HAMAS is part of the Palestinian movement against the Israeli aggression. It is at the same time part of the international movement of the Muslim Brotherhood. Any discussion of HAMAS must be based on an even-handed consideration of these two elements. These two realities define the position of the Islamist Palestinian movement, both internally and in the diaspora, and determine the scope of its role in public life.
Two other interconnected factors should also be considered: To include HAMAS among the Palestinian rejectionist forces does not eliminate the essential difference between its rejection, which emanates from its religious beliefs, and the rejection of the secular PLO factions. And the loyalty of the Palestinian movement to the international leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and its commitment to adhere to its general policy does not prevent the international leadership from endorsing the specificity of the Palestinian case and permitting to the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood what it would not permit to other branches.

A Static Base of Beliefs

HAMAS abides by the same system of beliefs as any Muslim Brotherhood movement anywhere in the world: the Muslim creed characterized by conservative orthodoxy. The conduct of HAMAS indicates that the movement leans toward the more conservative strains within the international movement and stands to the right of most other factions. Since it is a conformist movement that follows in the path of the predecessors or aslaf, it embraces the integrity of Muslim doctrine and does not allow its subjection to exegesis or disputation. It maintains a hard-line stance with regard to beliefs and social matters according to the Sunnah or orthodox tradition. Thus, like its peers in the Muslim Brotherhood, HAMAS banishes the argumentations of those who have challenged the fanatics of their times, especially the theses they advanced that place mind and reason over the dependence on al-ghayb and al-ghaybiyya1 (the Unseen), and does not allow its adherents to study the rich and extensive chronicles that flourished within the context of what came to be known as 'ilm al-kalaam - the Muslim religious thought par excellence.
The traditionalism and dogmatism that curb all aspirations for enlightenment have resulted in a dislocation between HAMAS and the rest of the Palestinian people - secular, but also many religious people, who are disturbed by its religious and social fanaticism, but who are, nevertheless, drawn to its hard-line political stance.
However, the extent of the divergences between the Palestinian Islamic movements and the rest of the population are not as great as assumed. The boundaries between the different segments of the religious, or between the religious and the secular, are not so pronounced. On the Palestinian scene, these boundaries mix and merge, even within the same person. Religious tendencies or social conservatism exist among the secular; similarly, there are those among HAMAS who vaunt their faith in the Unseen, yet adopt a pragmatic approach in order to achieve earthly gains. In a society where secularism is not fully entrenched, religious beliefs continue to impact public as well as personal lives. This will not go away, regardless of the rise of a religious political movement.
In other words, the presence of HAMAS on the Palestinian scene is shaped in conjunction with the developments in Palestinian society: 1) the influence of its surroundings, which stretch deep into both Arab and Muslim domains; and 2) the failure of the PLO to arrive at an acceptable solution to the national cause. It is clear that this presence fluctuates in accordance with the rise and fall in importance of these joint factors, but will not fall below the dictates of the developments within the Palestinian context. This means that it is not possible for HAMAS to cancel the existence of other factions, and vice versa. Therefore, infighting will not secure an absolute win for any of the concerned parties, and there is no escape from working towards coexistence and dialogue, and going back to the ballot box and the sharing of power. Would it be possible in the current Palestinian reality to expect a course of action that would not squander the efforts of an entire society or debilitate it? The answer requires focusing on the discrepancies between HAMAS and the other PLO factions, and exploring the possibilities of bridging their differences for an eventual joint action within the existing parameters.
The first and most difficult gap to bridge is that between those who depend on the Unseen to determine their conduct on earth and those who depend on realism. The Unseen for the faithful is eternal and immutable, and those who refuse to believe in it are considered kuffar (infidels or disbelievers). They tend to view the present through the eyes of those who are gone and do not give weight to the visible transformations in the realm of reality. The realists - religious or not - note the developments in the material world and shun absolutes. They replace the reliance on the Unseen with a reliance on mind and reason, and see the present through the eyes of their contemporaries. Attempts to reconcile the two approaches have always led to the conclusion that there is no middle road: either the Unseen does not control public life, especially in secularized societies, or societies will suffer from stagnation or even regression.
The second gap is the societal discrepancies, which basically are linked to and emanate from the divergences in belief, though not exclusively. Normal religiousness can lead to conservative social conduct, but can also allow for openness. Only religious fanaticism leads to fanatic social conduct that constrains non-fanatics, religious and secular alike. But there are also factors that are not religion-based that shape social conduct, and these affect societies where religious political movements exist, as well as societies where they do not. In the Palestinian case, we can isolate one factor that is specific to this context: the perceived threat to the existence of the Palestinian people since the inception and execution of the Zionist project to transform Palestine into a state exclusively for Jews. Cleaving to the inherited body of knowledge and tradition became for the Palestinians one way of preserving their existence and their national characteristics from dispersal. It should be noted that the gap here between HAMAS and the other forces is smaller than expected.

