Are Hezbollah and Hamas a new version of the Theology of Liberation?
(To view a short history of the Theology of Liberation: http://cafethawra.blogspot.com/2011/05/theology-of-liberation.html)
The question has been going for a while now in academic circles in the West and in the Middle East, but also among the left, on the issue of a form of religious based progressist movement in the Arab world. Some on the left and academics as well have said that Hezbollah and Hamas can be seen as similar as the movement of Theology of Liberation which developed in the past participating in the resistance against authoritarian regimes and opposing by a serious and deep critic the capitalist system.
We will firstly like to say that the islamophobic left, which is very often linked with the Zionist State or defend it as a non racist state, is not taken into account in this article, for lack of space and especially willingness on my side, I should admit, to simply take their argument seriously and spend time on it. We can’t actually consider their argument of “they are religious Muslim parties, therefore retrograde” as an analysis in any possible way. This is essentialism and discriminatory explanations close to people such as Bernard Lewis and Neo Conservatives in the USA.
First, one ought to reiterate the fact that Hamas and Hezbollah are part of the resistance camp against the Apartheid, colonial and racist State of Israel. They have suffered enormous sacrifices that many of its leaders and cadres have made, Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s’ actions in these past few years have ultimately support the interests of the Resistant and Palestinian cause. Hezbollah’s Resistance was the reason for the departure of Israel occupation army in 2000 in South Lebanon and for the defeat of the Israeli State in 2006 in its aggression against the Lebanese people, while Hamas resistance was as well one of the main reasons in the departure of Israeli troops from Gaza and of its defeat in the war against the Palestinian people of Gaza in 2008 and 2009. In both wars of aggression, Israel was not able to reach its objectives and both Hamas and Hezbollah came out of the war stronger.
This made clear, let’s have a critical view and analysis of these political parties. Let’s see the various opinions on the debate.
There is a first school of thought, lead notably by some French academics such as Olivier Roy, Nicolas Dot Pouillard and Olivier Carre, but also promoted on some parts of the left in the UK such as George Galloway and his followers who claims that Hezbollah and Hamas are anti imperialist movements. In George Galloway’s and his follower’s opinion unconditional support to these “revolutionary parties”, according to them, is needed. These parties will lead the revolution in their view because they are the largest political parties. George Galloway for example considers the Muslim Brotherhoods (MB) as an anti imperialist and revolutionary party until now and provides unconditional support for them in Egypt. The MB in Egypt, as a reminder, has called to support the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and has described those protesting against the military as ‘zealots’ or communists and atheists, and has refused to support their demonstrations or to continue the revolution. They have not participated in demonstrations on Nakba or Naksa Days in favor of the Palestinian cause, while not condemning on the Nakba Day the visit of an Israeli official in Egypt welcomed by the SCAF.
The French academic Nicolad Dot Pouillard says that leftist and islamo nationalist movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas share an implicit ideology, a concept taken from the academic Maxim Rodinson, which is nationalism with a third word feature. In his view, the issue of national liberation is the main characteristic that makes the rapprochement possible between the left and Hamas and Hezbollah, while social justice or democracy questions are subordinated to it. He puts forward the anti imperialist nature of islamo nationalist movement, and the fact that they are becoming closer to leftist politics without although becoming leftist, explaining therefore the collaboration between both movements.
He also shows how the Revolution in Iran and the arrival to power of the Islamists had a strong impact on movements in the Arab Middle East, notably making many leftists militants and thinkers change their ideology and evolve towards more religious thinking. Many of them, they actually believed that the only way to lead Arab masses to revolution was Islam and not socialism anymore. Munir Shafiq is used as an example of this evolution: he was a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine who became a member of the Islamic movement Hamas. Islamist movements, in Dot Pouillards’ opinion, therefore developed a more leftist discourse with the incorporation of these elements.
Other academics such as Abrahamians and Zubaida’s in their writings both reveal that many leftist concepts have actually provided the Islamists with a vocabulary and set of themes with which to articulate their ideology, notably anti imperialism, but they nevertheless do not go as far as calling or characterizing Islamic movements as leftists. Olivier Roy on his side sees a lot of likenesses between Marxist and islamist movement in our current time. He claims that the Marxist and Islamist third worldism is very close to each other, using the case of South America and the movement of the Liberation Theology as a comparison. In his opinion there is this same voluntary activism as well as the same quest for authenticity breaking from western models. Olivier Roy in his writings adds that rather than leftist becoming islamists, these latter have reformulated a 1960s Third worldism, appropriating its anti imperialism and models of economics and revolution. Those academics see the rapprochement as an evolution of political Islam towards the left and the construction of an anti imperialist front. The Iranian thinker Ali Shariati is in this purpose very often taken as an example of this combination between socialist and Islamic ideals. Ali Shariati drew concepts of Islamic activism and revolution from reading Jean Paul Sartre, Marx and Fanon as well as from the Shi’a tradition. The organization of conferences from 2004 to nowadays which gather leftist and islamist elements in different countries of the region such as Lebanon or Egypt are as well in their opinion a symbol and a proof of this anti imperialist front.
