January 31, 2006
Take Hamas At Their Word
By Richard Cohen

While it is probably true, as everyone says, that Hamas won the recent Palestinian elections not because it promised to wipe out Israel, but because it promised to pick up the garbage in Gaza City (all politics is local, etc.), it is also true that the prospect of increased violence did not deter the average Palestinian from voting for Hamas. History has seen this sort of thing before and it is not very comforting. The rule -- the only rule -- is to take zealots at their word.

History speaks on this matter. If you would have asked a random German in, say, 1932 if he was voting for the murder of Jews and a destructive European war of unimaginable scope and horror, he would have said, ``Nein!'' What he really wanted was an end to the brawling in the streets, a robust foreign policy and a big thumbs up to traditional German culture -- no more of this smutty modern art and filthy plays: ``Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome.'' Not any more. The cabaret is closed!

I saved for this paragraph any reference to Hitler himself so as to postpone the reflexive outburst of ``Nothing can be compared to the Nazis!'' Normally, I agree and I usually shy from such comparisons. But I am not likening Hamas or Islamist militancy to Nazism, I am only likening the mind of one sort of zealot to another. All too often they mean what they say.

Unfortunately, the men who were supposed to implement that program were determined to implement others as well. They had made no bones about it; it was all in their bible, ``Mein Kampf,'' and in their rallies and speeches. It took some effort to overlook it, but a considerable number of people managed to do so and later professed shock at what happened. They looked into the abyss, saw nothing that concerned them personally -- and went back to sleep.

In due course we will be told that what Hamas has been insisting on for years -- the utter destruction of Israel -- is not really a serious goal. Hamas should not be taken literally and, anyway, it will be forced to moderate both its platform and its policies by the reality of governing. When, for instance, it repeats the words of its charter -- ``The solution of the problem (Israel) will only take place by holy war" -- we will be assured that it is only throwing red meat to what in America is called ``the base.'' As for its truculent anti-Semitism -- not to be confused in this case with anti-Zionism -- it, too, will be dismissed as without consequence. Hamas will have to deal with reality -- and Israel, in the region, is the mightiest reality of them all. Yasser Arafat came to understand that.

But Arafat's Fatah movement was secular and nationalistic. In this sense it was modern -- another secular nationalistic movement, much like Zionism. Hamas, on the other hand, can be traced back to the Muslim Brotherhood and its 1928 declaration: ``The Koran Is Our Constitution.'' It is not modern; it is medieval. It gleefully sends people off to their death as suicide bombers, spackling the walls of Tel Aviv restaurants with the flesh of the innocent while assuring the bombers a place in paradise. This is loathsome. This is terrifying. That is the whole idea.

The continual mistake of the Bush administration is to think, based on not much thinking to begin with, that people are people -- pretty much the same the world over. This is why the president extols democracy. (Lenin, more of a cynic, purportedly observed: ``Democracy counts heads without regard to what's in them.'') It must be what everyone wants because it is what everyone here wants. To denigrate this kind of talk suggests racism -- You mean we are not all the same? -- or a musty neocolonialism. But the hard truth is that culture and religion matter, and we should not expect moderation (as we did garlands and ecstatic maidens when U.S. troops entered Baghdad) just because that's how we would react. Toto knows the truth. The Middle East is not Kansas.

The leaders of Hamas brim with the word of God and the certainty of their cause. From here on they will lie about their ultimate aim and smilingly assure us that what they have always said they no longer mean. Their intention is clean government, efficient garbage service, good schools and level soccer fields. All over the world, people will believe them and urge the U.S. and Israel to do the same. Take my word for this. Anyone can see the future. It's all in the past.

© 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

Richard Cohen

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