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Hamas and Islamic Millenarianism: What the West Doesn't Recognize

Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2008

Some 20 years after its founding, the Palestinian organization Hamas remains little understood in the West. Although it is invoked nearly daily in the media, it has been the subject of only a very small number of serious studies. The most common error made by observers in considering contemporary Islamist movements -- and notably, Hamas -- is that of attempting to grasp them in terms of concepts and modes of thought that are proper to the West. Most western analyses of the phenomenon of Islamism tend to underestimate or even obscure a fundamental element that is common to all the various Islamist currents and organizations: namely, the role of specifically Muslim religious beliefs and, more precisely, of Islamic eschatology.

Thus in his book "Jihad," a well-known French expert of Islamism like Gilles Kepel can explain Iran's Islamic revolution of 1979 as the result of an "alliance of the pious bourgeoisie and the poor urban youth." In similar fashion, numerous journalists continue to describe the perpetrators of suicide attacks -- both Palestinians and others -- as economically disadvantaged and driven by "desperation," even though all the research conducted on the subject demonstrates that such a Marxist-tinged sociological interpretation does not reflect the reality.

It is impossible to understand the success enjoyed by Hamas, notably since the Palestinian elections nearly two years ago, and the persistence of Islamism in general -- the decline or even proximate demise of which is regularly announced by Western observers -- if one fails to take into account the beliefs held by the members of Islamist movements themselves or if one diminishes their importance: dismissing them, for instance, as medieval gibberish devoid of any concrete significance.

We need to listen to what the Islamists say and appreciate the importance of their discourse if we are going to be able to grasp their motivations and strategies. It is symptomatic in this regard that the Western media, which regularly touch upon the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas in covering events in the Middle East, nonetheless almost never mention the charter of the Palestinian Islamist movement.

What are the Goals of Hamas?

One common analysis of Hamas presents the organization as a sort of clone of Fatah, from which it would be distinguished merely by the religious trappings it gives to its combat against Israel. On this view -- which is widespread among Western policymakers -- it would be enough to wait patiently for Hamas to scale back its ambitions and to accept the rules of the game of negotiations in order to arrive at a settlement with Israel. The preamble of the Hamas Charter, however, clearly affirms the centrality of the "struggle against the Jews," which is supposed to be carried on "until the enemies are vanquished and Allah's victory is realized."

In order to comprehend the conception of Islam proper to Hamas, one needs to put aside the Western idea of religion as a delimited sphere of human existence. The history of the Christian West is characterized, in effect, by a constant reduction of the place accorded to religion. As a consequence, it is difficult for Westerners to conceive of how a non-Westernized Muslim might think of Islam.

Eschatology and the Conflict Between Islam and the West

One of the most essential -- and most little-known -- aspects of contemporary Islamism is the role of eschatological or millenarian beliefs within it. This millenarian dimension of Islam has often been minimized by commentators, sometimes for polemical reasons: Christianity is presented as the only religion that is oriented toward the beyond, whereas Islam is supposed to be characterized by strictly this-worldly preoccupations.

This forgotten dimension of the Islamist phenomenon is key to understanding the current resurgence of a triumphalist Islam, since it cuts across all the divisions within the Muslim world: between Sunnism and Shiism, between traditional Islam and contemporary Islamism. As the French historian Pierre Lory explained in a recent lecture at the Sorbonne, "Eschatology represents one of the fundamental traits of the Muslim religion. The imminence of the end of time and of the final judgment is one of the oldest and most constant Quranic themes and is found throughout the sacred text of Islam." Inasmuch as Muhammad is the last prophet (bearing the "seal of prophecy"), his advent inaugurates the last period of universal history: i.e. the eschatological period.

In his collection of Hadith titled "The Major Signs of the End of the World from the Prophet to the Return of Jesus," Abdallah al-Hajjaj cites a saying of the prophet, who, raising his hand, is supposed to have affirmed that his mission and the final hour were as close as his middle and index fingers. This belief in the imminence of the end of time is a fundamental aspect of the contemporary Islamic reawakening, in both its peaceful and belligerent forms.

It is sometimes suggested that only the Shia version of Islam assigns importance to eschatological considerations, and it is true that the motif of the return of the hidden Imam, the central element of Shia belief, lends itself especially easily to millenarian interpretations. Since Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, millenarian aspirations have been at the center of developments in the Shia Muslim world. The belief in the imminence of the Final Judgment helps to explain both the suicidal forms of behavior that proliferated during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and the current attitude of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Millenarian Dimension of Sunni Islamism

But eschatology is equally a part of Sunni Islam and it has played a central role in the development of Islamist movements of Sunni inspiration. All the various components of contemporary Islamism -- from the Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas to the nebulous al-Qaida network -- share the hope of seeing the Islamic caliphate reestablished and consider the "renewal of Islam" to be the manifest sign of the truth of the prophecies concerning the final victory of Islam and its propagation throughout the world.

