Redefining fundamentalism

The US Administration’s new relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood could have profound effects on Israel’s relationship with Hamas.

Sheikh yusef al-Qaradawi (photo credit: Shaib Salem/ Reuters)
Sheikh yusef al-Qaradawi
(photo credit: Shaib Salem/ Reuters)
Will Hamas recognize the State of Israel? The answer is obvious: No, it won’t. The entire world is demanding that the ruling fundamentalist regime in Gaza recognize the State of Israel, but Hamas’s intransigent leaders continue to repeat, time and again: “No chance. Never.” While signing the reconciliation agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal declared that Hamas would strive for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders – and that, even in the eyes of Hamas’s moderates, is absolutely as far as they will go. In other words, even Hamas’s moderates are, begrudgingly, willing to accept coexistence alongside Israel, but they will never recognize the state.
This position must be understood within the context of the “religious national” character of Hamas, in which religion takes priority over nationalism. And Muslim religious law does not permit them to recognize the state.
Which leaves us asking: What type of relationship, if any, can there be between Israel and Hamas?
 A recent book, War, Peace and International Relations in Islam, written by scholar Yitzhak Reiter of the Department for Islamic and Middle East Studies at the Ashkelon Academic College, may provide an answer. Reiter offers interesting analysis of Muslim religious positions, especially with regard to Israel.
This work is particularly relevant now, just as it has been announced that US President Barack Obama’s Administration will permit American representatives to meet with members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Indeed, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declared during a press conference on a trip to Hungary June 30: “We believe, given the changing political landscape in Egypt, that it is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful and committed to nonviolence that intend to compete for the parliament and the presidency.” This is a decisive change in the US position. Given that Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, any and all developments in the positions and attitudes of the Muslim Brotherhood directly affect Hamas. And even more directly, there have also been indications of contacts between European diplomats and representatives of Hamas, in particular with regard to the possibility of relations with Israel.
Hamas’s leadership has proven that it gives itself extensive diplomatic leeway. When all of the governments of the world refused to recognize Hamas’s rule in the Gaza Strip, Hamas was pushed into an international corner. In response, Hamas did not hesitate to form ties with its worst ideological opponents. First, they allied themselves with the Shiite government in Iran and its Hizballah satellite in Lebanon. Historically, there is a hostile ideological gap between the Sunnis, represented most clearly by Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Iranian Shiites. But in this case, Hamas’s diplomatic interests outweighed those ideological differences.
Hamas has also formed ties with another ideological foe – the Baath regime in Syria, which purports to be secular. And indeed, since I frequently watch Arab television stations, I can say definitely that Syrian female news anchors dress just like their counterparts in the West – which is very different from the traditional dress worn by women in Gaza and other religiously-controlled states.
The war with Israel and the hostility towards the West form the only real connection between Hamas, Syria and Iran. But recent shock waves in the region, including the riots in Syria and differences of opinion within the Iranian leadership, could create a new diplomatic reality.
This reality will be affected by, and will affect, Islamic religious interpretations.
In his book, Reiter discusses pluralism in the Muslim world: He describes the Muslim Internet sites that present hundreds of religious rulings and interpretations; the muftis (who make religious rulings, known as fatwas) who hold official positions and are thus dependent on and subservient to the ruling regime; and the other muftis who rule in favor of opposition groups.
According to Reiter, in the modern age, Islamic thought can be divided into two main schools: the radical fundamentalist school, which calls for ongoing religious war (jihad), and the pragmatic liberal school. Both schools attempt to interpret and accommodate the Islamic laws of war and peace with modern reality.
Both of them are based, among other sources, on the famous hudaibiya treaty that the Prophet Muhammad signed with his enemies, the people of Mecca, in 628. He signed the agreement when it became clear to him that he was too weak to overcome his enemies. As the years passed, and as his power grew, Muhammad consistently retreated, step by step, from that agreement. The common interpretation of this diplomatic precedent set by the prophet is that, given political constraints, it is permissible to agree to a cease-fire with enemies.
In order to understand how this affects us today, Reiter brings two religious rulings related to relations with Israel. Both have been handed down by well-known and well regarded religious authorities.
The first ruling was given by Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian scholar allied with the Muslim Brotherhood who was exiled to the Emirate of Qatar during the rule of president Hosni Mubarak. Qaradawi is famous throughout the Arab and Muslim world because of the regular program, “Shari’a [religious law] and Life,” that he presents on the al-Jazeera pan-Arab TV network. Tens of millions of people watch this program and Qaradawi’s vehemently anti-Israel religious interpretations, including, for example, his support for suicide bombers who kill Israelis. Qaradawi ruled that the State of Israel stole the sacred Muslim land and exiled the Palestinian people and therefore any contact or agreements with Israel are forbidden.
Reiter relates an anecdote that attests to Qaradawi’s political influence: A legislative proposal proposing a 10-year prison sentence and a heavy fine for anyone who meets or concludes agreements with Israel was presented to the Bahraini parliament. The proposal emerged immediately after a meeting between the Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled Ben Ahmed al-Khlaifa with then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni and was based on Qaradawi’s rulings. The proposal was rejected.
It is worth noting that in Islam, as in Judaism, the issue of “possible theft” is a very serious crime. Not long ago, a Palestinian teacher from East Jerusalem told me that one of his students in high school, a particularly devote Muslim, asked him if he could charge the battery to his cellphone in an electric outlet in the class – the student was concerned that he would be stealing electricity from the school (which, incidentally, belongs to the Municipality of Jerusalem).
The story is making its way around East Jerusalem – and many people are taking it very seriously.
Religious rulings against Israel, such as those made by Al- Qaradawi, are published and well known throughout the Arab world and in Israel as well. But the rulings that permit contact and agreement with Israel receive much less attention.
The most important of these was proclaimed by the Mufti of Egypt Jaad al-Haq in support of the 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Al-Haq, who at the time was the head of Al-Azhar, the most important religious academic institution in the Arab world, was viewed by the public as a “court mufti,” – that is, as one who supports the policies of the leadership; yet his ruling was written in depth and well argued, and has served as the foundation for other Islamic scholars’ responses to the State of Israel.
This has been an especially important issue for religious scholars who have had to justify and explain the peace agreement between King Hussein of Jordan and Israel in 1995 and the Oslo Accords between Israel and Yasser Arafat’s PLO in 1993. The need for religious interpretations and fatwas that permit agreements became even more crucial following the Saudi Initiative of 2002 (which subsequently became the Arab League Peace Initiative. This initiative not only outlines agreements with Israel, on condition that Israel retreats to the 1967 borders and solves the refugee problem, but even more significantly, it calls for complete normalization of relations with Israel.
These pragmatic rulings rest on the argument that if they cannot overcome Israel – then the Muslims must do the best that they can for the Muslin nation in peaceful ways. “This is essentially support for the ‘land for peace’ principle,” Reiter says. And this position is becoming increasingly acceptable among the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, whose representatives are no longer demanding that the peace agreement with Israel be abrogated.
And it is certainly the position of Hamas. In other words, liberal Muslim interpretations state that there is no point in maintaining an “all or nothing” stance and that the Arab nation should strive to get what it can, in exchange for agreeing to a cease-fire – a hudna, according to the diplomatic precedent set by Muhammad.
In Muslim thought, in the positions that the Arabs take, and, most certainly, in the Palestinian national arguments, the status of Jerusalem is paramount. Only recently, the Arab world celebrated Muhammad’s fabled night journey to the Al-Aqsa Mosque to bring the Koran down from the heavens. The story is told in the Koran and the place is identified with Jerusalem. Muslims pray in the direction of the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third most important mosque in Islam after Mecca and Medina. They believe that they must do everything to bring this back to Muslim rule – even if it means agreeing to coexist with Israel.
When simultaneously reading Reiter’s book and recent headlines in the media, one reaches the conclusion that ever since Obama’s famous speech in Cairo (to which representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood were invited, despite Mubarak’s opposition), the American Administration has been following a very clear route: to encourage and seek connections with moderate Islam.
The West, and especially the Americans, still define Hamas as a terrorist movement. But that definition can change, and the first sign of this change is the new relationships between the American Administration and the Muslim Brotherhood.