Hamas and its supporters are ‘beyond belief’

Hamas, thinking through the kind of prism that Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization would have avoided, has misread the situation

Updated - October 15, 2023 09:08 am IST

Published - October 13, 2023 12:16 am IST

Air strikes against Gaza city

Air strikes against Gaza city | Photo Credit: AFP

The opinion in the West on the current Israel-Hamas war is not as one-sided as its coverage by CNN might make you feel. CNN coverage is influenced by the American liberal stance, which like liberal stances everywhere, thrives on feel-good morality and umbrage with very little introspection. This is less the case in Europe, and, particularly in countries such as France, there is a lot of sympathy for the Palestinian cause and even some attempts to defend the rash incursion of Hamas forces into Israel on October 7, which was the immediate cause of the war.

Effect on the Palestinian cause

It is understood by many European observers that the Hamas attack — though most still consider it wrong and indefensible — was the consequence of the relentless spread of Israeli settlements, largely encouraged by the Netanyahu governments and condoned by allies such as the United States. Hamas, too, has very clearly stated that its aim is to drive back such new or recent settlements. This relentless and aggressive pressure by Israeli settlers, abetted by Israeli governments and condoned by global powers, is seen as resulting in the desperate attack by Hamas.

However, to my mind, the point is not who was more right and who was more wrong. The point is whether this war, which was finally caused by the Hamas attack on October 7 but also set up by Israeli settler aggression over the past few years, is going to solve anything or even help the Palestinian cause. The answer is no. If anything, it will harm the Palestinian cause.

Those who differ with me will note that, historically, Palestinians have had to indulge in drastic and violent acts to draw attention to their plight and the oppressive policies of Israel. They will point out that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), under Yasser Arafat’s leadership, used such ‘terrorist’ acts to focus world attention on the Palestinian problem, and without such actions the Oslo Accords would never have happened. The West would have looked the other way while the Palestinians were slowly airbrushed out of history.

The past and the present

But there is a difference between then and now, the PLO and Hamas. The perception of this difference is lost on most Muslims and perhaps a bit too obvious to most people in the West. The difference is religion. PLO under Yasser Arafat was fighting a secular battle for a nation-state against a state that, whatever its defenders might claim, is defined by religion. The fact that this secular and nationalist Palestinian struggle was largely ignored by the supposedly secular West was not lost on Muslims, and, I have always argued, it contributed to the rise of political Islam from the 1970s onwards.

Today, we live in a world where political Islam is associated almost entirely with Islam — and almost all Muslims. Many Muslims have turned to extreme versions of religiosity and fundamentalism, and they increasingly define their existing or imagined states in religious ‘Islamic’ terms. Muslims who do not agree with these versions of political Islam are sidelined — both in non-Muslim discourse, where they seldom appear except as ‘anti-Islamic’ (which most of them prefer not to be) and in Muslim discourse, where again they and their ideas are briskly and unfairly dismissed as “not Muslim”. What is happening to protesters in Iran is an on-going example.

This was obvious right at the start of the Hamas incursions into Israel: it was followed by selfies of young men in Gaza shouting “Allah-o-Akbar” into their cameras, and the Hamas leadership claiming to counter “attacks on our religion”. This was followed by interviews on CNN and elsewhere, where Israeli women and men, dressed like Europeans and Americans, rationally discussed their loss and Israeli unity, interspersed with shorter excerpts of Palestinians shouting emotionally and moving around in mobs.

In perspective

The attack by Hamas will be defeated — crushed is more likely — not by Israeli forces backed by the U.S., but by the force of this division to which organisations such as Hamas have contributed. If reasonable Europeans have to choose between Jewish fanatics in the settlements and Islamic fanatics in Gaza, they either will stay neutral or may even choose the Jewish fanatics, who dress and talk and act like them. Unfortunately, religious Muslims do not see this: they are so used to seeing things only through the prism of religion that their entire world is tinctured just one colour. Instead of joining other people in secular political struggles, they insert their version of Islam into all politics — and sever themselves not just from non-Muslims but also from Muslims who think differently.

This, finally, is the reason why the Hamas attack is a blunder, regardless of whether Israel was more to blame for it or Hamas, regardless of who is more brutal or less justified. Hamas, thinking through the kind of prism that Arafat’s PLO could mostly avoid, has essentially misread the situation. It is, as one writer put it as the title of a book, something “beyond belief!” That writer was wrong about some things to do with the non-West, but he was not wrong about this trend in Muslim societies.

Tabish Khair is an Indian writer and a professor of literature in Denmark

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