Professor Dov Waxman
December 8, 2015
On January 26, 2006, The Western World watched dumbfounded as Hamas supporters stormed the Palestinian Parliament in celebration of their electoral victory. The organization, a designated terrorist group by Israel, the European Union, Canada, Japan, and the United States, received a lion’s share of the Palestinian’s vote, seizing 74 seats out of the 132 available ones in the Palestinian Parliament. The legislative branch was decorated with Hamas green, while others threw stones and rocks at the Fatah supporters in the Parliament during the altercation.
This shall become the first confrontation between Hamas, the leaders of the Palestinian People, and everyone in the world.
The political victory of Hamas, a group known especially for its Islamic militancy and its sworn allegiance to the destruction of Israel, caught the entire world by surprise. Right before the announcement of the election results, Haaretz published the article “Exit Poll Gives Fatah Narrow Win,” citing a Bir Zeit University poll that predicted Fatah to win 63 seats while Hamas to win 58 seats. The Guardian described the victory of the Militant Islamic Organization as a “shock.”
Despite the overwhelming alarm of the world to the electoral victory of Hamas, the rise of a Palestinian political party which bases its ideology in Islamism in 2006 should not have come as a surprise for anyone. The historical failures in Pan-Arabism had already paved the way to the rise of Islamism, along with the shortfalls of Fatah and the rest of Palestinian Liberation Organization pre-2006 had spelled the inevitable victory of Hamas.
The rise of Hamas in Palestine and their landslide victory against Fatah in 2006 were due to reasons both contemporary and historic, internal and external. Pan-Arabism before the Six-Day War in 1967 partially paved a foundation for the rise of Islamism due to building anti-western sentiments among Arabs and the increased use of Islamic symbology at the dusk of Pan-Arabism. The combination of a preference for Islamism over Pan-Arabism after 1967, as well as failures within Fatah and the PLO gave rise to Hamas, for it was seen as more capable, less corrupt, and more efficient.
Part I: Gamal Abdel Nasser Died of a Broken Heart
In a 1966 speech made to the Egyptian Public, Gamal Abdel Nasser recounted an altercation he had during a meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood. When Nasser told the crowd that the Head of the Muslim Brotherhood demanded that every woman walking in the streets of Egypt must wear a tarha (head scarf), everyone started chuckling. It was not until someone in the crowd yelled “Let him wear it” when the audience erupted into a laughing fit.
Nasser’s secular Egypt, a short-lived but a fulfilled goal at the time, could not have fathomed the image of the Middle East today. According to a 2007 New York Times article, over 90% of Egyptian women wear the hijab. For better or for worse, a trend in Islamism had been taking a precedence over the Nasser spear-headed Pan-Arabism for the better part of 40 years. It could even be argued that the unique characteristics of the Arabian brand of secular Nationalism even brought rise to Islamism.
Pan-Arabism is both a reaction and imitation of the West. A reaction in the sense that it spurred out of a strong anti neo-colonialism sentiments throughout the Middle East after World War I, and an imitation in the sense as it attempted to emulate specific characteristics of Western Governments such as, and most importantly, the separation between Religion and State. It distinctively tie people together by two things: the Arabic language and Islam as a cultural past.
The charms of Abdel Nasser’s brand of Arab Nationalism managed to win over men and women of all social classes. In the midst of an identity crisis where rural Arabs are being relocated into population centers en masse, Pan-Arabism’s secularizing property alongside a cultural linkage to Islam as part of the Arab Culture was extremely attractive to lower class Arabs.
Pan-Arabism and the idea of an Arabian Nationality was especially attractive to the educated and intellectual Arabs, who encompass the individuals who started the movement as the first young people to have studied beyond basic literacy. Fascinated with the idea of Nationalism after studying at Western or Eastern bloc Universities, Arab intellectuals returned to their homes to fashion their own versions of the ideology with Middle Eastern characteristics.
Pan-Arabism proved to be extremely successful and popular in giving a group of people a common identity. Prior to the conception and installation of Arab Nationalism, most Arabs identified themselves with specific clans and regions instead of nations. The idea of Pan-Arabism was especially inviting to Palestinians as the dawn of Palestinian Nationality was coming to fruition, where loyalists to that ideology developed an identity that is simultaneously Palestinian and Pan-Arab. The idea of Pan-Arabism is naturally one that Palestinians could easily adopt into, as many today still see Israelis as neo-colonialists.
The leader of Pan-Arabism, Gamal Abdel Nasser, brought the ideology to its full glory after the Suez Canal War. Nasser had just lost a war against an alliance between Israel, France and the United Kingdom, but his popularity back home could not have been higher: He had managed to secure funding for his precious Anwar Dam project, as well as demonstrate how he will not back down to Western “Imperialistic” advances.
