Open Democracy — Why Hamas is No `Extremist'

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Why Hamas is No `Extremist’
Alastair Crooke
12/03/2009 Why Hamas is No `Extremist’
Alastair Crooke – Opendemocracy
March 11, 2009
Revisiting the reasons for the Islamist Revolution, we need to
understand that Hamas are the `moderates’, in a self-defeating western
drama which has bequeathed a much more dangerous Middle East.
In the mechanistic template imposed by western leaders on the Middle
East, of `moderates’ who must be supported versus `extremists’ who must
be isolated and undermined, Hamas has to be painted, by mechanical
necessity alone, as `extremists’. Hamas has become the `extremists’ to
answer in neat symmetry to the `moderates’ of Ramallah, who for other
reasons American and European leaders wish in any event to
support.Alastair Crooke is co-director of Conflicts Forum, a former EU
mediator with Hamas and other Islamist groups and author of
`Resistance: the Essence of the Islamist Revolution’.
But such models, once generally accepted, force a deterministic
interpretation that can blind its advocates to the perverse results of
such narrow and rigid conceptualising: a defeated and humbled Hamas,
western leaders suggested, was to be `welcomed’ as a blow to Hesballah,
which in turn represented a strike at Syria, which weakened Iran – all
of which strengthened the `moderates’; and, the model implies, serves
to make Israel safer. It is a narrative that has reduced the
Palestinian crisis to no more than a pawn in the new `Great Game’ of an
existential global struggle waged against `extremism’.
The appealing clarity of such a simple, and simplistic, model-making
has however obscured its overriding flaw. The pursuit of this narrow
formulation of moderates versus extremists has yielded the perverse
result – not of bringing nearer a Palestinian state – but of pushing it
beyond reach, possibly for good.
On the one hand, Mahmoud Abbas is left discredited, lacking the
legitimacy to take forward any political solution: on the other, the
`extremist’ branding of Hamas has enabled the West to block Hamas’ and
other factions’ access to the Palestinian leadership institutions.
Palestinian leadership institutions remain captive to one section of
Fatah in Ramallah. In short, western policy has brought about a void in
which no Palestinian leader, and no Palestinian movement, now has the
potential to achieve a credible mandate – or to move forward
Attempts to undermine Hamas have all failed – be they economic siege,
political cleansing (with British and American experts grooming a
special operations militia around Abbas in order to politically-cleanse
the West Bank of Hamas influence), the repression of Hamas’ political
and charitable institutions, or, more recently, the Israeli military
onslaught on Gaza.
The prospect of a Palestinian state has been sacrificed to a flawed
political model, thus only serving further to radicalise the region.
Hesballah, Syria and Iran have not been weakened: they have emerged
stronger. The region has become more polarised and less stable.
But the conceptual failure of the moderate/extremist template extends
well beyond Palestine. In essence, the West has got it wrong: It has
the wrong Islamists cast as `moderates’ and the wrong movements cast as
We are not here dealing with secularist movements when referring to the
western desire to empower `moderates’ as their allies: These secularist
movements, as opposed to the occasional individual, are almost all seen
as western proxies, and have little or no influence now. Nor are we
writing of certain immoderate `moderate’ Arab leaders who will do
almost anything to ensure their survival; and who will do almost
anything to undermine the Islamist movements that challenge them.
The moderate/extremist template is so crucially flawed because it
misidentifies the mechanism by which a narrow hatred of all heterodoxy
and heresy evolves into something truly dangerous.
This transformation of a narrow literalism into a more dangerous form
occurs because the West has tried to use a particular puritan current –
Saudi-orientated Salafism – for its own political ends. An oil and
military coincidence of interest has given rise to a fifty year Saudi
alliance; but also to one of two flawed premises underlying the
moderate/extremist template of today: in which Hamas is deemed the
`extremist’ to be hollowed out and contained – `contained’
incongruously by the very forces that have proved, time and time again,
to be the root from which the truly dangerous splinters of extremism
have emerged.
