Hamas as a Revolutionary Movement

Abstract: This paper describes and compares Hamas with other revolutionary movements in the past. Of note are the movements which led the French and American Revolutions. The writer outlines the similarities between these movements with Hamas through analogy and rigorous references to their content. He questions the attitude of accepting these movements by Western political theorists but their inability to use similar criteria in their understanding of Hamas. The author ends the article by pointing out that criticism raised by Islam against Western values is nothing new as even evangelical groups are doing the same. The Hamas victory in the January 2006 legislative elections should be used by the movement to deliver good governance for the success of their social agenda.

There is a perhaps apocryphal — if symbolic story — of the appearance of Hamas leader Abd Al-Aziz Al-Rantisi at the headquarters of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who had just arrived in Gaza from Tunis to take the reins of the still nascent Palestinian government. Arafat was buoyed by the Oslo Accords, and by his political resuscitation, after years of exile. Still, it was apparent to his closest friends that their old comrade-in-arms was becoming increasingly alienated from the responsibilities the Oslo agreement had placed on him. He was in a foul mood. “He now found himself to be simply the mayor of Gaza,” one of his aides is said to have remarked. So it was perhaps predictable that the bespectacled and scholarly looking Rantisi was kept waiting outside of Arafat’s office, an insult that he did not take lightly, though his pride kept him from complaining.

When Arafat finally called Rantisi in for their meeting, the PLO leader was seated imperiously behind his desk. There was no doubt that he had little regard for Rantisi, though the two had communicated through the years. When it was apparent that Arafat would not come out from behind his desk to greet the Hamas leader (yet another insult, though one to which Arafat’s aides had grown accustomed), Rantisi began to shout and wag his finger at him. His speech, accusing Arafat of “treachery” and “treason” could be heard in the hallway outside of Arafat office. “You have sold out the Palestinian people,” Rantisi railed. “You should be put on trial. You should be chased from office.” Rantisi’s speech, it is said, went on for many minutes, after which there was a short, breathless pause. Arafat eyed the Hamas leader calmly.

“What is it that you want?” Arafat asked in contempt.

Rantisi shrugged his shoulders: “Forty seats in the Palestinian legislature,” he said.

Whether true or not, the story of the Arafat-Rantisi confrontation is a talisman for the world’s own confusion about what Hamas is — and what it might want. Is the Islamic Resistance Movement an extremist “Muslim fundamentalist organization,” bent on imposing an orthodox religious program — an Islamic state? Or (as implied by Rantisi’s blunt answer to Arafat), is it a political party, bent on gaining political office through free, fair and open elections? While Western political analysts argue endlessly over this question, no one has taken the first step in providing a sensible and detailed profile of the organization — its members and leadership.

Despite the formidable scholarship conducted on the Islamic Resistance Movement, its organizational structure, roots and history (the most recent, and best account being the authoritative and detailed book offered by Azzam Tamimi in Hamas, Unwritten Chapters), no certain statistical profile of the organization and its members has been published. In order to fill this appreciable gap, this paper will offer a strictly anecdotal, and therefore non-empirical look at the organization, drawn from the author’s modest meetings with organization members and leaders. The evidence asserted is not scientific, because no such scientific poll of the organization’s membership has been done, but suggestive. Still, barring the sudden appearance of a scholarly institution’s more detailed study of the organization’s membership (a study that is probably not forthcoming) the portrait produced here can, the author contends, provide a new look at the Islamic Resistance, and draw conclusions about its program that are starkly at odds with what we think we know — but don’t.

Hamas As A Revolutionary Organization

The Council on Foreign Relations useful research on Middle East political organizations describes Hamas as “a militant movement” that “combines Palestinian nationalism with Islamic fundamentalism.” We might quibble with this description, but the claim seems true on the face of it, as the organization can trace its roots to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, which went through a militant phrase, is painted consistently as a radical organization, though in fact it has not been radical for many years. Alastair Crooke — who has spent years studying the organization and is the founder of Conflicts Forum (and the author’s colleague) — provides a more balanced picture. Crooke has written a briefing paper on the movement that lays out this history. In its first two decades, Crooke points out, the Muslim Brotherhood “eschewed military activity and increasingly and exclusively focused on education and charitable work.” This history is confirmed by Azzam Tamimi’s work, which describes Hamas as rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to constituent services, while being heavily influenced by the fact of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.

Of course, the standard description of Hamas contains elements of each of these profiles: it is at once a service organization (hence, Western leaders say, “its cynical appeal to the people”), a sometimes militant organization (that the Muslim Brotherhood has engaged in military operations is beyond dispute — as is Hamas’s implementation of a large number of suicide bombings against Israel), and an educational organization: the Muslim Brotherhood has retained its strength among Cairo’s university community and Hamas’s leadership founded the Islamic University in Gaza (of which it is justly proud), and Hamas parents fall well within the nearly obsessive focus on education for children that is a hallmark of Palestinian society.

