Nothing could be easier in the present atmosphere than to accuse anyone who calls for recognition of and dialogue with Hamas, Hizbullah and other Islamist movements of being closet supporters of reactionary “extremism” or naive fellow travelers of “terrorists.” This tactic is not surprising coming from neoconservatives and Zionists. What is novel is to see it expressed in supposedly progressive quarters.
Arun Kundnani has written about a “new breed of liberal” whose outlook “regards Muslims as uniquely problematic and in need of forceful integration into what it views as the inherently superior values of the West.” The target of these former leftists, Kundnani argues, “is not so much Islamism as the appeasing attitudes they detect among [other] liberals.”
Such views are now creeping into the Palestinian solidarity movement. MADRE, an “international women’s human rights organization,” presents one example. In the wake of the HAMAS election victory and takeover of Gaza from U.S.- and Israeli-backed Fatah warlords, MADRE declared that the challenge for Palestine solidarity activists is “how do we support the people of Palestine without endorsing the HAMAS leadership?” Calling for what it terms “strategic solidarity” as opposed to “reflexive solidarity,” MADRE defines HAMAS as a “repressive” movement “driven by militarism and nationalism,” which “aims to institutionalize reactionary ideas about gender and sexuality,” while using “religion as a smokescreen to pursue its agenda.”
Similarly strident and dismissive claims have been made by a Washington-based pro-Palestinian advocacy group. Some of these attitudes may arise from confusion, but there may also be an effort to scare us off from attempting to understand HAMAS in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon outside any paradigm except a “clash of civilizations” that pits allegedly universal and superior Western liberal values against what is represented as medieval oriental barbarity. It is essential to note that the Islamist movements under consideration, although they may identify themselves as being part of the umma (the global community of Muslims) are heterogenous; each emerged in a particular context. Their ideologies and positions are moving targets changing over time as a result of fierce and ongoing internal debates and their encounters with external influences. These points may seem obvious as they apply to an analysis of any social or political movement, but they have to be restated here because of the constant effort to portray all Islamist movements as being inflexible, rooted in unchanging and ancient views of the world, and indistinguishable from the most exotic, marginal and unrepresentative “jihadi” groups. Hamas and Hizbullah emerged in the context of brutal Israeli invasions and military occupations. Their popular support and legitimacy have increased as they demonstrated their ability to present a credible veto on the unrestrained exercise of Israeli power where state actors, international bodies, the peace process industry and secular nationalist resistance movements notably failed. As their influence has grown, both movements have steadily tempered their universalist Islamist rhetoric and adopted the language and imagery of classical national liberation struggles albeit with an Islamist identity. A political path that was pioneered by Hizbullah of recasting its Islamist identity and goals within the constraints imposed by pluralist national politics is now being trodden by Hamas. Contrary to the oft-repeated claim that Hamas inflexibly seeks the complete conquest of Palestine and the expulsion of all Jews (aka “the destruction of Israel”), the movement has moved over time to explicitly endorse a generation-long truce with Israel and unspecified future political arrangements that will be the outcome of negotiations. Hamas leaders have been able to justify this shift within the Islamist concept of a hudna, but have also explicitly modeled their approach on that of other modern national liberation movements in Ireland, South Africa and Vietnam. The much condemned use of violence by Hamas and Hizbullah particularly suicide bombings had more in common with other nationalist movements facing foreign occupation, than deriving from any “Islamist” ideology, as University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape demonstrated in his book “Dying to Win.” Hizbullah has focused its military strategy on countering Israeli military might, retaliating against Israeli civilian areas only in response to Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians (as we saw in the July 2006 war). HAMAS unilaterally suspended its notorious campaign of suicide attacks on Israeli civilians more than two years ago, again following the pattern of other groups like the IRA that sought to enter a political process. HAMAS maintains this suspension despite escalating Israeli attacks and collective punishment against Palestinian civilians. Both movements are renowned for providing access to health, housing, jobs and income to the poorest segments of the communities from which they draw support. Anti-Islamist liberals understand this appeal, which is why a few have supported the U.S., Israeli and E.U. sanctions against HAMAS in Gaza to prevent it from providing for its people, while boosting support for Mahmoud Abbas’ Ramallah regime in the hope that it can buy back support and credibility. Yet the trump card of anti-Islamist liberals remains the claim that Islamist movements like HAMAS are uniquely oppressive to women, sticking to rigid ideologies which prescribe for them a subordinate role. Here their positions, if not their prescriptions, coincide with that of the Bush administration which cynically claimed that its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq with all their catastrophic consequences, were partly motivated out of a fervor to “free” the women of the region. (Ironically, as journalist Susan Faludi has noted, these claims were made while the “War on Terror” was simultaneously used by American conservatives as a cover to reassert a more virulent patriarchy at home). The claim that HAMAS should be opposed (while “strategic solidarity” should presumably be extended to other Palestinian factions more amenable to a so-called Western agenda) is based on a caricature