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West Bank scholars push for spiritual reply to Hamas extremism

To compete with a more powerful Hamas, religious scholars from the rival Fatah Party advocate embracing religion.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 2007

Nalbus, West Bank

Standing before his class on Islam and Society at Al Rawda College, Sheikh Sad Sharaf cites the Koran to land a not-so-subtle jab at Hamas's recent takeover of the Gaza Strip.

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When Muhammad died, explains Sheikh Sharaf, who is a member of the rival Fatah Party, burial was delayed until a successor could be agreed upon in order to avoid a power struggle over the Islamic caliphate. "This proves that infighting is illegal in Islamic terms," he concludes.

As Fatah struggles to contain the spread of Hamas in the West Bank, Palestinians like Sharaf are pushing for an Islamic critique to compete with the militant brand of religion practiced by the new rulers of Gaza.

Some advocate a liberal brand of Islamic politics that would support territorial compromise, while those with a strict interpretation of the Koran are attacking Hamas for straying too far by mixing religion and politics. But most agree that any challenge to Hamas must include a new spiritual formula.

The recent dominance of Islamic politics in Palestinian life is part of a pan-Arab trend in which religious parties have become the main opposition to regimes perceived as corrupt and undemocratic, says Hanna Siniora, codirector of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem.

"Thirty or 40 years ago, it was fashionable to be leftist and socialist. Now it is becoming fashionable in the Arab world to be an Islamist," he said.

Hamas's rise has coincided with growing disillusionment with the secular ideologies that dominated the Palestinian national movement starting in the 1950s.

Whoever comes out against Hamas will have to make up for lost time. For more than two decades, Hamas, originally a local branch of Egypt's Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, has entrenched itself in the fabric of Palestinian life through bold attacks on Israeli civilians and a broad web of charity institutions that filled a social and religious void left by a corrupt secular establishment.

Sharaf is trying to convince Fatah to establish a council of religious scholars that will be able to counter the rhetoric coming from Hamas.

He criticizes Hamas's advocacy of violence against Israeli civilians as well as its violent takeover of Gaza last month, which most Palestinians opposed.

"The Prophet Muhammad says, 'Don't kill those who don't use weapons against you. Don't kill a woman. Don't kill a baby,' " says Sharaf, who says he's a Sufi Muslim, a branch of Islam known for its theological mysticism and moderation.

A preacher in one of Nablus's central mosques and the host of an Islamic radio and television program, Sharaf says a growing number of Palestinians have sought him out for advice since the Hamas takeover of Gaza.

Although Sharaf says he believes in the religious idea of the creation of one Islamic kingdom as laid out in the Koran, the modern experience with states dominated by Islamic dogmatists have been negative, he says.