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    Middle East
     Jul 19, 2008

Fundamentalism with nuances
Hamas in Politics by Jeroen Gunning

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Since the 2006 election victory of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, the big debate has been whether a hawkish militant movement could evolve into an accommodative political actor. The answer could determine whether Israel and the United States will ever allow a full-fledged Palestinian state to emerge. As long as Tel Aviv and Washington fear Hamas taking over an independent Palestinian state and turning it into a jihadi paradise, a final settlement will be delayed.

In a new book based on extensive field research, British political scientist Jeroen Gunning argues that although Hamas is self-consciously motivated by Islamism, its practices are "confined by necessity and opportunity" (p 55). His thesis is that Hamas is a changing product of a dynamic environment and should not be judged as an unmoving monolith.

Hamas was launched in 1987 as the quietist Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood's paramilitary wing. It was a move by the Brotherhood to remain politically relevant when radicalization was becoming the norm under the first Intifada. Hamas outgrew its creators and soon became the central Islamist player by virtue of sound grassroots organization and deft relationships with donors in the Gulf Arab states. Its heterogeneous and decentralized structure, with an internal leadership separated from an external leadership, helped expand following from wide sections of Palestinian society.

From 1992, Hamas began repeatedly defeating the dominant Palestine Liberation Organization faction of Fatah in student and professional union elections. The installation of a Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) after the Oslo peace accords changed the balance of power by granting state apparatus and foreign sponsorship to Yasser Arafat's coterie. One factor influencing Hamas' decision to continue armed struggle against Israel despite Oslo was its rivalry with Fatah. The wave of Hamas suicide bombings on Israeli targets in the mid-1990s was not just an expression of fanatical resistance but also of intra-Palestinian tussles for power.

By the new millennium, public disillusionment with Oslo and the PA's misrule discredited Fatah and gave fresh legitimacy to Hamas' inveterate hostility for Israel. Hamas' fortunes also soared due to the long-term growth in the size of the Palestinian lower-middle and middle classes, who resented the PA's nepotistic grip on business opportunities.

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 observes a widespread practice of Hamas' upper echelons nominating candidates for organizational positions. Since party bigwigs limit the choice of candidates, there is no free and open competition for posts. On sensitive subjects such as whether or not to recognize Israel, enormous pressure is exercised on members to conform to the dominant view. Even if the dissenting position represents the majority view of grassroots members, the demand for Islamic unity is used to enforce compliance. Gunning refers to this strategy as "symbolic violence".

The ability to inflict violence against Israelis is an important source of legitimacy for Hamas as an organization and for its individual commanders. However, Hamas rarely resorts to internal violence to discipline its members or settle their disputes. Few schisms have sundered Hamas compared to Fatah because of the former's explicit emphasis on Islamic fraternity and selflessness.

In the 2004-2006 municipal and legislative elections, Hamas fared particularly well in urban areas and refugee camps where Islamism had greater resonance and traditional clan intermediaries were weak. It campaigned on a platform of anti-corruption, religiosity and security, issues shown by surveys to be voters' main concerns. By shrewdly catering to the winds of public opinion, it outdid the clueless Fatah.

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".

Gunning concludes the book with an assessment of Hamas' contribution to democratization of Palestinian politics. Its constituency of lower-middle classes and its participatory internal practices are conducive to democracy. But its parallel armed forces and welfare structures are impediments to realizing an impartial state with high capacity and low coercion. Its involvement in vicious inter-factional violence against Fatah also severely undermines democratic processes.

Gunning runs a fine-toothed comb through the nuances of Hamas' fundamentalism but does not discuss whether it has the yen to demilitarize state and society in an independent Palestine, whenever it is born. He does not consider if Hamas has been complicit with Fatah in silencing non-violent projects and streams in Palestinian thought. As Hamas morphs from an opposition faction into a ruling party, how liberal will it be towards a civil society that is critical of authorities? Hamas is certainly responsive to majority public opinion for the sake of votes, but does it have the eclecticism to defend minority standpoints?

Reports of serious rights abuses in Gaza are warning shots that alternative voices may not find space in a future dispensation under Hamas. Gunning convinces that some Hamas elements are interested in a deal with Israel, but he leaves a haze around how the movement will deal with its own people.

Hamas in Politics. Democracy, Religion, Violence by Jeroen Gunning. Columbia University Press, New York, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-85065-876-4. Price U$$ 34.50, 310 pages.

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