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The Muslim Brotherhood and the Hamas By Subramanyam Sridharan

Article 06/2023

The sudden outburst of violence in the volatile relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians has taken even the ever alert Israelis by surprise. There is no doubt that the intensity of these well-coordinated attacks from the narrow Gaza Strip on Israel clearly demonstrates a massive intelligence failure on the part of the Israelis. That the Israeli security ring has been effectively breached would be an understatement. This shows that a determined enemy would be waiting ever alert for an opportune moment to strike and there can be no relaxation in vigilance against such an attack even though it is extremely costly and tiresome to maintain a very high status of alert 24X365. It also shows that even superior electronic and signal intelligence can be found wanting in some circumstances. The Hamas (an Arabic Acronym for ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’) has also been able to keep this massive operation tightly secretive, showing their operational capabilities.

In the last few years, the volatile situation in restless West Asia has been moving towards a certain denouement with a few issues being resolved, or on the verge of some sort of resolution, or even dying down naturally for various reasons. At the same time, there have been other fresh issues as well. Still, crucial underlying reasons of hostility remain intact. Since the turn of the twentieth century, this region has seen major cataclysmic changes, the effects of which reverberate strongly far and wide until today. The history of this area is very complex involving not only the three Abrahamic religions but also the fundamental Sunni-Shi’a divide within Islam, apart from interference by Western powers, as well as Turkey, Russia and now increasingly China. The discovery of enormous quantities of fossil fuel by mid-20th century and the resultant wealth acquired by many of these West Asian countries have complicated the issues even more. It would not be an exaggeration to say that today fears and insecurities emerging from international geopolitics are also shaping the events of this regional conflict in West Asia.

Yet, the last decade has seen major changes in the outlook of the West Asian monarchs who have been forced to change their fundamentalist governance to be more in tune with modern trends. The most major change has come about in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) whose Wahhabi influence in the governance of the State has given way to a more liberal interpretation of religious codes. In this context, the term ‘Islamism’ has been defined by scholars and analysts as the ideology that posits Islam as a political tool either in the context of a State or in international relationships. This distinction is important in understanding the rest of this article. By extension, Islamists are those who employ and propagate this religio-political ideology of Islamism in their outlook and actions.

The Israel-Palestinian crisis has two sides to it and both need to be understood. However, this paper will limit itself to the current Hamas attack by looking at its motivations. While one cannot do full justice to various Islamist scholars and the schools of thought which have contributed to the ideology of Hamas, in a short paper, we will attempt some understanding of these aspects in order to delve into the present crisis.

In the pantheon of Islamist scholars who would have an impact on the developments in the last about fifty years is the undoubted name of Ibn Taymiyyah of the 14th century. The destruction of Syria by the savage Mongol army of Genghis Khan is said to have radicalized his thoughts and his Mardin Declaration (‘fatwa’ announced from the Turkish city of Mardin) is often cited today by the radicals as a justification for their actions. The Wahhabi Movement that was founded in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by Mohammed Ibn Abd-al Wahhab (c. 1703-1787) in the mid-18th century reveres Ibn Taymiyyah.

In more modern times, Jamal-ud-din Afghani (c. 1839-1897) assumes prominence. A Shi’a from Iran, he studied in Kabul (and hence the suffix, ‘Afghani’) and travelled widely in Turkey, Egypt, India, Europe, Central Asia and Russia. His anti-British ideas were formed when he visited India in the wake of the 1857 uprising and the dethroning of the last Mughal Emperor by the British. The British incarcerated Afghani in India after he called for a revolt against the British occupation of Egypt (c. 1882-1954). Muhammad Abduh, a reformist scholar of Egypt and later its Grand Mufti, was a student of Afghani and like his mentor opposed the British rule and suffered partial banishment. Muhammad Rashid al-Rida (c. 1865-1935) was another Egyptian who was influenced by both Afghani and Abduh. Rida, like his mentor Abduh, also became the Grand Mufti of Egypt and established a popular journal Al-Manar (The Lighthouse) preaching Islamic reform and revival. Both Abduh and Rida believed in antisemitism and opposition to Zionism and wrote extensively about these. Hasan Al Banna, the later-day founder of Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt, was influenced by Rida. Rida wrote the book ‘The Caliphate’ which laid modern theoretical foundations for the establishment of a Caliphate. This came at a time when the Ottoman Caliphate was being disbanded. The dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate came as a shock to the entire Islamic world.