Next Page: The fatwa of Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi . . .

As an example, we can cite here the following fatwa of Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most important ideologues of the Islamist movement and the head of the European Council for Fatwa and Research:

. . . The Prophet Muhammad was asked: "What city will be conquered first, Constantinople or Romiyya?" He answered: "The city of Hirqil will be conquered first' -- that is, Constantinople. . . . Romiyya is the city called today "Rome," the capital of Italy. The city of Hirqil was conquered by the young 23-year-old Ottoman Muhammad bin Morad, known in history as Muhammad the Conqueror, in 1453. The other city, Romiyya, remains, and we hope and believe [that it too will be conquered]. This means that Islam will return to Europe as a conqueror and victor, after being expelled from it twice -- once from the South, from Andalusia, and a second time from the East, when it knocked several times on the door of Athens. (Cited from MEMRI Special Dispatch, no. 447.)

It would be easy, of course, to dismiss out of hand such a prophecy about the conquest of Rome, considering it to be no worthier of serious consideration than the prophecies of Nostradamus. But this would be to miss the point. What is important is not to take seriously the prophecies of Muhammad reported in the Hadith, but rather to recognize the significance that Muslims themselves could attach to them. Ever since its founding in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, has been convinced that it incarnates the renewal of Islam and that its role is to hoist the flag of Islam across the five continents. To present the Muslim Brothers as an example of "moderate Islamism" thus amounts to denying the most deeply-held convictions of the members of the Muslim Brotherhood themselves.

The Apocalyptic Connotations of the Hamas Charter

The same sort of error is frequently found in analyses of Hamas, which is presented as becoming more "moderate" and being just about to recognize Israel's right to exist. One of the key passages of the Hamas Charter, which serves to clarify the worldview of the movement, is the Hadith cited in its Article 7:

The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews and kill them; until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees and these will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him!

This Hadith, which is cited on countless Islamic Internet sites, means that the "struggle against the Jews" is not merely a political imperative for Hamas, but also an eschatological one. The confrontation with the Jews is not only a means of recuperating the land of Palestine, which constitutes an inalienable Muslim property or Waqf, but it is also the sine qua non for the advent of the end of time.

Too often unfamiliar with the Islamist worldview in general, and of its millenarian aspects in particular, Western observers are inclined to believe that the extremism of Islamists is just a facade and that it will be sufficient to confront the Islamist movement with the realities of power in order for it too become more "pragmatic." The farfetched interpretation given to some comments made last year by the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Mashal, provides an example of this sort of confusion. It only took a few carefully calculated words from the Hamas official for media all over the world hastily to draw the conclusion that Hamas had "tacitly recognized" Israel.

A sober analysis of the ideology of the Palestinian Islamist movement and of its guiding principles shows, however, that it is out of the question for Hamas to recognize the right of Israel to any of the land between Jordan and the Mediterranean or to renounce armed struggle. Setting aside comments specially designed for a Western audience -- which is continually on the lookout for every sign of a "softening" of the organization's stance -- it is clear that Hamas remains faithful to its very reason for being as laid out in its charter.

A Millenarian and Redemptive Anti-Semitism

Hamas is a radical Islamic movement whose worldview is marked by an Islamic eschatology in which the Jews occupy a central place. Its apocalyptic vision of a final confrontation with Israel excludes every possibility of coexistence or "moderation." This vision is identical with that of the most radical Jihadist movements.

Far from being merely an epiphenomenon, the anti-Semitism of Hamas constitutes the very core of its political-religious doctrine. The hatred of Jews expressed in the Hamas Charter and conveyed in the discourse of its officials is not simply a religious anti-Judaism or an imported anti-Semitism of European origins. It is, as the French scholar of anti-Semitism Pierre-André Taguieff has put it in his book "La nouvelle judéophobie," a "millenarian and redemptive anti-Semitism." Taguieff compares radical Islamic Judeophobia -- in terms of which "the Muslim world can only be saved by the extermination of the Jews" -- to the racist anti-Semitism of Hitler.

It is troubling to note, as Richard Landes has recently pointed out, that the West, far from condemning the apocalyptic discourse of Hamas, actually encourages it. Such an attitude is undoubtedly to be explained by the fact that certain European leaders and diplomats share the convictions of Hamas officials concerning the imminent disappearance of Israel.

Paul Landau is the author of the recent study of Tariq Ramadan and the Muslim Brotherhood "Le sabre et le Coran" (Editions du Rocher, 2005). The above article was translated from French by John Rosenthal.