Hamas Worried About Rise in Support for Religious Sects

Politically uninvolved puritan Islamists make Hamas look like gang of power-hungry politicians.

Avi Issacharoff
Haaretz Correspondent
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Avi Issacharoff
Haaretz Correspondent

A good many people in Gaza have already had a knock on the door, opening it to two or three men dressed in strange clothing reminding them of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The men ask to speak to the head of the family. "We want 10 minutes of your time to talk about Islam," they say.

Usually they talk about the importance of religion and becoming religious, about the faith's noble principles and the need to maintain them. They often stress that "Islam is the correct religion" and that "a good Muslim must attend the mosque and pray five times a day."

They always wear galabiyahs over trousers and sandals, and have long beards. These believers, known to Gazans as salafis, will not discuss politics or matters such as the tahadiyeh or the "Zionist enemy."

They are not a political group, yet some Hamas members see them as a threat, especially in the public arena. They are a kind of sect of Sunni Islam that has operated throughout the world since the dawn of Islam, calling on believers to imitate the ways of the prophet Mohammed and the group of his companions known as the sahabah.

They have always been in Gaza. Hamas' concerns stem from a rise in support for the sect throughout the Strip. In the past year they have increased their ranks by several times; their number now stands at between 40,000 to 50,000 Gazans.

The number of those praying in the mosque the sect operates, A-Sahabah, in the Daraj neighborhood of Gaza City has skyrocketed since Hamas' takeover of Gaza a year ago.

The sect even operates a religious school for grades 1 through 12, whose classes are bursting at the seams.

The salafis do not watch television at home. Their wives have to cover themselves from head to foot. They may not hang large pictures or display statues in their homes, and they pray frequently. Hamas knows they represent an alternative to its monopoly over religion in the Gaza Strip, which has led to great tension between the salafis and Hamas over control of the mosques.

Violent brawls have broken out over attempts by Hamas to throw salafis out of the mosques where they have managed to take control. Another problem for Hamas is the salafis' avoidance of politics, which makes Hamas look like a gang of power-hungry politicians, especially in light of its mistakes over the past year: the violent takeover, torture and corruption.

But a more tangible threat for the rulers of Gaza is from other groups loosely linked to the sect, which are known collectively as A-salafiyeh al-Jihadiyeh. These extreme groups identify with salafi religious principles but dispute the principle of remaining aloof from political, military and diplomatic involvement.

The best-known of these groups are the Army of Islam and the Army of the Nation. Their ideology recalls the teachings of Al-Qaida, and they flaunt their connections with the latter. While the Army of Islam is clan-based and mainly connected to the Durmush family, the Army of the Nation is gathering numbers largely from people cast out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad because of their extremism.

In an interview with a Palestinian journalist, one of the leaders of the Army of the Nation explained that as far as his followers were concerned, there is no difference between the "military wing" and the "political wing." "They are all soldiers," he explains. These organizations see the need to return to Islam's roots; for example, stoning adulterers, cutting off thieves' hands and whipping people who drink alcohol.

In their view, anyone who is not a believing Muslim should be hounded, even beyond the borders of Palestine and including, of course, Jews and Christians. These are the people assumed to be behind the wave of strikes on Western institutions, from Internet cafes to libraries.

They are also believed to have been behind the grenade attack during a festival organized by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Rafah a year and a half ago, where 12-year-old boys and girls appeared together in a traditional dance. The militants consider this "un-Muslim." They reject any kind of agreement with Israel or the West, which explains the statement to the Palestinian reporter by the Army of the Nation leader that "the leaders of Hamas do not believe in Allah."

For its part, Hamas has not remained indifferent to the rise of this ultra-radical group, and is harassing them. The Army of the Nation currently has only a few dozen members, but like the salafis, the ranks are swelling amid the rising poverty, extremism and hatred for Israel and the West.

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