Politics Is Less Difficult

The third difference is political. It is, naturally, linked to the former two, but not exclusively. The influence of current conditions on the political sphere is deeper and more far-reaching than its effect on the religious or the social. And, specifically in the Palestinian case, which is governed by its struggle against the Israeli occupation, these very present effects allow the divergences between the various forces to narrow, and a common denominator that could be conducive to common actions, mutual understanding and the desire for cooperation to gradually expand.
Thus, in the political sphere, the disagreements between the PLO forces - characterized as secular - and the Islamic movement HAMAS - with its religious attributes - in essence revolve around international legitimacy and its prerogatives. The disagreement with FATEH and its followers becomes more acute when it comes to the intentions of the former to forge a political settlement with Israel based on two states for two peoples. HAMAS' rejection of such a solution springs from its rejection of international legitimacy and its tenacity in upholding what it considers divine legitimacy, which does not permit the recognition of any rights for the Jewish people in the land of Palestine.
It is certain, however, that HAMAS is fully aware that the present conditions are not conducive to rejectionism, and that the Palestinians' call for a settlement must persist - even with Israel's continued attempts to block a just solution - for the sake of containing the catastrophe that has befallen them, and in order to salvage what they can of their rights, their land and their national existence. But because HAMAS had headed the rejectionist forces, it was unprepared to deal with the new parameters and exaggerated its reliance on religious dogma in order to validate its continued rejectionism, and to expand the circle of its supporters who come from among those disheartened by and disappointed in other factions. But, in point of fact, and notwithstanding its overemphasis on religion, this political Islamic movement did not neglect to form constructive relations with forces and regimes that embraced a peaceful settlement.

Liberating HAMAS from Rejectionism

Would it be possible to alter this rejectionist stance and to prevail upon HAMAS to move from opposing the settlement efforts to getting involved in them? In answer to this question, it should be recalled that liberating HAMAS from its rejectionism is the key to finding a stable political common denominator between the forces acting on the local Palestinian arena, and to providing hope for the preservation of unity and the avoidance of existential crises. For this, a number of factors should be considered. The first is that the linkage between religious beliefs and political conduct is not difficult to dismantle. Muslim tradition abounds in examples where religious beliefs had to be bypassed out of political necessity. One example is the Hudaybiyya truce, where the Prophet Muhammad deleted from an agreement he was forced to sign with the infidels in Mecca the reference to himself as the Prophet of God, although acknowledging that is an imperative for becoming a Muslim. The Prophet also suspended temporarily the hajj, although going to hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam.
The implication here is that there is not one among the HAMAS people, with their varying degrees of fanaticism, who can claim a deeper attachment to the Muslim creed than the Prophet of Islam. This leads to a two-fold conclusion: 1) There are those among HAMAS who rely on religion to achieve worldly benefits; and 2) there are those who are genuine in their beliefs and who will not fail to dismantle religious fanaticism in favor of political openness when the right conditions are available.
Another element to consider: A discussion with religious forces over matters of creed tends to block the chances of reaching common denominators. This is not true of politics, and that is why it is necessary to always lure HAMAS to a political dialogue and to eschew matters pertaining to the Unseen. For the time being, HAMAS has been avoiding pushing its religious extremism and conservative social conduct on the population. This reticence to give them high priority points to a certain pragmatism, and gives a glimmer of hope for the possibility of HAMAS reaching common ground with secular forces.
Since the Palestinian Islamic movement took up resistance against the Israeli occupation 20 years ago, HAMAS ended up heading the rejectionist front and achieved prominence as one of the most radical movements to oppose a political settlement involving recognition of the State of Israel or ceding any part of Palestine to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, HAMAS did not remain static. Its opposition to Oslo was followed by its refusal to participate in any of the national organizations that emanated from Oslo. HAMAS refused to participate in the 1996 elections, calling for their boycott, and continued to refuse to participate in PLO organizations. Yet HAMAS did not stop cooperating with factions that supported Oslo and did not refuse to conclude understandings of one type or another with FATEH that has established the Oslo order in Palestine. With the second intifada in 2000, HAMAS took a step that it had not taken during the first intifada: It joined the National and Islamic Forces, an umbrella group of 14 factions that coordinated the affairs of the intifada and most of which supported the Oslo agreement. At the same time, HAMAS began to scale back its participation in the group of 10 factions opposed to Oslo. At the end of the day, and through worldly rather than otherworldly factors, HAMAS participated in the legislative elections, obtaining a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council - a body of government emanating from the Oslo agreement. Later, out of pragmatic considerations, HAMAS formed a unity government with FATEH in accordance with the Mecca agreement, and found itself propelled along the thorny path of looking for a settlement to the conflict.

