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Convergence? The Homogenization of Islamist Doctrines in Gaza

Hassan Mneimneh

On August 14, 2009, a bloody confrontation took place in Rafah, a city at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, between Hamas security forces and supporters of Abd al-Latif Musa (aka Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi), Imam of the Ibn Taymiyya mosque and leader of Gaza’s salafiya movement. This violent clash seemed to usher in a new, more violent phase in the long-standing intra-Islamist quarrel between Hamas and the al-Qaeda-inspired constellation of salafist-inclined jihadist groups operating in the region. To many observers, the clash was yet more evidence that Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s most politically successful offshoot, was ideologically irreconcilable with the tenets of salafist-jihadism, and that the Hamas government could be trusted to serve as a firewall against al-Qaeda’s penetration in Gaza. Indeed, in the aftermath of the August violence, the outpouring of salafist-jihadist denunciations, tracts and analyses labeling Hamas as a traitor to the cause of Islam, and even as an apostate organization, only underscored the breadth of the antagonism between these two Islamist rivals.1

Yet beneath the surface of this ongoing conflict lie a number of developments within Gaza that have considerably narrowed, rather than widened, the gap ideological between the contending and purportedly irreconcilable ideological currents represented by Hamas and its salafi-jihadist detractors. This process, which is best described as one of ideological convergence and homogenization, is ongoing and, to be sure, its outcomes are not necessarily linear. But the process itself is not limited to the rivalry between Hamas and salafi-jihadists in Gaza; in fact, it affects both field and cyberspace Islamist movements, effectively testing the limits of ideological Islamist expression across the world. Understanding this process of convergence is thus crucial for any assessment of Islamism’s plausible futures as a whole.

The Arab origins of modern Islamism, as an ideology and as a set of disparate organizational structures, date back to the first half of the 20th Century. The 1924 abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate by the authorities of the newly-formed Turkish Republic created an impetus for a reactionary call for the restoration of the lost institution, whether as a symbolic act of anti-Western struggle or as the kernel of a broader Islamic renewal. This call was, however, distinctly less potent at the time than the ascendant ideas and ideals of modernist progress—national unity, state formation, and anti-colonialism. Indeed, the dominant cultural outlook in most Arab societies and communities had already appropriated for itself many of the elements to which the then-nascent and minority Islamist discourse sought to lay claim.

This was amply demonstrated, among other things, by the semantic evolution of terms that modern Arab Muslim political thought derived from the Islamic scholastic tradition. In hindsight, because of their organic affinities, one might have expected that the traditions of Islam would serve and even advantage the burgeoning Islamist discourse over its non-Islamist competitors. But instead, this tradition and its terminology was appropriated and invested with new meaning by Islamism’s more secular and nationalist Muslim competitors with relative ease.

For instance, the word umma—the ancestral Arabic term for the “one Muslim community”—was effectively stripped of its original religious substance and identification with the global Muslim community, and was instead promoted as the Arabic answer to the European concept of nation. In its most unqualified usage, umma came to refer to the whole of the “Arab Nation”—that is, to an imagined political community that was decidedly not primarily Islamic in its identity, as it included both non-Muslims and Muslims, and excluded non-Arab Muslims. Likewise, the concept of jihad—which originally referred to the communal and individual obligation to the Divine to institute Islam as a comprehensive order through multiple means, with the martial aspect being invariably dominant—was thoroughly de-Islamicized, and reapplied by Arab nationalists and leftists to struggles that they deemed praiseworthy and necessary to the advancement of Arab society and nationhood.2

Indeed, for much of the 20th Century and throughout many key parts of the Arab world (with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia), Arab nationalism, rather than Islam, was the dominant and most dynamic framework for political discourse and activity. Islam as a religion was implicitly or explicitly understood as one aspect of a historically-lived and created Arab civilization and culture. This permitted, among other things, a critical perspective on Islam, as Arab civilization could thus be credited or blamed for Islam’s legacy as an actual lived tradition. It also effectively provided a powerful intellectual check on Islamist ideology.

