The key question about the war in Gaza: Is Hamas a religious cult or a political machine?

Italian sociologist Massimo Introvigne published a history of Hamas in 2003. Twenty years later it is more relevant than ever. In this analysis he argues that Hamas’ terrorism is based on religious ideology, not on politics. When political solutions fail, and military ones succeed only partially, the question is how to persuade Palestinians not to support Hamas.


Hamas profited from the second Intifada as it had from the first. Notwithstanding Israel’s assassination of its founder Shaykh Yassin on March 22, 2004, Hamas managed to win the Palestinian elections in 2006 and to elect a prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority of its own, Ismail Haniyeh. However, its conflict with Fatah was never healed, and continued after Arafat’s death in 2004.

After Hamas’ electoral victory, that conflict became a military one, leading to a situation where Fatah controlled the West Bank and Hamas maintained the control of Gaza. From there, it kept attacking Israel and proclaiming its refusal of the two-state solution.

Unlike Fatah and the OLP, for Hamas the only possible solution of the Palestinian question is a single Islamic state “from the river to the sea,” from River Jordan to the Mediterranean. Israel periodically retaliated, and in 2008–2009 the reaction was so strong that some called it the “Gaza War.” The real Gaza War, as we all know, came however in 2023. Whether this war will destroy Hamas, or it will manage to survive once again, is something the next months and years will clarify. The extent of Iran’s support for Hamas will be, of course, a key factor.

Hamas emerges from the study of its origins as the Palestinian component of the international network of Islamic fundamentalism. Its history is inextricably linked to that of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which it constitutes a Palestinian branch. This is not to say that Hamas does not have some important specificities, as is generally the case in the world of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose national branches are largely autonomous.

Although it indicates in its program the establishment of an Islamic state based on shari’a and the restoration of the caliphate, both signature ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, these themes are less developed in Hamas literature than the sacred character of Palestinian land and the need to liberate it from Israeli occupation.

After a long time of preparation, which gave it a solid base in a network of hundreds of mosques, stronger in Gaza than in the West Bank, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood espoused the radical line in the years leading up to the outbreak of the first Intifada. After the Brotherhood had kept itself on the sidelines of the armed struggle for several decades working on its “Islamization from below” through mosques and schools, eventually Hamas surpassed in intransigence and radicalism the secular nationalists of the PLO, while basing this uncompromising position on religious motives.

Hamas, which also marks in a sense the “Palestinization” of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, represents in other ways an archaeology of it. As the most careful studies of founder al-Banna’s thought and activity reveal, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic fundamentalism in general have always insisted on the principle of gradualism.

Just as the restoration of the caliphate must precede the resumption of the process of expanding the Islamic world outside its present borders, and the establishment of shari’a in individual Islamic-majority countries must precede the restoration of the caliphate, so even before the establishment of shari’a there is a need to liberate Islamic lands from foreign occupation. This issue, preliminary to the threefold purpose of Islamic fundamentalism, is no longer on the agenda in most Islamic-majority countries, long since liberated from colonial occupation. However, it still exists in Palestine.

Hamas’ success came from its ability to play simultaneously on the two registers of the Muslim Brotherhood, the neo-traditionalist and the radical. It never forgot to cultivate its strong entrenchment in a network of mosques and Muslim educational institutions, while at the same time embracing Qutb-style armed struggle and terrorism.

A widespread belief about the Palestinian issue is that to stop Hamas terrorism, it is necessary to accelerate the peace process, convince both sides to accept United Nations resolutions about the two states, and strip terrorism of its roots, which lie in the desperate situation of the Palestinian people.



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There is much that is true in this analysis, but also something that is missing. First of all, Hamas suicide terrorism is ideological, arising first and foremost from religious factors rather than national or economic ones.

Hamas’ terrorism is not the same as the “secular” nationalist terrorism that other seasons of the Palestinian conflict have experienced. It cannot be understood if one isolates it from the specifically religious context of Islamic fundamentalism. To those to propose peace with a two-state solution, Hamas continues to answer that this is not acceptable for theological reasons. It is the will of God, it believes, that the entire sacred land of Palestine should be part of an Islamic state, “from the river to the sea.” No political leader and no leader of Hamas, even if he so wished, is authorized to change the will of God.

Second, the question of the peace processes is also more complicated than it seems.

Countless documents of Hamas state that its aim is precisely to prevent the success of peace processes and conferences based on a two-state solution. When these conferences and processes seem dangerously close to achieve some results, Hamas try to derail them through terrorist attacks, counting on the subsequent Israeli reaction to further poison the well.

According to Hamas, the pursuit of “peace” is a heresy that de-Islamicizes the Palestinian issue by reducing it from a religious issue to a political one, thus paving the way for the establishment in Palestine of a secular state. And no fundamentalist movement can accept this.

On the other hand, the grain of truth contained in the common belief is that militant and terrorist vanguards are fishes that need to swim in the water of a popular consensus.

Of course, there is no spontaneous generation: the water does not generate the fish, but by making the water clearer, for the fish accustomed to its murky version it becomes more difficult to swim. In this sense, not any peace process but only a peace process from which the Palestinians feel they will gain immediate, concrete, and visible benefits will erode the consensus for Hamas and its recruitment of future generations of militants.

Killing the most aggressive fish is only a short-term solution, as other bad fish will come. Creating a different water is a long-term strategy, but is the only one that may perhaps bring results.  

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions. Introvigne is the author of some 70 books and more than 100 articles in the field of sociology of religion. From 2012 to 2015, he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, instituted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale.

This article has been republished with permission from Bitter Winter.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Gaza in 2007  


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  • mrscracker
    Is Hamas a religious cult or a political machine?"
    It’s neither in reality. Hamas is simply a mercenary cartel carrying out terrorist acts for the highest bidder & keeping the people of Gaza in a perpetual state of victimhood.