How Long the Road to Realism?

Throughout the decades, the Muslim Brotherhood stayed removed from the evolutionary current that was taking place on the political stage. Even after Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, they remained outside the current events and avoided confrontation with the occupation. When the 1987 intifada broke out, the Palestinian Muslim Brothers took their most important historical step by deciding to give precedence to the resistance to the occupation, and established their resistance "arm," HAMAS. This was the genesis of the subsequent events.
Thus, the involvement of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood in the action against the occupation has been dictated by the conditions of the age, after they had long been preoccupied with bygone matters. It is the duty of nationalists, especially progressives, to work with the Muslim movement, to push HAMAS towards liberating itself from its political fanaticism, from its conduct alienating it from the spirit of the age, and from its inability to balance between what is essential and what is possible to achieve. Take the recognition of Israel: HAMAS' refusal to recognize Israel is not a position to be judged solely by whether it is right or wrong; it is a disavowal of an entire age, its values, laws and orders, and of international legitimacy for which the existence of Israel and its right to continue to exist are vital elements. Furthermore, it places the recognition of Israel as a condition that Palestinians must meet in order to retrieve some of their rights and land. One marvels at how a political power can reject the reality and logic of its age, its legitimacies and values, and then persist in asking the people of this age to treat it and its people with equity.
It is my conviction that the involvement of HAMAS - albeit late - in the preoccupations of the times will gradually ease the Islamic movement down from its heaven to earth, instead of it raising the earth to its heaven. All it will take is for HAMAS to adopt some political realism. It will make mistakes and will experience the pain that FATEH experienced when it made the switch from rejectionism to the search for a peaceful settlement. Those who wish for HAMAS to evolve must not give in to the ugly enmity that is inflamed by impatience arising from interests divorced from Palestinian national interests.
In return, every HAMAS member must realize what has become impossible to ignore: that the survival of HAMAS as a respectable political force is contingent upon its respecting the convictions of others, and ceasing to rely on what it attributes to heaven in its dealings with earthly issues. Earthly matters are dealt with according to the criteria of our world and not by guidance from the world of the Unseen. It is certain that many in HAMAS are looking to bridge the gap between their movement and the spirit of the age. And the willingness of other forces to adopt the dialogue approach with HAMAS can only solidify their influence.

* This article was originally published in the Arabic quarterly Falastinyat, No.2 (Ramallah). It was translated and abridged by kind permission of the writer.

1 The ultimate truth that transcends our senses, upon which humans base their knowledge and experience. It connotes, among other things, the existence of a Power that stands beyond our knowledge and beyond our sight - the Unseen.

At the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, June 2007. (Photo by Muhammad Abed /