Islamists and the West: Time for a Common Vision?

Islamists and the West: Time for a Common Vision?
Hamas is an integral part of the Palestinian political map, and no solution to the Arab–Israeli conflict that excludes it can last. Isolating or marginalizing Hamas—the government in Gaza and the broader movement—paves the road to extremism by closing off avenues for political participation.
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The Palestinian cause lives in the hearts and minds of 1.5 billion Muslims spread over five continents. It is the pivotal factor in matters of war, peace, as well as other complex problems in the Middle East. Thus, a just resolution of the Palestinian case is vital for achieving stability, security, and prosperity in what is called the Middle East arc of crisis. A just solution should enable the Palestinian people to set up their own independent state within the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital. It should provide the base for a vision that gives more than 6 million refugees their right to return to their land.

The Palestinian cause serves as a gauge of Arabs’ and Muslims’ feelings toward the West, in particular toward the United States. Seriously addressing the issue in an impartial manner is thus at the core of building a new and mutually respectful relationship with the West. To this end, Islamists have called for serious dialogue, not only to address points of religious and political disagreement, but also to prepare both sides to work together in a way that does not disregard Muslim feelings, but rather reinforces a culture of tolerance, cooperation, and coexistence.
A just solution should enable the Palestinian people to set up their own independent state within the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital. It should provide the base for a vision that gives more than 6 million refugees their right to return to their land.
Relations With the West: Understanding not Confrontation
Since its founding, Hamas has adopted a flexible and moderate religious stance and called for mutual understanding with the West to avoid conflict and confrontation. Islamists in Palestine welcomed and were encouraged by Western calls for democracy and the protection of human rights and opposed views that considered the West as an enemy or considered it to be a monolithic entity. Hamas’ position is that Western countries should be judged on the basis of their policies and positions, rather than on the basis of sweeping generalizations.
Palestinian Islamists hoped that the West would reciprocate and interact with them in the same spirit, rather than on the basis of stereotypes and preconceived judgments. Unfortunately, Islamists have been instead put on trial and treated with hostility by the West. The United States has accused Hamas of extremism and terrorism, mobilized the entire world against it, and looked at Hamas’ 2006 election victory as a painful blow to both its “war on terror” and its plan to encourage democratization in the Middle East. Thus Hamas (both as a movement and as a government) fell victim to the misguided policies of the George W. Bush administration not only toward the Palestinian people and their national cause but also toward the peoples of the Arab and Islamic regions more broadly.
Despite all the wrongs, aggression, and plotting by the Bush White House, however, the Islamists do not hold the entire West responsible for those policies and still look forward to positive, balanced relations with the Obama administration and also with other Western countries, especially the European Union member states.
What has become increasingly evident is that a misconception of Palestinian Islamism exists.
What has become increasingly evident is that a misconception of Palestinian Islamism exists. The accusations made are far removed from Hamas’s vision and political plan. Hamas is treated like an extremist movement with goals similar to those of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Hamas leaders have defined the organization clearly as both a Palestinian national liberation movement and as a civil-political movement. It is important to lay out what Hamas’s relationship is to religion, democracy, and resistance in order to understand its vision and goals. Hamas draws its concepts and values from Islam and works to liberate Palestinian lands from Israeli occupation using all legitimate means and serving the Palestinian people wherever they may be as circumstances permit. Hamas is not a clerical religious movement as some try to portray it, nor is it a fundamentalist movement in the Western sense―meaning extremist and narrow-mindedly bigoted. Rather, Hamas follows the moderate, centrist approach and does not see anyone as an enemy, except for the occupiers who have stolen the land of the Palestinian people. Both Jews and Christians are “People of the Book,” and Muslims respect their traditions and keep their promises towards them.
Hamas is also a civil movement that has adopted a consultative approach and uses democratic means for the internal succession of power. Hamas believes in the peaceful succession of power in Palestine, partnership on the basis of citizenship, and in cultural diversity and political pluralism. It also regards respect for human rights and relevant international conventions to be a part of Islamic teaching, and considers human dignity to be the highest goal of human existence.
Hamas also prefers that Palestine by liberated by peaceful means, and calls upon the world to implement UN resolutions related to the Palestinian cause, particularly Resolution 194, ensuring the right of refugees to return, as well as resolutions demanding that Israel withdraw from occupied Arab territories.
Hamas adopts resistance in all its forms as a reaction to the occupation but does not deliberately attack civilians. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin launched an initiative calling on the international community and the occupation government to agree to spare civilians. This offer still stands, but Israel has rejected it. The movement also agreed to a comprehensive truce, which Israel declined. For more than two and a half years, Hamas has been calling for a prisoner exchange, but Israel continues to procrastinate and place obstacles in the way.
