Religious Fundamentalism Growing in Gaza
Hamas is under extreme pressure from small Salafi extremist groups to impose Islamic and Sharia law
YOUSEF ALHELOU, TRNN CORRESPONDENT, GAZA: Since taking control of Gaza in mid 2007, Hamas, which had won the parliamentary elections in January 2006, was able to stay in control of the seaside territory and has now ruled the tiny enclave for the sixth consecutive year, despite two devastating Israeli wars and an ongoing blockade. It has also managed to prevent any attempts to destabilize its authority, especially by small Salafi groups.
Hamas’s repeated attempts to impose stricter Islamic social practices have often been met with stiff resistance from locals, forcing Hamas at times to reconsider. For example, it has rescinded on past decisions banning women from smoking shisha in cafes, obliging female high school students to wear the hijab, and banning males from working as hairdressers for females. More recently, couples have been stopped and questioned about their relationship to ensure the legitimacy of their kin. There has been a cracking down on young men with stylish haircuts and those wearing low-waist jeans in the latest campaign, which many say is in line with a series of initiatives perceived as an effort to impose a stricter Islamic lifestyle on Gaza’s Palestinian society, which is traditionally conservative.
SAMEER ZAQOUT, AL-MEZAN CENTER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS (VOICEOVER TRANSL.): We issued many statements condemning this attitude, but the government keeps denying and rejecting our reports and press releases despite our evidences. if the government thinks we are lying, let them confront us. The government should follow these cases and punish those who abuse the law. The law must be guiding criterion to define and protect our rights, but the violation of personals freedoms was carried out in a systematic way.
ALHELOU: Imposing strict measures included a decision to force female students to stick to a certain Islamic dress code, to wear the jilbab, a long, loose robe that covers the whole body. The Real News talked to a number of people about their reaction, given that over 2,000 Christians are living in Gaza.
OROUBA OTHMAN, JOURNALIST (VOICEOVER TRANSL.): Hamas’s latest virtue campaign is a great violation of people’s life and rights. We would rather they invest in raising awareness and finding solutions for unemployment, poverty, and other important issues. The violation of personal freedoms will weaken Hamas’s popularity in Gaza. Humiliation, arrests, and torture are not the appropriate way to tackle any issue within the society. We as women are worried that they might start campaigns to crack down on us. Everyone is free to chose their way of life, how to think, what to wear, where to go. What is happening is not Islamization; it’s Hamasization of the society.
SAED SWIRKI, ARTIST (VOICEOVER TRANSL.): I think it should not be the business of any government to decide the details of citizens and how they live their life. Everyone has a different taste and fashion. Therefore controlling the details of people’s life is very hard to accept amongst citizens.
ALHELOU: The government has also passed a new education law that prohibits mixing between the sexes in schools and has banned UNRWA from organizing a marathon in which women can participate.
MONA AL-FARRA, ACTIVIST: I think public freedom has been violated largely in Gaza lately by Hamas government, and this is–I consider it a frank violation of basic human rights, the right of choice, for example. They have no right whatsoever to go and shave the children’s hair because of the style and to follow up those kids or those youth who are wearing the low-waist trousers.
ALHELOU: For its part, the government in Gaza says that personal freedoms should be in harmony with the Palestinian society’s traditions and customs, but argue that freedoms are respected.
TAHER AL-NONU, SPOKESPERSON OF HAMAS GOVERNMENT (VOICEOVER TRANSL.): This is untrue propaganda. Freedoms are granted for all citizens regardless of their political affiliations. We urge anyone whose rights were violated to file a compliment to us. We at the government reject any kind of violations for anyone’s rights. We will not allow anyone to violate the freedom of anyone.
ALHELOU: Some analysts say that that the latest laws aim to impress Salafi groups or some conservative elements within Hamas itself, which is considered a moderate group, elaborating that years of Israeli blockade, which led to unprecedented level of poverty and unemployment, has bred “extremism and dark ideas”.
HAIDAR EID, POLITICAL EXPERT: I think Hamas in fact has a strict religious ideological agenda. But what is ironic is that on the one hand, after the latest war on Gaza, Hamas actually showed that it can give political compromises and accept the two-state solution by accepting a Palestinian state on the 1967 border. But on the other hand, because it wants to appease and please the Salafi and jihadist groups in Gaza, it has issued all these social restrictions, whereby the Palestinian community of the Gaza strip is forced to follow its own ideological agenda.
MUKAHIMER ABU SEDA, POLITICAL ANALYST: Hamas is under tight pressure from Salafi extremist groups in the Gaza Strip, and also from its radical camp within the group itself, who are pushing toward more Islamization of the Gaza strip and imposing more of Islamic law and sharia.
Hamas’s latest public modesty campaign has triggered fear amongst Gazans that Hamas is driving the population towards fundamentalism.
Yousef Alhelou for The Real News, Gaza.
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