Friday, May 16, 2008

Their 'fascism', and ours.

Zizek describing Hezbollah and Hamas as "fascist" is no surprise - the flip side to his contrarianism is that, when in doubt, he just repeats liberal banalities because that's what he essentially believes. However, I encounter this sort of nonsense from people who ought to know better, and I think we all do. And after seeing this resentful "yeah, well..." sort of reply from Alan Johnson to the Hamas minister Bassem Naeem, one starts to realise how the liberal theodicy of the Middle East conflict relies upon this canard. After all, Johnson is not the sort of nasty person to deny the Palestinians their rights (those being constrained to what is deemed compatible with the continuation of Israel's existence as a Zionist state). And since he is the sort of person who thinks Israel would as soon have peace as perpetual war, there must be some reason why it has so far failed to materialise. Extremists 'on both sides' obviously contribute to the impasse, but the real story is that Hamas plots genocide against the Jews. Can't trust 'em - not 'partners for peace'.

The ideology of Hamas is not obscure. An offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main goal of the organisation is to eventually replace Israel with an Islamic Republic on the whole of historic Palestine. Its most vociferously expressed conviction in its early years was the belief that Israel could not be won over through negotiations and concessions, and that only a military jihad could succeed. This in fact constituted a departure for the historically quietist Muslim Brothers, but in truth it was the first intifada and the way in which it was crushed that galvanised the organisation. Two key figures inspire Hamas' ideological orientation. The first is Sayyid Qutb, whose doctrinal contribution became a staple of Brotherhood ideology in the course of struggle with the Nasserist state. Qutb articulated a right-wing variant of Third Worldist discourse, rejecting both socialism and American-style capitalism. Like ideological confederates such as Mawdudi, he sought to renew Muslim societies from the weakness that had allowed them to be overwhelmed by colonial powers by resuscitating their moral power. Reacting against the chimera of a distinctly Western weltanschauung, comprising nationalism, secularism and liberal democracy (cf Mawdudi), Qutb regarded the unconditional sovereignty of God as the basis for such renewal. If you're an Anglo-American writer in need of a justification for perpetual war, the technical term for this doctrine is "Islamofascism".

Still, as Zizek himself has pointed out (on Haider v Blair), fascism is not just a bundle of elements (anti-socialism, anti-modern reflux, patriarchy, corporatism, etc), it is a particular articulation of those elements. In my view, it is far better to see Qutb's doctrine as a conservative form of anti-colonial nationalism, in which the plane of nationhood is transferred to the Umma. Realistically, Qutb's ideal state would probably not have differed that much from Nasser's, except for added religious trappings. Were it not for the failure of the Free Officers to accomodate the Muslim Brothers in the corporatist Egyptian state, indeed, Qutb would have been happy to support that state - he had himself been a supporter of the Free Officer rebellion. Mind you, the British had no problem deeming even Nasser a "fascist" when he nationalized the Suez Canal, because only a fascist would do something to annoy a declining empire. The second key figure for Hamas, is 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam, an important figure in the Palestinian resistance to the British occupation who was killed in the build-up to the 1936-9 uprising. In fact, Qassam had form as an anti-colonial fighter, which career he began when Italy invaded Libya in 1911, and continued with the Syrian revolt against the French Mandate. His contribution to the Palestinian struggle was to form 'Black Hand', an underground resistance movement which - of course - the British Empire considered a 'terrorist' outfit. The anti-colonial lineage is crucial, and this is recognised in Hamas ideology.

The Muslim Brothers emerged as a serious force in Palestine particularly after the 1967 war and during the Israeli occupation. In this time, the rising profile of religion in politics and daily life saw the number of mosques soar, particularly in Gaza, where the number rose over the first twenty years of occupation from 200 to 600. This was the main vector through which the Brothers established a presence, aside from using zakat to supply alms to the needy and so forth. When the first riots of the incipient intifada erupted in December 1987, several of the Brothers based at the Islamic Centre in Gaza met to discuss a response. They started to publish propaganda leaflets calling for action against the Israeli occupation, and formed the original nucleus for what would become known as Hamas (short for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya or "Islamic Resistance Movement") in 1988. For nice liberals, this is the moment of disaster, but I actually think that hitherto quietest bourgeois Islamic nationalists throwing themselves into the resistance is a good development, not least since the PLO was increasingly bankrupt politically and militarily since its expulsion from Lebanon in 1982. In fact, it should be said that older members of the Brotherhood were quite trepidatious about getting involved in the uprising, since they still maintained that Palestinians needed to be educated in Islam before they could be ready for a full-scale rebellion - it was the younger generation who drove the evolution of Hamas into a serious organisation of resistance.

