The raids and kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas and two soldiers by Hezbollah have riveted world attention on these groups and raised the question of whether there is something in their devotion to Islam that leads them to consider Israel their sworn and eternal enemy.
What makes these actions particularly troubling to so many Americans, is the fact that both movements have a long history of couching their attacks on Israel in the kind of blatant anti-Jewish rhetoric that reminds people in the United States of Al-Qaeda's existential and seemingly irrational hatred of America.
And it is precisely the role of religion in the two-front war between Israel, Hamas, and Hezbollah that causes many to worry that there is no peaceful way to resolve either conflict. But while understandable, this view reduces two interconnected conflicts (pitting Israel against the two movements) to a far too narrowly defined religious foundation. As we seek to understand the current conflict, it is important not to forget the political and strategic motives that have always played a central role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, if too often under a veneer of religious bigotry on all sides.
Both organizations and the larger movements they represent conspicuously define themselves as “Islamic” resistance movements; both see their actions as a legitimate “jihad” against an Israeli state that both see as religiously and politically illegitimate. And both endorse and practice the use of violence, including terrorism against civilians, as a basic tool in achieving their goals.
But it is as misleading to assume that “Islam” is the motivation behind the politics of the two movements as it is to chalk up the actions of the U.S. government to Christianity or the those of the Israeli government to Judaism. This distortion of religion has added fuel to the conflict and given each side a confused picture of the other.
During the civil war of the 1980s, the militant, sometimes terrorist organization Hezbollah created a new set of rules for conflict in the Middle East that permanently changed the balance of power. With its use of suicide bombings and other forms of warfare, Hezbollah managed to drive both the United States and Israel--respectively, the most powerful countries in the world and the region--from Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s success provided a model for groups across the Muslim world who were fighting either foreign occupation or governments believed to be controlled by foreign powers. One group that was particularly inspired by Hezbollah's victory was, not surprisingly, Hamas. Many analysts argue that Hezbollah's victory against Israel was a model for its own strategy of long-term violence as the way to force Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza on terms more favorable to Palestinians than could be achieved through the Oslo-sponsored negotiating process.
Indeed, in the six years since the Israeli pull-out from Lebanon, many terrorism experts have come to believe that Hezbollah has provided funds and training to Hamas, both because of its own long-standing ideological support for Palestinian resistance and on behalf of Hezbollah's Syrian and Iranian allies.
At the same time, Hezbollah set out to fight not just against the Israeli occupation, but also to bring about the destruction of the State of Israel and replace it with Muslim rule over Palestine. It also pledged to fight against “Western imperialism,” and declared the eviction of all Western forces from Lebanese soil a “legal obligation” for Muslims.
Given this ideology, it is not surprising that Hezbollah, in its many publications, television programs (broadcast on its satellite TV channel, al-Manar), and pronouncements by leaders, features anti-Jewish sentiments, portrays Israel as worse than the Nazis, challenges the Holocaust as a myth, and declares that “death to Israel" is the only solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Unlike Hezbollah, Hamas is a Sunni Islamist movement. As we've seen in Iraq and Pakistan, some ultra-conservative Sunni movements can be virulently anti-Shi'ite; but this sectarian division has never been an issue in the relationship between the two movements, nor has it diminished the influence of Hezbollah on Hamas.
Hamas emerged out of the Palestinian wing of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1987. From the start, Hamas's leadership defined its program “as Islam.” Its platform, or charter, begins with a Qur'anic passage, Sura al-Imran, verses 109-111, which states that “the greater part of [Jews] are transgressors... smitten with vileness” because they disbelieved God's signs, killed Jesus unjustly, and regularly rebelled against God's commandments. More broadly, Hamas declared that the Qur'an was its “constitution,” jihad against the occupation a religious obligation, and the creation of an Islamic state in all of Palestine the movement's goal.
The Hamas charter and numerous subsequent pronouncements and literature make it clear that the movement harbors many anti-Jewish views, while also advocating, in theory, the destruction of the State of Israel and its replacement by a religiously sanctioned Muslim state (Article 11 of its charter describes all of Palestine as a “waqf,” or religious endowment, whose status as God's gift to the Palestinian people mirrors the Orthodox Jewish belief that Eretz Yisrael was deeded to Jews by God. And like Hezbollah, Hamas in its formative years sharply criticized the United States as a more hated enemy than Israel.