While ideologically, the outlook of Hamas is influenced by all these early Islamists, the most influential undoubtedly has been Hasan al-Banna (c. 1906-1949). Like the three Islamists mentioned earlier, al-Banna was also an Egyptian and an opponent of the colonial rule. The dissolution of the Turkish Ottoman Caliphate in c. 1924 agitated him a great deal and he founded the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in c. 1928. However, unlike the earlier three, he advocated active jihad against colonialists and Zionists and set up an armed wing called ‘Special Apparatus’ as part of the Muslim Brotherhood. Much before setting up the armed wing, the MB had transformed itself as a political party after the first armed uprising by the Palestinian Arabs against the British and the Jews in c. 1936. The armed wing of the MB then infiltrated the Egyptian Army and later took part in the first Arab-Israeli conflict in c. 1948 after the British Mandate (mandated by the League of Nations in c. 1918 to manage Palestine and Jordan) withdrew from that area and after the Israeli Provisional Government had been announced on May 14, 1948 under the provisions of the UNGA Resolution 181 that established separate Jewish and Arab states in Palestine. The MB-Egyptian Army proximity was mutually reinforcing as the Army officers got indoctrinated by the MB ideologues while the MB cadres received military training from the Army officers. The Egyptian Army’s defeat in the 1948 conflict with Israel enhanced Islamist fervour even more.

Al-Banna wrote Risalat-al-Jihad (Treatise on Jihad) that has become an important document of indoctrination for modern day Islamists and jihadists. In his view, MB was to serve as a tool for establishing a worldwide ‘Islamic Homeland’. He opposed both the King of Egypt, King Farouq, and the British occupiers, which led to the liquidation of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Prime Minister of Egypt, Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi in 1948. Nurqashi himself was assassinated shortly thereafter by the members of Muslim Brotherhood. The Prime Minister’s successor, Abdul Hadi, arranged for the assassination of Hasan al-Banna in 1949. Soon thereafter, the Brothers (Ikhwan) in the Egyptian Army, later known as Free Officers and led by Col. Nasser seized power in a coup. The Muslim Brotherhood members take to mainstream politics when the political dispensation is democratic and take to arms when it is otherwise. That the remnants of the powerful MB are still active in Egypt was brought home forcefully when MB’s Mohammed Morsi took power as President of Egypt in c. 2012 after the elections, following the c. 2011 Egyptian revolution that ousted the long-serving President Hosni Mubarak. However, Morsi’s radical Islamization attempts on the predictable lines of MB were opposed by the Egyptians leading to a coup the very next year, deposing him and an Egyptian court imposing the death sentence on him.

While Muslim Brotherhood takes its unique place as an Islamist organization that is central to today’s Hamas, the credit (or notoriety?) for being the individual largely responsible for the thoughts behind Hamas, goes to another Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb (c. 1906-1966), the most prominent ideologue of MB. He is regarded generally as a Mujaddid (Reformer) of the last century, along with India’s Maulana Abu ala-al Mawdudi (who later migrated to Pakistan). As a contemporary of al-Banna, Qutb was the most important Islamist reformer who was also an advisor to two important Free Officers of the Egyptian Army, Col. Nasser and Anwar Sadat. As Col. Nasser and Syed Qutb drifted away over time and eventually came in conflict with each other, Qutb was arrested in c. 1954 for plotting to assassinate President Nasser and was hanged in c. 1966. His hanging caused widespread disturbances and violence in the Muslim world. His last book, written in jail, Ma ‘alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones) became a bestseller in the Muslim world. Qutb denounced the regime of Egypt as jahil (ignorant) and hence a legitimate target for removal through jihad. He argued that the concept of a nation-state was a conspiracy by ‘crusading and Zionist imperialism which must be eradicated’. The Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) one of whose Egyptian Army officer members later assassinated President Anwar Sadat for having entered into a peace agreement with Israel, was heavily influenced by MB though Ayman Al-Zawahiri, a member of EIJ (and jailed for his involvement in the assassination) and later the Emir of Al Qaeda, claimed that there were some minor differences between the two.

