No to reactionary anti-Zionism

Eddie Ford examines the origins and world view of Hamas

Israel’s ‘targeted killing’ of sheikh Ahmed Yassin has once again focused the world’s attention on Hamas (the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement). Hundreds of thousands of grief-stricken Palestinians thronged the streets at Yassin’s funeral - the man acknowledged to being the spiritual and temporal leader, and founder, of Hamas.

Clearly, as the pictures of the funeral alone showed, Hamas has sunk deep roots amongst the oppressed Palestinian people - especially those imprisoned on the Gaza Strip, just about the most wretched and downtrodden place on the planet. Yassin himself was a figure who for decades inspired deep devotion - not something you have been able to say for a long time about Yasser Arafat (let alone a figure like the despised ex-prime minister, Abu Mazen).

So, what exactly is Hamas? How does it differ from Arafat’s essentially secularist Al-Fatah administration? An examination of Hamas’s roots, both historical and political-theological, reveals beyond doubt that its anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism is programmatically counterrevolutionary. Or, to put it more starkly, in Hamas we encounter the reactionary ideology of the oppressed.

Hamas is an Arabic acronym of Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyya, meaning ‘zeal’ or ‘bravery’ and was formed in 1987 with the objective of destroying “the Zionist entity”. Hamas’s origins though are firmly 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, islamist 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 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 self-proclaimed 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 often uneasy political truce between the Hashemite monarchy and the MB essentially boiled down to the fact that they shared an ideology of social traditionalism. In practice, this meant that both the Hashemites and the MB rejected the modernistic Arab nationalism of the revolutionary-talking Gamal Abdul Nasser and his co-thinkers, who were desperate to pull the Arab world into the 20th century - perhaps by any means necessary. Unsurprisingly, many of these ‘modernisers’ looked to the Soviet Union as a rough role model or, at the very least, as a much needed source of financial, diplomatic, military and intellectual assistance.

What of Egyptian-ruled Gaza? Under its administration, the MB’s activities in the Gaza Strip were either tolerated or repressed - fluctuating 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 prolific writings, most notably his seminal 1964 work Milestones [Ma’alim fi’l Tariq], were eagerly adopted by many of the militant islamist groups. Indeed, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that Qutb’s writings and teachings made him the Che Guevara of the islamic fundamentalist world, with Milestones acting as its surrogate Communist manifesto. It is significant that such a colossal figure as Qutb is virtually unknown in the west.

It is impossible though to understand Qutb without recognising the massive intellectual debt he owed to Sayyid Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi (1903-1979). Qutb synthesised, developed and turned into popular-accessible form the teachings of Mawdudi.

Born in India, Mawdudi moved in the early 1920s to Hyderabad, the last remaining muslim enclave in India - and by 1928 had become the acknowledged leader of its islamic community. Casting about for explanations for the decline of muslim power in Hyderabad, Mawdudi concluded that diversity, or religious pluralism, was the central culprit: the centuries old practice of interfaith mixing had weakened and watered down muslim thought and practice in that region of India. The solution then was to purge islam of all alien elements. Non-muslims, for Mawdudi, were ipso facto a threat to muslims and to the islam faith as a whole and therefore their rights must be heavily curtailed. Vitally, Mawdudi applied the same theory and logic to women - that is, unless women existed in a purely subservient relationship to men, then the umma [religious community] itself was under threat.

Mawdudi’s driving vision was of a permanent jihad until the whole natural universe has been brought under the rule - or domination - of islam. Thus he wrote: “Islam wants the whole earth and does not content itself with only a part thereof. It wants and requires the entire inhabited world. It does not want this in order that one nation dominates the earth and monopolises its sources of wealth, after having taken them away from one or more other nations. No, islam wants and requires the earth in order that the human race altogether can enjoy the concept and practical programme of human happiness, by means of which god has honoured islam and put it above the other religions and laws.

