charity front - of which there are many - has since the second intifada began 14 months ago been busily distributing food parcels to 4,500 families - doling out rice, sugar, lentils and coffee to 30,000 people every month.
Hamas is rich because it has rich backers. It is estimated Hamas-fronted social welfare groups received $140 million in grants over the last 14 months - channelled from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states such as Qatar. That sort of money can buy a lot of influence.