Monday, 15 February 2010

Challenging Hamas

Hamas, the group that won a place for itself in the elections to the Palestinian Authority, and then seized control of Gaza in a bloody coup against its partners, Fatah, is generally considered pretty extremist. But not extremist enough for some in the Muslim world. "The Jordan Times" yesterday reported on a little-known movement, preaching an ultra-conservative Islam, that is now becoming ever more active in the Muslim world. Its adherents are known as "Salafis".

The Salafi movement generally is non-political, but it contains within itself a minority jihadist element that echoes the Al Qaeda call for a holy war – not only against the West, but also against moderate Arab regimes. Within Gaza, Jihadi Salafis have organised themselves into small armed groups that engage in armed clashes with Hamas forces. They have also been firing rockets into Israel, in defiance of Hamas's informal truce.

The Jihadi Salafis engaged in a violent armed struggle against Hamas last summer, when 26 fighters were killed during a shoot-out in a mosque – 16 of them Salafis, including their leader. After that incident, Hamas claimed that it had disbanded the groups, and indeed 25 are still in prison. But the jihadis have now re-formed. Just recently they blew up the car of a senior Hamas official outside his home in southern Gaza – as a warning, the group announced, since the leader was not in it at the time.

Following the incident the defiant pronouncement of the group, which calls itself "The Soldiers of the Monotheism Brigades", declared: "We will not stop targeting the figures of this perverted, crooked government, breaking their bones and cleansing the pure land of the Gaza Strip of these abominations. What will come next will be harder and more horrible."

What has followed is a series of bombings of internet cafés and music stores in Gaza – since both the internet and music are regarded as essentially non-Islamic.

At the heart of the Salafi protest is that Hamas has failed to impose Islamic law in Gaza since they seized power in 2007. The Salafis are also violently opposed to the tactical truce that Hamas has observed with Israel since Operation Cast Lead last year. They are none too enamoured, either, of the way Hamas seems to be edging towards a two-state solution. For accepting the principle of a Palestinian sovereign state carries with it, as a sine qua non, the acceptance of Israel – a concept abhorrent to the Salafi Islamic view of the world.

The irony is that Hamas has itself been pushing Gaza towards a more Islamic regime, including a campaign urging women to "cover up". This seems to have provided the Salafis in general, and the Jihadi Salafis in particular, with a toehold – and, indeed, their extremist philosophy seems to have gained some acceptance among Gazans.

Salafi adherents seek to embrace what they consider real Islam in their lives. As part of this, they believe that jihad is a religious duty. A major problem arises for the peace process as a whole if this goes too far. The Jihadi Salafis are inspired by, if not exactly a part of, Al Qaeda. Any closer affiliation brings with it the spectre of an active terrorist base, far more wide-ranging in its objectives than Hamas, at the heart of the Middle East.

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