Despite some differences, the three works cited above provide a non-controversial and accepted history of the Islamic Resistance Movement — it is constituent based, focused on education, and has undergone periods of extreme militancy. But each of these studies goes one step further. The Council on Foreign Relations paper on Hamas provides leadership profiles of Hamas’s political bureau, Alastair Crooke speaks of the otherwise unknown interrelationship of the Hamas-Fateh leadership (he points out that PLO leader Abu Jihad was, in fact, once a member of the Muslim Brotherhood), while Tamimi focuses a section of his book on the early years of the organization’s most important leaders. All three have this in common: they outline a leadership cadre whose background and experiences provide a presumptive case for classing Hamas as coming from within the mainstream of revolutionary organizations that are starkly similar to those that arose in the West during its own revolutionary era.

A thumbnail sketch of Hamas’s known leadership in the current era provides some illuminating examples of this central truth: the known members of its political committee are (with some exceptions), extremely well-educated, politically sophisticated, financially astute and experienced political operators. Few of the leaders of Hamas can be considered “street captains” in the ordinary, and revolutionary, sense of the term. The political committee of Hamas is headed by a physicist (Khalid Meshal), who is assisted in his leadership role by a doctor, a chemist, an engineer, and two leaders with degrees in Arabic literature. The initial cluster of Muslim Brotherhood activists around Sheikh Ahmad Yassin were student activists: Ibrahim Al-Maqadmah, Isma’il Abu Shanab, Abd al-Aziz Awdah, Fathi Al-Shiqaqi and Musa Abu-Marzouk, who is trained as an engineer.

The Hamas leadership that has emerged in the wake of the 2006 elections mirrors this early trend. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has a degree in Arabic literature, Mahmoud al-Zahar (the Palestinian Foreign Minister) studied medicine in Cairo, Hasan Yusef and Jamila Shanti (considered as a candidate by the Hamas leadership for the prime minister’s post) have advanced degrees, Omar Abdul Razeeq is a professor of economics, Mariam Salah has a master’s degree is Islamic law, Nayef Rajoub is a poet (and beekeeper), Yusuf Rizqa is the President of the College of Arts of the Islamic University and Atif Adwan (the head of Refugee Affairs) is a political scientist and the author of eighteen books. Strangely, perhaps, the rank-and-file cadre in Gaza (in particular) contains a sprinkling not simply of those whom we (“we” in the West) would consider “militants” (the leadership, say, of the Al-Qassam Brigades), but also a large number of businessmen and women: shopkeepers, lawyers, pharmacists, leaders of service organizations — what, in an earlier era, historians would have described as “the petit bourgeoisie.” This is hardly the stuff of a revolutionary organization.

Or is it?

Requirements of the Revolutionary Faith

The two most important works in the history of revolutions — Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution and James Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men — point out that “the foundations of the revolutionary faith” that propelled the world’s great nationalist revolutions (in Great Britain, the United States, France and Russia), were led by students, lawyers, intellectuals, and shopkeepers — “the petit bourgeoisie.” This is well-known, and a point of pride for Americans in particular, who teach their children (and their university graduates) that the American Revolution was a “revolution of shopkeepers.” Indeed, the notorious Boston Tea Party was led by shopkeepers, including the notorious Samuel Adams, the head of the Sons of Liberty, who was enraged by the British tax code (a heritage passed on the Americans, who view any tax increase as a fundamental usurpation of their fundamental rights) and protested the tax on tea by organizing a party to dump it into Boston’s harbor.

Quaint though this historical anecdote might be, it is hardly outside of the mainstream of revolutionary history. Great Britain’s “glorious revolution” — which preceded the American by some ninety years — was ostensibly contended over a question of royal succession, albeit shot-through with religious overtones. But those who led the nearly bloodless deposition of James II represented a class of educated and affluent professionals, lawyers and traders (parliamentarians all) — the nascent petit bourgeoisie of Great Britain who would later lead the West’s industrial revolution. The leaders of the French Revolution were drawn even more starkly from this class of professionals: Camille Desmoulins, Georges Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre and Stanislas Freron were accomplished students with a love of the law. Several were outstanding lawyers, before taking their seats in the new parliament (or leading the storming of the Bastille). The Bolsheviks and their fellow-travelers, the Mensheviks, were largely intellectuals — with the exception of Josep Stalin, a lapsed monk. Lenin was so rooted in Marxism that he spent most of his time studying it, and concluded that only a “vanguard” of the most educated Marxists could lead the working class, a repudiation and bow to his master, Karl Marx, who spent most of his time talking about workers by writing about them in a library.