In my opinion, this interpretation is in many aspect limited by their anti imperialist feature in their resistance against Israel and USA’s foreign policy of the Islamist movements, while not putting enough elements forward on the non anti systemic nature of these latter. Their “anti imperialism” is concentrated essentially on the struggle against Israel and the USA, while the struggle against neo liberal economic policies or the end of the sectarian system is not addressed and many other issues. Hezbollah has for example used the unions’ protests against the socio economic policy of the government it was opposing and it resigned in November 2006. But when the Hezbollah was back in the government after May 2008, it refused and opposed the unions’ demands and adopted the same positions than its adversaries in relation to the increase in the minimum wage. As we can observe the notion of resistance for Hezbollah is limited to the military struggle against Israel and some appearances in social forums, while it does not include socio-economic issues. In addition to this, their so called anti imperialism feature is limited to their political interests, and not based on principle, as we can observe the support of Hamas and Hezbollah to the Syrian regime in the repression of the popular uprising in the country. It is this Syrian regime which arrested the people of Syria who struggled for the liberation of the Golan and Palestine for the past 30 years. struggle for the liberation of the Golan and Palestine for the past 30 years. This is the same regime which crushed the Palestinians and the progressive movements in Lebanon in 1976, while participating in the imperialist war against Iraq in 1991 with the coalition led by the USA.
A second school of thought is in this aspect more systemic, it acknowledges this rapprochement between these political movements but is less keen to speak about an evolution of Political Islam towards the left and the building of an anti imperialist front in relation to the left and islamist movement. In this trend we can find academics such as Asef Bayat, Gilbert Achkar, Sadik Jalal Azm, Aijaz Ahmad or activist such as Chris Harman. They mainly acknowledge the anti imperialist element of Islamic movement struggling against Israel, but in their opinion this is not enough to characterize them as anti imperialist as at the same time they are not implementing policies to emancipate the people or not opposing neo liberal policies in their respective country, while not supporting everywhere popular uprising against repressive and authoritarian regime.
They believe that the two actors, the left and the Islamist, have shared and bear similar interests, explaining their meeting and rapprochement in some occasions on specific issues such as the struggle against Israel and USA imperialism, but they refute the fact that they have similar identities in any way as put forward by the first school of thought. They advance on the opposite the differences in the identities of both groups affecting directly their collective claims and therefore their positions on various political issues.
These scholars have more critical attitudes towards Islamic movements, and, contrary to what the previously studied authors state, they also oppose the so called analogy between the Liberation Theology movement in South America and Islamist movements in the Middle East. Professor Assef Bayat for example says that the Liberation Theology and Islamist movements are different in nature and objectives: while the first was not so much an expression of cultural identity in the sense of self preservation vis-à-vis a dominating western “other” such as Islamic movement, it was more imbedded in the discourse of development, of emancipation of the subaltern. He points out that while the liberation theology movement mobilized the poor, the islamist movement tend largely to target the educated urban middle classes, which they view as the main agents of political change.
He adds also that while Islamists aim to Islamize their society, policy and economy, liberation theologians never intended to Christianize their society or states, but rather to change it from the vantage point of the deprived. The islamist movements, in comparison with theology of liberation movement in South America, have generally broader social and political objectives than simply helping the downtrodden, and secular issues such as social justice for the poor follow from the establishment of Islamic order. In addition, what most islamists share is a particular moral vision of society.
Professor Gilbert Achkar shares this opinion in writing how the fate of the liberation theology was very close and roughly parallel to that of the secular left in Latin America, where it is actually very often perceived as a component of the left, while Islamic movements developed in the Middle East and elsewhere as a competitor of and an alternative to the left. In the 80s, Hamas and Hezbollah were actually characterized by a system of direct repression of leftist groups, when these latter were obstructing their development. They targeted leftist activists in some key sectors of academia, politics, trade union or association. This is why these authors state more clearly the limitations of any deeper and further collaboration between both movements, except on the issue of resistance against Israel and Western imperialism. They explain mainly the rapprochement of leftist and islamic movements in Lebanon and Palestine because of the centrality of resistance, while other issues such as social justice, workers or women’s rights are subordinated to it.