But as Arab nationalism degenerated into an incubator of dictatorships, and as Arab nationalist ideology was further discredited for failing to deliver on the renaissance that it promised, the subsuming of Islam came to a gradual end. Subsequently, a role reversal in cultural constructions began to take effect in which Arab society and culture was recast as a more-or-less conforming offshoot of Islam, which was increasingly being seen as the dominant framework for cultural as well as political life. This was most readily visible in the so-called “Islamic turn” that swept the Arab world in the 1970s, which infused religious sensibilities and ideals into Muslim political life, and which ultimately helped catalyze the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, and the mobilization for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Competing Islamist ideological propositions and groups thus emerged, more the result of the failure of its competitors, as well as field circumstances, than a result of the coalescence of a coherent Islamist ideological discourse.

Nonetheless, Islamism supplied a rough but ready ideology to fill the vacuum left by the receding grand narratives of the 20th Century. The slogan “Islam is the solution,” championed and popularized in Arab societies most especially by the Muslim Brotherhood, provided a romantic alternative for the disillusioned base of the increasingly decrepit nationalist and leftist ideological movements that had yielded little more than repression and oppression to their own constituencies. Clearly inspired by its declining secular competitors, Islamism presented its ideals of an ‘Islamic state’ as a more vigorous totalitarian alternative to Arab nationalism, and offered as well what it claimed as a comprehensive agenda of Islamic reform and revival in which individual, family, society, and state were all to undergo a process of “Islamization.”

In the past few decades, Islamism has come to dominate the political discourse of many key Muslim societies. By and large, this has been the legacy of the assiduous efforts of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar revivalist movements such as South Asia’s Jamaat-e-Islami. As pioneers of modern Islamism, these movements have sought to replace traditional Muslim pietism with Islamic activism, and through their combined efforts, they have effected a general re-orientation of considerable elements of Muslim cultural and political life into an expressly Islamic framework. To the extent that there has been ideological competition within these societies, it has largely been between contending strands of Islamism, rather than between Islamism and its non-Islamist alternatives. In fact, thus far, Muslim thought has generally failed to offer a substantive and politically potent alternative to Islamist totalitarianism.

Through much of the 20th Century, Islamist totalitarianism remained more of an aspiration than a system. The details of the “Islamic solution” proposed by the early generation of revivalists remained largely unstated and unsettled, and Islamist movements were invariably incoherent about what they wished for and how they sought to achieve it. The closing decades of the past century witnessed the general emergence of competing Islamist ideological propositions and strategic approaches. The pioneering efforts of revivalist movements like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami have certainly provided a productive base for adoption and adaptation in the emergent Islamist universe. Yet as a comprehensive system, the Muslim Brotherhood/Jamaat-e-Islami model has failed to impose itself as the essential expression of Islamism.

From Saudi Arabia, another model of Islamic revival emerged with considerable potency. The arrangement between the tribal leadership of Al Saud and the Salafi religious preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century was revived in the 20th as a symbiosis between the Saudi monarchy and the Wahhabi clerical establishment. This revival intrinsically gave increasing power to the clerical establishment, both by enlarging its authority over Saudi society, and by endowing it with a considerable fraction of the oil revenue dividends that allowed it to further expand its role, locally and later globally. The original character of the Saudi-Wahhabi symbiosis, while empowering the clerical establishment to deepen its totalitarian grip on society, was still premised on the perpetuation of the absolute loyalty that the historical salafi school dictated as an obligation on subjects towards Muslim rulers (except in extreme cases of flagrant apostasy of the latter.) But in the 1960s, as the Brotherhood ideology began to insinuate itself into Saudi society, it incubated new salafist intellectual trends in which the regimented loyalism, quietism, and religious pietism imposed by the Wahhabi establishment was infused with a new political activism that saw it as a religious obligation to question, reform, and even violently oppose the authority of de facto rulers.

Nowadays, Islamism’s diverse manifestations have generally declared their adherence to one of two procedural-tactical formulations or approaches. These include first (1) an absolutist revolutionary approach, which insists on the immediate and total renunciation of any non-Islamist political order, and the implementation of its theoretical alternative—the “Islamic state”—when at all possible. The second (2) approach is best described as “gradualist” or “evolutionary.” This approach, favored by the Brotherhood and its constellation of offshoots, effectively limits or defers the rejection of non-Islamist political orders, and proceeds instead along a path focused on incrementally preparing Muslim populations for the full implementation of the ideal of an Islamic state. Of course, these two formulations do not exhaust the procedural alternatives espoused by Islamist formations (one particular variant that accords both with the principled rejection of the first approach as well as the gradualist orientation of the second approach is espoused in theory by Hizb al-Tahrir), nor do these tactical approaches comprehensively determine the strategic vision of their proponents.

