How Islamism destroyed the Palestinian movement
Hamas has killed off any prospect of self-determination.
How did we reach a point where so many Western leftists see Hamas as a ‘progressive’ movement? Its terrorist slaughter of 1,200 Israelis and others on 7 October is already being downplayed or forgotten entirely. Meanwhile, few mention Hamas’s intolerance towards political opposition, its curtailment of women’s rights, its criminalisation of homosexuality or its persecution of Christians. Human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was even barred from the anti-Israel march in London on Armistice Day for a placard that criticised Hamas.
Then there’s the fact that genocidal anti-Semitism is a core part of Hamas’s doctrine. Islamists, including Hamas, see themselves as locked in a cosmic struggle against ‘Jewish evil’. This is a key theme in Hamas’s 1988 covenant – a document it has never rescinded. The 7 October pogrom, and Hamas’s promise to repeat the massacre again and again, is entirely consistent with this anti-Semitic outlook.
Yet, despite all this, opinion polls suggest that many Westerners, particularly young adults, are sympathetic towards Hamas. A Harvard / Harris poll conducted within just two weeks of the 7 October attack suggested that 48 per cent of 18- to 24-year-old Americans side more with Hamas than Israel in the conflict. Polls like this should be treated with caution, but it’s still a shocking finding.
Part of the reason for this apologism for Hamas is that far too many in the West seem to think Hamas is fighting for the liberation of Palestine. That it is, in short, a national-liberation movement, in keeping with the tradition of 20th-century anti-colonial struggles. That’s why some self-styled left-wingers have even hailed Hamas as a ‘resistance’ movement in the global struggle against Western imperialism. This profoundly misunderstands the nature of Hamas’s Islamist beliefs, as well as Islamism’s relationship to nationalism.
Nationalism, at least in its ideal form, is liberal, democratic and secular. Islamism is the antithesis of all this. It is opposed to liberal freedoms, opposed to democracy and enveloped in obscurantist religious mysticism. It is also deeply cynical about the nation state as a form of political organisation. Instead, its goal is the creation of an international ‘nizam Islami’ (Islamic order). The imposition of Sharia (Islamic law) is central to this process. Islamism is a totalitarian movement, which seeks the domination of those who live under its rule. And it slates all those who stand in its way for destruction.
Anti-Semitism and antipathy to the nation state are closely linked in Islamist thought. As Bassam Tibi, a Syrian German political scientist, notes: ‘In the ideology of Islamism, the introduction of the nation state is perceived as a Jewish conspiracy to undermine Islam.’ (1)
To understand the rise of Islamism in the Palestinian context, it is important to look at the role played by Egypt. There are three key reasons for this. Firstly, Egypt is by far the most populous Arab nation, accounting for about a quarter of the total population of the 22 Arab League states. Secondly, it borders Israel and Gaza, and even directly controlled the Gaza strip between 1949 and 1967. Thirdly, Egypt is the birthplace of Islamism.
The first Islamist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan), was founded in Egypt in 1928. This was an attempt at building a popular Islamic movement as opposed to the top-down Islamic regimes of various Arab desert sheikhdoms. Hamas is just one of many Islamist groups that have evolved out of the Muslim Brotherhood. As the Hamas covenant itself puts it, Hamas ‘is one of the wings of Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine’. It adds that the ‘Muslim Brotherhood Movement is a universal organisation which constitutes the largest Islamic movement in modern times’. Therefore, Hamas is not a Palestinian national organisation – it is the Palestinian branch of an international Islamist grouping.
Since the end of the Second World War, Islamist movements have gradually supplanted radical nationalist movements in the Middle East. This development has not been straightforward. The largely secular nationalist movements of old often embraced religious elements (2). And there were significant differences between the forms that nationalism and Islamism took from country to country. Nevertheless, in broad terms, the direction of travel over the past 75 years has been from nationalism to Islamism.
You can see this trajectory clearly in Egypt. In the 1950s, it was ruled by a former army officer, Gamal Abdel Nasser, under the banner of pan-Arabism (also called Arab nationalism). Although it was far from a shining beacon of democracy, Egypt back then was relatively secular and forward-looking. Nasser’s priority was to turn Egypt into a modern economically developed nation, with state ownership of key sectors of the economy central to his strategy.
Another crucial component of Arab nationalism was an emphasis on alliance-building with other Arab nations. Having only recently thrown off the shackles of colonial rule, these new nation states had little legitimacy. Clubbing together offered a degree of security. It was in this context that Egypt and Syria announced the creation of the United Arab Republic in 1958, although differences between the two parties led to its collapse in 1961. Still, this brief union spoke of the broader aspiration towards closer alliances between Arab nation states.
In the 1950s, the question of Palestine and Israel was generally viewed in this pan-Arab context. There was no distinct Palestinian nationalist movement until the mid-1960s, and it was widely assumed that Egypt would lead the war that would liberate Palestine. As Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese American professor, notes, ‘it had been accepted that the hope for doing something for the Palestinians rested on Nasser and his army’ (3).
This hope culminated in the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and the surrounding Arab states, led by Egypt and backed by Jordan and Syria. The war marked a watershed in Middle Eastern politics. After multiple threats from Egypt, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike on Egyptian airfields and other facilities. In less than a week, the Israeli army humiliated the Arab states, routing their forces. This defeat at the hands of Israel was experienced as a defeat for pan-Arabism more broadly.