Salafists of this type – that is, those who follow a literalist
interpretation of the Qur’an, certain sayings attributed to the
Prophet, and who try to practice an exact imitation of the conduct of
early Muslim believers – are for the most part, peaceful, pious and
reformist Islamists who stand aloof from politics and from national and
local elections. They are properly `apolitical’. But America and
Britain have used this current for the past fifty years in order to try
to contain trends emerging in the region to which they have taken a
The branding of Hamas and Hesballah as `extremists’ has its roots in a
pattern of western behaviour established in the 1960s, well before
Hamas was formed. This pattern of western behaviour consisted of
reliance on `apolitical’ Salafism, managed and funded by Saudi patrons,
to contain and circumscribe firstly, `Nasserist’ Arab nationalism; then
to act as a counter-weight to the spread of Marxism in the region; to
contain Soviet influence; to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; to
contain the impact of Shi’ism and the Iranian Revolution; to contain
the spread of `revolutionary’ Islam; and, in Iraq, to contain al-Qae’da
and the Shi’i militias. With each successive manifestly political use,
essentially in support of perceived western and al-Saud interests,
these dissidents have not only become progressively more `political’ –
they have become more violent, immoderate, intolerant and dangerous.
It is when this `apolitical’ orientation is used politically; or, when
major political events impinge adversely on Islam, that it fractures
under the stress. With each new fragmentation and splintering, the
dissidents become angry, and begin to brood darkly on the predicament
of Islam. From this introspection, begins their migration to the ideas
and thinking of an earlier and particularly desperate period of Islamic
The truly dangerous movements that the West faces – the abu Musab
al-Zarqawi affiliates – are all splinters from `apolitical’ Salafism.
Western efforts to hollow-out mainstream Islamists, such as Hamas, have
served only to open up the space for the entry of such Salafi
splinters. Sunni groups such as al-Qae’da, the Taliban and movements
such as Lashgar-i-Toiba are deeply influenced by Salafism, through
Deobandism – effectively a form of Salafism transplanted to India.
The West has labelled the `wrong’ people as `extremist’. It is a case
of apples and oranges: there is simply no comparison between an armed
resistance movement such as Hamas or Hesballah on the one hand; and the
violent splinters and haters of heterodoxy and heresy of dissident
Salafism, on the other.
Dissident Salafism is the opposing current to that which emerged from
the Islamist revolution. Dissident Salafism is counter-revolutionary
`conservatism’: it is anti-reasoning; it is anti-philosophic; it is
reductive; anti-heterodox and literalist. It is a current which, in its
extreme form, so dislikes any divergence from a narrow literalist
`puritan’ vision of Islam that it stands ready to kill other Muslims
who are Sufi, Shi’i or in any way unorthodox: they are as much a danger
to their own communities as to the West. It is the ideology of dogmatic
closure imposed on all believers.
These forces have come about, have been created, by the practice of
abusing a particularly fissiparous `apolitical’ strand of Islam through
its deployment as western proxy – in a parody of a Cold War containment
policy – charged with containing the forces of the Islamist revolution.
The West bears some responsibility for lighting these fires of
extremist schism and dogmatism; although it is no surprise that a
western dogmatic closure on Islamism has in turn spewed Muslim
movements of extreme dogmatism.
Paradoxically, the West has positioned itself on the wrong side of an
`old struggle’: that between reasoning and philosophy on the one hand,
and – on the other hand – literalism in Islamic revelation.
Hamas and Hesballah are not literalists or fundamentalists. We have it
the wrong way around. They could not be more different in their
thinking from those described above.
In `Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution’, I have argued
that the Islamist revolution is capable of a clear and reasoned
explanation. It is neither irrational, nor whimsical, as is often
It stemmed from the crisis in which Islam found itself in the aftermath
of the First World War. Islam was in shock, it was disoriented, and it
was struggling to find a solution to its predicament. It embarked on a
journey to discover a new `Self’; it went back to its roots; and found
new insights that gave it political, social and economic `solutions’ to
its problems; it began to imagine itself in new ways. The revolution
was about ways of thinking, understanding the human being, and the
world in which we live.
It is, in short, a revolution of ideas, of philosophy and some of its
conclusions put into question the purpose of politics. It is of course
at the outset of this journey. Like20any revolution, it remains
vulnerable and with major shortcomings – as its architects acknowledge.
But the key development is that Islamism has started to transform
itself, after 300 years, to be a dynamic religious, social and
political force again.
That the Europe of the Enlightenment should have assumed this posture
is truly paradoxical. It has arrayed itself with the forces of narrow
literalism, reductionism and dogmatism in its illusory quest for a
de-politicised, pro-western Islam – against a dynamic questioning of
thinking, of understanding and the purpose of politics.
But there is another strand to this story beyond the West’s slothful
and habitual recourse to a form of Islam that they believed might curb
and weaken the intellectual and religious renewal that so disconcerted
western leaders. This is the second pillar and the second flawed
premise that explains why Hamas, Hesballah and Muslim Brotherhood
affiliates have had to stand in as the West’s `extremists’ – and not
its `moderates’.
Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, evolved in the 1950s a
defensive strategy of an `alliance of the periphery’. The aim was to
balance the `vicinity’ of hostile Arab states by forming alliances with
Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia. It was an attempt to strengthen Israeli
deterrence, to reduce its isolation, and to add to her appeal as `an
asset’ for the US.
It was against this background that Iran came to be seen firstly as a
`natural ally’ for Israelis. It was rooted in an imagined cultural
affinity between two non-Arab peoples. This sense of close affinity
persisted beyond the Iranian Revolution, and prompted even hard-headed
Israeli politicians of the Right to reach out to the new Iranian
But 1990 – 1992 witnessed two events that changed the outlook for the
whole region – and set the scene for Iran’s demonisation by Israel.
In this brief period, the Soviet Union imploded, and Saddam Hussein was
defeated in the first Gulf War. These two events removed both the
Russian threat from Iran, and Iraq’s threat to Israel. This left Iran
and Israel as unchallenged rivals for leadership and pre-eminence in
the region. It also saw the US emerge as a unipolar, unchecked power.
Israel read the new map of the Middle East and realised that it needed
a new role from that of America’s ally against the now-imploded Soviet
Union – as the rationale justifying its strategic relationship with
Emergent Iran was now seen as a threat to Israel whose survival was
deemed to depend on its military supremacy. Any prospect of an
US-Iranian rapprochement risked undercutting Israel’s relationship with
the US, and therefore Israel’s continued military supremacy too.
Israel, in 1992 in a dramatic move, decided to drop the strategy of
wooing the periphery, and instead opted to make peace with the Arabs –
a far-reaching and radical reverse of strategy. It was also a highly
problematic strategy: whereas the periphery doctrine enjoyed broad
popular consensus; its reversal – to seek affinities in the vicinity
and to make peace with them – carried no such broad support.
This shift placed Israel and Iran on opposite sides in the new
equation, and the change was as intense as it was unexpected: “Iran has
to be identified as Enemy No.1,” Yossi Alpher, at the time an adviser
to Rabin, told the New York Times four days after Clinton’s election
victory. From this time, Israel and its allies in the US began
insistently to accuse Iran of seeking nuclear weapons.
Iran had to be demonised as a part of an ideological shift in Israel.
Israel needed to find a new, post-Soviet `purpose’ to justify its role
to the US as indispensible vanguard and ally. It found it in the new
war against Islamic `extremism’.
Israel’s re-configuring of its own template from `moderate periphery’
versus `extremist Arab vicinity’ to one defining Iran and political
Islam as the new `extremists’, and certain states of the Arab vicinity
as the `moderates’, inexorably led to Hamas’ branding as `extremist’ by
the West too. It is no coincidence, therefore, that it is Israel’s own
particular `enemies’ who have become the West’s `extremists’ also – and
perhaps no coincidence that the outcome of this conceptualising is a
Palestinian state pushed beyond reach.
Quartet Envoy Tony Blair’s proselytising around the world on this
moderate/extremist theme has been a huge asset for an Israel who has
always aspired to be the leading member of a `moderate’ bloc, rather
than an isolated island in a hostile region; but Blair’s, and other
Quartet members’ attempts to fit this simplistic and terribly flawed
template over a complex Middle East has left the region a more
dangerous and unstable place.