Friday, March 21, 2008

Fatah's Embrace of Islamism

by Ido Zelkovitz, Middle East Quarterly Spring 2008, pp. 19-26

Many U.S. and European diplomats contrast Fatah's Palestinian nationalism with Hamas's Islamism. At a November 28, 2007 press conference, U.S. national security advisor Stephen Hadley praised Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and cited President George W. Bush's argument that "Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al-Qaeda [are] different faces of the same evil: a radical ideology seeking to impose its world-view throughout the Middle East and beyond."

But, while Fatah, the core of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), may have its roots in the revolutionary, secular-oriented ideologies of the 1960s and 1970s, Islamist discourse is also integral to the movement. Indeed, even as Western diplomats seek to bolster Fatah's Abbas as an alternative to Hamas, they underestimate the degree to which Palestinian nationalism now intertwines itself with Islam. Since the 2000 Palestinian uprising, Fatah has fused national and religious symbols in order to use Islam as an instrument of mobilization [...]

[...] Fatah imagery chronicles the Islamization of the movement. In the 1970s, Fatah graphic art dedicated itself to promoting the culture of armed struggle, which, at the time, was the heart of the movement's ideology.

Today, the gap between Fatah and Hamas in terms of the role of Islam has narrowed. Fatah is more likely to see Islam as one component of national identity while Hamas preaches the primacy of Islamic identity, but both agree that Palestinian society should be Islamist. Fatah leaders may try to keep their movement distinct, not by reversion to its secular past, but rather by arguing that its version of Islam is less extreme than that of Hamas. It is not a coincidence that Fatah organized mass prayers in public areas in the Gaza Strip to protest against Hamas policies.

Fatah's loss to Hamas in the January 2006 parliamentary elections, though, forced it to externalize its Islamism. This may further a trend within the West Bank and Gaza—as well as, perhaps, in Jordan—toward Islamist radicalism.

It is no surprise that Fatah chairman Mahmoud Abbas recently attended Friday prayers at his Muqata‘a mosque, accompanied by the political leadership of Hamas in the West Bank. To preserve his legitimacy, as well as national unity among Palestinians, Abbas must strengthen the Islamic elements in his political behavior. Fatah has deepened its own Islamic terminology and now preaches on the importance of prayer and faith in God during training and indoctrination of its new members.Fatah has also started a propaganda campaign accusing Hamas of being a servant of Iranian interests and Shi‘i supporters, thereby using Islam to criticize its rival.

Fatah's new religiosity cannot easily be undone. It is ironic that while many Western diplomats now turn to Fatah as an alternative to Hamas's Islamism, the real Fatah is much closer to Hamas while the secular Fatah now appears to be a relic of the past. (Read it all here)

Ido Zelkovitz is a Ph.D. candidate in Middle Eastern History at Haifa University.


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