Moderate Muslims, Christians Worry Hamas Will Restrict Religious Freedom

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c. 2006 Religion News Service

JERUSALEM _ Moderate Muslims and Christians in the West Bank and Gaza say they fear that Hamas, which scored a stunning victory in last month’s Palestinian elections, will apply a strict interpretation of Islamic law that will hinder religious freedom.

But so far, Hamas has not acted on promises to do so. And political analysts predict Hamas is unlikely to restrict the rights of religious minorities anytime soon, because an international backlash could hurt the movement.

Almost as soon as the Jan. 25 election results were in, Sheikh Mohammed Abu Teir, the No. 2 candidate on the Hamas election list, announced that the movement plans to introduce “Shariah,” the religious law of Islam.

“The No. 1 thing we will do is take Shariah as a source for legislation,” Abu Teir told The Globe and Mail newspaper.

The promise has set off alarms because non-Muslims face varying degrees of discrimination in countries where Shariah is stringently practiced. As is the case in Saudi Arabia, religious minorities may be legally prohibited from practicing their faith and denied citizenship. Even in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, which are less overtly devout, minorities are often denied the same educational and employment opportunities afforded to Muslims.

Some Palestinians see their rights threatened.

“There is much concern that they might use the political system to impose restrictions on religious freedom,” warned Mohammed Dajani, director of the American Studies Center at Al-Quds University.

Hamas, an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement, was founded during the late 1980s, during the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising. The movement, which advocates the destruction of Israel and Islamic domination of the world, is on the U.S. government’s list of terror organizations.

Founded on the strictest precepts of Islam, the movement is particularly popular among poorer Palestinians because it provides a wide range of social, educational and medical services not provided by the Palestinian Authority. Analysts say the election showed that the public widely believes that the secular Fatah, until now the ruling party, misappropriated hundreds of millions of dollars in overseas donations.

Hamas’ network, in contrast, is said to be run efficiently, with little waste and even less corruption. It is largely funded by fundamentalist Muslim governments and their fervently pious citizens.

Hamas won 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament, ushering in a new era in Palestinian political _ and perhaps religious _ life.

Palestinian law is largely secular in nature, though it relies on Shariah when it comes to marriage and other issues related to personal status.

Abu Teir said that Hamas will soon require girls and boys to study in separate classes, a practice already common, but by no means universal, in the Palestinian territories.

The cleric stressed, however, that alcohol will not be banned and that no woman will be forced to wear a hijab, an Islamic head scarf.

“We are centrists,” Abu Teir insisted. “We are against any kind of extremism.”

By the standards of the conservative Arab world, Palestinian society has a long tradition of religious and political moderation. Alcoholic beverages are available everywhere, for example, and women are encouraged to get a good education, a job and a driver’s license. Those who wear head scarves or long robes do so out of choice and local social norms, and not because the law dictates it, Dajani said.

For this reason, Dajani said, Hamas will not be able to impose Shariah law.

“That would contradict the basic constitution,” Dajani said. “If they try, there will be a backlash, as there was in Kalkilya.”

Eileen Kuttab, the director of Women’s Studies at Birzeit University, says Hamas will not push Shariah because “it isn’t ready to promote a conflict within the society that has given it their vote. They realize that people voted for them to end a dozen years of corruption, not due to their religious agenda.”

In the event that Hamas does try to force women to cover their faces with a veil, for example, “civil society will be mobilized against them,” Kuttab said. “I don’t think this will happen during their first term in office, but of course, we have to closely monitor the situation.”

One thing that may deter Hamas from instituting radical religious change is the movement’s desire for international recognition and legitimacy.

“They don’t want to be compared with the Taliban,” said George Giacaman, the director of the Palestinian Insitute for the Study of Democracy. “Remember, too, that Palestinian marriage, divorce and inheritance practices are already embedded in Shariah law.”

Religiously observant Muslims, in contrast, say they would welcome greater adherence to the precepts of the Quran, Islam’s holiest text.

“Every Muslim should be a Muslim, to pray and act like a Muslim,” said Adnan Hussein, the director of the Wakf, the Islamic Trust responsible for, among other things, Jerusalem’s largest mosques.

“Religion is in the hearts of all people _ Muslim, Christian and Jewish. It is nothing to be feared.”

Palestinian Christians, who see themselves as a beleaguered minority within a minority, are watching Hamas’ actions particularly closely.

The Holy Land’s struggling Christian minority has dwindled dramatically over the decades, as those who could emigrate from the war-torn, economically depressed region packed their bags and moved to places like the U.S., Canada and Australia. Today, the community comprises less than 2 percent of the Palestinian and Israeli populations, a number that could decrease even further if Hamas pursues a path of religious exclusion.

Hamas’ reaction to cartoons, first published in Denmark, disrespecting the Prophet Muhammed has allayed the concerns of some Christians.

In Gaza, Islamic groups distributed a pamphlet calling on “The faithful” to attack local churches. But Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas official, made a solidarity visit to the area’s only Catholic church.

“I called Zahar to tell him about the (pamphlet) and he came to reassure the sisters and the priests and the Christians that Hamas will protect us and not leave us alone to suffer,” said the Rev. Manuel Mussalem, parish priest of the Holy Family Church.

“He assured us that we Christians are part of the Palestinian people.”


Editors: RNS subscribers who receive the Reuters photo feed can find numerous shots depicting the aftermath of Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian election.

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