The strategic visions of various Islamist movements have also fallen into two main paradigms: (1) a globalized aspiration for a universal Islamic victory over all that is “un-Islamic,” and (2) a localized focus on a comparatively more delineated confrontation. When elaborated to a comprehensive theoretical framework, Islamist ideologies, despite their diverse strategic agendas, have fundamentally agreed that the global and universal paradigm, rather than the localized agenda, is indeed the ultimate strategic goal. However, considerable variations, as well as conflicts, within Islamism exist over the time frame for its eventual implementation. The postponement of such a goal is manifested either in the form of its declared relegation to a long-term or indefinite future, or through Islamism’s conspicuous silence on the matter. Yet whether explicit or implicit, no prominent Islamist movement has ever renounced the ideal of Islam’s global and universal victory over the un-Islamic.

Indeed, in this respect the modern Islamist position is clearly derived from the classical scholastic tradition—which stipulates an ultimate triumph for Islam—and from the fundamental understanding of Islam as a “mercy to all humankind,” which dictates that believers should carry the message of their faith globally. It is noteworthy that modern non-Islamist Muslim thought has provided few substantive alternatives to the intrinsically martial character and message of the Islamist universal paradigm. The absence of such alternatives has clearly enhanced Islamism’s predatory and opportunistic behavior.

Historically, these two binary sets of tactical approaches and strategic paradigms have yielded four combinations that have been variably espoused by Islamist groups: (1-1) an absolutist revolutionary approach with a globalist outlook, which is best exemplified today by al-Qaeda; (1-2) an absolutist revolutionary approach with a localized focus, which appears to be the current posture of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the de facto reality of Somalia’s Shabab; (2-1) a gradualist evolutionary approach with a globalist outlook, which is the not-so-muted aspiration of the Muslim Brotherhood as an international organization; and (2-2) a gradualist evolutionary approach with a localized focus, as is the declared position of Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The most acute contrast, in tactics and strategy, is thus between what al-Qaeda and Hamas respectively represent: 1-1 and 2-2. Nowadays, al-Qaeda may be the most visible symbol of global salafist-jihadism, while Hamas, as arguably the most politically successful Brotherhood offshoot and the custodian of active Palestinian Islamism, imposes itself as an actor to be accounted for by all Islamists worldwide. Still, an apparent structural antagonism opposes the two. The contrast is dramatically sharpened when Hamas’s roots in religious ideology are de-emphasized and those of al-Qaeda are highlighted. If, according to this view, Hamas is to be understood as an expression of Arab resistance to occupation, and the last incarnation of the struggle of Palestinian society to oppose—even if self-destructively—acts of oppression and dispossession, Hamas’s stated Islamist ideology has to be largely ignored; it is an artifact of the need to mobilize and solicit support, in light of the failures of other political propositions, whether internationalist, nationalist, or patriotic. Hamas’s declared gradualist approach toward Islamizing Palestinian society might thus be dismissed as rhetorical, instrumental, or utopian—and hence, as unrealizable. Hamas’s localized focus, on the other hand, can be trusted as consistent with Palestinian history and national aspirations, and therefore as reflective of the true character of the organization.

By contrast, al-Qaeda’s militants could correctly be seen as ideologically detached from the suffering of the Palestinians; its sporadic use of the question of Palestine and the festering conflict there could thus be termed both insincere and utilitarian, aimed at gaining recruits through a most effective bait-and-switch method—catch by using Palestine as bait, keep and use later for the Islamic struggle for the caliphate.

Those who interpret away Hamas’s ideological posture often do so in the hopes that Hamas might serve as a potential interlocutor in the resumption of the elusive Middle East peace process. These analysts may expect Hamas, as an organization, to be susceptible to a positive evolution in the direction of moderation. Thus Hamas would presumably constitute a firewall or a bulwark against al-Qaeda’s efforts to establish itself in the Palestinian scene.