Nasser’s dream for a secular Arab identity could have came true if not for the 1967 War that devastated the Arab World. After a series of misinformation, miscommunications and mistakes, the Israeli seized the Sinai Desert, Golan Heights and all of Israel/Palestine in a lightning fast first strike against Egyptian and Syrian forces. The Arabs fittingly named the war Naksa, an Arabic word that means setback. Scholars unanimously agreed that the 1967 War, partially caused by a series of mishandlings by Nasser, brought the dusk of Pan-Arabism and Arab Nationalism. Ever since 1967 and the end of the war, the Middle East had started seeing first an infiltration of Islamic symbols and ideas, followed by a steady but close to complete transformation to adopting Islamism as the dominating ideology of the region.
One peaceful Monday evening three years after his fall from glory, Nasser passed away surrounded by his loved ones. He suffered a heart-attack induced by his diabetes and smoking habits, but his wife would go on to say he died of a broken heart.
Part II: The War of Ideas
An important thing to remember is that even though Pan-Arabism and Islamism are ideologies on almost completely opposing sides, they had been coexisting ever since the conception of Pan-Arabism; Pan-Arabism had simply been the dominating political ideology before 1967. Another interesting fact to mention is that a substantial amount of supporters for Pan-Arabism during its popularity has been Muslims. This fact makes a clear distinction behind the religion of Islam and Islamism.
There seems to be an image that the fall of Pan-Arabism led to the rise of Islamism. This is not a hard thought to stretch as it follows perfect logic. The two opposing ideologies are often quite literally at each other’s necks: Gamal Abdel Nasser staged one of the most brutal crackdowns in Egypt’s history on the Muslim Brotherhood, and executed Sayyid Qutb, the godfather of revolutionary Sunni Islam in 1966. There is, however, a considerable amount of parallel attributes between the two ideologies. It could be argued that due to the unique natures of Arab Nationalism, it had already built the foundations for the rise of Islamism before its fall.
One of the most identifying factors in Pan-Arabism is its cultural connections to Islam. Although declared as a secular ideology, Arab nationalists had not forfeited the importance of Islam in their culture. In fact, during times suitable to them, self-declared secular Arab leaders would often make use of Islam and Islamic symbols. The application of Islamic symbols only rose after the Arab World’s humiliating defeat in 1967, when political groups who identify as being secular began incorporating more and more religion into their doctrine.
Hafed Al-Assad’s Ba’ath Party serves as a perfect example of this. Constructed in 1963, the Syrian Ba’ath party was vehemently secular between 1966 and 1970. However under Hafez Al-Assad, the shunned Shia Islamic Sect Alawites began to gain religious legitimacy. The trend only increased in 1973, when Assad reinstated a clause in the Syrian constitution that the head of State must be muslim.
Some Arab States, which were part of Pan-Arabism, despite the secular nature of the movement, never distanced themselves from religion at all. The Jordanian ruling class had always maintained a close relationship between themselves and Islam, as much publicity is paid towards the King’s performance of the hajj, his prayers, and financial assistance to Jordanians trying to perform pilgrimages. Due to this constant support, Islamists were able to control 90% of Jordan’s major professional associations by the 1990s.
The trend of shifting from secularist governance to increasing the importance of Islam in Arab politics had also been seen evident in the PLO. Although Islam was not even included in their Charter, Islamic symbols and imagery had been used heavily by the PLO ever since the downfall of Pan-Arabism in 1967. Interestingly enough, the word “secularism” was never mentioned in the PLO Charter either, as the Palestinian ruling elite did not want to alienate the masses that they would one day hope to lead.
The trend of self-proclaimed secular Arab leaders slowly but surely embracing Islam could be very simply explained. Multiple scholars have attributed the death of Pan-Arabism to the Arab loss of the 1967 War. In the heydays of the Arab Nationalist movement, leaders had to find a new common characteristic to bind the citizens of the Arab World together. Islam, a cultural heritage that even played an important role in Pan-Arabic Identity, became a very obvious answer. In an attempt to combat the decline of the Arab Nationalist movement by instilling greater unity with the help of Islam, the fate of the secular Pan-Arab movement only spiraled further downwards.
The foundations for the rise of Islamism were further paved by Pan-Arabism in a trait the two ideologies share too commonly: a rejection of the West. As mentioned earlier in this paper, Pan-Arabism was triggered by a rise of Western-influence within the Middle East. The anti-neo colonialist stance of Arab Nationalists leaders often manifest in very confrontational ways with the West, such as when Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1956 in a vocal opposition to Western neo-imperial control. This single action partially accelerated the Suez Canal Crisis in the very same year between Egypt and Israel, France, and the United Kingdom.
