History of Hamas

An examination of Hamas's roots, both historical and political-theological, reveals beyond doubt that its anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism is programmatically counterrevolutionary, argues Eddie Ford. Or, to put it more starkly, in Hamas we encounter a reactionary ideology of the oppressed

Hamas is an Arabic acronym of Harkat 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 the Muslim Brotherhood (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 major Palestinian towns and villages, and by 1947 there were 38 MB branches with more than 10,000 registered members. However, the Palestinian branch suffered a rapid decline first with the formation of the self-proclaimed Jewish state of Israel and then the 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, it was able to renew 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 model or, at the very least, as a much needed source of financial, diplomatic and military 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, it was forced to go underground in Gaza.

Nasser's harsh policy 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 its 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 (1903-79). Qutb synthesised, developed and turned into popular-accessible form the teachings of Mawdudi.

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. Understandably, he was repelled by the anti-Arab bigotry and general racism he encountered. And rich, consumer-boom America offended him. 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 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).

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 - initially a 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.

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 the PLO 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).

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.

Unsurprisingly, the Hamas view of women 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. On this basis Hamas can only deliver oppression, tyranny and slaughter - first and foremost internally: ie, against Palestinians themselves.

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 preferable to the PLO or the more leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

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.