Hamas: Islamic Democracy and National Liberation

The Hamas election victory in January 2006 has led to an increased interest in the Islamic Resistance Movement. Hitherto little had been understood of Hamas’ history, political and social strategy and tactics. Rather rumors and cheap prejudice against Hamas have been rampant across the political spectrum in the West. Regrettably, progressives in the West have largely dodged the challenges of internationalism and anti-racism in the context of neo-colonialism’s racist campaign focused on Muslims and Islam, of which the maligning and criminalisation of Hamas is a component. Democrat-minded and progressive people who challenge the criminalisation of Hamas by the West, in so doing confront the Eurocentric idea that legitimacy is only bestowed upon those that the West consider democratic rather then what the people in the given country have chosen. This article seeks to demonstrate that Hamas’ ideology has as much claim to the values and practices of democracy and human rights as those political movements in the West. The difference is that these values are inspired and rooted in their own religious, cultural and social contexts.

The Oslo peace process failed to secure any lasting and just peace for the long-suffering and long-struggling Palestinians, thus creating the conditions in which Hamas came to the forefront of the Palestinian national struggle. Since the start of the Oslo process in the early 1990s Palestinians could see elements in the Fatah leadership living relatively opulent lives, involved in all kinds of moral and financial corruption and arresting and torturing Islamist. In stark contrast Hamas were proving increasingly popular due to their record of dedication to serving the people through their civil institutions, lack of financial corruption and frugal living of their leadership and being morally upright, all in accordance to their Islamic principles. The devastating suicide attacks inside Israel conducted by Hamas’ armed wing – the Al-Qassem Brigades – at a time when the negotiations were proving to be fruitless in deterring Israeli aggression also raised Hamas’ prestige as the defenders of the Palestinian people. This dedication to the people and struggle translated into electoral support. Hamas gained half of all votes in municipal elections by the time of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000.

Hamas withheld from participating in the presidential and national elections due to their opposition to Oslo, as they saw these elections as being an integral part of a process which they perceived as a sell-out to the Palestinian national revolution. Eventually in a historic decision they decided to stand in the 2006 elections, and even more momentous was the fact that they achieved a resounding victory at the polls.

Those interested in a more detailed analysis of Hamas’ election campaign should read Khaled Hroub’s study ‘A New Hamas through its New Documents’. Hroub states that documents issued at the time of the 2006 election campaign revealed that Hamas showed a greater commitment to unity of all Palestinian movements, a desire for a national government and a de-emphasis on Islamic rhetoric. In no way should this be interpreted meaning that Hamas abandoned its objectives of an Islamic state as the best solution for Palestinian society and liberation, but a recognition by Hamas that they must operate in a spirit of democratic tolerance and respect for other secular factions and the Palestinian electorate. Hroub also argues that these developments and documents of have been largely ignored in the West. This study is particularly pertinent at this time of national discord between Hamas and Fatah, with many portraying Hamas as ‘coupists’, Hroub’s study shows on the contrary that Hamas have for some time been calling for strategic unity amongst patriotic Palestinian ranks.

Hamas have their own Islamic strategic objectives, but they promote these by democratic and civil means. They have always maintained that the Palestinian people are the ones who have the final say on these issues by means of democratic elections. Dr Salah Bardawil leader of Hamas in southern Gaza said on this issue in the Arabic language Ashasrq al-Awsat on 30th January 2006: “ . . . Hamas has absolutely never and is absolutely not thinking of the enactment of any laws that impose Islamic teachings and force it upon society.” He said religious teachings are followed when they are accepted by the people “not when they are imposed by terrorizing and frightening”. He explained that the Palestinian people know of the lenient approach of Hamas which has resulted in the movement winning more Christian votes than some of the other secular movements and considered the accusations that Hamas were planning religious coercion to be “a wide propaganda campaign that national, international and Israeli sides are engaged in, in order to disfigure the movements image.”

Hamas’ commitment to democracy is nothing new. Ever since its inception Hamas has expressed its commitment to the democratic will of the people no matter what their decision. The paraplegic leader of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin who was killed by an Israeli air strike in March 2004 stated back in 1989 in the Arabic language daily Al-Nahar: ”I want a multiparty democratic state, and I want whomever wins those elections to assume power.” When asked by the interviewer if this would still be the case if the Communist Party were to win the elections Sheikh Yassin replied “I would respect the wishes of the Palestinian people even if the Communist Party won.”

Tensions did exist between Hamas and other factions, and one should not cover-up or forget the political and cultural nature of the internal tensions that have always existed within the Palestinian national camp. There have been many cases of violent clashes between Hamas, Fatah and other factions such as the Popular Front and Democratic Front. These tensions are not always a simple case of over-zealous Islamist youth attacking those whose only crime is that they are secularists as the following anecdote illustrates.

