Hamas worried about rise in support for religious sect
A good many people in Gaza have already had a knock on the door, opening it to two or three men dressed in strange clothing reminding them of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The men ask to speak to the head of the family. “We want 10 minutes of your time to talk about Islam,” they say.
Usually they talk about the importance of religion and becoming religious, about the faith’s noble principles and the need to maintain them. They often stress that “Islam is the correct religion” and that “a good Muslim must attend the mosque and pray five times a day.”
They always wear galabiyahs over trousers and sandals, and have long beards. These believers, known to Gazans as salafis, will not discuss politics or matters such as the tahadiyeh or the “Zionist enemy.”
They are not a political group, yet some Hamas members see them as a threat, especially in the public arena. They are a kind of sect of Sunni Islam that has operated throughout the world since the dawn of Islam, calling on believers to imitate the ways of the prophet Mohammed and the group of his companions known as the sahabah.
They have always been in Gaza. Hamas’ concerns stem from a rise in support for the sect throughout the Strip. In the past year they have increased their ranks by several times; their number now stands at between 40,000 to 50,000 Gazans.
The number of those praying in the mosque the sect operates, A-Sahabah, in the Daraj neighborhood of Gaza City has skyrocketed since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza a year ago.
The sect even operates a religious school for grades 1 through 12, whose classes are bursting at the seams.
The salafis do not watch television at home. Their wives have to cover themselves from head to foot. They may not hang large pictures or display statues in their homes, and they pray frequently. Hamas knows they represent an alternative to its monopoly over religion in the Gaza Strip, which has led to great tension between the salafis and Hamas over control of the mosques.
Violent brawls have broken out over attempts by Hamas to throw salafis out of the mosques where they have managed to take control. Another problem for Hamas is the salafis’ avoidance of politics, which makes Hamas look like a gang of power-hungry politicians, especially in light of its mistakes over the past year: the violent takeover, torture and corruption.
But a more tangible threat for the rulers of Gaza is from other groups loosely linked to the sect, which are known collectively as A-salafiyeh al-Jihadiyeh. These extreme groups identify with salafi religious principles but dispute the principle of remaining aloof from political, military and diplomatic involvement.
The best-known of these groups are the Army of Islam and the Army of the Nation. Their ideology recalls the teachings of Al-Qaida, and they flaunt their connections with the latter. While the Army of Islam is clan-based and mainly connected to the Durmush family, the Army of the Nation is gathering numbers largely from people cast out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad because of their extremism.
An article published in The Guardian a few years ago explains the Salafi approach to Islam as follows:
Salafiyya is not a sect but a way of looking at Islam. It is found mainly in areas of the Muslim world that follow the Hanbali school of Islamic law (the most rigid of the four main legal traditions) – essentially the Arabian peninsula.
Salafis take the Koran literally, and hark back to the earliest days of Islam. Militant Salafis place great emphasis on jihad, which they interpret as armed struggle and regard as a religious duty. This is not a mainstream Muslim view, but one they share with other extremist groups.
Similarly, despite the general Muslim injunction against suicide, they approve of suicide attacks in certain circumstances, where this would result in ‘martyrdom’.
The name comes from the Arabic word ‘salaf’, meaning forefathers or pioneers. To Salafis, the ‘forefathers’ are the first three generations of Muslims, whose behaviour is to be studied and, if possible, emulated. Most Salafis adopt a highly orthodox, ultra-conservative view of Islam. Some opt for an austere, pious life devoid of politics. Others turn to jihad. At their most radical, Salafis are religious anarchists, rejecting nation states and manmade laws in favour of God’s law.