A harsh critic of Pan-Arabism, the Godfather of Islamism Sayyid Qutb dismissed the idea of Arabic “Nation-States” but believed in a Worldly Muslim identity that places Islam as an emphasis in his version of nationalism. Qutb believed that the idea of Nation-State could give rise to a multiplicity of thoughts and judgements that could lead to conflicts between individuals and groups, and since it was based on language, race and cultural line, it was not in line with the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings. Qutb’s Islamic Nationalism was based upon the idea of fitrah, that proclaims “every human being is born in a state of complete submission to the Creator”, and the idea of ‘ubudiyyah (servitude), which emphasizes all human beings are in servitude to the creator Allah alone. The combination of both of these ideas brought forth the idea of Qutb’s brand of Nationalism: One that is not divided through race, region or culture, but one that binds the globe in their unified belief in Islam.
Although Qutb preached for unity and acceptance in his rhetorics, he did not shy away from criticizing ones who did not agree with his specific brand of Nationalism. He criticized Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab Nationalism as placing Islam as secondary to the Arabian ethnic identity, and that it opposes the ideas of fitrah and ‘ubudiyyah. Scholars similar to Qutb, such as al-Banna and Mawdudi, also saw the West as a historical and pervasive opponent of Islam and Muslim societies, both in the political and religious sense.
Qutb’s Islamic Nationalism was definitely not a school of thought that could be reconciled with Western thinking and culture. A great majority of the Western World is Christian, from 98% of Greek citizens to 55%-60% of French citizens. 73% of Americans identify themselves as Christians. As a result, the rise of Islamism in the Middle East, as influenced by scholars such as Qutb, could only further reject the Western World, more so than Arab Nationalists ever did. Pan-Arabism, as a movement derived out of a rejection of the West, only laid the foundations for Islamism through its opposition to the Western World, a movement that is inherently incapable of accepting Western schools of thoughts.
For the abovementioned reasons, the rise of Islamism after 1967 is seen as completely inevitable. Not only did the Arab world needed a new ideology to unite itself against Western influence after fall of Pan-Arabism, but characteristics within Pan-Arabism, such as its anti-western rhetoric, laid a foundation for Islamism to flourish off of.
Part III: The Offspring of the Intifadas
With a shift in Arab attitude favorable towards Islamism, Palestinians were bound to be influenced by it eventually. However, one should not simply place the rise of Islamism in Middle Eastern States under a single banner. There are still very specific reasons within Palestine that led to the rise of Hamas, a militant group that originally branched off Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Hamas came into conception the very same year of the First Intifada, and formally declares itself to have three branches: A social welfare wing dedicated to the well beings of Palestinians under their constituency, a militaristic wing dedicated to the armed struggle against Israel, and a consultative council, a political decision making body that operates from Damascus. It was established in Palestine by the Muslim Brotherhood as a response to the First Intifada, with the specific purpose of confronting Israeli occupation.
The First Intifada, which lasted from 1987 to 1993, saw the birth of Hamas and their growth in popularity. The PLO had been on the decline ever since their crushing defeat in Jordan in 1970, and for the first time in history, it was Palestinians inside of the occupied territory led by Hamas that struggled against Israel while the PLO took on a more bystander’s position. This was also the occasion when tactics employed in the Intifada proved to be much more effective than the armed resistance the PLO had been waging against Israel in the past two decades. The failure of the PLO in the first Intifada also sparked them to broker a peace deal between Israel and themselves.
The rise of Hamas had given Palestinians, for the first time, something that they could support other than the PLO. The Intifada was a unique opportunity given to the Hamas, on which they successfully seized, while most of the ruling party of the PLO were outside of Palestine, that they had the capability to lead the Palestinian people when the people who were supposed to lead and represent them were not present.
Like many Islamic organizations in the Arab World, Hamas had also taken on the sole role of social welfare provider to the Palestinian people and proved itself as the only efficient group capable of handling Palestinian affairs. Heavily criticized by the Western World for building tunnels used to smuggle weapons into Gaza, the same tunnels had also been used to transport civilian goods such as food and medical supplies during Israeli blockades. Hamas had also had a long history providing Palestinians with basic social services, such as building schools, mosques, hospitals, food banks and orphanages.
On top of the Social Welfare systems provided by Hamas to the Palestinians, other arguments could be made to explain their rise to power. Often during times of strife, the religious would hang on closer to their beliefs, and in certain situations become radicalized. Indonesian Muslims, during the 1997 currency crisis, increased their participation in local Islamic societies and mosques not only for the insurance network, but in higher attendances for Quran study.
This could also be similarly compared to the situation in Gaza Strip and West Bank. As of the latest data, Occupied territory of Palestine has a poverty rate of 34.5% and an unemployment situation so dire that almost one out of four adults cannot find a job. Along with the overall rise of Islamism since the 1970s, it is easy to see a parallel between the increased support Palestinians placed upon an Islamic Organization and the increased faith among Indonesians during their own time of strife.
