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Islamic Fundamentalism and Suicide Terrorism in the Middle East: The Case of Hamas

by Massimo Introvigne. A paper presented at the United Nations Interregional Crime and Research Institute (UNICRI) International Open Discussion on International Terrorism and World Governance, University of Turin, February 7, 2003


Social science may offer four contributions to the ongoing discussion on suicide terrorism in the Middle East and on the leading group involved in such activities, Hamas.

  1. More often than not, religious movements have religious causes and motivations. Marxism, psychoanalysis and post-Frankfurt School theory of culture have persuaded generations of social scientists that allegedly religious phenomena are only the mask of material factors. Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) explained in 1878, in its Anti-Dühring, that "all religion (...) is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men's minds of those external forces which control their daily life (...) the economic conditions (...) the means of production". The First Crusade was the effect of a demographic surplus among European nobles, Medieval heresies and the Reformation were struggles where urban middle classes asserted themselves against rural landlords; and the American Great Awakenings were a form of social protest against the rising market economy. Historians (first) and sociologists (quite later) have now exposed such theories as factually false. The First Crusade, the Reformation, or the Great Awakenings surely had economical and political components, but their primary causes were religious. The same is true for Islamic fundamentalism and at least some forms of contemporary suicide terrorism.
  2. It is argued that it is not politically correct to regard suicide terrorism by Hamas, or al-Qa’ida, as religious. We are admonished from several quarters not to offend more than one billion Moslems. This is a worthy concern, but not for the social scientist. We should distinguish between information and the political use of information. Social science aims at supplying accurate information; it does not control how information is used. It can however address the above concerns by offering maps of the quite composite phenomenon known as Islam, and by insisting that by no way are all Moslems fundamentalists, nor are all fundamentalists terrorists.
  3. Applying these methodological principles to Hamas, we should insist that Hamas is a religious movement (a conclusion which does not deny its deep involvement in economy, culture, and most obviously politics). Hamas is rooted in the preaching between 1921 and 1935 in Haifa by Syrian shaykh ‘Izz-Id-Din al-Qassam (1882-1935), and in the efforts of the largest international Fundamentalist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, to spread its activities in the Palestinian region led in the 1940s by Said Ramadan (1926-1995), son-in-law of the Brotherhood’s own founder Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949). All those who founded Hamas in December 1987 were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Section 2 of its 1988 by-laws defines Hamas as “a Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood”. In fact, several national branches of the Muslim Brotherhood currently repudiate violence, but this does not change the relationship between Hamas and the Brotherhood, nor the religious nature of Hamas.
  4. We in the West do not perceive suicide terrorism as religious, prisoners as we are of nice but inaccurate post-Victorian views of religion as always sweet and cute, and certainly not associated with blood, battles and tears. There are suicide terrorists, even in the Palestinian region, who are not religious but rather secular and nationalist. However, suicide terrorists from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad (as well as from al-Qa’ida and most Chechen movements) perceive their deeds as religious. This is proved not only by the large body of journals, declarations and interviews with such terrorists (which would be quite unreasonable to dismiss as completely insincere), but by empirical data collected by researchers such as Nasra Hassan and Farad Khosrokhavar. They show that a significant number of suicide “martyrs” are not desperate, and in fact have a middle class and occasionally upper middle class background. We would all prefer to see religions only associated with peacekeeping initiatives. Recognizing the religious roots of violence and, in some instances, terrorism is, however, a necessary step for (hopefully) finding in the future the religious roots of peace.

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