Hamas won the propaganda war this week

By Gerard Baker (THE TIMES, 06/07/07):

How do you like your jihadi? Is yours the avenging physician sort; self-immolating practitioner of weird medicine outside nightclubs and airport terminals who hopes to take hundreds of innocents with him on his journey to Paradise?

Or do you prefer the voice of sweet reason, the heroic freedom fighter turned politician, who magnanimously leaps into a hostage drama and helps to free your innocent journalist from his captors?

Not difficult, is it?

We’ve had an exercise in good-cop, bad-cop with our Islamist friends in the past week. In London and Glasgow, the nutters – the scale of their murderous ambition matched only by their ineptitude with a car a mobile phone and a tankful of petrol – tried the explosive, take-no-prisoners approach to persuading the West to do their bidding Over in Gaza, they’re a bit more sophisticated. They’ve figured out that, at least when it comes to Europeans rather than Israelis, the direct approach is less effective than the power of high-profile good deeds. Hamas prefers the take-prisoners-and-then-generously-let-them-go approach.

Try as they may the nutters will never really win what Gordon Brown calls the battle for hearts and minds. True, they’ll get a good hearing from the assorted crowd of self-loathing media panjandrums and Labour MPs who will evenhandedly say: “It’s quite wrong to blow up women in London nightclubs, but we shouldn’t forget about the suffering of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.” True, they’ll also get treated with kid gloves by the politically correct lobby, who will insist that, however else we describe them, we must never call them Muslims, since they’re not the face of that peaceable religion.

But fortunately most British people aren’t sophisticated enough to buy this sort of casuistry. They think they know a homicidal maniac when they see one. The philosophy they adhere to was best captured by the magnificent John Smeaton, the BAA baggage handler turned have-a-go hero in Scotland, who, when asked by a TV interviewer what message he had for the terrorists, said: “This is Glasgow – we’ll just set about you.”

With Hamas, however, whose worldview and geopolitical ambitions are exactly the same as those fireball physicians, it’s all very different. Thanks to their efforts in the past few months, they are the stabilisers, the people who have brought peace to Gaza. Their transformation into popular heroes was completed this week when they pulled off the release of a kidnapped BBC man. The whole world now loves them.

What I especially admired about the choreography of the Alan Johnston release was the way Ismail Haniya and his friends had clearly learnt the lessons of Britain’s recent little hostage crisis in Iran; play the magnanimous saviour for the TV cameras and you’ll have them eating out of your hand. Unlike Tehran, Hamas made sure not to commit the mistake of crass overkill, and avoided sending Johnston off with a goody bag and a poly-cotton suit. We are left in awe of their magnanimity and a renewed respect for their role as pivotal players in the Middle East drama.

Funny isn’t it, how, when the US or British governments do anything they claim is good we always assume there’s some ulterior motive? They foil a terrorist plot and the world’s media note with heavy irony the coincidence of a president’s or prime minister’s flagging approval ratings. But when Hamas pulls a stunt like the one it managed this week, we’re all transfixed, lost in innocent admiration at the sheer humanity of these people. Our credulity is mocked further because we really ought to know that this latest incident is straight from the Hamas playbook – doing little works of charity and economic efficiency in Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinian equivalent of making the trains run on time to further their bloodcurdling big objectives.

I’m missing something important in conflating these two events this week, you will probably object. We in the West will never accept the theocratic motive of the Islamists. We will never acquiesce in their lunacies – the intolerance of homosexuality, the degradation of women, the forced conversion of the infidels. But we should at least listen to their anger and frustration about what is happening in the Middle East. We hate the suicide bombers and their so-called theology, but we have to understand that there is something justifiable in the anger that they feel about Iraq and Palestine – and it is this that makes Hamas so popular in Gaza.

This is a nice distinction we make in the West that means nothing to the followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is a member and to which al-Qaeda is affiliated. They see removing America, Israel and Britain from the Middle East as the necessary first step towards global Islamic theocracy. But let’s indulge it, at least for a while and ask, do they have a point?

On Iraq, I’ve no doubt that the American excesses of Abu Ghraib and the occasional lethal clumsiness of US forces have fuelled resentment. But that is largely because it is these peripheral facts on which we in the West focus so much of our attention, and they distract us from the central narrative.

Which is this: the Americans went into Afghanistan and Iraq with the aim of stopping one bunch of Muslims from killing another. They are still there in both countries today performing precisely this mission.

Now it may be that history will judge this an epically stupid thing to have done; that, in the end, the great claims some of us made that the Middle East could be dragged out of its medievalist obscurantism were pie in the sky. But we really have to stop indulging the Islamists’ propaganda that today’s carnage in Iraq is the result of American aggression. It isn’t – it is the result of Islamist aggression.

Then, of course, there’s Israel. The plight of the Palestinian people is heartrending. A just settlement, and preferably a two-state solution with secure and sustainable borders, is essential.

All that is true. But we need to be much less naive about Hamas. That is not its real goal. Its members want to destroy Israel and wage war on the West. Just as we buy into the Islamist propaganda on Iraq, so we risk signing up for the Hamas propaganda in Palestine. Do we really think our acceptance of their leadership will be treated by them as an act of magnanimity on our part? Or will they see it as another critical triumph on the path to their ultimate victory?

Let’s never lose sight of a simple chilling fact that unites the suicidal maniacs in Britain and the sweet reasonable hostage-saviours in Gaza. Hamas was the big winner this week. That makes us all, whether we’re sipping beers in pavement cafés in Israel, boarding planes in Glasgow or out for a ladies’ night in the Haymarket, much, much less safe.