Most Islamist movements, including Hamas, adopt an ideological principle that does not separate between religion and state, because Islam addresses society’s issues, be they political, social or economic. This has given the mission of these movements a comprehensive character.
In their meetings, the Muslim Brotherhood reiterate the idea that their founder, Hassan al-Banna, uttered: “Islam’s teachings are comprehensive. They encompass the affairs of the people in this world and the next. Islam is a faith and a ritual, a nation and a nationality, a religion and a state, spirit and deed, holy text and sword.”
But the Islamist Ennahda movement in Tunisia, which is one of the largest Islamist movements, issued a historical decision May 9 to separate political work from religious activities, to focus on politics and for preaching to be limited to civil societies.
The decision raised important questions on the goal behind it. Why now? Is Ennahda scared to face the same fate as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, after the Egyptian army’s coup against it in July 2013?
It is noteworthy that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood members are either locked up in Egyptian prisons, pursued by Egypt’s security or living in exile for fear of arrest and pursuit. Will the decision motivate other Islamist movements — such as Hamas — to do likewise, despite the different circumstances and political environment?
Saleh al-Raqab, the former minister of religious affairs and endowments in the Hamas government and a prominent Sharia scholar, told Al-Monitor, “To evaluate Ennahda’s decision designed to separate politics from preaching, we must know the truth behind this step. If the movement means to separate religion and the state, it is catastrophic. But if this is just a matter of procedure, then it is possible. When Hamas ruled between 2007 and 2014, it decided that none of its ministers would be a member of its political bureau. But Ennahda’s decision is clearly due to the developments of the Muslim Brotherhood's experience in Egypt and the subsequent Western pressure. It seems that Ennahda had to take this decision, not out of political conviction or intellectual progress. But Western states are not naive, and they will not believe that Ennahda’s decision came out of real progress rather than a tactical measure to overcome the pressure. The West wants them to give up everything ultimately.”
A European diplomatic source commented on condition of anonymity on the latest Ennahda developments, saying that Ennahda’s decision to separate religious from political action was due to the lack of political meetings regarding cultural and religious issues. According to the source, Ennahda is obsessed with convincing the West that it is not the same as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ennahda’s move preoccupied intellectual and media circles within Hamas. Dozens of posts and discussions were shared on social media, especially on Facebook. Some advocated Ennahda’s decision and considered it a chance for Hamas to follow, while others strictly opposed this move and accused Ennahda of giving up on Islam gradually.
A third party voiced its conditional support out of fear that this step might be a prelude to Ennahda’s relinquishing its Islamist program. A fourth party that is close to Hamas expressed concerns that Ennahda might be aiming at abandoning the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the mother group of all Islamist movements in the world.
Zied Boumakhla, a member of Ennahda’s Shura Council, told Al-Monitor, “Ennahda’s decision to separate religious activities from political ones is a result of long discussions rather than pressure. The best move is to separate religious from political action. We are a political party with an Islamic authority. We implement our programs by distributing our human resources across several work sectors without merging politics with preaching and religious activities. We called on representatives of Islamist movements, including Hamas represented by the head of its international relations, Osama Hamdan, to attend our conference on May 20-22. Political work should have some space to move in, far from narrow ideological approaches. Although Hamas has its particularity, it can benefit from experience.”
We cannot discuss the repercussions of Ennahda’s decision without pointing out the fact that several Hamas figures were impressed with the character of its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi. Some view him as more progressive than his fellow leaders of Islamist parties, as he puts the local national discourse before the partisan one. In July 2013, Ennahda stepped down in Tunisia to spare the country strife similar to that in other Arab states such as Egypt and Libya.
Yet Ghannouchi went too far in his discourse May 20 when he openly called for distancing religion from political battles, and keeping mosques away from political rivalries and partisan interests so that they unite people instead of separating them.
Yahia Mousa, the Hamas chairman of the Legislative Council's Oversight and Human Rights Committee in the Gaza Strip and head of the National Islamic Salvation Party that Hamas established in 1996 and that was disbanded following the Al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, told Al-Monitor, “Ennahda’s step is tailored to Tunisia’s situation. Even if it happened under foreign pressure, that does not make it wrong. The school of thought in the Maghreb among Islamist parties in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco is more developed than its Eastern counterpart in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. Intellectuals in the Maghreb are more in contact with the West as they lived there for years. The Palestinian situation necessitates a general command for the Islamist party, and under this command, the subcommands would be included — be they economic, political, military, social or religious. Each subcommand would have its own methods.”
Sari Orabi, a Palestinian expert on Islamist parties, told Al-Monitor, “Palestine’s Islamists, especially Hamas, who followed up the updates on Ennahda’s situation stopped at the slogan of separating the religious from the political rather than delving in its deeper meaning, regardless of their support for or opposition to this decision.
"The counter-revolutions took Islamists by surprise and put them in intellectual and political dilemmas. When Hamas members discuss the direct effect of Ennahda’s decision, they have to focus on the confrontation with Israel and the liberation of the Palestinian territories rather than on favoring the secular or Islamist state. This can be discussed later after the liberation.”
The discussions over Ennahda’s decision did not stop in Hamas’ circles, and it does not seem that they are even close to ending. Ennahda threw a stone in still waters among Hamas’ cadres and supporters who were raised to believe that religion is the main point of reference for politicians. However, this perspective might have narrowed down Hamas’ options at times due to Sharia jurisprudences that perhaps did not engulf the political situation from all its aspects.