Why Hamas won

Jim Lederman
8 February 2006

The Palestinian election result is not a surprise if read through the prism of Arab political history and culture, says Jim Lederman.

The electoral victory of the militant Islamist movement Hamas in the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) on 25 January 2006 sent shockwaves through western capitals. It need not have done so: the inability to predict the election results correctly is but the latest in a long list of failures by western analysts to understand events in the modern middle east or actions by individuals connected to the region.

There is a better way to comprehend Hamas's triumph, one that can also illuminate past western "intelligence failures" – from the downfall of the Shah in Iran (1979) to the start of the first Palestinian intifada (1987), from the destruction of the World Trade Center (2001) to the rioting in France (2005). In place of recurrent, blind "shock" it offers a model that focuses on a key category for making sense of the region, particularly the Arab world: political culture.

Although the circumstances are singular, the political and diplomatic trauma that has followed Hamas's victory recapitulates elements familiar from these earlier events: widespread false assumptions prior to the event are followed by a "surprise", and – after a short period of amazed confusion – attempts to blame those who had failed to predict the outcome.

In each case, the identification of supposed technical or personal failures takes the place of re-examining the underlying presumptions that had led to the intelligence failures; and a desire to fashion conclusions that support the analysts' prevailing political ideology takes the place of questioning whether the ideology itself might be part of the problem.

These flaws are vividly apparent in the Hamas case, where the organisation's potential for at least a narrow victory was missed by analysts and diplomats who preferred to talk only to elites or – if they left their offices and encountered real voters at all – filtered what they heard through their own preconceptions.

Behind such short-term errors, however, lies a much larger and longer canvas of western illusion about the Arab world. Foremost among the false assumptions that western observers apply is the belief that history is linear, and that the universal triumph of liberal democracy is inevitable. The west, for more than a century, has consistently failed to take into account the magnetic pull of atavism for residents of middle-eastern nations that are in political disarray.

Throughout the Arab world, secular, nationalist ideologies have made some headway in recent decades, but they have never been strong enough to compete with traditional values in times of crisis. The very idea of the nation-state is a recent one in Arab politics – and one for which there is no precedent in the classical literature to which the atavistically minded always refer in moments of confusion and doubt. The idea that there might be a "state of the nation" to consider in the daily run of public discourse was only introduced to the public by European colonial powers during the 20th century. But it has yet to gain much traction among common voters.

Evidence clearly shows that Arab political events are most heavily influenced by events "below" (the most local) and "above" (the pan-national Arab or Islamic) level. For example, in the Palestinian election campaign Hamas never spoke about statehood or about liberating the "state of Palestine"; and it has always described both Israel and the occupied territories as a Muslim waqf (trust) that had to be redeemed for Islam – not just for the residents.

Polls that have focussed on attitudes, rather than specific party affiliation, have consistently shown that within the Arab world, national loyalty is the least important form of personal, social identification. The highest forms of identification (in descending order of importance) are: the family, the clan or extended family, the tribe, the religion, the region, and finally the state.

A Gallup poll for the BBC conducted in 2005 illustrates the point. In Egypt, which arguably has the world's longest continuous history of national cultural identity within unaltered borders, 87% of the population put loyalty to religion as their most important form of large-group identification; 11% identified most with their region, and only 2% were nationalists. Consider, then, how much more this attitude applied to Palestine, which has never been an independent state. It was Hamas's ability to concentrate almost solely on these two levels – the local, and the pan-Arab or pan-Islamic – that was a key to its political success.

However, an even greater analytic failing than the focus on the novelty of nationalism is a refusal to take into account the atavistic elements of Islamic and Arab political life that have consistently been the most influential in determining political outcomes over a period of more than 1,200 years.

Dignity vs self-fulfilment

Although Islam is viewed almost entirely as a religious revolution, the change that Mohammed wrought on political thinking over a huge swathe of the world was no less important than was the combined impact of the Magna Carta, the Reformation and the secular French revolution in Europe. Yet the differences between western political and social concepts, and those prevalent in the middle east are really quite stark and simple.

