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Engaging Hamas and Hezbollah -by Ali Abunimah

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Editor's Note:

This is another superb article from Ali Abunimah, a
frequent contributor to Viewpoint.

The biggest criticism we get from readers is our "lack of
even handedness". Our response is always the same. Can one
be neutral about evil? Should one be neutral? Just as we
would never ask to be neutral concerning Nazism and other
forms of racism, we stand against injustice of all types.
We do not apologize for a lack of neutrality, we celebrate
it. 

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Engaging Hamas and Hezbollah -by Ali Abunimah

Nothing could be easier in the present atmosphere than to 
accuse anyone who calls for recognition of and dialogue 
with Hamas, Hezbollah 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 institutional-
ize 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 Hezbollah in Lebanon out-
side 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 heterogeneous; 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 Hezbollah 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 unrestrain-
ed 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 Hezbollah 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 arrange-
ments 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 Hezbollah --
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. Hezbollah 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 main-
tains 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 achieve-
ments of the Islamist women's movement in Palestine. 

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Spectacular examples of the courageous and radical role 
Islamist women have played came last year when mass non-
violent 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 un-
resolved 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 Jameela 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 move-
ments 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 intransigent 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 
Hezbollah 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 
civilization 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 
Hezbollah 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 establish-
ments 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 mis-
guided 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. 

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Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and
author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-
Palestinian Impasse 
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