I attended two meetings this week in Gaza which were also attended by Wadah Khanfar, the former director general of Al-Jazeera, Basheer Nafi, of Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies and a group of academics and youth, most of whom would be classed as Islamists.
My attendance was unexpected but provided a valuable opportunity to assess two distinct perspectives on Middle East issues. The first belonged to a generation of Palestinian youth who were born and raised in a besieged enclave, largely isolated from the world. Theirs is a narrowed point of view imposed on them by the geographic, political and social conditions in which they grew up. The other perspective was represented by a group of enlightened individuals who have travelled the world and mingled with different cultures and people, have accomplished research, participated in social and political activities, and kept up with global changes.
It was not easy to conceal the cultural gap between the two groups. Just as the visiting speakers were very practical, the discourse of the youth revealed their integrity, sincerity, sacrifice, love of heroism and pride in their religion and history. However, their speech also revealed a lack of understanding of reality and an inability to balance between heroism and sacrifice on one side, and political realism and awareness of the great developments that have affected political thought globally over recent decades and centuries. Of course, some enlightened youth who understood the modern world took part, but most were remote from reality and yet wielded considerable social influence.
What was noticeable from these talks is that rigid ideology in the Gaza Strip not only outweighs political realism but also has no room for it. Ideological speech is characterised as strict and harsh, whereas political speech engages grey areas and compromise. Ideology relies on terms such as doctrine and religious polarisation, belief, disbelief, patriotism, treachery, most of which have difficulty in embracing or co-existing with the Other.
To me, the visiting speakers were taken aback by the difference in language used by the youth participants. While the guests spoke about studying strategy for the future of the region, understanding regional and international equations, the importance of reinforcing social harmony and the acceptance of others in order to face the difficulties ahead, the youth in their eagerness spoke about segregation, renouncing traitors and the need to purify the community and establish an Islamic state with the restoration of the Caliphate.
In response, the guests said that the idea of establishing a Caliphate wasn’t realistic and that creating an Islamic state based on the standard historical concept is a project destined to fail; they cited Afghanistan, Iran and Sudan as examples. The concept of a state and community, and the relationship between the two has changed from the time of the Abbasids. Nowadays, the duty of the state is to provide a civil framework within which everyone can co-exist and freedoms are granted. General Islamic principles can be utilised, such as consultation (Shura) and justice in modern applications, but with the understanding of the world today, not with the dated understanding of the past in our heads.
According to Wadah Khanfar, the issue of ideological rigidity overriding political understanding is partly due to the policies of organisations that, in periods of conflict, fill the heads of the youth with demonising and hostile ideas about the other side. It is then difficult for the youth to accept their leaders conversing with the enemy under any circumstances. It would have been better for the leaders to preserve the political nature of the conflict, as the logic of politics states that there are no permanent enemies or permanent friends. Calm speech that allows for future changes of direction should have been used, as the Qur’anic verse states: “Perhaps Allah will make friendship between you and those whom you hold as enemies.”
Ideological rigidity is not religious, as some believe. It is a problem issue which blocks out independence of thought, creates intolerance and binds religion in a cocoon from which it cannot escape. Religion, on the other hand, encourages thinking and understanding. It can only be applied correctly by having a comprehensive understanding of social and political changes and taking them into consideration.
Palestinian society, especially in Gaza, has been saturated with ideological rigidity but Islamic identity is no longer endangered or disputed. As such, the Islamic movement should adopt an inclusive discourse that covers the whole spectrum of society under a national umbrella. It must also reduce the intensity of its ideology in favour of enhanced social convergence. Despite our various political and intellectual visions, we are all from the same country; the strongest thing we can rely on to face the challenges that threaten the Palestinian national project is the preservation of internal unity.