We are told by Brinton and Billington that one of the pillars of this revolutionary faith is a commitment to overturning the established order. In each case this is, on the face of it, what happened: “the glorious revolution” circumscribed royal prerogatives, the American Revolution established the beginnings of a federal government, the French overthrew a bankrupt royal family, and the Bolsheviks removed (albeit in a coup) a provisional government and executed the Tsar and his family. But we also know from history that each of these revolutions resulted in a “thermidor reaction” (named for the triumph of the French Directory, which ended the “Terror”) which purged revolutionary ardor. So it was that the British suppressed incipient rebellions in favor of James II (in Ireland and Scotland), Americans hunted down, jailed and exiled its most radical leaders (including Thomas Paine), the French trundled Robespierre to the guillotine and the Bolsheviks (in the name of founding “communism in one country) exiled its more revolutionary leaders, like Trotsky, or executed them for treason — like Grigory Zinoviev, in 1936.

Is The Hamas Revolution a “Revolution?”

The Islamic Resistance Movement reflects this revolutionary template in some respects, but certainly not in others. The commonalities are significant, as are the unusual differences. Unlike British Whig parliamentarians, French Jacobins or Russian Bolsheviks, the Islamic Resistance Movement has had to fight for its existence in the midst of an occupation — a fact it holds in common only with the American Revolution. In fact, Hamas may best reflect the salient historical analogy of the American Revolution — like the “Sons of Liberty,” Hamas’s early years are marked by a thoroughgoing commitment to the use of revolutionary violence to oppose the occupiers. At the same time, however (and like the Sons of Liberty), Hamas has recoiled from efforts aimed at purging the more moderate opposition within its sister revolutionary movement, despite sotto voce claims that the more moderate revolutionaries (the staid “powdered wig set” in Philadelphia, Fateh technocrats in Ramallah), are veiled collaborationists.

It is understandable that westerners would recoil from a comparison of Hamas to the Sons of Liberty, and certainly painting these comparisons with such broad strokes can lead to misunderstandings. Yet, we should not assume that the commonalities found in political movements in such disparate societies as the United States and Russia are not found elsewhere among human beings. There was a time, in the not so distant past, when the Sons of Liberty were compared to the Bolsheviks. Such a claim led to endless hearings on “the red menace,” though now, of course, the analogy is commonly used by historians. Political movements are, in fact, in some sense, organic. Nor are such broad brushstrokes the province of historical theorists. As respected a scholar as Bernard Lewis could speak about the Iranian Revolution in the following terms — as a “religious movement with a religious leadership, a religiously formulated critique of the old order, and religiously expressed plans for the new,” while (in the same work — The Islamic Revolution) conceding that the Islamic Revolution in Iran was “a real revolution, in the sense that the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution were real revolutions.”

More pertinently, while the Islamic Resistance Movement is viewed as “militant,” it has no more interest in executing the leadership of Fateh than Samuel Adams (the leader of the Sons of Liberty) was interested in shooting the Continental Congress. In fact the “militant” Samuel Adams (a theologian, by the way, whose nickname was “the last Puritan), like Ismail Haniyeh, stood for and was elected to that staid Congress that he believed was filled with moderates, which brought gasps of disbelief to fearful temporizers like Benjamin Franklin, just as Haniyeh’s appointment as prime minister brought gasps of disbelief to Fateh regulars. In both cases, the moderate revolutionaries supposed that the accession of Adams — and Haniyeh — would result in a radicalizing of society. Oddly, for students of American history, Adams and Haniyeh have this in common: both learned their revolutionary philosophy by listening to the speeches of preachers. Adams was mesmerized by the impact religious language could have on his revolutionary cohorts and adopted church language as a basis of his firebrand speeches to the “revolutionary cells” he founded to oppose the British occupation.