Naturally, the existence of pragmatists (and opportunists) in Hamas’s ranks is well within the realm of possibilities. The pronouncements of Hamas leaders—notably Khalid Mishal3 from his Damascus exile, but also Ismail Haniyyah in Gaza4—often leave ample room for analysis that supports the expectations of those who would like to see Hamas play a constructive role in the peace process. More significantly, the actions of Hamas in repeatedly cracking down on the salafist-jihadists within the Gaza Strip seem, at face value, to confirm the Palestinian movement’s anti-al-Qaeda credentials. However, focusing solely on the (still unrealized) promises of Hamas’s pragmatists, and on Hamas’s violent response toward the incoherent salafist-jihadist challenges to its own rule, effectively serves to conceal the long-term effect that Hamas has had on Gazan society in general, and on their own militants and ideology in particular.

Hamas’s leadership has been trying to hold two positions at the same time. On the one hand, they have issued statements declaring that it is not their intention to establish an Islamic state or emirate in Gaza. They’ve additionally indicated their willingness to enter into a lasting and potentially renewable truce of seven or even fifty years with Israel, based on a complete withdrawal to the 1967 borders. On the other hand, they have permitted—and in some instances, even encouraged—a broad-based discourse among Hamas’s rank and file, in its broadcast media, and on the Internet, championing the effective Islamization of Gazan society. They stress further that any perceived delays in implementing measures consistent with the Islamist understanding of Islamic jurisprudence are only temporary, and that the putative truce that Hamas offers Israel is by necessity only provisional, even if its period is extended, until the means of eradicating the Jewish state are secured.

Three different analyses have competed in attempting to reconcile the apparent contradictions in Hamas’s dual posture. The first is that Hamas’s inclination towards compromise with Israel is potentially real, and that the leadership’s permissiveness toward the more bellicose undercurrent is a means of mollifying frustrations at the movement’s more intransigent base. The second view understands Hamas’s language of compromise essentially to be a cover to improve its operational mobilization and readiness, and to confuse and divide its enemy. The third view is indifferent to the intentions of both Hamas’s leadership and its base, and assumes that once Hamas is effectively engaged in a settlement process, however insincerely, the dynamics of that process will facilitate further engagement, hopefully productively.

Irrespective of which analysis ultimately proves correct, the current dual posture Hamas has settled on is incrementally shifting Gazan society and culture toward the embrace of more radical formulations of Islamism. Even in the most optimistic analysis, which hopes that the Hamas leadership is using ideological radicalism merely as a means of appeasing and securing its base, the increasing radicalization of Hamas’s militants and base will likely work to dramatically curtail the leadership’s ability to maneuver in the future. Meanwhile, this doctrinal position and the realities of Hamas’s Islamizing policies are preparing the social, cultural, and political ground within Gaza for the future embrace of explicitly more radical ideologies and political agendas. This dynamic, needless to say, becomes all the more powerful in the event that Hamas’s leadership becomes weakened, and by extension, its gradualist approach toward Islamization discredited.

This scenario—Gazan society’s full-throated embrace of intransigent and totalitarian Islamism—represents the declared hopes of many salafist ideologues, and they have been actively pursuing this goal in their dealings with Hamas, and Gaza as a whole, in recent years. Indeed, the salafi-jihadists have sought to capitalize on the tension between Hamas’s increasingly radicalized base, and its pragmatic-leaning leadership, in hopes of reaching one of two outcomes: either force the leadership to adopt an ideological and political agenda consistent with al-Qaeda’s, or drive Hamas to implosion in the hopes of creating opportunities for the emergence of even more radical alternatives within Gaza and elsewhere.

In recent years, this salafi-jihadist strategy has been instrumental in shaping the dynamics of the confrontation between Hamas and al-Qaeda.5 The intensity of the verbal conflict between these two rivals has ebbed and flowed as a function of events on the ground. Nonetheless, salafi-jihadism has been most responsible for setting the agenda and terms of this rivalry. Both the symbolic leadership and the ideologues of al-Qaeda have engaged in advising, chastising, and condemning Hamas for various actions and positions it has taken. At times they have also praised the militants within Hamas’s ranks, and in other instances have even extended their praise to include the organization as a whole. Far fewer communications in this exchange have originated from Hamas. Occasionally, Hamas’s leadership has replied dismissively to al-Qaeda’s condemnations and invitations. But Hamas’s responses have been largely defensive, and far from coordinated. In one instance, it was left to a junior field commander to disparagingly answer Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, the alleged leader of the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, when Baghdadi called on Hamas militants to mutiny against their leadership.