Europe has spent hundreds of years, dozens of wars and millions of lives in an attempt to smash tribal loyalties and identification. The technical objective has been to create a single pan-regional – and now a pan-national – identity that is independent of any single religious or ethnic affiliation. The political aim has been to use that unity to pursue the search for a common and accepted formula that will protect individuals' opportunities to achieve the Aristotelian ideal of individual happiness through self-fulfilment.

Mohammed, though, preached a very different concept. He accepted extended family ties and tribalism as the basis for human social organisation. While he was no less aware than the Enlightenment thinkers of Europe of the destructiveness, brutality and inherent immorality that accompanied tribal warfare, he sought a different solution to the problem. Unlike the Europeans he sought not to smash tribal governance, but to unite the tribes into a collective, voluntary, single umma under the umbrella of a common God-given law (the sharia), which would regulate social order.

Again, unlike Europe, the epicentre of the umma would be a common religious belief. An even more significant difference between Mohammed and later Europeans, though, was his social objective. Having accepted tribalism as the basis for society, he was not interested in creating a framework for individual self-fulfilment that would have undermined family bonds. Instead, he sought a means by which any believer could live out his life in dignity.

Mohammed's political philosophy was simple. Membership in the umma and unqualified acceptance of God's law, as it had been revealed to him, was a precondition for, and a means to achieve, dignity. The other side of the coin was that non-believers would have to accept "dhimmitude," second-class status and public humiliation. Those deemed to be heretics and apostates including atheists, pantheists, and idol-worshippers could be condemned to death.

If one listens carefully to western and middle-eastern political rhetoric today, the word "dignity" is never mentioned in western political parlance, while the term "self-fulfilment" is totally absent from Arab debate. In other words, the west and the Arabs have talked past each other. And therein lies a core reason for the political misunderstandings, much of the violent, international Islamist terrorism of recent years – and even the victory of Hamas. Every plank in Hamas's platform is implicitly or explicitly related to the achievement of dignity. To my knowledge, not one western party in recent years has even mentioned the word in its list of objectives.

The Hamas argument over relations with Israel, for example, went something like this:

  • under sharia law, Jews are dhimmi and undeserving of equal status in the Muslim world
  • thus, Zionism is a form of oppression by the undeserving
  • sharia is the basis of both group stability and individual dignity
  • therefore, Israel's very existence is both a threat to the umma as a collective and an affront to an individual Muslims' dignity. For those reasons, no negotiation and no compromise with the Zionists is possible.

It difficult to describe just how visceral and pervasive the issue of dignity is in Arab society. For example, westerners often use the terms "dignity", "respect", and "honour" interchangeably. However, in Arab culture they are very different concepts indeed. Dignity is what is proffered unquestioningly out of duty or love; respect is demanded by persons in positions of power who have the capacity to inflict punishment for disobedience; honour is earned by the individual or group.

Upon his death, Mohammed's political vision was brought to fulfilment with the creation of the now-mythological caliphate. In theory, the caliph was to be a devout, strong leader, guided by a group of theologians (the shura) who would ensure dignity and equal justice for all believers. Arguably, the greatest historical trauma for Arabs was the collapse of the caliphate a millennium ago – not because of some external aggression from without, but because of schisms and personal ambition within the umma.

The dream of return

Since this collapse, the Arab world has been beset by internal conflicts. But the dream of a people united under God has remained an ideal. Like Orthodox Jews who believe in the messiah and Christians who pray for the second-coming of Christ, many Muslims have held fast to the ideal of a true caliphate as an almost tangible, achievable objective. All Islamic movements today from al-Qaida to Hamas base their case for legitimacy on their assertion that they are the natural successors to the caliphs.

The best description of the impact of the loss of the caliphate on Arab politics is by Ibn Khaldun, arguably the greatest intellectual in Arab history. A judge and skilled diplomat, the father of modern historiography and sociology, Ibn Khaldun's seminal work, the late 14th-century Muqaddimah was written when the once-vibrant Arab intellectual world had settled into decline and morbidity.