Hamas believes that the battleground is within occupied Palestine, and thus does not attack Israeli targets outside of Palestine. It looks forward to making a positive contribution to a peaceful and secure world free of violence, calls for the establishment of a fully sovereign Palestinian state within the June 4, 1967 borders, and demands the return of Palestinian refugees to their land and homes. Hamas also believes in dialogue with the West and wants a partnership with the Western world on the basis of equality and mutual respect.
Hamas also believes in dialogue with the West and wants a partnership with the Western world on the basis of equality and mutual respect.
This is certainly different from the stereotype of Hamas portrayed by Israel. That country has tried to demonize Hamas, brand it as extremist and terrorist in order to distort its image, and rally the Western world against it in order to justify its own crimes against humanity committed in Palestine, the latest of which was its sweeping attack on the Gaza Strip that began on December 27, 2008.
Dealing with Hamas: The Crisis and the Key to the Solution
Many have wondered about the point of the Western sanctions imposed on the Hamas government in the wake of its sweeping victory in the January 2006 legislative elections. Reports have proven that the sanctions are illogical and misguided, sustained only by the excessive pressure exerted by the U.S. administration on the international community to punish the Palestinian people for exercising their democratic rights. Unfortunately, the Quartet spearheaded the sanctions campaign against Hamas, strengthening U.S. and Israeli efforts to delegitimize the organization and deprive it of its right to lead the Palestinian people, who had elected it in free and fair elections, as certified by the international observers who monitored the voting process.
Many cunning and deceitful methods have been used―at home and abroad―to undermine the work of the Hamas-led government. This includes destabilizing the already shaky foundations of the Palestinian political system by kidnapping more than 44 Hamas MPs in the West Bank as well as several cabinet ministers.
The Bush administration expected the Hamas-led government to fall within two or three months. When this did not happen, Washington worked to recruit members of the Fatah movement to overthrow the government of Ismail Haniya and create conditions suitable for reinstalling Fatah or its supporters. Hamas had faced myriad obstacles during its time in power. They included the restrictions on freedom of movement of MPs and government ministers imposed by the West and some regional powers. Other obstacles were a series of strikes and political-administrative harassment from Fatah, which dominated most of the government’s security and administrative bodies.
During its rule, Hamas sought to avoid internal conflict and bloodshed. It was aided in this regard by the active role played by the Egyptian security delegation residing in the Gaza Strip, which coordinated with the Palestinian organizations and created an atmosphere of cooperation. Unfortunately, however, all of Hamas’ serious attempts to avoid conflict ran up against the iron wall of international sanctions and local acts of instigation.
Hostility toward Hamas and refusal to recognize the election victory was not universal within Fatah. Some Fatah members recognized the legitimacy and right to rule of the Hamas government, believing it would enhance the Palestinian democratic process and allow the achievement of higher national goals.
Policies designed to isolate or marginalize Hamas (the movement and the government) will only pave the road for extremism and terrorism.
There have been attempts in the West, particularly in Europe, to lift the sanctions against the Palestinian people and promote communication with the Hamas movement and government, seeking to integrate them into the political process. Those who have done so are fully aware of Hamas’s importance as a fundamental player that cannot be ignored, and they also realize that there will be no political solution without the consent or blessing of Hamas. Many in the West, politicians and others, and including many international organizations, also recognize the need to positively engage Hamas in the political process.
These conclusions were not reached in a vacuum, but were the fruit of many behind-the-scenes meetings with a number of European organizations, which became familiar with Hamas’s ideology and political vision in talks with the movement’s most prominent leaders at home and abroad. These meetings have shown that the West can deal with Hamas.
Hamas is an integral part of the Palestinian political map. It is a moderate Islamist movement that has repeatedly stressed its commitment to democratic principles. It has also stressed its desire to strengthen the political partnership between itself and other Palestinian movements. Since Hamas has such deep roots within all sectors of Palestinian society, isolating it is hardly a viable option.
Policies designed to isolate or marginalize Hamas (the movement and the government) will only pave the road for extremism and terrorism. Recognizing the election results and allowing Hamas to proceed with its reform program, on the other hand, would contribute to the emergence of realistic views and foster political maturity, while expanding a culture of tolerance, respect for pluralism, and the peaceful succession of power. The West must ask itself: Does it want to support moderation and pragmatism, or open the door for extremism to the extent that that everyone ends up riding the wheels of terrorism and the clash of civilizations?
Dr. Ahmad Yousef is Palestinian deputy foreign minister in Gaza and former political advisor to Prime Minister Ismail Haniya.
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About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.


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