A Palestinian political leader of a Marxist faction was often seen drunk in the streets in Gaza during the first Intifada. He was brutally attacked by Hamas youth in the first Intifada which left him hospitalized in a critical condition for weeks. He stated however that he held no grudges against Hamas and even sympathized with their actions as he felt that his behavior was unacceptable at a time when the whole community was making immense sacrifices. This is reminiscent of the scene in the film Battle of Algiers when a group of around twenty children of the Casbah attack the local drunk and expel him from the community. In a time of mass struggle, especially in a society which frowns upon such behavior at the best of times, liberation movements often take harsh although popular measures to ensure social cohesion and unity within the community.

Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, which the West and Israel hoped would do their job of repression against the Palestinian revolutionaries for them, Hamas were being detained, tortured and at times killed by the PA, but they never resorted to revenge attacks. The leadership always held back from the rank and file’s occasional demands of retribution against the PA and Fatah. Hamas has shown a remarkable amount of patience throughout its years of existence, especially as they have been treated as a veritable enemy within by the Palestinian Authority dominated by Fatah. Hamas activists and fighters, along with those of other factions, were routinely jailed and tortured by the PA, although such was their strength and support amongst the masses, Arafat always referred to Hamas as brothers in the struggle and held back from a complete crackdown. A similar situation of repression and arbitrary arrests by Fatah against Hamas activists is taking place today in the West Bank. While Fatah and other opposition forces are generally allowed to demonstrate hold rallies and meetings in Hamas-ruled Gaza, in the Fatah controlled West Bank Fatah has arrested scores of Hamas activists, with Hamas accusing Fatah of torturing many of these detainees.

Back in 2006 after winning the elections Hamas requested Fatah and other factions to join them in a unity government. Hamas leader Mesh’al was quoted on the Palestinian Information Centre website when he addressed Fatah; “Be with us, and don’t abandon political partnership. Our hearts are open for you; our hands are extended to you. Let us turn a new page, and work together for the best of our people based on mutual respect and cooperation. We are one people, united in the resistance, and must unite in the political arena as well.”

The English-language Al-Jazeera website reported that newly elected Palestinian Prime Minister and Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah emphasized Hamas’ desire for unity in the Palestinian patriotic camp, again highlighting Hamas’ aspirations of unity with the other largest Palestinian movement; “Hamas ran in the race on the basis of political multiplicity. We don’t deal with the political issues based on one party coming into power and another leaving. We want to come and work with each other because the challenges in front of Palestinians are so big and the war with the occupation still going on.”

Even now after Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, Hamas continue to call on Fatah in joining them to build a joint Palestinian government and political leadership. Far from reciprocating, Abbas and the group around him have decided to ally closer to Israel and the West in an attempt to strangle and starve the Palestinian people away from Hamas. There is no indication that this ploy is bearing any fruits. While Abbas is widely seen as participating in inappropriately convivial meetings with Olmert while Gaza is labeled a ‘enemy entity’ by Israel, many commentators are remarking that far from gaining support from Palestinians, Abbas will be seen as a Judas to the national cause. One can only guess as to what Abbas thinks he has to gain in pursuing this strategy.

Some who thought Hamas were going to enact an intolerant and stereotypical religious fundamentalist society have been disappointed by events in Gaza. They haven’t enforced a Taliban style regime; on the contrary, their leadership often state that this is not in their line of thinking. Possibly confounding another prejudice against the movement, some may be surprised to know that Hamas women have been developing their political leadership in championing women’s rights in the struggle for liberation and in the context of their Islamic principles.

During the time of the Palestinian elections in January 2006 the Hamas aligned PIC website stated, “The Palestinian woman must assume her real role. It is high time that society appreciated the extent of her sacrifices and jihad.” The article went on to explain that Hamas will give women their role in the Legislative Council be side by side with men in the struggle against the occupation. The article continued: “Hamas will seek to pass legislation to protect women and their rights. Hamas will resist any attempts to marginalize the role of women.”

After Hamas’ election victory The Guardian in 2006 ran two articles, one written by Hamas MP Jameela al-Shanti writing from Beit Hanoun in Gaza, and another written by Chris McGreal in Bureij refugee camp in Gaza. In the article entitled ‘Women MPs vow to change face of Hamas’ Al-Shanti argued passionately of how unarmed women, including herself, faced an Israeli assault on their community which saw the killing of many Palestinian men women and children, including her own sister-in-law, a mother of eight. She said defiantly that her peoples struggle for freedom will not be surrendered for a handful of rice. McGreal wrote about the struggle of Palestinian women in Hamas that sought to change the face of Hamas, reporting that the movement comprised of new women Palestinian leaders who are confident, intelligent and resilient and are challenging sexual discrimination in Palestinian society, discrimination which is not a product of Islam, they contended, but of outmoded traditions.

