The New Hamas Declaration on Principles and Policies: No Change to the Islamist Agenda

May 11, 2017
The New Hamas Declaration on Principles and Policies: No Change to the Islamist Agenda
Richard Burchill
Richard Burchill Director of Research & Engagement at TRENDS Research & Advisory

On 1 May 2017, Hamas held a major press conference in Doha, Qatar to announce what has been called a “New Charter” for Hamas.  The leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, presented A Document of General Principles & Policies, intended to set out a revised political agenda for Hamas.  The presentation by Hamas of the new Document has been seen by many, including Hamas, as a significant revision in the group’s position, presenting a more moderate tone and approach to the situation.  Others maintain the Document means very little for Hamas changing its behaviour. The Document does not make a substantial change in the group’s political position or methods.  Most importantly the Document makes no impact on Hamas’ politicisation of religion.  The clearest evidence that the Document is not a major change is in the title and the fact that there is no formal renunciation of the 1988 Hamas Charter.  The 1988 Hamas Charter (or Covenant) was adopted at the group’s founding and has remained the foundation for the organisation, even though questions have been raised in the past about its relevance.  In the press conference, Meshal made clear, that the 1988 Charter “still exists”; there was no formal renunciation of the Charter.  Therefore, it is more accurate to read the new Document as an appendix to the 1988 Charter where, at the most, there is a shift in Hamas’ rhetoric in relation to the Palestinian situation.  It is not a change to the fundamentals of Hamas’ Islamist position, nor in the politicisation of religion by Hamas.

The timing of the release of the Document is significant as Hamas is becoming more and more marginalised in the Palestinian situation.  President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority recently visited the USA and while not much came of the meeting, it was of symbolic importance for Abbas to meet with President Trump.  Hamas’s public profile is at a low point.  Abbas has essentially disconnected completely from Gaza due to fundamental differences with Hamas.  Internally, Hamas struggles to demonstrate effective governance for the Gaza population as the territory slips further and further into despair.   And Hamas is more closely associated with Iran and its activities for destabilising the region.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Hamas is updating its position in the hope that it can appear as relevant in the Palestinian situation.

Overlooked in much of the analysis on what the new Document means, is that Hamas’s politicisation of religion remains a cornerstone of the organisation.  The new Document does not refer to Hamas being part of the global Muslim Brotherhood movement, a key part of the 1988 Charter.  But in the press conference, Meshal explained that the change is only in appearance as Hamas now considers itself an independent Islamist organisation.  Plus the venue for the announcement of the new Document, Qatar, is a telling sign about the continuation of the Islamist agenda.  Islamist groups around the world attempt to distance themselves from the global Muslim Brotherhood movement in the hope it garners legitimacy, but a change in name does not change core beliefs or political objectives.  In keeping with many of the Islamist parties and movements, Hamas, in the new Document speaks at length about democracy and tolerance.  However, it also retains the core belief that Islam, as they determine it, is the only source of authority and legitimacy for their actions.  Furthermore, the Document continues to politicise religion by expressing religious obligations upon all Muslims to take action in relation to Palestine.  The politicisation of religion is a key part of the 1988 Charter and there is nothing in the Document to suggest that Hamas is abandoning its Islamist position.  While the rhetoric of Hamas may have shifted, they will continue with the politicisation of religion and the destabilising impact this will have.  We are experiencing through the Middle East, and wider world, the violence and damage being caused by those pursuing political Islam to bring about a situation where only the authority of God, as understood by particular groups, is the only legitimate authority by which to govern. Such ideologies, held by Daesh, Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood (along with affiliated organisations) have not been foundations for stability in any situation.

The 1988 Hamas Charter set out the group’s ideological position, clearly connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. The 1988 Charter cites the ideological founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan Al Banna, and it repeats the Muslim Brotherhood creed as its own “Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, the Koran its constitution: Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes”.  The 1988 Charter also follows the methodological approach of Hassan Al Banna and Sayid Qutb, the ideological originators for political Islam, by emphasising that adherence to Islam is at a low point as leaders and followers are not respecting the religion sufficiently.  This lack of proper adherence to Islam, as they determined, is used as the cause for Islam not being respected, nor having a central place in society and government.  This is main cause for the political Islam movements, they argue that Muslims have not been sufficient in their adherence to the faith and therefore Islam is under attack.  In response, the political Islam adherent argues that all Muslims have an obligation to take up violence to resist the forces that are threatening Islam in order to bring about government and society based on God’s law alone.

The 1988 Charter sets out a clear agenda of political Islam combining reference to the Quran, Hadith, with other scholars, including the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood, with a political agenda.  The 1988 Charter sets this out in Article 1:

“The Islamic Resistance Movement: The Movement’s programme is Islam. From it, it draws its ideas, ways of thinking and understanding of the universe, life and man. It resorts to it for judgement in all its conduct, and it is inspired by it for guidance of its steps.”

The new Document maintains political Islam as the foundations for the group.  Principle 1 on “the Movement” makes clear “Its [Hamas] frame of reference is Islam, which determines its principles, objectives and means.”  And at Principle 8 it is explained that “Islam – for Hamas – provides a comprehensive way of life and an order that is fit for purpose at all times and in all places.”  This is not just a statement in support of a belief system, rather it is the clear establishment that Islam is to guide all aspects of the organisation’s activities and allows the organisation to construct arguments of resistance and violence by reference to religion.  Furthermore, it provides a clear picture of the ultimate objective being pursued where religious authority alone, as interpreted by Hamas, will be the foundations for governance.

Article 2 of the 1988 Charter further supports the political Islam foundations upon which Hamas is based.  In describing the global Muslim Brotherhood movement, which Hamas is part of, as

“[C]haracterised by its deep understanding, accurate comprehension and its complete embrace of all Islamic concepts of all aspects of life, culture, creed, politics, economics, education, society, justice and judgement, the spreading of Islam, education, art, information, science of the occult and conversion to Islam.”

The critical point in this phrase is the claim that the Muslim Brotherhood movement, those pursuing political Islam, has a monopoly on knowledge about the nature of Islam, as expressed in the phrase “its deep understanding, accurate comprehension and its complete embrace”.  The 1988 Charter is replete with this message of how the agenda of political Islam is the only authoritative message, as well as making adherence to the cause an obligation upon all Muslims.  Article 5 elevates Hamas to a righteous position among believers:

“By adopting Islam as its way of life, the Movement (Hamas) goes back to the time of the birth of the Islamic message, of the righteous ancestor, for Allah is its target, the Prophet is its example and the Koran is its constitution. Its extent in place is anywhere that there are Moslems who embrace Islam as their way of life everywhere in the globe. This being so, it extends to the depth of the earth and reaches out to the heaven.”

The argument adopted by the political Islam movement is that Muslims are not doing enough to uphold the faith, allowing other forces to denigrate and damage Islam further.  Article 9 of the 1988 Charter follows the methodology of Al Banna and Qutb, by describing the situation surrounding Islam as bleak. It explains:

“The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) found itself at a time when Islam has disappeared from life. Thus rules shook, concepts were upset, values changed and evil people took control, oppression and darkness prevailed, cowards became like tigers: homelands were usurped, people were scattered and were caused to wander all over the world, the state of justice disappeared and the state of falsehood replaced it. Nothing remained in its right place. Thus, when Islam is absent from the arena, everything changes. From this state of affairs the incentives are drawn.”

By framing terms in this way, political Islam groups are able to claim the religious high ground.  Plus it is a key aspect of their appeal.  By telling Muslims that they are not strong adherents, and because of this, Islam is in great danger, it is relatively easy to garner support.