Rather, many Palestinians and Lebanese support Hamas and Hezbollah for two reasons: First, the two movements resisted the Israeli occupations, and second, Hezbollah and Hamas pioneered the use of Islamic charities to deliver health, education, and other social services more efficiently than the weak governments of Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority.
Second, while each movement endorses the idea of an Islamic state in its official rhetoric, neither has shown any enthusiasm for establishing such a state, now that they have become part of the political establishments of the two countries. Indeed, leaders of both movements have stated their reluctance to force an explicitly religious political agenda on their people, most likely because they know that they would lose influence and power if they did. Instead, Hezbollah and Hamas have won political influence (and in Hamas's case, actual political power in this past January's Palestinian elections) with mainstream political themes such as fighting corruption and more efficiently delivering social services. The fight against Israel, while important, is not the primary source of their power.
However harsh the rhetoric against Israel or even Jews, it would be inaccurate to assume that Islam is the main motivator of their conflicts with Israel. Rather, the primary issue is territorial and national. Hamas explicitly states this in its charter; in Article Six, it “distinguishes” itself from other Islamist movements as a specifically Palestinian movement with goals related to the needs of Palestinians.
Similarly, whatever the relationship between Hezbollah and Syria and Iran, the movement arose to rid Lebanon of foreign occupation as well as to help the country's majority Shi'ite population, long subjugated by the Christian minority, achieve political and economic power commensurate with its percentage of Lebanon's population.
Yet another reason why we must be careful not to reduce Hamas or Hezbollah to their religious dimensions is that ultimately, both movements were created, and allowed to grow, because of the actions of Israel. Each emerged as a local response to a long-term, violent, and (to most of the world) illegal Israeli occupation, and each grew because the society in which it emerged had the political structure or power to oppose the occupations by non-violent means.
Islam might have motivated their creation, but historical and political factors were equally important.
Hamas was actually encouraged in its early days by the Israeli intelligence establishment in the belief that the movement would sap the strength of the PLO and turn Palestinians against each other, rather than uniting them against the occupation.
As for Hezbollah, when the Israelis first invaded Lebanon, they were welcomed, or at least tolerated, by Shi’ites, who were tired of the abuses of the PLO, which had established a mini-state in southern Lebanon. Had Israel quickly pulled its forces out of the country, Hezbollah might never have risen to its position of promenance, just as Moqtada' al-Sadr would have likely remained an unknown son of a martyred Shi’ite religious leader had the United States not outstayed whatever welcome it had in the early days of the Iraqi occupation.
There is a final reason why trying to reduce Hamas and Hezbollah to their religious dimensions is counterproductive. In the West, and the United States. in particular, there is a strong tendency to assume that any motivation that is based on Islam is somehow “irrational” and rooted in a desire for a “clash of civilizations” that the West must fight to win regardless of the cost. But suppose Muslims viewed Christianity or Judaism similarly because of the occupations, large scale killings of civilians, and violations of international law, engaged in by the American or Israeli governments? Jews or Christians would not accept the idea that their religion should be labeled as essentially evil because Jewish or Christian political leaders sometimes appeal to their religion to justify immoral policies.
Recent polls such as the Pew Global Attitudes survey show that the vast majority of the world's Muslims believe the United States invaded Iraq and pursues its Middle East policies in order to the dominate the region’s oil and retain its position as the world's sole super power, it would still be wrong for them to assume that Christianity is somehow at the root of these policies, even if many American leaders, including the President, have explicitly stated as much.
Just because leaders of countries, or political or military movements, declare that their actions are based on their religious beliefs doesn't mean we can reduce them to religion, or generalize from them to an ultimately negative view of an entire religion, whether it's Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Such thinking is in good measure what has allowed the leaders of Israel, Hezbollah, and Hamas to assume that extreme violence is the best or even only way to achieve ultimately pragmatic political goals. This is a view that the people of Gaza, Beirut, and Haifa are paying for with their lives.