A response to Joseph Massad’s ‘Hamas and the old/new American Crescent’

The US and its allies spent decades and billions to prevent the arrival of the Islamists to power, but have failed.

Massad "follows an elitist analytical itinerary" and overlooks the Arab masses who authored the Arab Spring [EPA]

It is fallacious to argue that Hamas is somehow driven to ride the wave of Islamist-US “détente” or hypothesised rapprochement. 

To argue thus, as intimated by the learned professor, Joseph Massad, is to sacrifice nuances, subtleties and complexities that dilute the “stories” we all narrate and make about how we interpret Islamism’s many permutations in the context of the Arab Spring. 

What Massad leaves out in his take on the “New American Crescent” is a story that may necessitate a constructivist lens to re-read the unfolding scene heralded by the Arab Spring élan. Identity, ideology and agency are all ditched as if the Arab Spring is an American invention. 

It seems to me that Professor Massad’s understanding of the assumed collusion across the Arab Spring between the diverse Arab brotherhoods and Islamists of their ilk can additionally be reproached on grounds for haste in passing judgment on events, actors and socio-political phenomena that are far from determinacy. Eighteen months of uprisings and elections coupled with flirtations with the Western powers amount not to stable phenomena; the short-span histories in which they are incubated render them incomplete and provisional to draw generalised and certain conclusions, desiderata for all searchers of truth such as in the social sciences.  

Points and pointers 

On this occasion, I beg to differ almost on most of the assumptions and arguments advanced in Massad’s article. This is not for the sake of difference. The real value in interrogating some of the points made by Massad, one of the most authoritative writers on Palestine today, lies in opening up a forum for collective reading of how, on the one hand, Arab Islamisms have been swept off their feet by the political tsunami that is the Arab Spring, and, on the other, how Islamist forces from Egypt to Libya and discourses embraced and helped, amongst others, shape the Arab Spring. 

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It is not Massad’s use of quotation marks when referring the Arab Spring that hint at lingering doubt, quite common amongst many Western observers, which call for explanation. Rather, it is his misplaced doubt when doubt is due that begs questions the article’s answers may have not convincingly addressed. 

The “crescent” is Americanised. James Henry Breasted’s term “Fertile Crescent” has been rendered vacuous. This cannot be blamed on Massad. Breasted’s crescent oozes with fecundity, including in terms of civilisational know-how and continuity. In its reconstituted Realist and geostrategic forms, all variations of the said “crescent” are fertile but in conflict, conspiracy and international subterfuge and counter-subterfuge. Massad’s article somewhat follows this deviation. 

The “New American Crescent” reads as if the previously assumed and totalised rival “crescents” are at an end. We all recall the “Shia Crescent”, the axis stretching from Tehran via Damascus all the way to the Southern suburbs of Beirut, and which for many today stretches to Baghdad where Iranian Islamism reigns high.  

In Breasted’s original usage, depending how elastic it is made, the crescent includes lands extending from the Euphrates and Tigris (Iraq) area to encompass Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, parts of Palestine and Israel, and even Egypt. Religiously, the “crescent” hints at the Islamic identity of the region. One somehow hears “the cross and the crescent” or “the crescent and the star-spangled banner” as the eminent Africanist Ali Mazrui wrote in the mid-1990s. Geo-strategically, this is the territory where US foreign policy has since the 1950s (the Baghdad Pact) traditionally sought to “semi-encircle” their former Soviet rivals. 

After the Shah and Sadat, the “crescent” is halved. Buoyed by its Islamic revolution, Iran no longer played second fiddle to what the Americans schemed for the region when the Shah was anointed policeman in the Gulf region. To this end, Iran recruited Pan-Arabist and secular Syria, Lebanon’s Shiite Islamists, Palestinian Sunni Islamists, including until recently, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and to a large extent, Iraq, the US’ unintended biggest “gift” to the Islamic republic. 

So what is left? Turkey: yes Muslim, Sunni and led by the Islamist AKP and can hardly be oversimplified as an American “poodle”. The Turks maintain relations with Israel and their NATO membership does not translate into complete subservience to US interests. There is no denial the AKP (Justice and Development Party) is pragmatic, but its pragmatism ends where Turkish sublime interests begin. One interest is to re-enliven ties with the Arab and the Islamic worlds: Turkey stands by Gazans, endorses Hamas, and uses its own brand of soft power to carve out for itself a sphere of influence independent of US and European ties and interests.      