In 2006, Hamas achieved legitimate, political success within the Palestinian Authority. This should not have come as a shock to anyone in hindsight, as Hamas, despite their militaristic tendencies and use of terrorism, had proven themselves to be extremely efficient. Other than that, Hamas rose to power immediately after the end of the Second Intifada, when the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians were extremely high. Just for comparison, sharp drops in Hamas support, which usually ranged from 35% to 40% before 2006, could be seen during peace talks and times of lower tensions due to the Islamic organization’s militant nature. 2006 was another opportunity for Hamas to seize, and it was one they successfully grabbed onto. Following a fruitless five years of violence, anger and frustration amongst Palestinians during the 2006 election was absolutely unprecedented. The humiliation Palestinians suffered at the hands of the superior Israeli military forces, coupled with the inefficiency and corruption of Fatah and the PLO had brought Hamas a swift political victory.
Interestingly enough, scholars have alleged that Hamas’s true popularity was not representative of the 2006 Palestinian Authority election, but a reaction to the culmination of events before and during the election. By some estimates, the 60% victory Hamas received was not a true show of their strength, but divided along voter lines. around 40% of those votes could be attributed to staunch supporters of Hamas that will do so during times of strife and times of peace, while the other 20% of the votes came from Palestinian voters who saw the previous regimes as incapable and corrupt. In other words, a portion of Palestinians decided to punish the Fatah and the PLO as a response to their corruption and inefficiency.
The discussion on the success of Hamas must also not disclude the scale of foreign funding and official State support the group receives. Hamas operatives had even successfully set up charity fronts in order to fund themselves in the United States. The Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a charity front set up by former Hamas Chief Mousa Abu Marzook, managed to run in the United States for twelve years before it was cracked down by the FBI five days before 9/11. According to a tax return in 2000, this charity fund received almost $13 million that year that were used to fund suicide bombings in Gaza and the West Bank. By some estimates, the total funds raised by Hamas through foreign charities, individuals and businesses exceed tens of millions every year.
Financial support do not just stop at foreign charities, individuals and businesses, but formal State support of Hamas as well. Saudi Arabia and Iran are both the largest supporters of Hamas, and although the nature of the support given to Hamas could be argued, there is unanimity between scholars that huge sums of money are given to Hamas each year by these States. By conservative estimates, Iran contributes $3 million to Hamas every year in direct aid. The Islamic State has also been described by the CIA to be the foremost state sponsor of terrorism.
Unlike other forms of funding discussed, State funding, such as examples from Hamas, are not done through money laundering and charitable fronts, but transferred directly to Hamas operational units. A report released by Israeli Authority in 2000 revealed that Iran funded Hamas’s Qassam Brigade to “specifically support the Hamas military arm in Israel and encouraging suicide operations.
Iran’s support to Hamas does not stop at financial details. King Abdullah II revealed to former President George W. Bush that Iran had supported no less than seventeen Hamas military operations against Israel, firing rockets and mortar. Detained Hamas and Hezbollah operatives have also confessed to being trained by the Iranian military.
One of Hamas’s major financial contributors had been assessed by United States officials to be Saudi Arabia. According to a 2003 report, as much as 40% of Hamas’s funding came from the Gulf State. However, unlike funding from Iran, much of the financial contribution from Saudi Arabia is not tied to the Royal Family and the ruling class. However, the decision of the Saudi Arabia’s ruling class turning a blind eye on fundraising for Hamas had turned around to bite them back. By allowing the fundraising to continue in their State, Saudi Arabia “indirectly contributed to further radicalization of Saudi society and the proliferation of violent jihadis in their own borders.”
The above are the specific reasons within the West Bank and Gaza that led to the rise of Hamas. A culmination between unique opportunities such as the First and second Intifada, the incompetence of Fatah and the PLO, and foreign state and individual support had all together brought the rise of a militant Islamic organization to power in Palestine.
Part IV: Concluding Thoughts
The people of Israel and Palestine had been searching for a solution for peace for the better part of one and a half centuries. Yet, with the rise of Hamas and the popularity of right wing politics and Israel, no solution seems to be in sight. The Oslo Peace Accords, the handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, and the brief glimmer of hope in the 1990s is all but contents for our history book for now. All of this, in the end, could not be foreseen, and could not have been avoided.
The inescapable, for better or for worse, rise of Hamas and militant Islamism could be described to be part of a growing trend of Islamism within the Middle East. The Fall of Pan-Arabism laid the basic foundations for Islamism to flourish, and once Hamas rode the tail wind of Islamism, the specific situations within Palestine, such as the inefficiency and corruption of Fatah, only allowed the militant group sworn to destroy Israel to rise to a state of legitimate power. As far as Hamas is in power, as long as Hamas carries on their current violent rhetoric despite their welfare programs, no peace will be in sight for the near future.
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6 Days in June
CIA World Factbook
Gamal Abdel Nasser 1966 Speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHtQrdPexZs