23 Oct A Q&A Primer on Hamas – Part 3
This is the third in a series of daily posts for one week on the following topics:
- What is Hamas?
- Why does Hamas think it will win?
- Who supports Hamas? – This is today’s post.
- Who are the Palestinians?
- What is the occupation?
- Is antisemitism part of the problem?
- What are the rules of war?
- Some concluding thoughts about the future.
If you were forwarded this from someone else, click on this link – A Q & A Primer on Hamas – to take you to Part 1 of the 8-part series. There you will see a blue “Subscribe” button on the top right of the page. Click the button and you can add your email address, so that you will receive all of the daily posts in the series.
Part 3 Who supports Hamas?
We will first consider the concept of victimhood, and the special place it occupies in Islamic thought. Then we will consider the people and states that support Hamas.
Many pro-Palestinian protestors were upset that Western government leaders have offering condolences for the Israelis killed by Hamas on October 7, and endorsing Israelis’ right to defend themselves. What was that about? Why is victimhood such a touchy issue ?
After the attacks on October 7 it was only understandable that many Western politicians spoke out in support of the Jewish victims, and defended the Israelis’ right to defend themselves. However, very many Muslim leaders immediately complained about these expressions of sympathy for raped, tortured, captured and murdered Israelis. Essentially, their complaint was that similar sympathy and endorsement for self-defense was not being expressed at the time for Palestinians.
What was most striking about how all this unfolded was that Muslim spokespeople, who have often lamented Palestinian suffering without acknowledgement of Jewish victims, were offended when politicians focused, for that moment, on Jewish victims.
For example, the Australian National Imams Council issued a statement on October 8, which told the Australian government to “avoid one-sided statements of support which ignore the Palestinian people.” They issued this statement on the same day that their public relations director, Sheikh Ibrahim Dadoun, gave a fiery street address in which he was shouting with joy over Hamas’ attacks on October 7, “I’m smiling and I’m happy. I’m elated. It’s a day of courage. It’s a day of happiness. It’s a day of pride. It’s a day of victory! This is the day we’ve been waiting for!”
How can (some) Muslims be so one-sided, yet call out politicians for being one-sided?
From these recent reactions, it is clear that it can be offensive, and even deeply hurtful to Muslims, to draw attention to the victimhood of others. Why is that so? Why this widespread, competitive victimhood?
Muslim victimhood is a theme deeply embedded in Islam’s origins. Those who are not familiar with the foundational texts of Islam may not be aware of how deeply a sense of Muslim victimhood runs through these texts, and how Muslim victimhood trumps all other victimhood. Here are two historical events which illustrate the point.
In 1927, the English Muslim convert Marmaduke Pickthall gave an influential lecture with the title Tolerance in Islam. In it he alleged, in an allusion to the genocide of the Armenians, that “… before every massacre of Christians by Muslims of which you read, there was a more wholesale massacre or attempted massacre of Muslims by Christians.”
More recently, in 2005 Wafa Sultan was debating Professor Ahmad bin Muhammad – an Algerian Professor of Religious Politics – on Al-Jazeera TV, when she pointed out how some have suffered at the hands of Muslims. Suddenly Ahmad bin Muhammad flew into a rage and began to shout, “We are the victims! … There are millions of innocent people among us [Muslims], while the innocent among you [non-Muslims] … number only dozens, hundreds, or thousands, at the most.”
This insistent demand that “We are the victims!” is projected from Islam’s origin story and the rationale it gives for the nascent Muslim community’s turn to violence. Islamic tradition relates that Muslims were being persecuted in Mecca until they migrated to Medina, where an Islamic state was founded, which then used force to defend and advance Islam. The turn to violence is justified on the basis of the previous persecution of Muslims. (For my alternative explanation of the Meccan-Medinan transition in the Qur’an, see here.)
Commenting on this transition from victims to victors, the Qur’an twice declares that fitna (‘persecution’, ‘oppression’) is worse than slaughter (Surah 2:191, 217) and that Muslims should fight (the Arabic word for ‘fight’ implies ‘kill’) until there is no more fitna (Sura 2:193; 8:39). The implication is that shedding of non-Muslim blood is preferable to Muslim suffering.
Ibn Kathir, a celebrated and influential medieval commentator on the Qur’an, promoted a broader understanding of fitna. For him, even disbelief in Islam, or ‘hindering’ Muslims from following Islam was fitna, an evil worse than killing:
Allah indicated that these men [i.e. non-Muslims] are committing disbelief in Allah, associating with Him (in the worship) and hindering from His path, and this is a much greater evil and more disastrous than killing.
This origin story of Islam, which weighed killing non-Muslims up against Muslim suffering, declaring that the latter is the greater evil of the two, is further reinforced by the way the Qur’an dehumanizes non-Muslims. It does this, for example, by using the term kafir to refer to disbelievers in Islam. The word kafir attributes dishonesty and deception to disbelievers, marking them as guilty. It is a very derogatory term.
Another Quranic reinforcement of non-Muslim guilt is found in the many ‘punishment stories’ of the Qur’an. The punishment stories are stories of the past in which disbelievers opposed believers, until Allah intervened, violently killing the disbelievers and rescuing the believers.
To summarize, core values and narratives in the foundational texts of Islam promote the idea that Muslim victimhood is a very great evil, and this is used to justify killing non-Muslims. From this perspective, non-Muslim deaths are not as bad as Muslim suffering. This asymmetrical instinct underlies the many angry Muslim objections to condolences expressed by Western politicians for the massacre of 1500 Jews on October 7.
It must be emphasized that not all Muslims think like this. My point is that some Muslims do, and there are very strong reasons in the canonical texts of Islam for this bias. The origin story of Islam bases the morality of its turn to violence upon an appeal to Muslim victimhood. Downplaying Muslim victimhood undermines Muslims’ claimed right to militancy. It undercuts their right to fight.
Let’s now turn from the theological to the practical.
Which countries support Hamas?
The three countries that provide the most direct support for Hamas, as an official policy of the state, are Iran, Turkey and Qatar. Key Hamas leaders live in Qatar, which also supports the Muslim Brotherhood, as does Turkey. Normally Shi’ite Iran would be a natural opponent of Sunni Hamas, however it suits Iran’s geopolitical goals to sponsor Hamas’ military arm with weapons, training and intelligence.
In addition to this state support, there are Muslims all over the world who support Hamas financially through donations via a form of religious tax. Every Muslim is required – as one of the five “pillars” of Islam – to give away a proportion of their wealth every year in a religious tax, which is known as zakat. Hamas is known to siphon off funds given for social projects to support its military activities. At the same time, although zakat is sometimes described as “charity”, helping the needy is only one of its legitimate uses. Another is jihad. By the rules of Islam, Hamas’ military arm would be seen by some Muslims as a legitimate recipient of “alms for jihad”.
Do other Middle Eastern nations support Hamas?
This is complicated.
Hamas is a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and one of the Brotherhood’s goals is to overthrow regimes which it considers to be standing in the way of a full Islamic system. This potentially includes governments in Islamic states all across the Middle East. This makes the Brotherhood a threat to the rulers of nations, including the Saudis, who, together with Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and the Emirates, have banned the Brotherhood, calling it a terrorist organization. (Some of the Muslims across the Middle East who have objected on social media to Hamas’ massacres are opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood.) The Saudis are also engaged in bitter proxy wars with Iran, who sponsors Hamas.
Nevertheless, many Muslims in these anti-Brotherhood nations are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Because of this sympathy, even though the Saudis regard Hamas as a threat to their security, an Israeli military campaign to eradicate Hamas will make it politically very difficult for the Saudis to continue on the Abraham Accords path of rapprochement with Israel. (Nevertheless, if only for the sake of their own security, the Saudis would not be unhappy to see Hamas destroyed.)
Why do some Muslims in our own nation support Hamas? What does it mean for our future?
Of the Muslims who have come out to protest in support of Hamas, many will be sympathetic to and shaped by the spiritual dynamics already described in this and previous posts. They will reject the legitimacy of Israel on religious grounds and want to see it destroyed. The pro-Palestinian demonstrations taking place across Western nations have shown that there are at least some Muslims within these nations who are only too pleased about the attacks of October 7. This implies that a religious ideology like that of Hamas is entrenched among some Muslims in Western nations.
Of course, none of this is new information. For decades now, security agencies across the West have been keeping a watchful eye on citizens who believe in and advocate for Islamist ideology like that of Hamas.
Hamas must have known that Israel would respond with airstrikes against Gaza. Why bring such a calamity down on their own people?
The attacks on October 7 will lead – and already have led – to many Muslim casualties. This is of course a great tragedy. However, this was intentional, and is calculated to increase support for Hamas.
We have been told by the Israelis that around 1,500 jihadis who came in from Gaza were killed in Israel over the ensuing days. There are also many casualties in Gaza bombardment, and even more Gazan casualties will result if Israeli ground troups enter Gaza.
All in all, thousands of Gazans will die as a result of Hamas’ attack.
Hamas knew this. Indeed they are counting on it. Hamas complains about Palestinian casualties, while deliberately taking actions which increases these casualties. How can this be?
First, it is part of Hamas’ ideology that every Muslim killed in the war against Israel is a martyr who will attain paradise. This is something that, in their view, every Muslim should aspire to. From Hamas’ perspective, Muslims are fortunate to die in this way.
Second, Hamas counts on Gazan casualties to increase sympathy and support for their cause. They want to drive a wedge between Israelis and Muslims everywhere, and the best, proven way to do this is by causing many, many Muslim casualties at the hands of the Israelis. Hamas is deliberately sacrificing its own people for the sake of what they believe will be certain victory. (This is also the reason why Hamas is known to hide and shoot off rockets in Gazan schools, even though this endangers Palestinian children.)
Tomorrow’s installment will address the question “Who are the Palestinians?”