July 18, 2008


Fundamentalism with nuances: a review of Hamas in Politics by Joeroen Gunning (Sreeram Chaulia, 7/17/08, Asia Times)

In the book's early chapters, Gunning parses through Hamas' political philosophy. One core belief in the movement is that a genuine Islamic state cannot be imposed by force but must be willed by a clear majority of the people. To achieve this endpoint, Hamas advocates "education" and "socialization" through a network of charities, mosques, orphanages and schools. Gunning notes the tension between respecting popular will and seeking to "prepare society" into wishing for an Islamic state. By presuming to know what is in the best interests of the masses, Hamas' vision carries the dangers of "forcing people to be free". (p 91)

Other paradoxes lie in Hamas' endorsement of "free will" for all human beings, but with the rider that they must submit themselves to God's will by obeying the sharia. Political leaders are expected to ensure that people behave in accordance with God's laws, but rulers have to first win the consent of the ruled through free nation-wide elections. Gunning remarks that Hamas' ideal political system is "neither a theocracy nor a democracy but a hybrid" that contains echoes of Western social contract theories. He contrasts it with the models of Takfiri jihadi outfits like al-Qaeda, which see no need for elected legislatures.

Breaking with the dominant theme in Islamic jurisprudence, Hamas refrains from insisting that legislators be qualified religious experts. The vast majority of its current municipal councilors and legislators are secular professionals. Hamas' proposed legislature in an Islamic state would have no authority to pass fatwas (rulings) and no automatic seating for religious scholars. The movement also rejects Iran-style vetting of candidates for elections by a religious tribunal.

Hamas' internal organizational structure is consistent with its ideology. The elected shura (council) is its highest legislative body. Not even charismatic leaders like Ahmad Yassin, Abd al-Rantisi or Khalid Mish'al can overturn the council's collective will. In Hamas' collegial leadership culture, grooming family members for political succession is condemned. Consensual leadership prevents splits in the organization but also militates against flexible decision making. [...]

Gunning's crucial deduction is that if elections are held regularly, Hamas is likely to pay heed to shifts in the popular mood and compromise on a few principles. For instance, Hamas' take on the status of women progressed over time from arch conservative to active encouragement of female political participation. In 2006, Hamas played down its "destruction of Israel" goals and did not field al-Qassam fighters as candidates to avoid alienating undecided voters wedded to a two-state solution. Concerns over losing mass popularity also constrained Hamas from elevating its skirmishes with Fatah into a civil war (fitnah).

Hamas' rhetorical opposition to the peace process with Israel has been implacable. However, it intermittently refrained from attacking Israeli targets in 1996 and again since early 2005. In February 2007, it went so far as to agree to "respect" past pacts between the PLO and Israel. Gunning explains these puzzling actions as not only tactical concessions to gain relief from Israel's targeted assassinations but also as deference to Palestinian public opinion.

Unlike during the 1990s, Hamas today cannot afford to be seen as blatantly contradicting the popular will, since its dependence on winning elections has increased. Its 2003, 2005 and 2008, its ceasefires with Israel were propelled by major shifts in public opinion in favor of halting violence. Yet, Gunning sees an unresolved internecine tug-of-war within Hamas between "pragmatists" (Gaza based politicians) and "absolutists" (paramilitary leaders and refugees). The latter category is not amenable to the vagaries of public opinion and is more steadfast on the vow of relentless jihad.

The 1996 waves of suicide bombings, for example, were spanners thrown by the "absolutist" external leadership to disrupt rapprochement between the "pragmatic" internal leadership and the PA. According to Gunning, the "pragmatists" need incentives to keep Hamas on the path of compromise, but Israel and the US have lately been doing everything that strengthens the "absolutists".

...is that's where the absolutists hide out.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 18, 2008 7:43 PM

Hamas advocates "education" and "socialization"...

More debasing of the English language in the services of attempting to put a civil face on terrorism. I also see that OJ missed posting on another "prisoner" swap of dead bodies for live ones the other day.

Posted by: Rick T. at July 19, 2008 8:04 AM

Hamas is just another political party in Gaza. The terrorists are in Damascus.

Yes, Hezbollah just keeps winning that war, eh?

Posted by: oj at July 19, 2008 9:27 AM

Who would you have the regime change, Orrin, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Posted by: narciso at July 19, 2008 3:13 PM

That's for the Syrians to decide--the Brotherhood is just another political party nowadays.

Posted by: oj at July 19, 2008 3:31 PM
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