As religiously orientated political actors, Islamist movements are often perceived as ideologically obdurate, especially when faced with having to make compromises in areas that touch on core tenets of their raison d’être. A case in point is the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas.
Despite its terrorist antecedence, Hamas declared its support for the democratic process and a willingness to contest local and legislative council elections when it, and the other 13 Palestinian factions, signed the Cairo Declaration in 2005. In January 2006, Hamas surprisingly won the election for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), making it a rare example of an Islamist movement entering politics holding an electoral majority and thus legitimate control of key policy-making institutions. However, Israel and the International Quartet refused to countenance this prospect, especially concerning the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP), until Hamas met their stipulations of committing itself to non-violence, recognising Israel, and accepting all previous Palestinian/Israeli agreements. When Hamas hesitated, Israel imposed a siege on the Gaza Strip that was intended to exorcise Hamas from Palestinian politics by vitiating its capacity to govern.
This placed Hamas in a quandary. On the one hand, it wanted to be accepted as a responsible political actor that had lawfully won the election. Not only would this allow Hamas to pursue its domestic political agenda, but it would also legitimise its political voice in the debates over any future Palestinian state, and the nature and function of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, commonly referred to as the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). On the other hand, to do so meant addressing the Quartet’s stipulations. These posed significant ideological problems for Hamas because meeting them would entail compromising on issues that are central to its raison d’être as a resistance movement, namely its commitment to the armed resistance to Israeli occupation, its refusal to formally recognise the Israeli state, and its scepticism concerning the efficacy of the two-state solution to resolve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. The question for Hamas was how to adapt to its changing political environment by addressing the Quartet’s stipulations without capitulating on its core ideological tenets.
Key junctures in Hamas’s post-election political history were the 2006 Hamas government program, the 2007 Mecca Agreement, and Hamas’s 2017 policy document. Hamas attempted to resolve this quandary by implementing a strategy that amplified its resistance credentials to provide it with a political bulwark. This allowed Hamas to modulate its positions on recognising the Israeli state and on the two-state solution, from ones that opposed these issues to positions that conditionally accepted them.
Hamas’s strategy exhibits ideological flexibility, incrementalism, and compromise, while simultaneously placing caveats on these compromises to provide it with political room to manoeuvre. This has induced a sense of gradualism to these compromises, meaning that Hamas has avoided any internal schism or significant loss of popular support.
While it is problematic to make generalisations and determinations based on one case, using the example of Hamas goes some way to counter the assumption that Islamist movements are ideologically monolithic and incapable of modulating their narrative to reflect significant changes in their political environment. Hamas’s experience has been growing political maturity and its determination to remain a viable actor in Palestinian politics while also retaining its identity as a legitimate resistance movement.
That Hamas was able to make alterations in such ideologically sensitive areas speaks to the importance Hamas placed on retaining its political voice in the debates over any future Palestinian state, and on the nature and function of Palestinian resistance. The need for a bulwark strategy and the role that the Islamic principle of wasatiyyah (moderation), plays in Hamas’s decision-making indicates that successful policy moderation is contingent upon a movement being able to justify any ideological changes to its constituencies. While the bulwark strategy best fits Hamas’s circumstances, it is also possible that other resistance movements such as Hezbollah, the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) may have also used similar methods to justify ideological changes.
More directly, there are several salient observations to be made concerning Hamas’s behaviour. Firstly, despite Hamas’s inclusion in political and electoral processes since 2006, it has not resulted in the overall democratisation of the movement itself. This is not wholly unexpected given the exigencies and privations of Israel’s siege, and the contentious nature of Palestinian politics. It is also consistent with other opposition movements that have made the transition into the democratic process.
Both internal and external contexts need to be considered when determining if democratisation of the movement is possible or even desired internally. While there is little evidence of Hamas becoming more democratic, there is more evidence supporting Hamas’s evolving political maturity. The political learning undertaken by Hamas’s leadership post-2006, guided and driven by wasatiyyah principles, enabled Hamas to make substantive modifications to its narrative in two ideologically sensitive areas. As Hamas’s political environment altered, so its leadership had to re-evaluate how it could achieve its twin objectives of remaining a viable political actor and retaining its identity and legitimacy as a resistance movement. This exposed tensions within Hamas between the demand for ideological continuity and the concomitant demand for change.
Adopting the principles of wasatiyyah allowed Hamas to temper these tensions and craft a centrist narrative designed to appease and appeal to its heterogenous constituencies. The caveats attached by Hamas, alongside the “constructive vagueness” of its language, are pragmatic devices designed to clarify the scope of these compromises and provide Hamas with political room to manoeuvre. In turn, this gave Hamas a measure of control over the pace of change, inducing a sense of gradualism that allowed it to avoid any internal schisms or significant loss of popular support. Hamas’s political learning vis-à-vis its moderation demonstrates Hamas’s increasing understanding of, and maturing engagement with, the Palestinian political system.
The success of Hamas’s bulwark strategy, aided by its adoption of wasatiyyah principles, meant that Hamas could demonstrate policy flexibility, incrementalism, and compromise. While the caveats that Hamas placed on these compromises may elicit scepticism, they are further evidence of Hamas’s increasing political astuteness. They demonstrate Hamas’s appreciation of its internal and external circumstances, and its desire to achieve pragmatic solutions that allow it to remain faithful to its traditional ideological principles while being flexible enough to adapt to the vicissitudes of its political environment. Hamas’s new language in its 2017 document also suggests that Hamas is becoming less reliant on exclusively violent means to achieve/defend its organisational objectives.
Overall, Islamist movements are not incapable of making any substantive changes to core tenets of their ideological narratives. Hamas’s evolving and complex relationship with Israel challenges the perception of Hamas as being antithetical to any conception of an Israeli state and to a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
Martin Kear is a sessional lecturer and academic tutor in the Department of Government and International Relations at The University of Sydney. Kear is the author of several chapters and the book Hamas and Palestine: The Contested Road to Statehood. His research interests include Islamist movements, Middle Eastern politics, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, terrorism, and political violence.
This is an edited extract from Kear’s article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled “Wasatiyyah and Hamas’s modulating positions on the two-state solution and Israel: finding the middle path.” It is republished with permission.