Why Hamas?

The Boston Globe runs an important story by Thanassis Cambanis, co-chief of the newspaper’s Middle East bureau, on why so many observers wrongly predicted that Fatah would beat Hamas. Cambanis points to one factor I emphasized in an earlier Sandbox entry: the misleading opinion polls conducted by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki. According to Cambanis, Shikaki and the much-quoted Bir Zeit University profs

work closely with foreign academics (and indeed many were trained in the West) and frequently confer with Israeli colleagues and international NGOs. Perhaps because of the cosmopolitan, secular milieu in which they operate, many of them have underplayed the emergence in the last decade of a potent strain of Islamism growing in popularity among the public they study.

More broadly, Cambanis points to “the tendency of the largely secular Palestinian elite to underestimate the strength of Islamism. Influential Palestinian analysts predicted that Hamas could never win a majority, because its extremist religious views–and its commitment to unending war with Israel–would not resonate with the Palestinian public.”

Cambanis now questions the post-election spin offered by this very same elite, who argue that the Hamas victory is primarily an anti-corruption protest–that Hamas prevailed despite its Islamist platform. “I think most people don’t expect Hamas to create an Islamic state,” Shikaki is quoted as saying. But Cambanis watched the campaign run by Hamas, and he thinks it wasn’t about Fatah corruption at all. It was about the virtue of Islam as a moral and social order. The headline of his article: “A Vote for Islam.”

An important and largely overlooked poll confirms the impression that secularism has been vastly eroded in the Palestinian territories (as well as in Egypt and Jordan). The Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in Amman published the results a year ago, under the title: “Revisiting the Arab Street: Research from Within.” The pollsters drew all sorts of dubious conclusions from their data (I visited the center last spring and heard them first-hand). But one set of findings was impossible to spin, and should have constituted a flashing red light.

The pollsters asked Muslim respondents what role Islamic law, the shari’a, should play in legislation. The results were astonishing:

Asked whether Shari’a should be the only source of legislation, one of the sources of legislation, or not be a source of legislation, most Muslims believed it should at least be a source of legislation. Support was particularly strong in Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt, where approximately two-thirds of Muslim respondents stated that the Shari’a must be the only source of legislation; while the remaining third believed that it must be “one of the sources of legislation.” By comparison, in Lebanon and Syria, a majority (nearly two thirds in Lebanon and just over half in Syria) favored the view that Shari’a must be one of the sources of legislation.

Even more remarkable, responses didn’t vary with level of education: “Pooled data from Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt indicate that 58% of respondents with low education, 59% of those with moderate education, and 56% with higher education believe that Shari’a must be the o source of legislation in their countries.”

This is the force driving the Islamist surge across the region, and it’s why Islamists will carry any free and open election. The call for shari’a is the prime marker of Islamism, and if two-thirds of any public desire it, an astute campaign by an Islamist party can readily translate this into ballots. Shari’a allegiance may be an even more reliable indicator of voting behavior than straightforward questions about voting preferences.

It’s also why I think Shikaki is wrong when he declares that “most people don’t expect Hamas to create an Islamic state.” That’s a hope, not an analysis. Hamas would have strong and broad support for Islamizing Palestinian law. If it can’t immediately implement its program for eradicating Israel, it can certainly tap into the great majority who believe that the shari’a is the solution to the social ills fostered by unbelief.

Palestinian intellectuals, having misled us (and themselves) over the strength of the Islamist trend, would now confuse us about its nature. It’s time for them to stop spinning and start fighting back. If they don’t, their few freedoms may well fall by the wayside, regardless of whether Hamas reaches a modus vivendi with Israel.