Why the Hamas Problem Goes Beyond the Military Realm

Massimo Introvigne on What Drives the Fundamentalist Movement

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TURIN, Italy, AUG. 25, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The religious factor cannot be overlooked when it comes to analyzing the fundamentalist movement Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, says a researcher.

Maximo Introvigne, director of the Center of Studies on New Religions, shared his views of Hamas, in the wake of last Tuesday’s attack against a bus in Jerusalem that left 20 people dead, including six children.

Introvigne is author of many books, including «Hamas: Fondamentalismo islamico e terrorismo suicida in Palestina» (Hamas: Islamic Fundamentalism and Suicidal Terrorism in Palestine), published by Elledici.

Q: What exactly is the Hamas movement?

Introvigne: Hamas is part of a great international galaxy, Muslim fundamentalism, which influences millions of people.

Hamas is a Palestinian branch of the Muslim fundamentalist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. In 1954, Egyptian President Nasser declared them illegal and persecuted them, a fact which resulted in a marked internal division.

On one hand, there is a radical current that is faithful to the Leninist formula of the coup d’état. On the other, there is a neo-traditionalist current, which tries to pursue Islamization at the grass roots. It is a kind of Gramsciesque view [of Antonio Gramsci], which hopes to take power but first wants to win over the society, organizing Muslim labor unions, Muslim schools, Muslim newspapers.

In 1957, the directorship of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine aligned itself with the neo-traditionalist position, ceased all military activity, stopped organizing attacks, and dedicated itself to redouble the number of mosques present in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

It built a network of fundamentalist institutions village by village, and neighborhood by neighborhood. Between 1957 and 1987, there was armed and terrorist activity in Palestine linked to the lay nationalists of Fatah and other components of the PLO.

However, the intifada broke out in 1987, at a moment of weakness of the PLO. Then, the Muslim Brotherhood declared that the neo-traditionalist operation had been successful and that a radical phase could begin of the armed struggle. The Muslim network is strong throughout Palestine. Hamas forged a word there which means «fervor» and which, at the same time, is the acronym of the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Q: Is it bold to describe Hamas as a religious movement?

Introvigne: No, in fact, we can define it as that. Often, in the West, the error is made of regarding religious phenomena as superstructures. It is a legacy of the Marxist analysis. Clearly, there are multiple causes in all complex phenomena, and economic, political and religious motives are intertwined. However, in the case of Hamas, religion is a determinant element.

If we read its statute, we see how the objective of this organization is to transform Palestine into an Islamic state, that is, rule by the Shariah [Islamic law] in view of a reunification of the whole Muslim world in the Caliphate – but with a specificity, announced in Article 14: The liberation of Palestine is an obligation for every Muslim, no matter what country he lives in.

For Hamas, the Palestinian question is not one of many along with Chechnya, Kashmir and others. It is the central question, and not just for political but also for theological reasons.

Q: Would it be utopian to think that Hamas could disappear altogether from the Palestinian Territories?

Introvigne: Yes. The fact is that between members and sympathizers it numbers hundreds of thousands of people. The solution to the problem of Hamas cannot be only military.

Q: Does Hamas use religion to justify terrorism?

Introvigne: In Muslim fundamentalism’s view of the world, there is no difference between politics and religion. What is more, to state that they are different is considered a typically Western prejudice which fundamentalists regard as foreign to Islamic tradition.

Hamas pays much attention to overcoming objections, according to which suicide is against Islam and, therefore, suicide attacks would not be licit for a Muslim. Hamas answers that it is not about suicide but about martyrdom, and it finds similar figures in the fundamentalist galaxy to support its reasoning.
It might be disagreeable to say that Hamas’ suicide terrorist is motivated by religion. But it is so. It is quite an error to consider them only as being manipulated or as people hiding economic motives.

An analysis of the socioeconomic profile of those who have chosen martyrdom shows that their level, whether power of acquisition or education, is higher than the average for Palestinians. What is more, two of the terrorists were part of the upper middle class.

It is the ideology, or rather the religion, which drives them. It is not only despair.

Q: Are there kamikaze women in Hamas?

Introvigne: The truth is that, until now, women have not taken part in Hamas attacks. The movement does not exclude the theoretical possibility of this happening. Women have committed suicide in Palestine, but they formed part of the al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, a secular and nationalist formation.

Hamas states that its theology does not impede the martyrdom of women and, in fact, it exalts the women of the Chechen fundamentalist movements who have carried out suicide attacks.

Rather, it mentions difficulties of a practical character, for example, according to Hamas, women who were to go to Israel would have to go covered by the veil, and this would allow the police to readily identify them.

Hamas states that there are many more Palestinian youths of masculine sex who ask to become martyrs than it can accept. So, then, the problem of women is not of concern for the time being.

Q: Could Hamas put down the weapons and negotiate at the political level?

Introvigne: If we limit ourselves to reading Hamas’ statute — a document that asserts the perennial struggle until the Israelis are expelled to the sea — the answer would be negative. Hamas has always been able to combine the poetry of rhetoric with the prose of reality.

Hamas is not a monolith and within it there are more pragmatic currents, especially a part of the leaders of the West Bank, which in this aspect is different from Qatar.

To imagine a peace process which considers Fatah, or in general the «lay» components of the Palestinian world, as the only interlocutor and which excludes the religious parties completely, is not reasonable.

One of the great challenges is to find within it interlocutors prepared to talk about peace, or at least about a truce or the giving up of terrorism.

The West at times is victim of a sort of «Voltaire syndrome,» according to which, the best interlocutor of the Arab world is the most secular and least religious. But interlocutors without religious roots in countries of Muslim majority often have little popular following.

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