of the movement’s changing gender ideologies and practices and ignores the achievements of the Islamist women’s movement in Palestine. Spectacular examples of the courageous and radical role Islamist women have played came last year when mass nonviolent actions by Palestinian women prevented Israeli air raids and extrajudicial executions in Gaza. But this is only the visible tip of the iceberg. As the work of Birzeit University professor Islah Jad has demonstrated, the Islamist women’s movement has played a major role in transforming HAMAS’ ideology about women, placing its demands at the center of internal debates, and in mobilizing women within HAMAS and in society at large to play greater political and economic roles (sixty percent of students at Gaza’s Islamic University, for example, are female). Islamist women have challenged Western feminist discourses that they deemed irrelevant to their circumstances and needs. They have contended with contradictions in Islamist thinking about the role of women that mirrored the unresolved contradictions that had long plagued the declining secular nationalist movement. At the same time, these Islamist women activists engaged positively with many of the claims made by secular feminists, incorporating them into an ever-changing Islamist nationalist discourse. Islamist women have emerged as an important factor in Palestinian political life partly as a result of the demobilization of the secular nationalist women’s movement as it became depoliticized, “NGOized,” professionalized, and detached from its grassroots. “There are traditions here that say that a woman should take a secondary role that she should be at the back,” said Jamila Shanti, one of HAMAS’ elected female members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, “But that is not Islam.” Speaking after the January 2006 election, but before the E.U., U.S. and Israeli effort to destroy the HAMAS government took hold, Shanti added, “HAMAS will scrap many of these traditions. You will find women going out and participating.”
Thus, the work of Islamist women, especially within Hamas, deserves to recognized, respected and engaged, not rendered invisible. This is where we have to look beyond caricatures and consider that for many of their adherents Islamist movements are attractive because they offer the hope of alternative forms of social organization that put the human being and the community, rather than the market and the consumer , at the center of life. In poor countries, neoliberal capitalism, extolled by Western aid donors and their organs such as the IMF and the World Bank as being the corollary of democracy, has meant in practice unaccountable oligarchy, the demolition of social welfare systems, public education, subsidies for basic necessities, and the flourishing of crony privatization on an epic scale. In many places, Islamist movements have attempted to fill the void. Hamas’ changing views on a long-term truce with Israel, on forms of resistance, and the role of women in society are examples of how an Islamist movement like any other social movement responds to the real circumstances of the society of which it is part. The dialogues that once intransigent colonial rulers and their foreign backers opened with the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, and Sinn Fein and the IRA in Northern Ireland that led eventually to peaceful transformations of those societies are the appropriate model for how to engage with movements like Hamas and Hizbullah today. Some argue that these cases offer no precedent because Irish nationalists and the ANC were always part of a unifying Christian, Western tradition. That is how they may be viewed in hindsight, but like Islamists, they too were once the objects of a dehumanizing civilizational discourse that cast them as irredeemably inferior, alien and beyond inclusion, thus justifying colonial control. And like the leaders of those movements before, HAMAS and Hizbullah have been reaching out, attempting to craft messages that can begin to close the seemingly unbridgeable gaps, paying careful attention to their own constituencies as well as their potential interlocutors. In HAMAS’ case these invitations came in a remarkable series of op-eds by its leaders published in English-language newspapers since January 2006 including The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Guardian. European and American governments have responded that any dialogue must be conditioned on HAMAS first accepting all of Israel’s demands, while Israel continues to have a free hand. Israel and its backers routinely dismiss HAMAS’ overtures as insincere. They wave about the 1988 HAMAS Charter which as current scholarship shows has little relevance or influence on actual HAMAS policies and thinking as an excuse never to talk. Israel’s propagandists used the same tactic for years with the PLO Charter (or “covenant” as they insisted on calling it). The increasing influence of mainstream Islamists also terrifies the existing establishments in the Palestine Authority and other Arab states, who in desperation to preserve their power, have joined the chorus of fear-mongering and repression and some have forged more or less open alliances with Israel. When broader conflict looms, fueled by the ideology of the clash of civilizations, and the American president drops casual, smirking references to World War III, a new approach is urgently needed. The European governments, for example, that speak to HAMAS in secret, but collude with the brutal sanctions against Gaza, out of fear of the United States, should break with their harmful and misguided policies. They should openly defy Washington and Tel Aviv and engage with Islamist movements in Lebanon and Palestine and more broadly, on equal terms. Since this change is unlikely in the short term, and the dangers are great, it is the role of progressives to support anti-colonial liberation movements without imposing their own agendas, to push for equal dialogue, to listen carefully to what Islamist movements are saying, and to expose and resist the efforts to demonize and dehumanize entire societies in preparation for new wars.
Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of “One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse,” (Metropolitan Books, 2006).