The writer has met one female Gaza resident who graduated from the Islamic University and whose lecturers included Hamas leaders Abdel Aziz Rantisi (assassinated by hellfire missiles launched from an Israeli Apache helicopter on April 17 2004) and Mahmoud al-Zahar. She was a proficient student and confident student organizer. Hamas students tried to get her to join the Hamas affiliated student organisation, but she refused as she did not share all of Hamas’ views. Recognizing her abilities they nevertheless helped her to set-up a new independent student body with her initiative. This is an anecdotal example of how Hamas is able to act in a democratic manner in developing peoples’ contribution to Palestinian struggle and society.

These positions of Hamas on the role of women in society and struggle also distinguishes the movement from the radical Islamist movements who are affiliated or openly sympathetic to Al-Qaeda who do not expound any social role for women in society and in the struggle for independence, but rather encourage women to withdraw from society. This perhaps can be understood in some instances as being more a result of the influence of tribal culture such as in Afghanistan, and in the context of brutal wars such as in Iraq where women often bear the brunt of the ensuing social calamities which occupation brings. The Palestinians in contrast are an example of a people enduring a decades-long military occupation and protracted civil and armed struggle, in which the women in the Islamic Resistance movements of Hamas, as well as in Islamic Jihad, have a social role in the community, society and in the struggle encouraged by these Islamist political parties.

Hamas’ political ideology and practice is one that shares many principles with Western democratic and progressive ideas. Instead of being inspired by the secular democratic, bourgeois and socialist traditions of the Western context, Hamas is inspired by similar principles in the cultural context and traditions of Arab and Islamic history. One should bear in mind that the political ideologies which are leading the struggle for independence and progress in the Middle East are doing so in the context of more than a century of brutal colonial and neo-colonial oppression, whereas the democratic and left-wing ideas in the West have developed out of a privileged intellectual atmosphere on the basis of a society which has stolen all of the America’s gold, exterminated indigenous populations on two continents, and ‘turned Africa into a warren for the hunting of black skins’.

We in the West must accept that secularism is not going to become a leading political force in the Middle East any time soon, due not least in part as it was brought to the region by colonialists. Arab and Muslim people, and by many more across the world who desire independence from US hegemony, see in the West many social and moral conditions that they don’t want to emulate but which Westerners often see as examples of the superiority of their societies. People around the world are developing their own political identities from their own cultural and political roots. Morales, Chavez, Lebanese Hizbullah and Hamas are a few such examples. In the process of developing these indigenous movements, there is a move away from the uniform cultural and political forms of Western secular and Marxist models. However it must be stressed that there remain universal principles that these liberation ideologies and Western democratic and progressive ideas share, and there exists the possibility of developing mutual respect, solidarity and unity between the two. This dialogue and solidarity is jeopardized by the twin problems and challenges of Eurocentric prejudice and Western oppression of Third World peoples.

Sukant Chandan is London-based freelance journalist and political analyst. He runs two blogs, one of which is O.U.R.A.I.M. He can be contacted at: sukant.chandan@gmail.com. Read other articles by Sukant, or visit Sukant's website.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Jonathan said on October 16th, 2007 at 9:31am #

    The author’s analysis makes a serious error in ignoring the impact of the Cold War on the development of Islamicist movements in general, and Hamas in particular. The capitalistist West spent decades nuturing and allying itself with Islamist forces as a bullwork against communism and socialism. At the same time, ruthless oppression of, and extermination of, the left was encouraged and supported by the imperialist powers.

    The combination of the imperailism’s Cold War policies were devastatingly effective. These policies trace back to the allignment with the Saudi government, run through the backing of Osama Bin Ladin and the international Jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and include crucial support for Hamas in it’s early years.

    This created special conditions in which reactionary religious movements could pose themselves as progressive liberation movements.

    Leftists who chose to allign themselves with Islamist forces do so at their own peril. They should be aware that, while they may not be clear on whether Islamists are friends or foes, the Islamists don’t have that problem. They’ll allow leftist to ally with them on terms the Islamists define when it suits their short term interests, but will exterminate the left when they get the chance. Be forewarned!

  2. gerald spezio said on October 16th, 2007 at 10:12am #

    Among the very best and most succinct discussions of the tragedy of Palestine and hope of Hamas on the net.

