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April 2004 • Vol 4, No. 4 •

Obituary: Sheikh Ahmed Yassin

By David Hirst

When, in October 1997, the half blind, almost wholly paralyzed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who has been killed in an Israeli air strike at the age of around 67, arrived in Gaza, after being released from an Israeli jail in exchange for Mossad agents caught red-handed trying to assassinate a colleague in Jordan, one Arab commentator likened him to Nelson Mandela. The comparison must have made Yasser Arafat seethe inwardly, even as he heaped homage on the returning hero. In his view, if there were any Palestinian Mandela—any unique, historic leader of the Palestinian people—it was himself.

In truth, neither Arafat nor Yassin had Mandela’s special greatness. But of the two, it was Yassin, the founder-leader of the militant Islamist organization Hamas, who came closer. The reason was not to be found in his beliefs—which, in their narrow, obscurantist, religious frame, were far removed from the South African’s lofty humanism and compassion—but in the facts of his career, and the part that certain, very personal, qualities—of selflessness, simplicity, conviction and a true sense of service—played in bringing it to fruition.

Yassin had personal glory largely thrust upon him. He was in his late 50s, and a very sick man, before he became a really potent force on the Middle East stage; and, as a prisoner in enemy Israeli jails, he had little practical to do with the devastating suicide bombings, from which, more than anything else, he derived that force. Indeed, for most of his career, as a local leader of the international Muslim Brotherhood, Yassin shared its deep-rooted, strategically motivated opposition to direct, violent action against the Zionist foe, let alone of such an extreme and atrocious kind.

He was more devoted to the revival of Islam than to the salvation of Palestine, deeming that the second goal could only be pursued after the completion of the first. There had actually been a time when, on account of his quietism, the ideological challenge he posed to militant secular nationalism, and his opposition to the armed struggle espoused by the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Israelis looked benevolently on Yassin and his works. The PLO nationalists even branded him a collaborator.

Yassin was born into a relatively well-to-do, middleclass farming family from the village of Tor, in southern Palestine. When, in 1948, the state of Israel arose on the debris of the Palestinian community, the shock of exile, and the misery of the al-Shati’ refugee camp in Gaza, which became his new home, were critical in the formation of his sense of mission and his religious convictions. Subsequent physical disability doubtless further strengthened them.

As a 12-year-old, he suffered irreparable damage to his spinal column during a football game; at first, he could manage with crutches, but later, inert in arms and legs, he was confined to a wheelchair.

After finishing his schooling, Yassin became a teacher until, in 1964, he enrolled in the English department of Ain Shams University, Cairo. There, he proved more interested in radical interpretations of the Koran than Shakespeare.

He associated with the founding of the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. But with President Nasser and secular nationalist ideologies then at their apogee, the brotherhood was suffering persecution and political eclipse. Thanks to that, and lack of money, Yassin had to return to Gaza, where he continued teaching until, in 1984, his disability forced him into early retirement.

Meanwhile, in the shadow of his formal career, he was laying the foundations of his future eminence as both a religious and political seer. He founded al-Mujamma’ al-Islami, the Islamic Center, which soon came to control virtually all religious organizations—including the Islamic University—in Gaza. He preached the standard Islamist view that Israel, by its very existence, was an affront to Islam, and that Palestine was the “property of Muslims till the day of judgment” that no ruler had the right to give up.

But while it was the duty of Muslims to wage a jihad to liberate Palestine in its entirety, that time was not yet. For the foreseeable future, Yassin believed, the struggle was cultural, moral and educational; it was about combating secularism and the reform and re-Islamicization of Palestinian society—a preparation for jihad, rather than jihad itself. All this was so reassuring to the Israelis that, in 1979, they granted the Gaza center an official license.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Arafat’s PLO suffered setback after setback; its reputation as a corrupt, opportunist, self-serving bureaucracy grew and grew. In contrast, political Islam was presenting itself everywhere as a new, clean, dynamic force for political and social change. In Palestine, it naturally took on an additional dimension—the harnessing of religion, as an ideology and a frame for action, to the national struggle.

It was an extremist splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, which, in the early 1980s, first embarked on armed struggle in the name of Islam—and achieved instant popularity among the Palestinians for doing so. The challenge to the traditional gradualism of the mainstream brotherhood could not be ignored. Perhaps Yassin was already contemplating a similar revolutionary step. At any rate, in 1984 the Israelis discovered an arms cache in the mosque he had built in the Jaurat slum where he now lived. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Upon his release a year later, as part of an exchange of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldiers held in Lebanon, he did not take that step, remaining faithful to the traditional brotherhood strategy of preaching and social work, rather than direct action against the Israeli enemy. It took the first Intifada (the largely unarmed, six-year uprising that preceded the current, far more violent one) to transform Yassin wholly and irrevocably, and to pitchfork him into the forefront of the Palestinian struggle as a serious rival to Arafat himself. That spontaneous eruption surprised him as much as it did everyone else.

When it began, in December 1987, he was already the most prominent religious figure in Gaza, perhaps even Palestine as a whole. But he was not Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, no great prophet or original thinker. The reasons for his sudden emergence as a real power in the land were essentially political.

On the one hand, a relative quietist still, Yassin did not want to throw the Muslim Brotherhood wholeheartedly into the new struggle, endangering everything he and his associates had constructed with such exertions and sacrifice. At the same time, he knew that Palestinian society was clamoring for serious action against the Israeli occupiers, and that, with an organization already in being—and the PLO increasingly discredited—the Islamists were ideally placed to seize the leadership of it.

It was Yassin’s idea to establish an ostensibly separate body called Hamas, or Zeal, that would divert attention from the brotherhood. Such was its impact, however, that it soon completely submerged the mother body from which it had stemmed. Yassin justified the change of strategy by saying that new realities—a product of the “divine will”—had imposed the need for a new, activist form of jihad. He also offered more than the PLO ever could: a special kind of struggle that combined moral purity and social action with the promise of divine grace—not just redemption of the homeland, but salvation of the troubled soul as well.

Before long, Hamas was outdoing, in violent deeds, all the secular nationalist groups that had formerly mocked the Islamists for their inaction. In 1989, it took Yassin back to an Israeli prison, this time with a life sentence for his alleged involvement in the abduction and murder of an Israeli soldier. Like a Mandela—unseen, unheard, yet charismatic in his prison cell—now half blind and deaf as well as crippled, Yassin’s prestige grew inexorably, just as that of Arafat, the official Mr. Palestine, an ever-greater travesty of all that Mandela ever stood for, withered beneath the glare of a publicity he could no longer escape. But it was the self-sacrificing zeal of Yassin’s followers that achieved this for him.

It was only after the massacre of 30 worshippers in a Hebron mosque, by a suicidal Israeli settler in February 1994, that the Hamas suicide bombers really got going. Whether or not Yassin, who was still in jail at the time, really willed it, they became what, with the coming of the second Intifada, they remain to this day, the ultimate expression of Islamist violence, terrifying the Israelis, undermining Arafat, and, in symbiotic connivance with their extremist counterparts on the other side, pushing the whole Arab-Israeli struggle towards the dark extremities of the inter-communal fanaticism from which Mandela rescued South Africa.

Yassin is survived by his wife Halima and their 11 children.

David Hirst is the author of The Gun And The Olive Branch.

—The Guardian, March 23, 2004





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