“In order to realise this lofty desire, islam wants to employ all forces and means that can be employed for bringing about a universal, all-embracing revolution. It will spare no efforts for the achievement of this supreme objective. This far-reaching struggle that continuously exhausts all forces and this employment of all possible means are called jihad (quoted by Rudolph Peters Jihad in classical and modern islam Princeton, New Jersey, p128).

We also need to realise that Mawdudi was no mere scholastic theologian or revolutionary-islamist ascetic. He envisaged a quite particular set of institutions - or constitution - for his ideal islamic state. For him, an islamic state will have a president, an elected shura council (consisting only of muslims who have been elected solely by muslim suffrage), an independent clerical-based judiciary and a cabinet formed by a prime minister. Dhimmis (non-muslims living under muslim protection) are to be allowed only limited voting rights - to lower-level, municipal elections. Yes, Dhimmis have the right to serve on municipal councils and in other local governmental organizations, but not to serve in the larger, overarching administrative units that deal with what Mawdudi always called the “system of life” [nizam al-haya].

In other words, Qutb was inspired by Mawdudi’s virulent aversion to secularism and democracy, not to mention his fanatical misogyny. If anything, Qutb expounded Mawdudi’s doctrine into a full-blown programme of gynophobia - making this aspect of his writings especially attractive to the likes of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al Qa’eda network.

By all accounts, Qutb ‘saw the light’ after visiting the United States in 1948. Not unpredictably, he was repelled by the anti-Arab bigotry and general racism he encountered. Rich, consumer-boom America offended Qutb. His letters of the time are full of disgust for the values of the ‘American dream’ - which he regarded as “hollow and full of contradictions, defects and evils”. Like his puritanical christian fundamentalist counterparts - then and now - Qutb endlessly railed against the ‘degenerate’ evils of popular culture - jazz, football, wrestling, tattoo shops, movies, etc (though Qutb was a bit of a hypocrite - he confessed to enjoying Gone with the wind and Wuthering heights … and no doubt he would have thoroughly enjoyed Mel Gibson’s The passion of christ too). Qutb even damned the christian churches he visited as “entertainment centres and sexual playgrounds” - all because during one service he attended the Baptist pastor played a record and encouraged members of his congregation to dance to it.

In his subsequent 30-volume Koranic commentary, In the shade of the qur’an, Qutb suggested that the believer’s brief sojourn on earth - especially if it was in the United States of America - should be spent “purifying the filthy marsh of this world”. Naturally, Truman-era, tattooed America and its record-playing priests gave him a taste of this world at its filthiest and marshiest.

Qutb was particularly appalled by what he saw as the ‘outrageous’ freedoms enjoyed by American women - even more so by the fact, as he saw it, that American men allowed their women to be so free. For Qutb any display of female sexuality was anathema. This hatred - and morbid fear - of female sexuality was theorised at its most fullest in Milestones, where Qutb writes: “In the islamic system of life, [the] family provides the environment under which human values and morals develop and grow in the new generation; these values and morals cannot exist apart from the family unit. If, on the other hand, free sexual relationships and illegitimate children become the basis of a society, and if the relationship between man and woman is based on lust, passion and impulse, and the division of work is not based on family responsibility and natural gifts; if woman’s role is merely to be attractive, sexy and flirtatious, and if woman is freed from her basic responsibility of bringing up children; and if, on her own or under social demand, she prefers to become a hostess or a stewardess in a hotel or ship or air company, thus using her ability for material productivity rather than the training of human beings, because material production is considered to be more important, more valuable and more honourable than the development of human character, then such a civilisation is ‘backward’ from the human point of view, or ‘jahili’ in islamic terminology” (S Qutb Milestones Beirut 1980, p182).

In all of the above, we can fairly easily detect Qutb’s distinctive contribution to islamic thought and practice - whether based in orthodoxy or not. His darkly 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 (or 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. Another central element of Qutb’s political cosmology was the islamic ideal of tawhid (the singularity of god and, therefore, of the universe).

