An Important Study: “Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility”

An Important Study: “Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility”

 I just received the following document from my fellow Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute, Paul L. Scham. The study “Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility” the very title in itself demonstrates serious insight into the phenomena of Hamas, and its an insight I have intuited but have never managed to put it so deftly and with such clarity. Scham and his colleague did this for the US Institute for Peace but I don’t know whether the USIP has sent it out—Paul sent it to me directly but he has asked me to circulate it in circles within or close to the American Muslim community.’I assume Paul is an Israeli-American, and certainly he is an American deeply inolved in Israeli affairs so I find this a very brave document.

Not that I don’t have a quibble or two with this very serious study—Prof. Scham continually alludes to Hamas basing its ideological perspective on “Islam’ and in particular on fiqh. More accurate would be to have written “based upon a militant Islamist or Muslim Brotherhood reading of fiqh.The traditional Islamic scholars through the ages have a far different reading of fiqh than Hamas/MB militant cherry picking. Precisely because Hamas’ use of fiqh is ideologically motivated theirs is a very instrumental (a nice way of saying opportunist) way in which they lay it down and the their theological doctrine that all of Palestine is a waqf reflects that.

Waqf is clearly designated as a personal making over of properties, investments whether in the “regular” waqf for the general or specific benefit of the Muslim community and “family” waqf which for all the reformist contention as to its irregularity is what has preserved the architectural integrity of Arab Jerusalem where Jordanian law fairly uniquely recognized and preserved family as well as regular waqf.  If all of Palestine is a waqf by definition than so is Andalus and Sicily and much of the Balkans, almost all of India, much of Cambodia, not to mention now Russian lands , but not up until the time of Ivan the Terrible, and but 50 miles or so from Moscow.

This is a dangerous possibility that could take us from the reaonable (if personally –at least to me -unattractive religious nationalism of Hamas) to the universal pretensions of Al Qaeda and its allied groups who are indifferent to the law of nations, self-determination, UN charter etc.

I’m no longer a rejectionist as I was right after the 1967 War and as we use to describe Palestinian nationalists who resisted the appeal of two state adopted by Fateh and the PDF in the late seventies, for their original vision of liberating all of Palestine. But i must say that I find myself, as a neo-traditional Muslim increasingly more comfortable with the more rational mode of outwardly secular national liberation movements that justified their vision of a liberated Palestine from river to sea upon self-determination and national liberation,which I find far more reassuring that quasi-theological justification that posits its absolutist ideology upon a special relationship of a worldy political movement with the Absolute, the Transcendent One. When the FLN set off bombs in pied noir civilian cafes, or threw grenades into the bedroom windows of some colon family—a practice they avoided for several years, when FLN fighters were specifically told not to target unarmed civilians—they at least only defended it as an act of dire necessity and not as an act dear to the Heart of God, and they didnt twist sacred texts to justify the targeted murder of unarmed civilians.

But I nevertheless find this study very important because my thesis (which exists as an audio track on the MEI site from the Middle East Institute’s 2006 annual conference panel on Political Islam) that just because one has serious reservations, or active dislike for a political movement –specifically Hamas—they are a political reality. They must be engaged by America and by virtue of that engagement by Israel, acknowledged as a legitimate, possibly even dominant part of the Palestinnian political reality and brought into a unified Palestinian government that can negotiate peace not hudna—indeed that was the important understanding during the brief life of the unified Palestinian government that was undermined by the Bush administration.

Now Prof. Scham’s position of engaging with Hamas is a brave one.  He has ties with Israeli society and it is slowly but increasingly resonating not only in the marginal but intellectually important Israeli peace groups, but also on the most leftist or peace minded wing of Labor and even Kadima ,and for those who might have missed my own aljazeera,net piece on the speech, I believe Obama with great finesse began the process of American engagement with Hamas in that very speech.

“Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility”
Paul Scham and Osama Abu-Irshaid
United States Institute of Peace

Download the full PDF report


Although peaceful coexistence between Israel and Hamas is clearly not possible under the formulations that comprise Hamas’s 1988 charter, Hamas has, in practice, moved well beyond its charter. Indeed, Hamas has been carefully and consciously adjusting its political program for years and has sent repeated signals that it may be ready to begin a process of coexisting with Israel.

As evidenced by numerous statements, Hamas is not hostile to Jews because of religion. Rather, Hamas’s view toward Israel is based on a fundamental belief that Israel has occupied land that is inherently Palestinian and Islamic.

For Hamas, “recognition” of Israel would represent a negation of the rightness of its own cause and would be indefensible under Islam. It considers unacceptable for itself the actions of those Muslim countries that have recognized Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan, and those that have indicated their willingness to do so, such as Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab League, because they have provided no theological justification for their policies toward Israel.

Although Hamas, as an Islamic organization, will not transgress shari’a, which it understands as forbidding recognition, it has formulated mechanisms that allow it to deal with the reality of Israel as a fait accompli. These mechanisms include the religious concepts of tahadiya and hudna and Hamas’s own concept of “Palestinian legitimacy.”

Tahadiya refers to a short-term calming period between conflicting parties during which differences are not put aside. A tahadiya stopped most violence between Hamas and Israel from June to December 2008.

Hudna is a truce for a specific period, which is based on the practice of the Prophet Mohammad and on subsequent events in Muslim history. Hamas has indicated on a number of occasions its willingness to accede to a hudna with Israel, assuming basic Palestinian rights as set forth in the Arab Peace Initiative (API) are agreed to first.

Palestinian legitimacy is a term employed by Hamas to describe its willingness to consider accepting a binding peace treaty, such as the proposal set forth in the API, so long as the treaty is first ratified by the Palestinian people in a referendum. Although Hamas would not directly participate in peace negotiations with Israel, Hamas has indicated that it would be willing to be part of a Palestinian coalition government with Fatah under which Fatah would negotiate the actual treaty.

Although a peace process under such circumstances might, for Israelis and Westerners, seem involved, arcane, and of dubious utility, it is necessary to consider the possibility of such a process because there is no realistic scenario under which Hamas will disappear. Understanding the Islamic bases of Hamas’s policies and worldview will be essential for the success of any process in which it is engaged. 

About the Report

Very little of the recent voluminous literature in English that has discussed Hamas has focused on how to understand–and perhaps influence–its behavior from an Islamic point of view. We have analyzed Hamas’s statements and actions since its inception and have concluded that Hamas has indeed undergone significant political changes as well as certain slow, limited, and carefully calculated ideological shifts. It is now at the point where it is ready to explore arrangements that will allow it and Israel to coexist without episodic violence. Its readiness is based on the framework of Islamic law (shari’a) in which Hamas is embedded. Shari’a both provides the basis for the political actions that Hamas can take and defines which actions are forbidden to it.

Paul Scham is a visiting professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park and executive director of the University’s Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies. Osama Abu-Irshaid is completing a Ph.D. thesis on Hamas at Loughborough University, U.K., and is the founder and editor in chief of Al-Meezan newspaper, published in Arabic in the United States.

S. Abdallah Schleifer is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Department of Journalism & Mass Communications, The American University in Cairo

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