Hamas has been founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, an Egypt-trained Palestinian cleric, who, after returning to Palestine started the MB branch there. The Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 helped the MB spread its wings in Palestine. Later the Intifadah (Uprising) was effectively used by MB to further its cause and create the ‘Hamas’. The Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel in line with that of MB. While initially its efforts were competitive against other terror groups (especially the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PIJ, modelled after the Egyptian EIJ) in order to gain acceptance, it later began to get significant assistance from a Shi’a Iran in the latter’s geopolitical grandstanding following the Iran Revolution and the termination of the Iran-Iraq War. However, there was a break in the relationship after the Syrian crisis broke out in c. 2011 when the Iranians supported the Alawite-regime of Bashar-al-Assad (Alawites are closer to Shi’as than Sunnis in their belief systems) while Hamas supported the Syrian opposition which was largely Sunni. However the relationship renewed later when both sides realized that they needed to work together and as large-scale violence in Syria subsided after 2017 Peace Talks and the effective elimination of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

Besides Iran, Hamas is supported by Syria, Lebanon and Qatar. Egypt, because of historical reasons in dealing with and eventually putting down MB, is opposed to the Hamas. It views the organization as a likely security risk for itself. It imposes a maritime blockade on the Gaza strip in the Mediterranean Sea as well as keeps a close eye on the Rafah border-crossing in the Sinai Peninsula to and from Gaza. So also is KSA, whose rulers are always fearful that MB can incite revolution against the Monarchy especially because of its proximity to Iran and Syria. This is even more so as Abdullah Azzam, a former MB member from Palestine, was the mentor of Osama bin Laden from his Jeddah days and later in Peshawar, Pakistan in the 1980s.

While the Gaza strip remained under Egyptian control until the 1967 war, the Israelis took it over afterwards and retained it until c. 2005 when they exited allowing the Palestinian Authority (PA) to conduct elections and govern as part of the 1994 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Hamas won the local elections in c. 2006, through deceitful and intimidatory means according to PLO, and has been in charge of Gaza Strip since then.

Though Egypt maintains a strict vigil over the Gaza strip, which abuts its Sinai Peninsula and its ports on the Mediterranean Sea, the current attack clearly shows gaps. The Hamas leadership has been regularly warning Egypt also because of its blockade of Gaza along with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The PLO which controls the West Bank and the Hamas which controls Gaza have been at loggerheads ever since in spite of mediatory efforts by Egypt. During the latest mediation talks in Egypt in July 2023, which failed again, the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh presciently said that the Palestinians must exploit the “window of opportunity” provided by the “unprecedented internal divisions” in Israel over the judicial overhaul, as well as Israel’s “tense international relations” with its allies. He said, “We are facing an exceptional stage in the course of the conflict, which requires us to think collectively and take exceptional decisions on how to confront [Israel’s] policies and rein in these extremists”. This clear enunciation has probably been missed by Israeli intelligence. Hamas would use this as an opportunity to increase its influence in West Bank too, a proposition that Israel would view as very dangerous considering the fact that it could be then buffeted by fire from the West (Hamas from Gaza), East (Hamas from West Bank as well as Syria from Golan Heights) and the North (Hezbollah from Southern Lebanon).

Overall, religio-political conflict, indoctrination over at least two centuries led from the front by the Muslim Brotherhood and its precursor thought leaders, inflexible attitude of the antagonists, geopolitics, unbridgeable sectarian divisions, internal dissonance, failure to anticipate which includes intelligence and political failures are largely the root causes for the present outbreak. The attempt in this paper was to explain the long and crucial role of Muslim Brotherhood in the regional conflict.

(Mr. Subramnyam Sridharan is a Distinguished Member of C3S. The views in the article are solely the author’s and does not reflect the views of CAS)

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