Sam Harris seems to see the Israel-Palestine conflict as a religious war instead of a political one. This interpretation isn’t supported by reality. Hamas is a moderate Islamic group and its aims are primarily political. Even if Palestinians were religious fundamentalists, though, it still wouldn’t be right to occupy and kill them. It is a perversion of some westerners that they ask what a person’s beliefs are before they decide if they will protect that person’s rights.1
Hamas officials have made a point of stating that they are not like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and, presumably, ISIS.2 Hamas eschews takfir, or defining others as “false Muslims”. Hamas has discouraged pro Al-Qaeda groups from operating in Gaza.3 Hamas members do follow sharia, but they are not imposing it on others. U.S. diplomats have acknowledged this in the past, saying:
There is a difference between Hamas, and, say, the Iranian mullahs. The one tradition is nationalist and revolutionary, the other is clerical and religious. We know the difference. We know who the honest actors are. We don’t happen to like Hamas tactics, but we know there’s a world of difference between what they want and what, say, Mullah Omar wants.4
I assume the US government still understands this and pretends not to for its own reasons.
Further differences between Hamas and Islamic fundamentalists are that Hamas believes Palestinians need a legislature. “For Hamas, it is more important for political authority to obtain popular trust than religious sanction.” In addition, “elections are essential to maintaining the consultative process for they guarantee the freedom to chose and express opinion.” Hamas does not believe that through sharia law people become complete and find true freedom. Hamas leaders have “stated that Islamists must study Western systems, critique them, and incorporate what is meaningful in them into their own system.” “Hamas further argues that a divine contract without a social contract is illegitimate.” Some leaders of Hamas argue that pluralism is sanctioned even to the point of allowing political parties which advocate communism and atheism.5 Hamas has shown it is committed to such pluralism by supporting Christians during elections.6
In the end, Sam Harris’ view of the Middle East is pure fantasy. It is a world of warring religious ideas when in reality Palestinians—and muslims in general—have bread-and-butter political concerns which they are willing to address in pragmatic ways. It is only in the mind of western ideologues that this truth can’t be seen.
- Israel often takes advantage of this perversion from the opposite angle, championing progressive aspects of Israel, such as its support for gay rights, through public relations campaigns. These public relations campaigns can become pathetic, such as when the IDF recently preened its feathers because it’s “the most vegan military in the world”. Apparently 1 out of every 18 Israeli soldiers is vegan, and in Israel vegan soldiers are “exempted from wearing leather boots.” In the minds of some Israelis and their American supporters, this mitigates, or even excuses, the fact that Israel kills and occupies Palestinians. (Williams, Dan. Twitter Post, October 3rd, 2018, 1:31 a.m., https://twitter.com/DanWilliams/status/1047403760446836736.)
- Fora.tv, “Defending Hamas – Sara Roy,” Youtube video, 4:55, Posted December 29th, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReH3D1lrB0Y.
- Sherifa Zuhur, Hamas and Israel: Conflicting Strategies of Group-Based Politics, Carlisle: PA, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, p. 5.
- Mark Perry, “Israeli offensive disrupts US-Hamas contacts,” Media Monitors Network, October 11th, 2002, https://www.mediamonitors.net/israeli-offensive-disrupts-us-hamas-contacts/.
- Sara Roy, Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza, Engaging the Islamist Social Sector, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011, pp. 61-67.
- Zuhur, Hamas and Israel, p. 34