Meanwhile, all of the salafist-jihadist movement’s communications to Hamas, whether in praise or challenge, have sought to push Hamas—and Gazan society as a whole along with it—toward the embrace of more radical social and political positions. In particular, salafist-jihadist ideologues, periodically joined by al-Qaeda’s leaders, have assaulted Hamas for its dereliction in adhering to four of their defining principles in, respectively, the political, social, international relations, and military realms.

(1) Politically, Hamas has refrained from declaring an Islamic state or emirate. Furthermore, Hamas has contested (and won) parliamentary elections. Hamas is thus in blatant violation of the salafist notion of al-hakimiyyah—the recognition of the sole jurisdiction of divine revelation in legislation and political authority.6 Salafist-jihadist ideologues are willing to recognize that circumstances can delay the declaration of an Islamic entity. In Iraq, where such an entity was declared, some salafist-jihadists refused to pledge allegiance to it on the grounds that the declaration was premature. They were not chastised. However, Hamas’s critics profess outrage at Hamas’s willing embrace of the political order of the Palestinian Authority. In their view, the alternative to an Islamic state should be no state at all, not the acceptance of an order that transgresses Islamist principles.

Hamas’s answer to this challenge refrains from any defense of the Palestinian Authority as a political system. One Hamas-affiliated major religious scholar provided an apologetic explanation for this: Hamas Members of Parliament participate in the legislative council to ensure that no law that runs contrary to Islamic precepts is promulgated.7 Participation in the Palestinian Authority political framework thus falls under the doctrinal category of makruh—detestable actions that nonetheless might be needed to secure the larger, collective interests of Islam. This position may in fact be informed by fatwas that Lebanese salafist clerics have proclaimed in order to allow salafist voters to participate in national elections and to help deny Hezbollah a political victory. In any case, it constitutes a defense of Hamas’s actions, not of the electoral political system to which Hamas, as a political organization, claims to adhere. As such, it underlines the merely temporary accommodation of Hamas to this Palestinian political system. Additionally, it also underscores that the rivalry between Hamas and salafist-jihadism is rooted in differing assessments of their respective current interests, and not in principle.

(2) Socially, Hamas has indeed engaged in a process of Islamization, surrounding Gazan society within an Islamic framework—from banning alcohol consumption for Muslims, to closing entertainment and other establishments deemed un-Islamic, to fostering and promoting activities focused on spreading Islamic sensibilities and values.8 By pursuing this path, Hamas appears to be striving to fulfill considerable aspects of the salafist understanding of the concept of al-amr bi-l-maruf wa-l-nahi an al-munkar—the call for virtue and the admonishing of vice. Still, salafist critics point out that Hamas’s social agenda is compromised by the Palestinian movement’s compliance with civil law and justified on the basis that it serves the public interest. In the salafist view, a purist, more authentic implementation of the sharia ought to be restricted to the measures stipulated by Islamic jurisprudence, and declared to be, in effect, solely in obedience to the divine order and not man-made law.

In reaction to this criticism, Hamas supporters once again haven’t sought to contend with the salafi-jihadists by articulating an alternative principle. Instead, they’ve complained that their salafist critics are holding Hamas to a higher standard than the one that’s been applied by salafists virtually anywhere else (with the exception of Saudi Arabia, from where much of such criticism originates). Hamas also invokes the approach of tadarruj (graduality) or tadarrujiyyah (gradualism) in its multi-faceted efforts to educate Palestinian society in Islamic law and to introduce punishments mandated by Islamic jurisprudence. Most of Hamas’s salafist-jihadist critics appear to reject this gradualism as an unwarranted historical innovation in Islamic jurisprudence that is not rooted in the pure ways and practices of Islam’s venerable ancestors. In response to these salafist-jihadist criticisms, Hamas’s defenders resort themselves to salafist principles and modes of argumentation, seeking to provide counter-examples from the actions of the Prophet Muhammad that justify their gradualist strategy. As such, Hamas’s ideological champions have sought to portray it as agreeing in principle with salafist-jihadist doctrine, but disagreeing merely on procedural aspects.

(3) With salafist-jihadism as a whole presently consumed with attacking and disparaging Shiism in its rituals and beliefs, it is not surprising that it also denounces Hamas for its cordial relations and alliance with Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria. (Salafi-jihadist ideologues reject Hamas’s relations with the former two on the basis of their Shia character, and they reject Hamas’s connections to Syria on the basis of the Alawite sectarian identity of the state’s leader and his inner circle.) Hamas’s relations with these actors, compounded with Hamas’s stated and implied rejection of al-Qaeda overtures, amount to a complete transgression against the salafist-jihadist understanding of the concept of al-wala wa-l-bara, (allegiance to Muslims, and rejection of non-Muslims).9 Further to this, a few of Hamas’s harsher salafist critics have even accused it of being a propagator of Shiism in the Sunni world.

As one consequence of the pressures of this salafist assault, the rhetoric of Hamas’s defenders on the Shiite question has changed dramatically in the past few years. Whereas they once defended Hamas’s alliances with Shiites on the basis of the principle of pan-Islamic solidarity, nowadays they provide a more nuanced explanation, claiming that such alliances are a practical necessity in the absence of alternatives. Furthermore, a broad-based effort to reconfirm Hamas’s Sunni credentials seems to be underway, with Hamas-affiliated forums replete with Sunni doctrinal works (with a preponderance of salafist standards), and with the occasional denunciation of Shiite faith and practice. Hamas’s change of perspective on the Shiite question is also evident in the virtual absence of Hezbollah flags at Hamas events, in contrast with a recent past in which these yellow flags competed with Hamas’s own. Once again, Hamas strives to cast its position as fundamentally in agreement with its salafist critics, albeit with operational distinctions.

(4) The core objection that many salafist-jihadists address to Hamas is the latter’s current curtailment of active military jihad. Long gone are the days when Hamas used to dispatch its suicide bombers for lethal operations in Israel. Also long gone are the days when Hamas persistently launched its homemade rockets to hit random targets in Israeli towns near Gaza. Instead, Hamas, its Islamist critics complain, is now engaged in interdicting resistance operations that salafist-jihadist cells intend to undertake, serving effectively as a border guard for Israel.

Hamas supporters are seemingly unanimous in their rejection of this salafi-jihadist objection. Hamas, from their perspective, has and will engage in jihad when it deems it necessary and useful. When it does, it clearly has divine support: popular accounts of the participation of an army of angels in the December 2008–January 2009 confrontation with the IDF are exchanged and accepted as articles of truth. From Hamas’s perspective, the Cast Lead confrontation alone ought to humble or discredit its critics. Here, too, Hamas’s response reveals that it is in basic agreement with its salafist critics on matters of principle.

In the aftermath of Hamas’s suppression of salafi-jihadist elements at the Ibn Taymiyya mosque in Gaza in August 2009, Hamas’s salafist critics have ramped-up their attacks on the Palestinian Islamist movement. The fact that Qassam fighters participated in the suppression of Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi’s group has meant that all of Hamas—not just its leadership—has been the target of the salafist-jihadist’s wrath. Islamist cyberspace has since been flooded with a wave of anti-Hamas publications with such titles as The Truth about Hamas, The Dissipation of Confusion about Hamas, An Alert on the Lies of Hamas, and Hamas Destroys its Image. The arguments presented in these tracts are repetitive and simple. This, in addition to the ubiquity of these anti-Hamas tracts, may in part account for their apparent ideological potency.

Yet despite salafism’s virulent anti-Hamas rhetoric, it would be a mistake to view the two movements as irreconcilably at odds with each other. In fact, even though Hamas has demonstrated its willingness to defend its political interests with violence, Hamas in recent years has grown closer to its salafi-jihadist critics than ever before in terms of its ideological outlook. This has been, in part, a consequence of Hamas permitting and even encouraging through its Islamization policies the spread of salafist sentiments and ideology within its ranks. Hamas’s approach has thus created an increasingly unstable ideological situation in Gaza that will, at the very least, pose challenges for the future rule of Hamas’s current leadership, unless it, or the next generation of Hamas leaders, moves openly to embrace salafist ideology for themselves.

