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Perspectives on Hamas and Zakat

Christopher Haynes

09/2/10

The first thing any book or news article attempting to introduce Hamas will tell you is that

"Hamas" is an acronym, translated into English as "Islamic Resistance Movement", and an Arabic

word for "zeal". The second is that it is an Islamic terrorist organisation, a Palestinian jihadist

group, or the Islamic fundamentalist rulers of the Gaza Strip. Matthew Levitt, director at the

Washington Institute for Near East Policy, follows this line in his Hamas: Politics, Charity and
Terrorism in the Service of Jihad.

The New York Times expresses this viewpoint but also many others that are more favourable to

Hamas. This paper looks at the idea of Islamic charity, zakat, as presented in the works of Karen

Armstrong and John Esposito, then with regard to Hamas in Levitt, finally comparing with the

views in the New York Times. While coverage differs by article, the Times shows more sympathy

toward Hamas than many of its compatriots. Even a brief look at how the Times treats zakat while

covering Hamas will give us an idea of its treatment of Islam in general.

The third pillar of Islam, zakat is thanksgiving by supporting the poor. Given that, in Islam, God is

the true owner of everything, zakat is not seen as charity but obligation. (Esposito, 2002, 20; 165)

Zakat consists of giving at least 2.5% of one's wealth every year to help the less fortunate. (163)

Recounting the history of Islam, Armstrong says that in contrast to the practice of the Quraish,

social justice was "the crucial virtue of Islam." (Armstrong, 2000, 6)

The purpose of Levitt's book is to debunk the myth that Hamas is both an Islamist, jihadist,

terrorist group and a legitimate charitable organisation. "Hamas relies on its political and social

activists and organisations to build grassroots support for the movement, to spot and recruit future

operatives, to provide day jobs and cover to current operatives, and to serve as the logistical and

financial support network for the group's terror cells." (Levitt, 2006, 2) Hamas is primarily a

terrorist organisation, and all its charity work is done in order to wage war on Israel. Levitt briefly

discusses zakat but does not enter into its religious significance. Rather, he says that charities are
frequently fronts for funding for terrorism and money laundering. (62) What does the New York

Times have to say about Hamas's charity work?

A 2003 article on Hamas by Ian Fisher states clearly that, while most Israelis regard Hamas as

nothing more than terrorist, it was founded with three pillars: religion, charity and the destruction

of Israel. (NYT, 1) Fisher quotes people living in Gaza who are grateful to Hamas for paying for

their children's school, transportation, clothing and food. A somewhat less favourable light is cast

in an article on a disagreement between US and Saudi officials about curbing donations to Hamas

by Saudi Arabian citizens. (2) It explains the organisation largely in the terms of the US and Saudi

governments, and quoted them in their criticism of Hamas. On the other hand, the article shows

the disagreement among experts of whether Hamas's military and charitable wings are separate.

While Levitt is convinced they are not, the Times presents two perspectives for the reader to

choose from.

The Times' wording of articles about the court case against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief

and Development holds another answer. The US government accused the Foundation of funding

terrorism, as its donations were suspected to have reached Hamas. Even though Hamas has a

charitable wing, sending it money is illegal under American law. Understanding zakat is important

in knowing why these organisations exist--whether or not they are there to finance Hamas, as

Levitt contends, or to give alms, as their leaders do. An article at the beginning of the trial by Neil

MacFarquhar seems to give equal space to each side in the case. (3) He cites a director at the

Treasury Department as saying, while supporting terrorism is "a problem", all 44 of the charitable
organisations on the US government's list of supporters of terrorism were engaged in legitimate

charity work. The same article has a short paragraph on zakat, explaining that zakat committees

exist in almost every Palestinian town. Another article by the same journalist gives broader

understanding of zakat, quoting a Muslim woman worried about the crackdown on Muslim

charitable organisations: “We can’t stop giving because it’s a pillar of Islam — it’s a must". (4)

Leslie Eaton's article on the subject favours the Foundation's point of view. (5) It details the

defense lawyer's arguments, as well as the signs made by protestors demonstrating outside the

court, and gives only the basic arguments of the prosecutors. Other coverage of the trial (6) also

appear to give balanced coverage of the trial and its protagonists. Only one of them (7), however,

mentions the Muslim duty of giving alms. The Times' explanations of zakat are superficial, but

considering the length of the articles, it gives us enough information to research the subject

ourselves.

In conclusion, the New York Times' position on zakat and Hamas as charitable is well balanced.

Its even coverage of controversies related to Hamas's charitable work and the Holy Land

Foundation's viewpoint does not explain the religious meaning of charitable giving to Muslims in

much depth, but nevertheless stands in stark contrast to Levitt's lack of depth with regard to

Islamic thought. The New York Times makes an effort to portray Hamas and Islam in a balanced

light.

Bibliography

Armstrong, Karen: Islam: A Short History. Random House, Toronto, 2000.


Esposito, John L.: What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam. Oxford University Press, New

York, 2002.

Levitt, Hamas: Politics, Charity and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad: Yale University Press, New

Haven, 2006.

NYT: the New York Times:

1) http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/16/world/defining-hamas-roots-in-charity-and-branches-of-

violence.html

2) http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/17/world/flow-of-saudis-cash-to-hamas-is-scrutinized.html

3) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/17/us/17charity.html

4) http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/30/us/30CHARITY.html

5) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/20/us/20holyland.html

6) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/23/us/23charity.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/18/us/nationalspecial3/18holyland.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/19/us/19holyland.html

7) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/26/us/26charity.html