What Hamas teaches us about Islam, Iraq, and democracy

Posted: Feb 01, 2006 12:06 AM
This week, the terrorist group Hamas won an overwhelming electoral victory in the Palestinian Arab parliament election. Hamas, an organization that pledges to seek the destruction of the State of Israel, now holds 76 out of 132 seats in the relatively powerless legislative body.

This election gives the lie to two fallacious yet extremely influential ideas upon which American foreign policy has been based. First, the Arab/Israeli dispute remains intractable not because Palestinian Arab leadership is corrupt or evil (though it is), but because Palestinian Arabs, like their Muslim brethren across the globe, hate Israel and want the Jews thrown into the sea.

For decades, we’ve seen blame cast on Yassar Arafat, his Fatah movement, and the Israelis. The one group that has by and large escaped criticism is the Palestinian Arab population. We would prefer that the large mass of Palestinian Arabs be peace-loving, open-minded human beings who wish only to see their children grow and prosper in a society that values coexistence, education, and liberty. Unfortunately, that hope has blinded us to a larger truth: the Palestinian Arabs, as a people, are not peace-loving. They support terrorism because they think it right, not because they are desperate or hopeless. They support the annihilation of the State of Israel not because they have been misled, but because they truly – and religiously -- believe that Israel must be wiped off the map.

It is difficult to misread Palestinian Arab hatred for the West and for Jews in particular, but somehow we have deliberately ignored all the evidence in favor of more palatable motivations. It’s about economic discontent, we tell ourselves. It’s about supposed Israeli occupation of formerly Arab-occupied lands. It’s about this or that. It’s never about simple hatred, and it is never about Islam.

Of course, that is precisely what the Arab/Israeli conflict is about: simple hatred, and Islam. That is what the War on Terror is about: a clash between Islamic theocracy and Western liberalism. The same week that the Palestinian Arabs waved Hamas green, Iran continued its program to build nuclear weapons with the express purpose of attacking Israel. The same week that Hamas emerged victorious in the Palestinian Arab elections, Muslims throughout the Middle East went ballistic over a cartoon in a Danish newspaper. That cartoon depicted Koranic author Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a lit fuse. Saudis beat two Danish workers; the Danish Red Cross has been forced to evacuate two employees from Gaza and another from Yemen after threats of violence; Iraqi terrorists may have targeted a Danish-Iraqi patrol near Basra; Muslims have threatened massive boycotts of Danish companies; Egypt’s parliament refused to discuss a $72.5 million loan by Denmark to Egypt. United Arab Emirates Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs Mohammed Al Dhaheri described the cartoon as “cultural terrorism, not freedom of expression,” then ominously warned, “The repercussions of such irresponsible acts will have adverse impact on international relations.”

It is ironic that Muslims protesting the Danish cartoon in the Middle East prove the very point the contested cartoon attempts to make: Islamist values are in direct conflict with democratic principles like freedom of speech and political thought. Islamist values are in perfect concert with a far more blunt political instrument: the lit bomb.

Which brings us to the second fallacious yet widely believed principle upon which American foreign policy has been based: democratic institutions mean nothing as long as the people who operate that machinery despise democratic values. Elections are only as good as the people who vote in them. Elections do not, by themselves, guarantee freedom, economic liberalism, or peace. If people prefer violent theocracy to democratic liberalism or kleptocracy to accountable government, that is what democracy will bring.

We must rethink our Iraqi policy in light of Hamas’ victory; we must ensure that the Iraqis do not value terrorism over liberty or violent Islam over its more peaceful counterpart. The Iraqi Constitution’s pledge to overturn any law contradicting “the universally agreed tenets of Islam” is a dangerous pledge. Perhaps Iraqis are more democratically-minded than the Palestinian Arabs; perhaps not. Doubt about the nature of the Iraqi people must breed caution, not mindless confidence in the power of ballots.

Democracy is not a bromide to be prescribed at the first sign of violence. Cancer cannot be cured with a sleeping pill. Democracy can flourish only in a society with democratic values. The Palestinian Arabs do not have those values, nor do they wish to cultivate them. We should be more optimistic about the Iraqi people, but no less suspicious. The future of the West rests on our jealous guardianship of democratic values, not blind faith in democratic institutions.