Chapter and Verse

Despite the Koranic citations quoted at Mecca, Hamas' religious agenda seems to have disappeared.

At the signing ceremony for the Mecca agreement last week, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshal and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh all vied so hard to outdo one another that it almost seemed as if they were competing in a Koran recitation contest.

Abbas, who spoke first, didn't know how far Meshal was about to go with Koranic citations, and so he quickly switched to discussing secular matters. Meshal, however, made a brilliant showing. The lengthy verses he quoted by heart resounded throughout the huge auditorium and, if anybody was looking around, they would have noticed at least three Saudi royals murmuring the verses along with Meshal and nodding their heads approvingly.

Meshal, apparently, cleverly chose the right verses. "You can't come into the home of the Saudi royalty without being able to quote some long verses," an Egyptian journalist once said to me. "In the West, everyone always has a joke or some witty comment ready. In Egypt, you have to come up with an eloquent phrase in praise of the host. In Saudi Arabia, it's just Koranic verses. You'd think everyone there is some kind of religious sage," he explained.

Yet the verses that served as a backdrop for the unity agreement could not obscure one particularly interesting detail: Nowhere in the entire agreement, in all the speeches, and in the entire past year since Hamas came to power, has a single religious statement been heard from it. It seems like even Article 27 of the Hamas charter has been totally forgotten.

This section says that "Despite our esteem for the Palestine Liberation Organization and what it is capable of developing into, and without belittling its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, we cannot exchange the Islamic nature of Palestine in the present or future for the adoption of secular ideas - Hence the day on which the Palestine Liberation Organization adopts Islam as its way of life we will be its soldiers and the fuel of its fire which will burn the enemy. However, until then - the Islamic Resistance Movement will treat the Palestine Liberation Organization as a son treats his father, brother treats brother, relative treats relative."

The positions have indeed changed: The son has become the father and Fatah has become just as dependent on Hamas as Hamas is on Fatah. The legitimacy of the Hamas government or of a unity government should it come to be, is no longer dependent on God, but on the political embrace between the two movements.

So where has the religious agenda disappeared to? Actually, the question that ought to be asked is how can a religious movement like Hamas advance itself without a publicly recognized religious leadership? Neither Meshal or Haniyeh is a religious scholar or religious arbitrator. In fact, since the assassination of Ahmed Yassin in March 2004, there hasn't really been anyone of great religious stature, or even anyone with a rigorous formal religious education, among the movement's leadership.

"Hamas has religious authorities whom the Israelis don't know," explains an associate of Haniyeh. "They're in the territories, some are in prison, and others are in Lebanon or in Egypt," he says, referring to the consultative council known as Majlis al-Shura, which numbers between 12-24 members and ostensibly imparts a religious seal of approval to the activities of Hamas' political wing.

But the Mecca agreement, which "forgot" to mention that Palestine is a Muslim state, makes one wonder about the involvement of any religious body in the decision-making process. Even if men of religion are involved, they do no more than lend their approval after the fact. Like other religious movements that realized that in order to survive, and moreover, to lead, they must heed the rules of the establishment - so Hamas, too, is in a process of mobilizing religion for the sake of politics.

"Hamas has two kinds of logic," explains Professor Shaul Mishal of Tel Aviv University, an expert on Hamas and the author of a book about the movement. "The first, which is permanent, fundamental and serves as the movement's calling card, is religion. And the second is a situational logic that enables Hamas to adopt a language familiar to all."

The professor adds: "This is a political language that is dictated by the spirit of the times and the political circumstances. In this way, the movement displays behavior that is even more rational than that of the secular movements like Fatah."

Evidence of such can be seen in a picture [above] in which Abbas is standing beside Meshal and Haniyeh, wearing the white attire of the Hajj. "This is an irrational pose, though a necessary one politically speaking, for a secular leader, who's demonstrating a connection to religion in order to obtain another bit of legitimacy, as when you see Israeli politicians paying visits to Jewish religious authorities," says Professor Mishal.

The rivalry between the secular and religious movements also had an impact on the methods of operation during the last intifada. A few months after a series of suicide bombings by Hamas, Fatah began carrying out similar operations. Fatah people explained at the time that the similarity of their methods was not only due to a desire to emulate the success of such operations, but to prevent Hamas from stealing all the thunder and turning the intifada into a religious holy war.

Hamas got the message and toned down the religious aspect. If Fatah is nationalistic, then Hamas will be equally so. But then, Yassin's mere presence as head of the movement was enough to preserve its religious label. Yassin, who opposed Meshal's appointment to a senior position in the movement, also effectively controlled the political side of things. From his standpoint, external Hamas was meant to serve internal Hamas, and not vice-versa. Those at the front were the ones who should set the rules. And Meshal and his deputy Mousa Abu Marzouk were not at the front. At the same time, Yassin saw himself as Hamas' chief religious authority.

At the time, there was a debate within the movement regarding the involvement of women in suicide bombings. Yassin was opposed to the idea and presented religious legal arguments to support his case, drawing stinging criticism from Egyptian and Saudi clergy who maintained that he had insufficient religious training to be an arbiter in such matters. Nonetheless, Hamas followed his orders.

In January 2004, Reem Riyashi carried out a suicide bombing at the Erez Checkpoint after receiving Yassin's approval. The explanation from Hamas then was that this was a woman who needed "purification from her sins" and that's why she was given the go-ahead. Yassin was the one who gave the permission. Who issues religious sanction these days? Certainly not Meshal or Mahmoud al-Zahar.

No one in Fatah is demanding that Hamas amend its religious charter as a condition for political cooperation. Nor has Israel set such a condition for its readiness to negotiate with Hamas. Jerusalem couldn't seem to care less about Hamas' ideology insofar as it pertains to the religious character of the Palestinian state.