Needless to say, Qutb’s writings had a particularly profound impact on the young Ahmad Yassin, one of the MB members arrested in 1965 as part of the Nasserite crackdown. Qutb’s execution did not put a stop to his ideas - quite the opposite.

Undeterred by state oppression, 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 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 Gaza occurred in 1973 with the founding of the Islamic Centre - an initially voluntary association which was formally legalised by the Israeli state in 1978. The centre became the base for administration and control of religious and educational islamic institutions - all under Yassin’s stewardship.

The overriding project of Yassin and the Islamic Centre was to promote a “return to islam”. Hence the intensive, Talibanite effort to eradicate “immoral” and supposedly “western” modes of behaviour - pornographic material, the drinking of alcohol, prostitution, homosexuality, drug-taking and mixed-sex activities. The latter, it needs to be stressed, was and still is a special source of ire for fundamentalists of the Hamas stripe. 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” (S Mishal, A 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 de facto ‘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 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 (though, interestingly, there has been much speculation to the effect that Yassin was edging, no doubt very reluctantly, to some sort of acceptance of the two-state solution/formulation).

Naturally, at this time, Hamas 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; also see Hamas website).

In short, the establishment of the Islamic Centre by Yassin and his devotees, and then the publication of the Hamas Charter, was an attempt to bridge the divide that separated Palestinian nationalism (particularism) and islamism (universalism) - no easy theological-political trick. After all, according to Qutb and Mawdudi - and the Salafiyya strain of religious thought which inspired them - nationalism constitutes polytheism or idolatry. Sovereignty belongs not to the nation but to god and the only legitimate political community is the umma. 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 ‘pragmatic’ interpretation of islamic scriptures, 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 (ie, 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 Hitlerite fascism 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 is near perfectly encapsulated in the Qutb-inspired 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. Maybe this explains Ariel Sharon’s decision to murder Yassin: a recharged and more popular Hamas is a splendid islamist-Zionist recipe for a potentially barbarous Palestinian civil war.

Historically, the first manifestations of Hamas violence were directed not against Israeli occupation forces but rather leftist rivals in the Gaza Strip and women for not wearing the veil. Then, of course, the Israeli authorities were quite happy to give Hamas space and toleration. They were far more preferable to the PLO or the more leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. However, Hamas has become a Frankenstein’s monster - going from strength to strength.

To briefly sum up the present-day Hamas, you can identify three essential factors driving it forward, and there is no particular reason to think these factors will be diminished or eliminated in the near future:

1. The spiral of terror with Israel. Hamas specialises in attacking ‘soft’, not military targets - eg, Jewish weddings or families enjoying a pizza in a fast-food restaurant. Ariel Sharon is only too willing to hit back in kind and the whole populations of Israel and Palestine are then provoked into an irrational and self-consuming rage. Inevitably, this Zionist-induced rage easily, and often quickly, takes on all manner of backward forms - most notably, of course, anti-semitism. This in turn, naturally, provides all the spurious excuses Sharon and his co-butchers need to launch more murderous attacks on the Gaza Strip and elsewhere - and of course to obnoxiously evoke the memory of the Nazi holocaust (or rather The Holocaust) in its defence. The reactionary cycle of atrocity and counter-atrocity is then set into place.

2. The Arafat regime is notoriously 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.

3. Hamas is not short of money. Hamas can feed you and your family - unlike the Israeli state. So, the Islamic Youth Society, a Hamas charity front - of which there are many - busily doles out rice, sugar, lentils and coffee, and so on, to 30,000 people every month. Of course, Hamas is rich because it has rich backers. It is estimated Hamas-fronted social welfare groups have received hundreds of million of dollars in grants over the last three years - mainly channelled from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states such as Qatar. This is no cheapskate organisation surviving on ‘the pennies of the poor’.

Israel and Palestine, like the Middle East as a whole, urgently needs a secularist and democratic mass movement which will break the spiral of reactionary violence and unite the Jewish and Palestinian peoples. This means saying no to Hamas and Zionism and yes to a genuine two-states programme, free of imperialist interference.