The late Edward Said, the Palestinian-American icon, described the role of the intellectual as “speaking truth to power.” In that spirit, many Palestinian academics and thinkers broke with Yasir Arafat and Fatah, accusing them of corruption and compromise.
These intellectuals are nearly all secularists, who’ve long insisted to the world that the cause of Palestine is also the cause of revolution, equality, and democracy. So now that Hamas rules, are these intellectuals speaking the same truth to (and about) the Islamists who’ve become the new power?
No one knows what guidance Edward Said would offer were he alive today. But during his last decade (he died in 2003), he made occasional reference to Hamas (and Islamic Jihad). When these references are assembled, as they are below, they convey a consistent message. Palestinian intellectuals seem to have ignored it, as they rush headlong to embrace an Islamist regime.
Said made his first reference to Hamas in 1993, after two visits to the West Bank. At the time, Hamas hadn’t yet become a household word in the West. Nor had it perfected the method of the suicide attack. Said was underwhelmed by the encounter:
In 1992 when I was there, I briefly met a few of the student leaders who represent Hamas: I was impressed by their sense of political commitment but not at all by their ideas. In 1993 I arranged to spend some more hours with them and with their rivals for political sway, Islamic Jihad. I found them quite moderate when it came to accepting the truths of modern science, for instance (interestingly the four young men I spoke to were students with outstanding records: all of them were scientists or engineers); hopelessly reductive in their views of the West; and irrefragably opposed to the existence of Israel. “The Jews have to leave,” one of them said categorically, “except for the ones who were here before 1948.” … In the main, their ideas are protests against Israeli occupation, their leaders neither especially visible nor impressive, their writings rehashes of old nationalist tracts, now couched in an “Islamic” idiom. (The Politics of Dispossession, pp. 403-5.)
In 1994, Tariq Ali interviewed Said for the BBC, and Said repeated his opinion that Hamas had no ideas on offer:
In my opinion, their ideas about an Islamic state are completely inchoate, unconvincing to anybody who lives there. Nobody takes that aspect of their programme seriously. When you question them, as I have, both on the West Bank and elsewhere: “What are your economic policies? What are your ideas about power stations, or housing?”, they reply: “Oh, we’re thinking about that.” There is no social programme that could be labelled “Islamic.” I see them as creatures of the moment, for whom Islam is an opportunity to protest against the current stalemate, the mediocrity and bankruptcy of the ruling party.
That same year, 1994, Said sharpened his critique of Hamas, even as the movement gained momentum as an oppositional force:
As to Hamas and its actions in the Occupied Territories, I know that the organization is one of the only ones expressing resistance…. Yet for any secular intellectual to make a devil’s pact with a religious movement is, I think, to substitute convenience for principle. It is simply the other side of the pact we made during the past several decades with dictatorship and nationalism, for example, supporting Saddam Hussein when he went to war with “the Persians.” (Peace and its Discontents, p. 111.)
By placing Hamas in the same box as Saddam, and by equating Islamism with dictatorship, Said left little room for doubt as to the responsibility of the secular critic.
In 1996, the year Hamas gained international notoriety with a series of devastating suicide bombings, Said found still more disparaging adjectives for the growing movement of “Islamic resistance”:
Unfortunately, it is not to my taste, it is not secular resistance. Look at some of the Islamic movements, Hamas on the West Bank, the Islamic Jihad, etc. They are violent and primitive forms of resistance. You know, what Hobsbawn calls pre-capital, trying to get back to communal forms, to regulate personal conduct with simpler and simpler reductive ideas. (Power, Politics, and Culture, p. 416.)
In 2000, Said again returned to the poverty of ideas in Hamas:
They don’t have a message about the future. You can’t simply say Islam is the only solution. You have to deal with problems of electricity, water, the environment, transportation. Those can’t be Islamic. So they’ve failed on that level. (Culture and Resistance, p. 62.)
In 2002, in the midst of the second intifada, Said made his last and most devastating critique of the Islamists, chiding Arafat for allowing them to wreak havoc with the cause:
He [Arafat] never really reined in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which suited Israel perfectly so that it would have a ready-made excuse to use the so-called martyrs’ (mindless) suicide bombings to further diminish and punish the whole people. If there is one thing that has done us more harm as a cause than Arafat’s ruinous regime, it is this calamitous policy of killing Israeli civilians, which further proves to the world that we are indeed terrorists and an immoral movement. For what gain, no one has been able to say. (From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map, p. 185.)