Furthermore, and perhaps far more crucially, in its efforts to justify and to defend its policies and its rule in Gaza, Hamas has consistently conceded ideological primacy to its salafist-jihadist detractors, albeit indirectly and reluctantly. This, in effect, is bringing about the convergence and homogenization of the Islamist universe within Gaza, in a framework defined increasingly by salafism, and not by Hamas. In fact, the nature of the rivalry between the gradualist and revolutionary forms of Islamist militancy is fast becoming less about principle and content, and more about method and form, with salafist-jihadism successfully promoting its precepts as normative. Seen in this light, Hamas can hardly be considered an ideological bulwark or firewall against salafi-jihadism.

These developments in Gaza have potentially far-reaching consequences for Islamism’s future as a whole. Today, the Islamist scene is still dominated by two major ideological and organizational trends: organizations such as Hamas that are born out of the Muslim Brotherhood and that remain more-or-less within its sphere; and formations adhering to one of the multiple expressions of salafism. In the competition between these two broad-based trends, the Brotherhood, as the oldest and most well-established of the two movements, may still have certain organizational advantages. But salafist ideology has a distinctly more potent and coherent outlook that, in many contexts, appears to have gained the momentum.

That salafism seems to have seized the ideological upper-hand in Gaza is potentially indicative of where the overall struggle between the Brotherhood and salafism is heading. After all, Hamas is the ultimate Muslim Brotherhood success story: Never before has a component of the Brotherhood movement gained and wielded power for as long as Hamas has. It is also extremely significant that this Brotherhood success has occurred in Palestine, with its symbolic and catalytic power. Yet despite these successes, Hamas has been unable to impose its Brotherhood-inspired ideology on Gazan society as the essential expression of Islamism. Hamas and the Brotherhood as a whole have furthermore been incapable of supplying any substantive ideological alternative to salafism other than the claim that they are proceeding in the same direction that salafism is, albeit gradually. Salafist ideology thus remains effectively unchecked by the Brotherhood; in fact, if the developments in Gaza are any indication, the Brotherhood’s gradualist approach has only served to clear the way for salafism’s coming ascendancy in the Islamist universe.

Keywords: Hamas, Al-Qaeda, Salafi-Jihadi, Gaza, Muslim Brotherhood.

1 A prominent illustration of the ongoing assault is demonstrated by al-Falluja Islamic Forums, the flagship of the salafist-jihadist web presence, which has since maintained a dedicated section in Arabic, with the title “forum of the media raid of the martyr Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi.”
2 A demonstration of this latter transformation survives in the name of the Islamic Jihad Organization, which was founded in the 1970s in Palestine, in a cultural scene that required that the organization designate itself as Islamic. Without this qualifier, a “jihad organization” would’ve been in principle indistinguishable from its non-Islamist rivals.
3 See for example, a television interview in Arabic, in which Mishal underlines the “fundamental differences” between Hamas and salafist-jihadism.
4 See for example “Ismail Haniyah: Hamas does not want to establish an Islamic Emirate in Gaza” [in Arabic], 14 December 2009,
5 For a review of the phases through which this conflict has evolved, see H. Mneimneh, The Jihadist International: Al Qaeda's Advance in the Levant (May 1, 2009),,
6 See for example “A debate on al-hakimiyyah and the Emirate: Hamas and Jund Ansar Allah as examples” [in Arabic] on Muntadayat Shumukh al-Islam, a prominent Salafist-Jihadist bulletin board,
7 Samih Dallul, a Hamas-supported cleric and host of religious programs on al Aqsa’s television station engaged Hamas’s critics at numerous occasions with an elaboration of the position. See, for example, the debate chronicled on shabakat al-rayan li-l-hiwar, between Dallul and a salafist critic,
8 An example of a critical report on these measures can be found in “Hamas products in the Strip: A self-styled call for virtue gang chases the youth and the flags of Fath” (October 4, 2007),
9 An example of the Salafist critique of Hamas on this subject is presented in Arabic at “Gaining allies does not justify aggressing al-wala wal-bara’” (February 18, 2008),
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