Stephen Farrell was in town today promoting his new book on Hamas – after his presentation I sat down with him for a short talk about Hamas and other Islamist groups entering the political sphere. (I’m working this into a longer article about Western perception of Islamist politics which insha’allah will be in one of the Cambridge papers shortly.)
Champollion St: To what extent was Hamas’ success in 2006 due to their ‘Islamic’ character? Or was their support, like for example that for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, due to a more complex set of factors?
Stephen Farrell: In 2006 a large proportion voted for Hamas not because of their Islamist vision but as a protest vote against corruption, nepotism, inefficiency, and incompetence. This is what was heard on the streets before and after the election and was reflected in the opinion polls. Hamas’ campaign was carefully calculated to attract moderates and swing voters…they didn’t even put Hamas on their election material, just ‘change and reform’. They were trying to say we are reformers, we are technocrats, clean, not corrupt.
CS: How far can you even characterise Hamas as an ‘Islamist’ movement? There’s a tendency in the West to view them as a kind of monolith, but are there different factions and to what extent are they Islamist?
SF: They’re not monolithic but they’re disciplined and very, very secretive. There is a distinction between, for want of a better word, pragmatists and hard-liners…the pragmatists pushed for the political move, saying that otherwise parliament will legislate to disarm us, whereas the hardliners are opposed to politics. I was in Jordan recently meeting with the IAF [Islamic Action Front, Jordanian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood] and they have the same problem there…there a was a young doctor, Humam al-Balawi, who blew himself up in Afghanistan and killed a lot of CIA officers…he was originally Palestianian, pre-1948, a doctor, educated, middle class, a prototype al-Ikhwaan. The IAF told me ‘we are in trouble’…they are having to rein in the younger generation, who are asking what they have to show for involvement…they are losing support to jihadi groups. There is a struggle in the Brotherhood between hawks and doves.
CS: We’ve seen the Hamas victory in 2006, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt just announced they’ll have 15 candidates standing in the Shura Council elections, although who knows if they’ll have any success…as Islamic groups enter parliament and government is there any chance the Western perception of them will begin to change?
SF: I can’t really answer that, I’ve been in the Middle East for a long time and it’s difficult for me to comment on Western perceptions…but Zawahiri came out against Hamas’ participation in 2006 and Mashal personally rebutted him…Zawahiri came out again against the formation of a government…he said ‘those trying to liberate the land of Islam through elections will not liberate a grain of sand from Palestine’…and ‘Hamas has fallen in a quagmire of surrender.’ It’s divide and rule…
Hamas is on a spectrum…their narrative is, if you deny us, you may have to deal with worse…