So from an early date, Said discovered that Hamas hadn’t a clue as to how to govern. He described it as gripped by “hopelessly reductive” ideas. He dismissed its violent resistance as “primitive” and “mindless,” and deplored that violence for doing more harm to the Palestinian cause than the harm done by Arafat. Above all, he warned secular intellectuals against concluding a “devil’s pact” with Hamas that would sacrifice principle to convenience. Said would not compromise his secularism. In 1999, he succinctly explained why he could not ally himself with Islamists, even in the shared cause Palestine: “First, I am secular; second, I do not trust religious movements; and third, I disagree with these movements’ methods, means, analyses, values, and visions.” (Power, Politics, and Culture, p. 437.)
Given Said’s standing as the guiding light of Palestinian intellectuals, it’s remarkable that not a single one has echoed his critique of Hamas since the Palestinian elections. To the contrary: several of them have rushed to enter that “devil’s pact” against which he warned.
For example, there is Said’s own nephew, Saree Makdisi, a professor of literature at UCLA, who keeps a weblog, “Speaking Truth to Power.” (The title suggests that he’s especially qualified to keep Said’s flame alive.) But Makdisi seems to have forgotten his uncle’s dismissal of Hamas rhetoric as “rehashes of old nationalist tracts,” when writing these fawning words in praise of an article by the Damascus-based commissar of Hamas, Khalid Meshaal.
Meshaal revives the language of genuine struggle rather than that of hopelessness and defeat; he relies on the unapologetic rhetoric of national liberation, rather than the tired cliches and bureaucratic language (“performance,” “interim status”) borrowed from Israeli and American planners…. What was refreshing about Meshaal’s piece was his use of a defiant language of struggle.
Similarly, George Bisharat, a University of California law professor and activist, wrote an op-ed praising the Palestinians for doing exactly what Said said he could never do on principle: trust a religious movement:
The Palestinians have gained a government with spine—one they trust will be far less yielding of their fundamental rights. It is to the shame of the secular nationalist Palestinian movement that it was not the one to offer this alternative. One day, Palestinians will have to wrestle with questions of what kind of polity they truly want, Islamic or other. For now, they have entrusted their future to Hamas, and the world will have to grapple with their democratic choice.
Issa Khalaf, Palestinian-American author of a book on Palestinian politics and holder of an Oxford Ph.D., shared nothing of Said’s view of Hamas policy as a danger to the Palestinian cause. To the contrary: in an op-ed he hailed the Hamas “strategy” as “eminently sound, including its principled defense of the Palestinians’ core interests, its efforts to create a national consensus and a countervailing balance to the one-sided American-Israeli alliance.” He also added his expert assurance that “its Islamist militancy will be dramatically curtailed upon assumption of the perquisites and symbols of state power.” (“There is no question in my mind,” he insisted.)
After the elections, Rami Khouri, the Palestinian-Jordanian columnist now based in Beirut, went to meet a few Hamas members, in the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj al-Barajneh in Beirut. Unlike Said, he came away glowing from his encounter (which lasted all of two-and-a-half hours). In an article entitled “Talking to the Guys from Hamas,” he reported his epiphany:
What does one learn from such encounters? The two most significant themes that emerge from discussions with Hamas officials, and from their many statements, are a commitment to national principles and a clear dose of political pragmatism… Hamas will surely continue its three-year-old slow shift towards more pragmatism and realism, because it is now politically accountable to the entire Palestinian population, and to world public opinion. Incumbency means responsibility and accountability, which inevitably nurture practicality and reasonable compromises.
All the evidence so far indicates that the promise of such an “inevitable” transformation has not been kept. Of course, it’s a promise Hamas itself never made; it was made instead by Palestinian intellectuals and their Western academic allies. In making it, they hurriedly jettisoned their own secular principles. “I do not trust religious movements,” said Edward Said. Since the election of Hamas, not a single Palestinian intellectual has dared to repeat that sentence. Instead, an entire raft of them (the sample above is comprised entirely of nominal Christians) has insisted that those whom Hamas openly reviles should trust the “Islamic Resistance,” and conclude just the sort of “devil’s pact” that would strengthen its grip on the Palestinian cause. (Rami Khouri has gone the farthest, openly urging Arab liberals to ally with the mighty Islamists on the basis of their shared “core values.”)
Admittedly, there is no more dangerous enterprise in the Middle East than speaking truth to (and about) Islamist power. But it’s another sign of the weakness of the Palestinian people that it hasn’t a single intellectual who remembers how to do it.