Both the 1988 Charter and the new Document frames Palestine as a religious cause central to Islam, not only a political dispute.  Of course, Jerusalem has extreme importance in Islam, but the framing used by Hamas makes the entirety of Palestine a religious matter and that religious obligations supersede politics.  The Document explains that Palestine is at the heart of the Islamic Ummah and enjoying special status within Islam.  This is beyond doubt.  However, from here Jerusalem is framed as belonging “exclusively to the Palestinian people and to the Arab and Islamic Ummah”.  This is a statement of great uncertainty as it is difficult to figure how an entity can be exclusive to three different social groupings.  The Palestinian people, according to Hamas itself, consists of all religions, Arab people extend well beyond Palestine, and the Islamic Ummah includes Muslims around the world.  This demonstrates the incoherence of Hamas’ understanding and agenda.

Regardless of the exclusive status of Jerusalem, the conclusion is reached that the liberation of Palestine from the Zionist project is a duty upon all Palestinians, as well as a “duty of the Arab and Islamic Ummah” (Document, Principle 24).  This point is reinforced throughout the Document with statements like “Hamas affirms the responsibility of the Arabs and the Muslims and their duty and role in the liberation of Palestine from Zionist occupation.” (Document, Principle 32) and “Hamas believes that the Palestinian issue is the central cause for the Arab and Islamic Ummah” (Document, Principle 35).  By placing the liberation of Palestine as a religious obligation owed by all individual Muslims to the Ummah, Hamas makes the political dispute a religious obligation.

From here, Hamas goes on to use its religious justification for the liberation of Palestine to advocate the use of violence as a mechanism for their cause.  Article 15 of the 1988 Charter establishes the position of jihad as a duty upon all Muslims:

“The day that enemies usurp part of Moslem land, Jihad becomes the individual duty of every Moslem. In face of the Jews’ usurpation of Palestine, it is compulsory that the banner of Jihad be raised. To do this requires the diffusion of Islamic consciousness among the masses, both on the regional, Arab and Islamic levels. It is necessary to instil the spirit of Jihad in the heart of the nation so that they would confront the enemies and join the ranks of the fighters.”

The Document, while softening the core political rhetoric, does not soften its view on the use violence.  It is explained that

“Resisting the occupation with all means and methods is a legitimate right guaranteed by divine laws and by international norms and laws. At the heart of these lies armed resistance (Principle 25).

This statement must be kept in mind when assessing Hamas’ agenda.  The use of violence is seen as integral to their cause.  The reference to both divine laws and international law is also telling.  While there does exist a right to resistance in international law, the reference to divine law suggests that religious arguments are to prevail over any international legal standards.  Principle 26 of the Document sets this out – “Hamas rejects any attempt to undermine the resistance and its arms. It also affirms the right of our people to develop the means and mechanisms of resistance.”  As Hamas is the self-appointed authority in the religious obligations upon all Muslims to act in support of the Palestinian cause, based on the politicisation of religion, it will be in reference to the divine laws (as interpreted by Hamas) that any action will be justified.  The 1988 Charter sets out that “[a]ny procedure in contradiction to Islamic Sharia, where Palestine is concerned, is null and void.”  And this remains a core statement of the Hamas position whereby they will politicise Islam to justify their claims and actions.

The new Document from Hamas does little to change its foundations based on the politicisation of religion.  Hamas made clear at the 1 May press conference that it will not negotiate on Palestine and that “armed resistance” remains the only way forward.  Hamas’ use of violence, contrary to its claims, is not justified under international law and there is substantial evidence pointing to its responsibility for terrorist activity and war crimes.  Hamas is a designated terrorist organisation in a number of jurisdictions; a matter that is unlikely to change given the revival of Hamas’s call for suicide attacks.  Despite the minor change in rhetoric we will continue to see the images of children in combat gear, or with explosives strapped across their bodies.  Hamas will continue to justify their violent actions as being within the realm of religious authority, as interpreted by their leaders.  It is clear from the Document that the politicisation of religion will remain a core part of Hamas’ structure and activities.  As a government, it has failed to bring about any semblance of stability and peace to Gaza, demonstrating, as with Morsi’s Egypt, that political Islam cannot be used to effectively govern.  The continued politicisation of religion by Hamas means it is not a legitimate entity for bringing about a peaceful resolution to the situation in Palestine.