Hamas' goals, as explained in its Charter, are congruent with those of the Brotherhood, but place far more emphasis on the specific Palestinian problem, and less on reforming society along Islamic lines. The organisation certainly considers the whole of historic Palestine an Islamic waqf, or trust, but this is really a religious form of Palestinian nationalism. In fact, what was distinctive about Hamas in the 1990s was that while the PLO were retreating from the mainstays of Palestinian nationalism and popular armed struggle, Hamas conspicuously held to them. Of course, simple tactical flexibility has ensured that it has always differentiated its long-term goals from short-term aims such as establishing a state on Gaza and the West Bank. So it wasn't that weird for it to declare a willingness to arrive at a ten year truce with Israel based on a two-state settlement. Although Hamas is usually equated with suicide attacks, it has always been pragmatic about the use of force, deploying it in much the same way as secular Palestinian groups such as Fatah and the PFLP. It cooperated with the PLO over the Oslo negotiations process, for example, despite its misgivings. And though Hamas has always rejected the PLO's inherent right to lead the Palestinians, it has also opposed intra-Palestinian bloodshed and sectarianism and has, even before its velocitous rise since 2000, sought to forge a coalition with the organisation on an agreed platform.

The key point that has animated liberal critique of Hamas, aside from violence, is antisemitism. Without question, the early Hamas doctrine held that the defense of Palestine was part of a resistance not only against imperialism or Zionism but against essentialised blocs of Judaism and Christianity, who they depicted as engaged in an existential battle with Islam. They drew on claims from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to interpret their struggle as one against Jewish world domination. In a reductionist way, you could see this as the result of 'false consciousness', or a simple lack of class analysis. True enough, if your oppressors tell you that they represent the world's Jews, that they are the Jewish state, and you lack the conceptual apparatus with which to disentangle such nationalist myths - because you are subject to your own variant of such mythology - then the antisemitic conspiracy theories might be alluring. And this reductionist interpretation is certainly better than the even more reductionist take, which is that Islam is inherently antisemitic because of its dangerous proximity to Judaism which produces a narcissistic recoil (actually, in that highly culturalist assessment, Zizek might well have drawn consciously from Huntington or even Michael Ignatieff). I think there is also an element of subverting the morality through which Israel asserts its dominance, namely its claim to represent the victims of the Nazi holocaust. If Israel were the culmination of a conspiracy, there would be no need to defer to the tragic recent history of a People of the Book. As Edward Said never tired of arguing, this style of denunciation is a hateful inversion of logic. The proper way to undermine the legitimacy of Israeli oppression is to point out the structural similarity between Israel's racism and European antisemitism, between its modes of domination and those of European states. I need hardly add that the antisemitism in the Covenant is, however inexcusable, in no way equivalent to European antisemitism, which was not even remotely a reaction to oppression. Such analysis will hopefully become passe, at any rate, if Bassem Naeem's simple and straightforward repudiation of antisemitism is representative of Hamas' current direction. And what then will be left for the defenders of Israel, as its ministers draw on the metaphors of the Shoah to describe its atrocities against Palestinians? As increasing numbers of Jewish people reject Israel's claim to represent their interests? As Hamas defends Palestinian democracy and Israel and its allies attack it and undermine it?

Would it be better if the Left were stronger than the Islamists in Palestine? Unquestionably, if it was a Left worth its salt. If, that is, it was a Left unlike any that people like Alan Johnson or his conferes would accept. By no means do I think Hamas has the answers. As things stand, much - not all - of the Palestinian Left is taking a sectarian approach to Hamas while broadly aligning with a decrepit and corrupt nationalism that will surely bring them down with it. One would hope in the minimum for a renewed spirit of Palestinian unity, but that of course depends upon the nationalist wing evacuating itself from the imperialist camp. In the meantime, I fear that Hamas are currently the only serious resistance movement in Palestine, for all their shortcomings. The libidinised appropriation of the language of anti-fascism by liberal apologists for Israel both disgraces that tradition and helps isolate and vilify the major obstacle to Israel's successful wiping of Palestine from the map.