The Six-Day War transformed the politics of the region. According to Bassam Tibi, ‘that defeat created a crisis of legitimacy in the Arab world and marked the beginning of the decline of secularism and the concomitant rise of the religionised politics of Islam’ (4).
Palestinian nationalists were the first beneficiaries of the post-1967 environment. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had been founded in 1964, but it did not really take off until after the Six-Day War. In the Arab world, the Palestinian movement was widely regarded as being at the vanguard of a broader pan-Arab struggle. If the radical Arab regimes could not bring Arab unity then, so the PLO’s supporters argued, maybe the Palestinians could.
The potentially radicalising effect of the Palestinian movement frightened the Arab regimes. The Jordanian state, fearful of the response of its majority Palestinian population, fought a brutal civil war with the PLO in 1970, which culminated in the expulsion of PLO forces. In Lebanon in the mid-1970s, a range of indigenous groups similarly opposed the PLO’s presence there. This led to Syria launching a bloody intervention in Lebanon in order to quell radical Palestinian elements.
By the mid-1970s, the Arab regimes had already neutered the broader Palestinian threat. At a summit in Rabat in 1974, they agreed to recognise the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In return, the PLO promised not to interfere in the internal affairs of the Arab regimes.
It was in the context of pan-Arabism’s defeat in the Six-Day War, and Arab nations’ subsequent moves against Palestinian radicalism, that Islamism began to grow. The Muslim Brotherhood, long a relatively marginal grouping, became a substantial force during the 1970s.
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who had succeeded Nasser after his death in 1970, began to make concessions to Islamism. As Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics, puts it, Sadat ‘made a fundamental decision to wrap himself in religious garb and shed the Nasserist legacy’ (5). Although Sadat was essentially an Egyptian nationalist, he wanted to make a clear break from the earlier pan-Arabist era. This included taking a more lenient view towards the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood. He ended up paying for his leniency towards Islamism in October 1981, when he was assassinated by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a militant terrorist group.
Hamas was founded at the start of the first ‘intifada’ (uprising) against Israel in December 1987. This uprising was initially a popular movement that arose independently of the Palestinian nationalist leadership. In retrospect, this shows that the PLO was already starting to lose support among the Palestinian population, who were clearly losing faith in its strategy of combining terrorist attacks against Israeli targets with diplomacy.
By the mid-2000s, Hamas was in the ascendancy. In 2005, Israel decided to unilaterally withdraw soldiers and settlers from the Gaza strip. The following year, Hamas won a large majority of parliamentary seats in the Palestinian legislative elections, although with fewer than half (44 per cent) of the votes cast. The following year, Hamas purged nationalist elements of the Palestinian opposition by either executing, expelling or imprisoning them. There have been no elections in Gaza since.
As things stand, Islamist groups, including Hamas, seem to be in the process of attempting to take over the Palestinian-populated areas of the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the West Bank and is controlled by nationalists, is widely seen as corrupt and ineffective. A power struggle between Islamists and nationalists is expected to break out into the open once the PA’s president, 88-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, dies. No elections have been held since he was elected into office in 2005.
Hamas, however, is only one part of the story when it comes to Islamism in the region. It is all too often forgotten that Israel also faces another related Islamist threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran and its allies. The most notable of these are Hezbollah, a formidable political and military force in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen. Iran has frequently threatened to destroy the Jewish State and Hezbollah has threatened to repeat the 7 October massacre on a much larger scale. The Houthis are also virulent anti-Semites. Having demanded that all remaining Jews leave Yemen in 2015, they are reportedly holding the last Yemeni Jew in detention and torturing him.
Both Hezbollah and the Houthis have launched missiles at Israel in recent weeks. Although these attacks have received relatively little attention, owing to the focus on Gaza, Hezbollah actually poses a far greater military threat to Israel than Hamas. According to reports, it currently has 200,000 rockets aimed at Israel.
Iran shares some common features with Egypt. Until the overthrow of the Shah in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it was autocratic but relatively secular, with the power of religious leaders, the mullahs, generally kept in check. In the early 1970s, it would have been common to see Iranian women in Western-style dress. It was only when Iran became an Islamic republic that it became compulsory, under the threat of strict penalties, for women to wear clothing to disguise their figures.
Islamism thrived in Iran under strong Egyptian influence. That Egypt is an Arab country and its branch of Islam predominantly Sunni, while Iran is non-Arab and Shiite, has not impeded Islamism’s rise there. Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, has even translated four books by Sayyid Qutb, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, into Farsi.
In line with Islamist ideology, Iran has sought to extend its influence by backing Islamist groups in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Yemen. Its goal is to create a kind of Islamist international that will transcend its own borders.
Of course, nationalist leaders, such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, do still exist in the Middle East. But they tend to be more muted and defensive than they were in the mid-20th century. Across the region, Islamism is thriving amid the long-term defeat of secular nationalism.
This is deeply troubling. Islamism is, by its very nature, hostile to democratic rights and nation states. It brooks no dissent. Islamists’ ultimate aim is to replace the nation states in the Middle East with an Islamist international order. Above all, Islamism has fostered a genocidal hatred of Jews.
Those who still mistake Islamist groups like Hamas for a national-liberation movement are in for a rude awakening.
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