His bitter and incisive criticisms of failed leaders – little read today, either by Arabs or westerners – are as valid now as they were six centuries ago.

One of his central theses was that until a new caliphate could be established, the Arab world would be condemned to living under serial dynasties – each of which would last no longer than four generations.

The first generation would come out of the austerity of the desert, pure in its orthodox religious beliefs and bound together by what Ibn Khaldun described as asabiya (solidarity, group feeling, or group consciousness). This group feeling was the source of both authority and social stability.

To Ibn Khaldun, solidarity was the product of the dignity proffered to all within the group. By the second generation, however, corrupted by urban life, group feeling would begin to decline. The new leader of the dynasty would not personally know the old ways and have to rely on advisors.

By the third generation, the group would become further divorced from its roots. High taxation used to support profligate living by the leader would create further dissension in the ranks and a subsequent loss of dignity by group members.

By the fourth generation, group weakness would become so severe that a new tribe, bound by strong group feelings, would come out of the desert and be able to seize control.

This paradigm is eminently applicable to a wide range of contemporary Arab experience, not least the Palestine election. Hamas was able to supplement its lessons by drawing on a further side-effect of the creation of group feeling: the tendency to categorise individuals into clearly distinct categories of good and bad. Hamas, for example, stereotyped Fatah's leaders as having been contaminated by the venal and profligate "urbanism" that Ibn Khaldun had deplored, while the movement portrayed itself as a tightly-knit band of austere and devout believers who had emerged from the political wilderness to claim its rightful legitimacy.

Indeed, an examination of the pre-balloting rhetoric reveals that Hamas had only two talking-points: the issue of dignity, and the need to consolidate group consciousness in the face of external and internal threats. Immediate questions, such as domestic corruption, welfare, the Israeli occupation or perceived American colonialism, were merely subsets of the two much broader, atavistic concerns.

Between Ibn Khaldun and Hamas

It is important to note that both these issues – dignity, and group-belonging – are, at heart, founded on emotion. A person must feel that he or she is being treated with dignity and that he or she really belongs to the group. As a result, and in keeping with the experiences of Islamic movements elsewhere, Hamas concentrated on two projects.

First, it set out to convince voters that they would be treated with dignity and that they would be fully-fledged members of a self-selected group if they voted for the party.

Second, it carefully chose which of its opponents' negative characteristics it would highlight in order to gain the maximum electoral effect. In many cases, it could select enemies to be despised, highlight opponents' vulnerabilities, and hide its own vulnerabilities using the same subset. For example, it emphasised the waste and skimming in Fatah's use of donor monies. In the same breath, though, it also criticised western donors for their alleged heresies. All the while, it chose to ignore what otherwise would have been a source of indignity – the total dependence of both it and the Palestinian Authority on foreign donors for survival.

The Hamas political campaign was the most transparent and most extensively recorded exercise in Islamic political history. The real-time data now available, if they are organised properly, can also be used to clarify events that have taken place thousands of miles away – indeed, wherever Islamic movements have been active.

For example, acres of newsprint were devoted to the origins of the London transport bombs in July 2005 and the French suburban riots in October-November 2005. Commentators raised every known ill in the western social-science lexicon to explain these events – from lack of job opportunities to poor education. On closer examination, the reasons for Islamic political radicals wanting to kill themselves and innocent bystanders remain beyond such understandings.

Some bombers were rich, others poor; some well educated, others not; some semi-hermits, others seemingly open and friendly. Instead of just speculating, these same commentators might do well to examine the themes used by Hamas in order to analyse more accurately political Islam's remarkable organisational accomplishments and its ability to get its adherents to bend to its will.

In particular, the commentators would be advised to read the rhetoric Hamas used to mobilise the masses; and then compare sermons preached in mosques in London or Paris. They will find that the two forms of address employ the same themes of dignity and solidarity – and are full of the same allusions, stereotypes and metaphors – as those used in the open plazas and mosques in Gaza City or Jenin.

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