Which Way for Hamas?

Amr Nabil/AP Images
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, Cairo, September 6, 2009


Amid the wreckage of Gaza, Hamas’s officials struggle to sound upbeat. The burly interior minister, Fathi Hamad, whose predecessor was killed by an Israeli bomb, defiantly shuns security precautions at his makeshift office in Gaza City’s main police station. “Claims that we are trying to establish an Islamic state are false,” says the minister, who says his preference would be pursuing a degree in media studies. “Hamas is not the Taliban. It is not al-Qaeda. It is an enlightened, moderate Islamic movement.”

Such talk is not the only effort to return to normality. Parasols and beach cabins sprouted this summer along Gaza’s twenty-eight miles of sandy shore, the crowded strip’s principal public park. Two buildings of the Islamic University, Hamas’s most prominent educational institution, had been bombed but the university put on a graduation ceremony with festive lights, a cascade of multicolored balloons, and heart-shaped posters wishing future success to its students, most of whom happen to be women and some of whom flashed jeans and high heels beneath their black gowns. In a theater next to the Palestinian parliament, also shattered by bombs, actresses danced and writhed in the government-sponsored premiere of Gaza’s Girls and the Patience of Job.

Such events reflect one side of the ongoing conflict inside Hamas between the pragmatists who put Gazans’ needs first, and have sought to lighten their lives after years of punishing blockade and intermittent war, and the ideologues who give priority to “the rule of the sharia of God on earth.” Advocates of the latter have tried to apply Islamic law in full, appealing to the Gaza-based and Hamas-controlled Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) to replace the British Mandate–era penal code with a sharia law that provides execution for apostasy, stoning and lashing for adultery, and the payment of blood money counted in camels. So far, the pragmatists have largely frustrated their efforts. “You can’t Islamize the law when the political system is not fully Islamic,” says the PLC’s general director, Nafiz al-Madhoun, who completed a doctorate in law at the University of Minnesota, and once lectured there. “You need to have an Islamic government, judiciary, and political system. And we don’t.”

In response, the ideologues have resorted to other means, introducing sharia by the back door. With the help of Hamas mosques, the Religious Endowments Ministry has commissioned a morality police to “Propagate Virtue and Prevent Vice,” not least by patrolling the beaches for such signs of debauchery as unveiled female bathers and shirtless men. The police have set up arbitration committees in their stations, offering detainees a fast-track resolution by fatwas, or legal opinion, which sometimes comes from the Muslim Scholars League. “The law of God or the law of a judge?” the police have asked petitioners. The Education Ministry insists it has issued no requirement…

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