  3. Morgaan Sinclair said on October 16th, 2007 at 3:03pm #

    Only somebody who has NO CLUE what is going on over there could possibly write this insane essay.

    First, WHAT Islamic democracy??? You want to get a grip here? Only Turkey comes even close. Saudi Arabia ranks just behind North Korea (the Borg) in human rights. In at least one of the four major schools of fiqh (you know what a madhab is, right?), circumcism is COMPULSORY for women. Belying the socialist ideal, a woman’s testimony is worth 1/2 that of a man, her dead body worth as much as a man’s LEG, her inheritance rights a fraction if there are any at at all. If a woman and a man are caught committing adultery, he gets 100 lashes and she gets stoned to death. How’s that for democracy???? You like that??? You MUST be a man! Of course, in real, good, sturdy, exemplary socialism it’s a MAN’s WORLD, right???

    If you care anything about the children of this world, it is very much time to declare that ONLY when the Palestinians show us a constitution where women are equal in all rights to men (including protection under the law from being burned to death if there are too many girls in the family), do not have an enforced dress code, cannot be raped with impunity— and where Christians and Jews are as well protected as Muslims are in Israel (there are a million Muslims there who don’t want to leave … and it’s the only place the refugees from Darfur can go and be safe).

    When they give us that and mean it, then, maybe then they should get a country. If they get one BEFORE then, you’ve got Saudi Arabia. Period.

    And the kids? Is this what you’d like to have done to YOUR kids??? Watch this, and then tell me we have a good little Islamic democratic republic in the making, since AL MEDIA IN PALESTINE IS RUN BY THE GOVERNMENT AND THIS IS THE SHIT YOU GET.


  4. Joseph Anderson said on October 16th, 2007 at 5:08pm #

    I just automatically skip whatever jaime writes because I might as well read what a member of the KKK writes (Zionism being ‘Jewish Jim Crowism’, and clearly (as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have remarked) Jewish/Israeli Apartheid, and Zionist leaders being ‘Jewish David Dukes’).

    But not being familiar with Morgaan Sinclair (October 16th, 2007 at 3:03 pm), who is, I see, just a jaime clone (or alias?), I did first read a line or two of Sinclair’s post until it descended into hilarious polemical caricature: ah, it turned out to be good for a quick laugh this workday afternoon. Do you take that comedy routine on the road to the New York Adirondacks “Borscht Belt” clubs, Morgaan?


    Lest anyone forget…









    (Btw, there was even a Ha’aretz story, one time, about how a PALESTINIAN man saved a Jewish woman from being CHASED, STONED and CHAINED by Orthodox Rabbis in Jerusalem for wearing “immodest attire”.)


    (I know even from personal experience: I used to gladly be one for one of my close former Jewish female roommates back in college that I had a big thing for! [Smile])





    (Btw, it’s usually _some_ African Muslims, usually in backwards, rural parts of certain countries, rather than Arab/Persian Muslims, who tend to engage in the female circumcision that occurs. And, unfortunately, it’s usually African Muslim women, relatives, there who conduct it.)

    And Morgaan, if you care about innocent Palestinian children [or for that matter Lebanese children] so much, then why don’t you tell the IDF to stop *shooting* them for sport, or bombing them and, at least, their mothers in their very own homes [or air raid shelters] — well, those that you haven’t ethnically cleansed away, anyway.

    Finally, Morgaan, I forgot: did Israel’s Zionist founders exclude *Christian* Palestinians from those Zionists ethnic cleansing operations of between (even what Israeli historians now admit — some, like Benny Morris, proudly admit) 750,000-1,000,000 Palestinians, especially in 1947 and 1948 alone?

    And, didn’t Israel originally *SUPPORT* Hamas and allow it to freely operate when Israel was attacking/banning the PLO?


  5. Joseph Anderson said on October 16th, 2007 at 5:24pm #

    OH…, Morgaan Sinclair (said on October 16th, 2007 at 3:03 pm)!:


  6. sk said on October 16th, 2007 at 5:48pm #

    More on the “Middle East Peace Process”.

  7. Joseph Anderson said on October 16th, 2007 at 6:01pm #

    Jonathan said on October 16th, 2007 at 9:31 am: “Leftists who chose to allign themselves with Islamist forces do so at their own peril. They should be aware that, while they may not be clear on whether Islamists are friends or foes, the Islamists don’t have that problem. They’ll allow leftist to ally with them on terms the Islamists define when it suits their short term interests, but will exterminate the left when they get the chance. Be forewarned!”