Even the pliant Saudis and rent-seeking Jordanians follow foreign policy agendas, which are shaped by fragments of identity, ranging from political conservatism, or religious orthodoxy, geographical neighbourhood and economic necessity (oil rent for the Saudis and aid for the Jordanians). They do not get their foreign policies designed in Washington, DC. Many Saudis wish Iran bombed for different reasons from those Americans who favour the same policy. In the 1990s, Jordanians devised an election law to downsize their Islamists; they still do and this member of the American crescent may not favour the US’ endorsement of Islamists in the context of the Arab Spring. 

The point is that there is no fixed and single way of painting the so-called “new American crescent”, which may turn out to be a fallacy. I have been in Tunisia and audience with its seminal Islamist ideologue, Rachid Ghannouchi, and interim prime minister, Hamadi Jebali. Agreeing with the US is not a “given”. 

Massad may care to note how the draft Tunisian constitution criminalises “normalisation of relations” with Israel. This does not fit the view he has blown out of proportion about US-Islamist ties. As we speak, the Muslim Brotherhood through President Morsi are subtly recording displeasure with the Camp David Accords – and sending troops into the Sinai without prior Israeli approval as stipulated in the terms of the Accords is not the kind of détente the US brokers wish to have with the Islamists. 

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Massad’s line of argument lacks the kind of evidence only long-time span political practice and consolidated trends deliver. They are in shortage in this article.  

Arab masses 

Massad somehow follows an elitist analytical itinerary. He overlooks the Arab masses: they authored the Arab Spring. His “story” ignores that the US, perhaps more hastily than the Europeans, rushed to salvage its foreign policy failure in the Arab Middle East. It often sided with dictators; excluded Islamists, only intermittently and sporadically, from its management of relations in the region; and as he notes correctly deserved the epithet “most formidable anti-democratic force”. 

The US and its allies spent decades and billions to prevent the arrival of the Islamists to power. They have failed. The Islamists are a fait accompli and it would be stupid for the Americans to keep on repeating the same mistake. They face a new learning curve; but so do the Islamists who cannot ignore the US. It is a case of many an elephant in the room.  

We all recall how when the Arab Spring began, Islamists were actually excluded from it. The who’s who of Western journalism and a number of scholars and observers hasted in stating Islamists had nothing to do with the Arab Spring. Where? Which version of the Arab Spring? In Egypt, they are wrong. In Libya the role assumed by the Islamists cannot be denied, a space to be watched over the coming years. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, including its youth branch, are amongst the key actors in the Syrian uprising and now tragic civil war. In Tunisia, Nahda Party had no role in the revolution – and nor did any other liberal, leftist or secular party – but the first democratic poll in October 2011 favoured the Islamists.  

The Islamists should not make sense only when they oppose, fight or exclude the US. Mutuality, reciprocity and equality, if ever achieved, should not mean “selling” Palestine, hating the Jews or shunning dialogue. Islamists live in a world where membership of every club, financial, political, cultural, technological or diplomatic, has both a degree of American lineage and leverage. 

All we can trust is that the Arab citizenries who vote Islamists into office ensure they are represented with the same zeal, professionalism and dedication Americans represent their own interests. Nascent democracy will ensure this is the case: gone the days when single rule surrenders all in the name of external legitimacy or political survival. At least, one expects this much the Egyptians, Libyans and Tunisians where the Arab Spring’s democratic debut look promising – despite the travails expected in such a process. 

The Arab Spring (in quotation marks) is treated with a tinge of disdain – and the peoples who made it are excluded for the history Massad narrates in his article. Even the US has bowed to the Arab Spring. Enough of the kind of self-flagellation that in everything positive we find “conspiracy”, as if the US is hijacking the Arab Spring, truly the most single emancipatory moment in modern history – in the case of Egypt and Tunisia entirely home-grown and driven by people’s power and quest for dignity and freedom. It is one aspect of Arab history with which the International Misery Fund has nothing to do. It is not made in the US. 

