Two recent pieces in the NY Times and in Foreign Affairs have highlighted the challenges that Hamas has been facing from religious extremists in Gaza over recent months. They both note the armed confrontation with Jund Ansar Allah as well as criticisms by some that Hamas has not fully implemented the shari’a. Although some of its more radical supporters have attempted to institute certain dress restrictions for women and girls or other elements of Islamic law, senior officials have routinely overturned the edict.
These two pieces highlight one of the greatest challenges for Hamas—and for any religious party—to translate religious rhetoric into actual policies. It may seem counterintuitive that Hamas would be unsupportive of implementing religious law, but this issue lies at the heart of the current dilemma for Hamas.
Since its formation, Hamas’ base has consisted of individuals who are more supportive of religious rule as well as those who take a more militant approach toward Israel. However, Hamas’ victory in the 2006 election was the result of being able to expand this base to win the support of more moderate Palestinians as well. Thus, while some have attributed Hamas’ refusal to implement the shari’a as an attempt to appear more moderate in the eyes of external actors, likely the reason has much more to do with domestic support for the party.
The basic problem for Hamas lies in the differences in support for the shari’a in theory compared to in practice. In opinion polls, calls for the implementation of the shari’a tend to be popular. The connotation of the word suggests the correct way or path, which few individuals would not support. This positive association is so strong that even some largely secular regimes claim that the shari’a is the basis for all laws.
Yet, when elements of the shari’a have been implemented, it has not been overly popular with ordinary citizens. For example, after Muslim Brotherhood candidates in Jordan performed well in the 1989 election, they sought to implement parts of the shari’a. One such change limited the circumstances in which males could interact with females in public space. One implication was that fathers could no longer watch their daughters play sports since unrelated females were also present. After strong public resistance, this law was soon overturned.
Given its campaign promises for implementing laws in accordance with the shari’a, Hamas faces a critical challenge in managing its supporters. If it continues to resist calls for its implementation, then likely many members of its traditional base will lose faith in the movement and found new groups or parties more committed to the full implementation of the shari’a. On the other hand, if Hamas does implement the shari’a, more moderate supporters will likely become less supportive given that they are more supportive of the shari’a in theory than in practice. Thus, its future success as a party lies largely in its ability to resolve this dilemma.