Hamas — can it bring peace and democracy?

Hamas — can it bring peace and democracy? —Ishtiaq Ahmed

It is paramount that Hamas appreciates that it has a right to form the government as long as it enjoys majority support and only free and periodic elections can indicate who has been given a mandate to rule by the people. A multi-party system must be institutionalised. It should also demonstrate that the human rights of all Palestinians will be respected

The Palestinian election results have surprised many of us. The radical Islamist party, Hamas, is the winner with 76 seats out of a total of the 132 constituting the Palestinian Parliament. International observers are agreed that it was a fair and free election. It is therefore imperative that the democratic choice of the Palestinians is respected and Hamas called upon by President Mahmoud Abbas to form the new government.

In a series of articles published in Daily Times (‘Democracy and Islamists’ June 28, 2005; ‘The right to vote’, September 27, 2005) I had drawn attention to an interesting development within Islamist parties — while remaining ideologically rigid and dogmatic about rejecting Western democracy as a legitimate basis for forming government they seem increasingly inclined to partake in democratic elections. Such discrepancy between ideology and practice is not unusual in politics but the two cannot be combined in a coherent political programme without necessary adjustments.

I had wondered in the two articles if Islamists could be trusted with political power and allowed to form governments if they won elections? My answer had been that if they could undertake to respect free and open elections as the basis of legitimate government and commit themselves to respecting the citizens’ human rights — particularly equal rights for women and non-Muslims — then they were fully entitled to not only take part in elections but also to form governments.

The pundits of international relations have a theory that democratically elected governments do not go to war. Another theory is that participation in democratic elections by extremist parties dilutes their extremism and they become more pragmatic. Such change of course occurs if participation in elections takes place over a fairly long period of time.

Hamas’ case is rather special. First, because it has a foreign policy goal — the destruction of Israel — that cannot be achieved democratically. If this goal is not abandoned it could plunge the Middle East or at least historical Palestine and Israel into chaos with violence, terrorism and even an all-out war. Second, because Hamas has taken part in elections and won a majority without having graduated into a democratic party through a long period of socialisation via elections. It can therefore form the government without having acquired a democratic culture.

Consequently, we wonder what prospects there are for peace and democracy if Hamas forms the government of the Palestinian Authority. There are many explanations as to why Hamas was elected instead of Fatah. One is that Fatah represented the old guard among whom corruption was rampant on a massive scale. Hamas had done excellent social work by helping people in need. It is claimed, the Palestinians voted against Fatah rather than for Hamas’ extremist agenda.

Another is that the moderates had gotten nowhere with their policy of conciliation towards Israel while Hamas gave stiff armed resistance to Israeli occupation and was seen as having forced the latter to withdraw from Gaza. Consequently the Palestinians voted for continuing resistance to Israel.

Whatever be the truth, now is the time for Hamas to demonstrate that it is not only a movement of opposition to corruption and occupation but also a responsible party that can form a democratic government which can live in peace with its neighbours. Although Hamas refuses to commit to negotiating peace with Israel it has given an undertaking that it will conduct itself peacefully during the elections.

The situation is now entirely different. It is the majority party and entitled to form the government alone or — if it prefers — in coalition with some other party. The Western world has advised Hamas to abjure terrorism and recognise Israel if it wants to win their support for the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to form an independent sovereign state.

I think such a demand is not unreasonable, although it is absolutely necessary that the West should not waver in supporting the Palestinians’ right to a viable state. Had the US government exercised its enormous power to bring about a just settlement between the two Middle Eastern antagonists the world would be a much safer place.

It is important that Israelis do not reject out of hand the possibility of negotiating peace with Hamas if the latter changes its stance and recognises Israel’s right to exist. This might just be the right type of government to negotiate a peace deal with. Hamas represents the most militant sections of Palestinian society, and if it can be converted into a partner for peace then virtually the entire spectrum of Palestinian opinion would have been won over to such a deal.

UN Resolution 242 and subsequent resolutions, such as 338, should serve as the framework for the peace deal. Under these resolutions the entire West Bank and Gaza belong to the Palestinians and they are entitled to have their capital in the predominantly Arab East Jerusalem. The same resolutions clearly and categorically require the recognition of Israel’s right to exist and its citizens’ right to live in peace and security.

However, it is paramount that Hamas appreciates that it has a right to form the government as long as it enjoys majority support and only free and periodic elections can indicate who has been given a mandate to rule by the people. A multi-party system must be respected and institutionalised. It should also demonstrate that the human rights of all Palestinians will be respected.

Islamist movements and parties are notorious for clamping down on the equality of women in the name of patriarchal piety. They also tend to deny non-Muslims the right to be equal citizens of the state. The Palestinian Christian minority has always been as active and patriotic as the Muslims and is entitled to be treated as Palestinians first and Palestinians last.

It is time for Hamas to prove that a state based on Islamic moral principles can function as a democracy and a peaceful polity. Therefore, it is imperative that outmoded laws such as hudood are not revived. It is an opportunity to step into the 21st century in a positive and confident manner. We all hope that Hamas will seize this historic opportunity.

The author is an associate professor of political science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books. His email address is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Originally published at http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2006\01\31\story_31-1-2006_pg3_2 and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.