Not all analogies are safe, but some analogies are pertinent, if only to point out the obvious. In truth, history is suggestive of the kind of movement that Hamas has become. Unlike the Jacobins and Leninists, the Islamic Resistance Movement has purposely refused to purge its society of revolutionaries who are viewed as moderates, or “collaborators” of “the ancien regime.” Upon being elected in January of 2006 to the Palestinian parliament, Hamas has worked to form a broadly based government of inclusion — hardly the reaction of Robespierre to his enemies in the Gironde, or Lenin’s to his opposition in the Menshiviks. It was Danton who went to the guillotine and Zinoviev who went to the wall, not Abu Mazen. This is not to deny Azzam Tamimi’s conclusion that Hamas’s early recruits were harvested from those who had abandoned Nasserism in the wake of Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war with Israel (“Their initial response to the defeat was to seek solace in religion, which seemed to present an alternative to failed nationalism”), but only to point out that, no matter what the motivation, revolutionary movements are, at heart, revolutionary — that is to say, they are political. Samuel Adams wanted to create a just society based on “Christian principles,” just as Hamas has said that they want to create a just society based on the principles enunciated in the Koran. We may view Hamas as “radical,” “revolutionary,” “violent,” and “fundamentalist” — but in the wake of the 2006 elections, and in obvious contradiction to those who claimed that Hamas’s election would mean the cleansing of Palestinian society from secular influence, it may now be time to place Hamas in its proper revolutionary setting — as a revolutionary party that has and continues to enunciate a truly revolutionary doctrine: that seeks the replacement of the old corrupt order with good governance.

If all of this is true, if it is in fact the case that it is more appropriate for Western political theorists to understand Hamas as a political movement that falls within the mainstream of historical understanding — if Haniyeh is more like Samuel Adams than, say, Robespierre — and, if it is the case that Hamas is interested in good governance and an emphasis on constituent services (as they claim), then why has the West so purposely attempted to strangle the Hamas Palestinian government? If, as it now appears, Hamas might be willing to reach an agreement, or long-term hudna with Israel (in which recognition of the Jewish State is the end product of negotiations, and not a precondition of negotiations) then what exactly are we afraid of? The answer, of course, is contained in Bernard Lewis’s initial description of the Iranian revolution — as rooted in a “religiously formulated critique of the old order, and religiously expressed plans for the new.” That is to say, we in the West are not afraid of Hamas at all. We’re afraid of Islam.

Hamas’s Social Revolution

Hamas’s dedication to building a just society and providing good governance is rooted in its religious beliefs. There is simply no denying that much of the Hamas leadership is devout and that their political beliefs are rooted in their religious, Islamist, principles. It is not the case, as is so cavalierly said, that Hamas is not interested in God, but in political power. It is decidely the case that many of Hamas’s followers fear the intrusion of what they view as Western decadence into a society that is built on strong family structures that are the foundation of Islam. But Hamas’s commitment to building a society centered on the mosque and the family is hardly outside of the norms of Palestinian society. Nor is their critique of the Western mores either unusual or rabid. Then too, the regular and sometimes vocal rejection of Western influence — in the frame of, as one example, Hollywood movies that disguise pornography as social commentary — is echoed as much by American Christian evangelicals as it is by Hamas activists. Why is such fundamentalism accepted in America, but rejected in Palestine?

Nor, it seems, are Western worries that Hamas is intent on founding a “caliphate” that will oppose Western interests reflected in the evidence of their political program. The leaders of the Hamas “revolutionary movement” who have come to office in Palestine have never once called for a “cleansing” of social norms, as happened in the case of nearly every Western revolution. On the contrary: local Hamas leaders who have posted “social rules” for the behavior of their constituents have been corrected by their political leaders, who argue that believers come to God from choice, and not by compulsion. Even the celebrated rejection of Hamas because their charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish State has been the focus of the Hamas leadership — which has repeatedly noted that the Hamas Charter is not the Koran, it can be changed. So too, the much repeated claim that the Hamas website extolls the vicious propoganda of “the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” turned out to be false. The Hamas website in question was not owned or operated by the movement and has since been removed — and replaced by a website advertising for “Jewish singles.”

Just as the creation of the revolutionary ideal is not unknown to “us” in the West, so too the creation of social revolutions as a result of political work is well within the traditions of our own societies. While more secularized Americans might decry the rise of Evangelical Christianity, the critique it offers to its own, to my, society — which grapples with rising impoverishment, the degradation of its culture, the continued oppression of women, a broken and dysfunctional educational system, the break-up of the family, and the alienation of its youth — is both substantive and welcome. Indeed, the true test of Hamas’s political capabilities now rests not in their success in creating a religious society, but in proving to the Palestinian people that they can provide the good governance they promised in winning the January 2006 elections. It is through good governance that successful nations promote social agendas. It may well be, in the final analysis — though perhaps many years from now — that Americans might conclude that rather than fighting a revolutionary movement like Hamas, we might learn from its success.

Mark Perry

Mark Perry is a Director of the Beirut, London and Washington, D.C.-based Conflicts Forum (www.conflictsforum.org) and a military, intelligence and foreign affairs analyst and writer. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications and he is the author of six books. He is currently working on his seventh book (Penguin Press), which is a history of the Marshall-Eisenhower military partnership during World War II.