I am not a fan of those Pan-Arab satellite channels that have perfected the art of groping for people’s pocketbooks and distracting them with superficial, profit-oriented programs in the mode of Arab Idol.
Still, the success of the Palestinian contestant in reaching the final round has raised the matter of Palestinians’ interaction with their native son [Mohammad Assaf] into an issue relevant to national identity, in all its innocence and purity. Palestinians dream of upholding the name “Palestine” forever; they feel pride when their homeland’s name is uttered on this, the most famous of pan-Arab television shows, watched by millions throughout the Arab world.
For this reason, the idea of attacking Assaf is simply out of the question; indeed, the streets of Gaza are empty whenever the program airs. The strange thing is that in some of the mosques [the imams’] sermons have focused on inciting people to bring down Assaf “as a religious necessity." As though the success of this up and coming young man would somehow delay the liberation of Palestine. Indeed, there are some reasonable men who have accurately read the movement of the street and hastened to save the faith by distancing it from this question. [They recognize that] the people have simply chosen to follow and support their “beloved” native son. This puts religion in the uncomfortable position of moving against the tide of public opinion and sentiment.
But the issue is not confined to such superficial matters alone. The question of this rising star is a cultural venture that stands in opposition to Hamas’ project of striving by all available means to “mold” Gaza — that is, to mold it in Hamas’ image. Moreover, it fights against everything that is different from itself, a pattern of behavior that it has routinely exhibited since it took control over the Gaza Strip. Moreover, that pattern has been confirmed by the intensification of Hamas’ recent campaign. Whether they are telling people how to express their feelings or whether they are defining the type of shirts that people may wear, they are effectively trying to force people in the Gaza Strip to conform to an external appearance dictated by Hamas.
The behavior of the Internal Security service in the Gaza Strip was not far removed from this notion when they summoned Ibrahim Abrash and questioned him concerning some opinions of his which had proved bothersome to the [Hamas] government. Namely, what he wrote concerning Qatar and Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s visit to Gaza. Matters reached the point where this august writer was asked to write an article in which he would repeat, parrot-like, the position of Hamas and its government. Such an action would represent the ultimate downfall of an author, yet just this represents the top priority for the process of a politics of “molding."
As long as the government inclines in Qatar’s direction, we must all lavish praise upon its Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. And if the government and its leadership is stingy with Qaradawi, then we must all line up in formation to receive him. We must repeat what the government states in its official statements, even though the man himself is controversial figure throughout the Arab world, and not a source of consensus. But in Gaza it is not permitted for people to say anything different.
To those observing the climate of public opinion in the Gaza Strip, this is not only the worst homogenization, but the most dismal failure as well. But the government does not want to pause and linger over any sign that might cause it to reflect upon this process, such as the festival that was held on the anniversary of the launching of the Fatah party, Hamas’ bitter rival. Hundreds of thousands gushed out into the streets — not out of love for Fatah so much as to carry a protest message to Hamas directed against its rule, its policies, and its administration of the Gaza Strip. It would suffice to visit any official of Gaza’s ruling party on a Friday evening to demonstrate also that the campaign of incitement waged by Hamas against Assaf and the views of the people are separated by a wide and gaping chasm.
It is the right of the ruling party to tend to its cultural enterprise. But it is not its right to use force in doing so; if it does employ force then this indicates a deficiency in its understanding of the nature of government. It must be brought to understand the role that it is playing, that government properly understood is the servant of the people, and not their sovereign.
Men in government are servants and employees, not masters. They are implementing the desires of the people, and not their own whims; they are to preserve the heritage, identity and culture of society and not replace it with their own culture. To any student of history, anyone who attempts to do the latter is doomed to failure.
Did not Hitler, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban and Gadhafi attempt to mold their societies after models they had chosen themselves? And what was the result? All of them have gone, but their societies have remained, preserving their authentic identities in all the variety endowed to them by the circumstances of their particular histories, geographies, climates and personal experiences. These have [all contributed to] imprinting an identity on every individual and group, distinguishing them from all other groups.
Gaza in particular was resistant to being brought to heel. This tiny, impoverished, rebellious and quarrelsome region has been characterized by pluralism since the dawn of history. It did not simply become Egyptian when it was governed by Egypt, nor did it become “Israelized” when it was occupied by Israel. Nay, it fought, resisted, and refused to be subservient to the occupation. It punished the Palestinian Authority at the ballot box when it felt that it was not governing in accord with popular wishes — that, rather than acting as a servant of the people in the true sense of the word, it was behaving as a domineering master. And so [the people of] Gaza ousted it.
Now it seems that Hamas has misunderstood its mandate. It was elected to be the servant of the people, not their master. It was elected to preserve and protect [Gaza’s] diverse culture, not to repress that diversity; it was elected so that its security services would protect the people, not become yet another source of anxiety, aggravation, intimidation, even extending so far as to question their manhood — as though the guardian of manhood is to be settled here in the Ministry of the Interior, formed only a few short years ago and not yet mature with experience.
People can safeguard their own manhood. They do not need the government to do this for them. During the years of the [Israeli] occupation, Palestinians undertook heroic feats of manhood — before Hamas’ Interior Ministry even existed.
But manhood has a different meaning here; here it is the external form of the Hamas-type personality, or at least what Hamas — which is ever so interested in external appearances — imagines it to be. Hamas also has a different concept of politics and writing: namely, that writers should write whatever Hamas wants them to. They also have a different concept of patriotism: To them, it means sidling up to the ruling party.
This is the status of Gaza and its rulers. It is a situation that resembles the Arab plight in both the concept and praxis of rule [elsewhere in the Middle East]. Out of fairness, we should note that the security detentions in Gaza are not terribly different from the political arrests in the West Bank. In the latter, the behavior of the security services that act as counterparts to those in Gaza has set off alarm bells warning that matters are heading in the direction of increased authoritarianism, if the trend is not reversed both here and there.
Yet the difference between the governments in the West Bank and Gaza is the difference between the nationalist governments and the Islamist governments in the region as a whole: The former deprive people of their freedom in public while the latter deprive them of their liberty in private.
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