The late Chris Harman, deceased in 2009, said that the main error of the left in different countries was to consider Islamists automatically either as a reactionary and fascist movement or on the opposite as a progressive and anti imperialist movement. He added as well that the left can work with the Islamists on some issues such as against imperialism and the authoritarian regimes, but they are not allies and they should still be criticized. Theses authors also criticized the discourse of Islamic movements against Western Imperialism viewed as a cultural imperialism; their objective is actually to replace one cultural hegemony by another Islamic one. There is a rejection of cultural and religious pluralism. The Syrian marxist Sadik Jalal Azm is particularly critical towards Islamic movements on this issue and accuses them of orientalism in reverse by saying that they think national salvation is to be found in a return to authenticity of what they call popular political Islam. This proves no less reactionary, mystifying, historical and anti humanist that orientalism proper, in his opinion.
In Gaza, Hamas have promoted and implemented laws targeting individual freedoms, particularly those of women, who are no longer allowed to smoke water pipe in public or ride behind their spouses on motorcycles. Likewise, female students are now forced to wear the jilbab and the hijab, while female lawyers must wear the hijab. These practices are claimed to protect the customs and traditions of the Palestinians.
Hamas leaders, as well as the rest of the Palestinian political parties, have shown no clear understanding and indications within the movement either of the apartheid nature of the State of Israel or of the tools used by the South African anti-apartheid movement. One such tool is the international boycott campaign, without which the apartheid regime would not have ended. This demonstrates Hamas’s failure to understand the role of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) campaign presented as delegitimizing the State of Israel and posing a threat to its very existence.
Hamas has also developed a real business with the tunnels that Gazans have used to undercut the international embargo upon their territory, which according to the director of the UN Relief Works Agency, 60 percent of Gaza’s economy depends on the tunnels. Hamas taxes any product entering Gaza up to 10 to 15%, while asking as well free raw materials to the owners of tunnels. This could be understood as a revolutionary tax, but Hamas has prevented any military resistance from the Gaza strip and forbid militants from any organization to launch rockets.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah did not participate or encourage its members to demonstrate against the sectarian system. Hezbollah does not actually promote actively a civic or secular system and has declared its opposition to any kind of possible Personal Status civil law alongside Islamic Status law as being anti Islamic. Hezbollah has actually refused to collaborate with the Lebanese Communist Party in the 2009 elections on the two following basis, considered too radical:
-Suppression of the confessional system, implementation of the proportional law election and a single and unique constituency for all of Lebanon
-rebalance the economic policy between the growth of national economy and social guarantees for citizens
On socio economic issues, Hezbollah very rarely takes part in demonstrations of various unions’ demonstrations to support their demands. It does not oppose in general policies of economic liberalization or privatization of different sectors. Hezbollah for example did not oppose Rafic Hariri’s governments in the 90s, implementing neo liberal policies and has accepted the privatization plans of Siniora’s government between 2005 and 2008 for Telecoms and EDL.
Hezbollah and Hamas have never actually articulated a vision of an alternative urban order around which to mobilize community members, whom they perceive as deserving welfare recipients to be guided by leaders. The members are rarely expected to participate actively in making their communities. Their attitudes towards the local people remain paternalistic, while the left encourages policy to empower the people socially, politically and economically.
The growth of Islamism, particularly Hamas and Hezbollah, and the development of NGOs in the framework of neoliberal policies in the region were linked and coincided with the relative decline in traditional class based movements such as peasant’s organizations, cooperative movements and trade unionism. The Hamas and Hezbollah were actually able by important financial resources to increase its social institutions.
Islamists movement in the Middle East, including Hezbollah and Hamas, are primarily a movement not of the disfranchised such as in South America with the Theology of the Liberation movement, but of the marginalized urban educated middle classes and petty bourgeoisie, which influence its view and practice on socio economic and political issues.
On the opposite the theology of the liberation criticizes the flaws of the capitalism system. Why are they so many poor? In the theology of the liberation, the poor are subjects of history; need to make them aware of it to liberate them. The discourse of charity towards the poor is changed towards a critic of the structure of the anti capitalist system. Erdel Kumara, an adherent of the theology of the liberation, resumes well in one sentence the consequence of such a change: “when I help the poor charitably I am a saint, but when I ask why they are poor, they accuse me of being a communist”. The second question is not asked neither by Hezbollah and Hamas until today! They do not challenge the capitalist system, quite on the opposite.
In conclusion, we cannot say that we have seen or observed the developpement until now of a religious progressist movement such as the Theology of the Liberation movement in the Middle East unfortunately. We are seeing actually the contradictions of parties such as Hamas and Hezbollah in period of Revolutions, where their political interests lead them to oppose some popular uprising such as Syria. In the same time we should not consider these parties as retrograde or our main enemies, they are not. And if these parties has grown and increased their numbers it is partially because of the failure of the left among the people.
The revolutions in the Arab world might nevertheless open new opportunities to see emerge religious progressist movement with a program challenging imperialism and neo liberalism, as well as promoting equality between people.