    Jonathan, Hamas (nor Hezbollah in Lebanon) clearly does not operate that way. It has a track record — which is why they won the elections. Or do you nonetheless choose to ignore that in the article and in their history for some ‘backdoor’ (Zionist?) reason?

    If the choice is between supporting Anglo-American imperialism or even the Islamic resistance (not all of which is fundamentalist) — I’ll support the Islamic resistance, because until the U.S./Israel stops militarily attacking or being a threat to or those countries (which is why I would heartily support Iran getting nuclear weapons) — until the imperialists are forced out — no progress can take place in those societies. (One can see that between North & South Korean moves toward diplomatic normalization and the re-uniting of WWII families: when North Korea doesn’t have to worry about *constant* existential military threats from the U.S., it will feel safe enough to engage in such discussions.)

    It was the U.S. that turned Islamic fundamentalism into “a world power” anyway. It was the U.S. and the British that overthrew democracy in Iran — which led to the Shah, which led to the Ayatollah. The Mideast wouldn’t be in the mess that it’s in, as far as oppressive regimes, if it weren’t for the U.S. and the British supporting those regimes (including the racist Zionist regime) in the first place. And whether certain governments/parties are Islamic or not, they –and moreso the men, women and children in those countries– still have a right to exist without their countries being militarily invaded, untold thousands killed, made homeless, medically destroyed, bombed to ruins, colonized, and their country wholesale privitized by the U.S..

    Bin Laden had at least five top demands: NONE of them involved religion, and MILLIONS of people around the world would agree with those top five demands — people who would NEVER fly passenger planes into Western skyscraperes.

    It’s interesting: the U.S. doesn’t particularly care whether its FRIENDS are dictatorial, but demands that it’s ENEMIES are democratic.

    It was Malcolm X (who was Muslim too) who asked about the U.S. government: “DEMOCRACYor *HYPOCRISY*?”

    Joseph Anderson

    Berkeley, CA

  8. Michael Kenny said on October 17th, 2007 at 9:31am #

    The only thought that crosses my mind is that Mr Chandran’s article is overly defensive and apologetic and as such, it almost proves the opposite point to the one he is trying to make. Hamas won the Palestinian election in accordance with European standards of democracy and there is no need to apologise for it.

    By the way, always bear in mind the gap between European and American interests in the area. The EU doesn’t like the US position on Hamas and spends most of its time trying to get around it, notwithstanding the power which the US stranglehold on the world economy gives it over Europe. That may be a bit less obvious viewed from London than from elsewhere on the continent, but it is very real and the Iranians, for example, have exploited it to their advantage.

  9. jaime said on October 20th, 2007 at 8:52am #

    Hey what happened to the Hamas charter posted here several days ago? Why shouldn’t readers compare what it has to say with the above?

    A roadmap for peacefl co-existence it isn’t. Oh, I forgot. This is a Hamas board.


    ….article Twenty-Two:

    For a long time, the enemies (JEWS) have been planning, skillfully and with precision, for the achievement of what they have attained. They took into consideration the causes affecting the current of events. They strived to amass great and substantive material wealth which they devoted to the realisation of their dream. With their money, they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations, and others. With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests. With their money they were able to control imperialistic countries and instigate them to colonize many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there.

  10. Mike McNiven said on October 21st, 2007 at 4:27am #

    Are we still speaking English here? How did the editors allow “Islamic Democracy” in the Title? It is like saying “Theocratic Democracy”!
    Either we are listenning to the “Theo” or the “Demo” , both of them at the same time is impossible! Isn’t that what we tried to tell Ronald Reagan? Should we expect new articles with titles as “Jewish Democracy” or “Christian Democracy” to follow?

  11. jaime said on October 21st, 2007 at 8:29am #

    Mike, the simple answer is that it is the will of DV management to soft-pedal a terror organization.

  12. AJ Nasreddin said on October 21st, 2007 at 8:56am #

    I liked it when Plato said Democracy was the rule of the mob who could be easily manipulated by the rich and powerfull. But then there are many kinds of Democracy – as different as The People’s Democratic China to the good ol’ US of A (which really calls itself a Republic – ie elites ruling the poor and often stupid masses – a lot like ancient Rome on which America was modeled).

    Something like “Islamic Democracy” has been floating about for years and years – simply because in Islam there is something called “shura” which is a group of experts of different fields to help the caliph make rulings. I think people every where would prefer experts to greedy pigs for making laws. Wouldn’t you feel better about your hambergers knowing that a health expert was making sure your food was clean instead of a money-for-all politician?

    Still – most people I know who have been in contact with Hamas say it’s more like a really bad Godfather film than a flowering democracy.