Hamas, ideology and constituency

The erudite Massad gets his Hamas story completely wrong. 

The assertion of Qatar supporting Hamas to win the 2006 elections is grotesque. In fact, the “most formidable anti-democratic force in the region”, i.e. the US, had more to do with the elections than Qatar. The elections were held under the Oslo Accords framework and with EU and US endorsement and support. Pity they did not like the winners: Hamas. 

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That is when Qatar stepped in: when international machinations were set in motion to cancel the will of the Palestinian voters, besiege the experiment, and derail Palestinian coalition and capacity-building. Qatar poured millions to support education, especially after the unity government failed and Hamas inherited an empty treasury, courtesy of the Abbas-Fayyadh duo. 

The victory has nothing to do with outside factors or actors. Fatah lost the plot on every front: rampant corruption. One recalls Mohammed Dahlan’s accusations to this effect in 2003, when Arafat was down and weak. The patrimonial Arafat hit back using four words: qatil abeeh la yarith (patricide disinherits). This is the same Fatah that worked in cohorts with the Israelis, serving as the oppressor of the Palestinian people on behalf of the colonisers. In 2005, Fatah’s primaries exposed the democratic credentials of Arafat’s heirs: they burned the ballot boxes.  

Hamas won the January 2006 elections partly on the back of Fatah’s crisis of de-legitimacy. 

Massad misses the ideological content of Hamas’ politics, including international and foreign relations. Elites in Hamas are expendable. Neither Khaled Mishaal nor Ismail Haniyya can hijack the influence of the rank-and-file in Hamas’ decision-making. Built into this ideological matrix is a religious content and education that inform the shaping of membership, political behaviour and political philosophy. 

Plus, there is the democratic-shura-cratic (consultative) ethos that governs Hamas internally. Like most Islamist movements, Hamas’ pragmatism has limits. Relations with the US are not something that can be decided by the politburo, a few leaders or devolved to Qatar, for instance. Such affairs are decided through arduous processes starting with surveying with opinion at the grassroots level and ending with systematic consultation involving voting by all members. Thus it took two years to get endorsement for participation in the 2006 elections. The leadership suggests ideas or policy change, and it is entitled that much in decision-making. However, it is expected, and it does, refer to the constituency for change of policy.

Hamas has red lines: it cannot in the name of pragmatism accept Israeli occupation of Palestine or relations with the US that facilitate such an outcome. It would splinter and implode. In the 2007-2009 period Hamas lived a most critical period since its inception as a result of suspending military resistance. Despite heightened discipline, many rebelled and even left Hamas, forming groups such as Jaysh al-Ummah (Ummah Army). Even al-Qaida was able to recruit from within Hamas. 

“The US and its allies spent decades and billions to prevent the arrival of the Islamists to power. They have failed.”

However, this trend was stopped by the 2008-09 war with Israel: Hamas had a chance to renew its commitment to military resistance and restore confidence in its ideology and religious identity. There is a conservative core-leadership that always keeps Hamas on the straight and narrow as far as ideology goes. For instance, in 2007 state of disorder owing to difficulty to control the Gaza strip was easily put under control, thanks to the influence of leaders such as Nizar Rayyan, Said Siyam (both killed in the 2008-09 war with Israel), Fathi Hammad, Younes Al-Astal and Wael Al-Zird. 

Hamas is deft at playing politics. It has a mini-Hamas assigned with floating balloons or trying alternative policies on the margins. For instance, Ahmad Youssef was once given some leeway in throwing ideas such as abandoning military resistance or upgrading diplomacy. However, this led to now major breakthroughs and he is today quasi isolated. He is not alone and there are others who even call for direct talks with Israel. However, majority opinion may still prevent this. In the final analysis, ideological substantiation is needed for major change of policy. 

I do not see that Hamas is co-opted or easily co-optable as if the Arab Spring is some kind of charm offensive to flirt with the Americans, or vice versa. Talking, sitting at the table with the Americans, speaking to them secretly or through the Qataris or other intermediaries do not amount to shedding ideological spots that still mark Hamas, a political animal par excellence

One cannot tell Hamas by the friends it keeps or wants to keep. One thing always tell Hamas: its ideology. On this account, Massad misses the point.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).