Hamas or Al Qaeda?
In his speech to the Foreign Policy Centre last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair described the war against Al Qaeda and its associates as a battle "between those who embrace and see opportunity in the modern world and those who reject its existence."
Blair’s emphasis on empowering and supporting "those in favor of uniting Islam and democracy, everywhere," highlights the difficulties posed for western governments by the recent electoral victory of the militant Palestinian group Hamas.
Though Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the US and EU for its attacks on Israel, some believe the success of Hamas’ electoral participation could reduce regional support for groups like Al Qaeda which reject popular participation in government.
They describe a growing schism between reform-minded Islamists like Hamas and its parent group the Muslim Brotherhood, who seek to Islamize their societies through the democratic process, and those, such as Al-Qaeda, who refuse the democratic political system altogether, attempting to force a radical transformation through the use of violence.
Alistair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer and security advisor to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, believes there is now real animosity between the two Islamist currents.
"I think it’s a war; it’s more than just a growing division, we’re talking about a fundamental struggle for the future of Islam."
Regional polls suggest Muslims overwhelmingly favor elections, but according to Crooke support for groups like Al Qaeda is not insignificant, "The vanguard [of Al Qaeda] have got some way with it but they are starting to find it quite difficult."
Hamas, which recently rejected calls by Al Qaeda to renounce the democratic process and resume its attacks on Israel, warns the US and EU governments that they are now facing a fateful choice.
"It’s time for the West to decide whether it wants to deal with Hamas which believes in reform and want to have good relations with the whole international community or with the people of this kind [Al Qaeda] who don’t believe in those kind of relations and believe in burning the whole system," says Osama Hamdan, Hamas’ senior representative in Lebanon.
The Hamas government has until now faced obstruction from the US and Israel, supported by Britain and the EU, with threats to financially isolate the new Hamas-dominated Palestinian cabinet unless it renounces violence and recognizes the state of Israel. Hamas has so far rejected both demands.
Al Qaeda is also believed to oppose the electoral success of the militant group.
On March 4, Al Jazeera aired a statement by Al Qaeda’s number two Ayman al Zawahiri, in which he fiercely criticized Hamas’ participation in the electoral process. Some observers have interpreted the message as a challenge to Hamas whose success in party politics could seriously undermine regional support for the extremist tendencies of Al Qaeda.
"Al Qaeda are saying ‘We’re sorry, Hamas but you won’t succeed, the West will never allow it.’ Hamas is saying ‘we can succeed even against the policies and the attitudes of the United States and Europe,’" says Crooke.
Others see Zawahiri’s message as evidence of collusion between Hamas and Al Qaeda. These suspicions were strengthened when, just days after Zawahiri’s appearance on al Jazeera, Palestinian president Mahmmoud Abbas told the Arab daily Al Hayat of reports Al Qaeda had set up base in the Palestinian territories.
Hamas insists the reports are false and says Zawahiri’s agenda is distinctly different from its own.
"His [Zawahiri's] idea is to burn the whole system managed and led by the United States. But we believe in Palestine we will show the whole region that through the democratic process and through reform you can work for the benefit of your people while maintaining good relations with the international community," says Hamdan.
Hussein Ibish, a Senior Fellow at the American task Force on Palestine, describes several diverging constituencies within Hamas, some more inclined to Salafism than others, but says none of them would support relations with Al Qaeda.
According to Ridwan Sayyed, a professor of Islamic studies at the Lebanese University and an expert on Salafist militancy, Hamas has grown increasingly wary of Al Qaeda and is now actively trying to avoid a clash with the group.
In fact Al Qaeda is generally considered to be more concerned with waging war against its Muslim counterparts than against the countries of the West.
"Al Qaeda’s priority is to confront domestic enemies, be they Shiites or reformists who are accused of being contaminated by western ideas," says Amal Saad Ghorayeb a specialist on militant Islamism at the Lebanese American University, "They consider them more pressing than tackling the US and Israel head on."
Ghorayeb believes Hamas’ emphasis on defining and confronting American interference in the region and its active role in resisting Israel enables it to compete better with Al Qaeda for regional Muslim support than less militant groups like the Muslim Brotherhood who focus more on religious dogmatism.
"Hamas represents a popular and legitimate alternative to Al Qaeda in that it has the militant credentials of the other group, but at the same time it is also fully integrated into its society, which enables it to be a political player and interact with the international community
This gives them a huge edge vis-à-vis the Salafi Islamists."
Crooke believes if the Palestinian movement is able to succeed in government, groups like Al Qaeda that don’t accept the path of the "reformers" will be reduced to marginal, isolated movements without any ability to affect the situation.
"It may not work out but if it does this is going to have a tremendous effect on what I call the revolutionary groups that believe you can just burn everything, Hamas might do it without burning and then there won’t be popular support for the other groups."
CLANCY CHASSAY lives in Beirut. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org