Neither Hamas nor any other Islamist or non-Islamist group has the right to dictate social mores or individual liberties, and especially not to trample them (whether by force or through the law), as long as those mores and liberties do not infringe upon the rights of others.
Hamas’s current behavior in Gaza is paralleled by the obsession of other Islamist parties with individual behavior, as well as the Islamization and Talibanization of their societies. From this, one could draw many implications, and points worthy of discussion, exposure, and rejection.
In the last few months, the pace and rhythm of Talibanization in the Gaza Strip has accelerated in a bizarre fashion. People have returned to square one since Hamas assumed control of the strip, when they suddenly felt the Talibanesque climate bearing down upon their personal lives and individual freedoms. After some time passed, Hamas wised up and retreated somewhat from some of its edicts and laws that provoked a special degree of ridicule. For example, the ban on women smoking water pipes and the demand that every man and woman in a public place provide official documentation of their relationship status — as though all were guilty until proven innocent. More than anything else, such behavior reduced the resistance movement’s image into a caricature of itself.
However, the obsessive focus on people’s individual and social behaviors demonstrated by Hamas and the other religious movements in the Gaza Strip returned to impose itself once again upon Gaza’s already suffocated climate. Recently, consecutive news reports have described coercive practices of interfering in the private lives of individuals, imposing upon them patriarchal and totalitarian regimes seeking to monitor their behavior in public and in private. These practices vary from issuing laws and edicts that clearly direct people to adopt orientations. These are for the most part unwritten, but the official agencies are nevertheless entrusted with enforcing them (so that they can be disavowed in the event that they encounter intense popular rejection and widespread resistance).
It continues with the creation of a general climate that allows individuals, police officers and detectives to impose their vision upon people’s way of life, guided by nothing more than their understanding of general instructions regarding what is necessary to preserve society’s “virtue” or “intellectual security.”
In the context of this climate, human rights organizations have documented a long list of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Hamas government in Gaza, whether against women, artists, writers, academics, or against those who attend public libraries.
For example, the Gaza municipality closed the English Language club because it involved gender mixing, and banned the introduction or use of personal computers within the library (they claimed they were being misused!). Moreover, the loathsome practice of interrogating any man and woman found accompanying one another in any public place to prove the “legitimacy of their relationship” has also returned to the public square. This practice is detested not only for its presumption of ill intent on the part of the two, but because it goes still further and [allows police] to call the woman’s parents and inform them that a member of their family has been “detained” in the company of some man. This intrusive, childish practice is devoid of even the most minute degree of chivalry. We do not know on what basis this intrusive, condescending behavior can be justified. It bears no relationship to anything attested to by the noble behavior of our history, which forbids spying out people’s secrets to the extent of forbidding men from walking in on his wife in his home without informing her beforehand.
The official rhetoric of Hamas and its government is always directed toward denying that any of its policies have anything to do with what has been described above. Instead it describes them as exaggerations promoted by Hamas’s rivals in an attempt to tarnish the movement’s image, or opportunistic inflations of “some mistakes” made by individuals. This is the traditional response of any government defending its own adolescent behavior and those of its policies that have been repudiated by the majority of society.
It would be worthier and more fitting — not to say more chivalrous — if Hamas would instead engage in self-criticism and initiate a political, intellectual, and Islamic-legal discussion within its own ranks with the aim of reaching a clear consensus among itself first, then holding a dialogue with the rest of Palestinian society, presenting its views before the latter so that they could be accepted or rejected in a free and democratic manner. But the policy of “gradual imposition [of sharia law]” or “creating a climate” and then fleeing from responsibility is not only transparent, it fails to inspire confidence or gravitas.
Indeed, it is destructive to both Palestinian society and Hamas. Hamas must confront the same harsh difficulties as do other Islamist movements that have found themselves in the dilemma of mixing religion and politics. It is attempting to find answers unique to the Palestinian context and not ones “imported” from any other context. These problems originate from the intermingling of religion and politics on the social level, and one can see their effects in the confused policies governing Gaza. As a practical matter, they [will show themselves to be] the Achilles Heel of political Islam, sooner or later.
One of the most important practical and theoretical difficulties pertaining to Islamists’ understanding of democracy lies in the division between those who regard it from an exclusively political angle, as a means with which to vanquish their opponents electorally and thereafter to come to power. But democracy is broader than the electoral process: It is a social system and a way of life.
One might go so far as to say that there is “political democracy” (the system by which political competition is adjudicated and exchange of power occurs peacefully) as well as “social democracy”, which allows for behavioral, cultural, religious and social diversity on a basis of coexistence. If political democracy comes into conflict with social democracy, then the resulting regime becomes paternalistic and totalitarian in the Stalinist or North Korean model, where the government spies upon its people and interferes in the minutia of their everyday lives, attempting to mold its people into one format that produces identical individuals. Such systems do not accept pluralism, nor do they understand real citizenship; they only accept what conforms.
The attempt to remake society and remold individuals is an impossible, failed project, [and will remain so] even if it is attempted from religious premises. That is simply because it runs contrary to the natural pluralism of life. Moreover, it runs counter to the text of the Quran, which sanctions variety among humankind, and does not [profess] that man was created through a single faith or nation.
"Social democracy" dictates that society contains a broad spectrum of convictions, behaviors, and personal liberties which are no business of the government's so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. No government that is based upon elections (or even a despotic government) has the right to hold to account, for example, anyone above the legal age over the type of website that they browse on the Internet — even if they're pornographic.
That is his affair, and none of the state or the government's business. Neither does any government — no matter who it is — have the right to punish a man or woman (again, provided they are over the age of consent) for voluntarily enjoying one another's company in a non-exploitative manner. It is their business and none of the government's. Whenever the government — any government — stoops to the role of moral police officer seeking to impose upon the private life of millions (and discipline them accordingly), then it is digging its own grave. History alone would suffice to provide hundreds of pieces evidence testifying to that.
Continue reading this article by registering and get unlimited access to:
- The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
- Archived articles
- Exclusive events
- The Week in Review
- Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly