[News] Engaging Hamas and Hizballah

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Oct 29 13:19:31 EDT 2007

Engaging Hamas and Hizballah
Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, Oct 29, 2007

Palestinian supporters of Hamas wave Lebanon and Hamas flags during a 
rally backing Hizballah, Gaza City, August 2006. (Wesam 

Nothing could be easier in the present atmosphere than to accuse 
anyone who calls for recognition of and dialogue with Hamas, 
Hizballah 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." [1]

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 US- 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." [2] Similarly strident and dismissive claims have been made 
by a Washington-based pro-Palestinian advocacy group. [3]

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 Hizballah 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 Hizballah 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 Hizballah 
of recasting its Islamist identity and goals within the constraints 
imposed by pluralist national politics is now being trodden by Hamas. [4]

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. [5] 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. [6]

The much condemned use of violence by Hamas and Hizballah -- 
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. Hizballah 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 US, Israeli and EU 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). [7]

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. [8] 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. [9]

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. [10]

"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 EU, US 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." [11] 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 instransigent 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 
Hizballah 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 Hizballah 
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. [12] 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 Palestinian 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 
<http://electronicintifada.net/bytopic/store/548.shtml>One Country: A 
Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan 
Books, 2006).

[1] Arun Kundnani, "How liberals lost their anti-racism," 3 October 
2007, Institute for Race Relations. 
[2] "Palestine in the Age of Hamas: The Challenge of Progressive 
Solidarity," MADRE press release, 11 July 2007 
[3] See Osamah Khalil, "The politics of fear," The Electronic 
Intifada, 8 October 2007. 
[4] See: Azzam Tamimi, Hamas A History from Within (Olive Branch 
Press, 2007); Khaled Hroub, Hamas: A Beginner's Guide, (Pluto Press, 
2006); Khaled Hroub, Hamas: Political Thought and Practice, 
(Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000); Shaul Mishal and Avraham 
Sela, The Palestinian Hamas, (Columbia University Press, 2000).
[5] See in particular Tamimi, Chapter 7.
[6] See Ahmed Yousef, "Pause for Peace," The New York Times, 1 
November 2006; and Khaled Meshaal, "We shall never recognize ... a 
Zionist state on our soil," Los Angeles Times, 1 February 2006.
[7] Speaking about her new book The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in 
Post-9/11 America (Metropolitan Books, 2007) on Democracy Now!, 4 
October 2007 
[8] See "One woman killed, 16 injured in Israeli siege on Gaza 
mosque," The Electronic Intifada, 3 November 2006 
and Rami Almeghari, "Necessity is the Mother of Inventive Nonviolent 
Resistance," 21 November 2006, The Electronic Intifada 
[9] See Islah Jad, "Between Religion and Secularism: Islamist women 
of Hamas," in Fereshteh Nouraie-Simone (editor), On Shifting Ground: 
Muslim Women in the Global Era, (The Feminist Press at the City 
University of New York, 2005).
[10] See Islah Jad, "NGOs: between buzzwords and social movements," 
in Development in Practice, Volume 17, Numbers 4-5, August 2007.
[11] Alan Johnston, "Women ponder future under Hamas," BBC, 3 March 
[12] In addition to items cited in endnote [6] also see: Mousa Abu 
Marzook, "What Hamas Is Seeking," The Washington Post, 31 January 
2006; Abu Marzook, "Hamas' stand," Los Angeles Times, 10 July 2007; 
Abu Marzook, "Hamas is ready to talk: We welcome the call for 
dialogue, and reject insincere demands for an undemocratic boycott," 
The Guardian, 16 August 2007; Ahmed Yousef, "What Hamas Wants," The 
New York Times, 20 June 2007; Yousef, "Engage With Hamas; We Earned 
Our Support," The New York Times, 20 June 2007.

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