In this book, Bjorn Brenner discusses one of the few existing cases of Islamic governance, achieved though not maintained through democratic means: Hamas’s rule over the Gaza Strip. The study of Islamism in the West, as the author stresses, has turned into a "study of the enemy, rather than the objective investigation of a socio-political phenomenon" (p. 7). Brenner aims, and largely succeeds, at overcoming this impediment by departing from the mainstream discussion of Hamas’s viewpoint on violence or its approach towards Israel and the peace process. He even touches upon, though marginally, the issue of Hamas’s internal function, structures and balances. The main focus of his reading is how the Islamic Resistance Movement (what the Arabic initials Hamas stand for) performed on the issues of governing Gaza and, thus, shaping its society. In this context, Brenner attempts to assess how democratic or theocratic Hamas has proven to be by looking at its political input (perception of a challenge) and output (practical approach to a challenge).
The text is divided into seven thematic chapters in which Brenner builds the argument that Hamas’s governance style stands somewhere between Islamic theocracy and Islamic democracy. In the first chapter, Brenner introduces the reader to the general topic of Islamists in power through democratic means and his case study of Gaza under Hamas. Thereafter, he presents his analytical framework by posing two fundamental questions. To what extent does a governing Islamic party promote Islamic norms and rules in state institutions and the society it governs? And to what extent does it respect or suspend liberal democratic tenets? Based on these criteria, a democratically elected Islamic party promoting Islamic rules while respecting liberal democratic values would be dubbed Islamic Democracy. One seeking to establish Islamic norms without being interested in keeping in place liberal democratic traits would fall into the category of Islamic Theocracy. The introductory chapter closes with the caveat that the book relies heavily on observations and interviews collected by the author during his field work.
In the main body of the book, the author elaborates on a set of challenges that Hamas faced while ruling Gaza: relating to the main opposition party, Fatah; interacting with radical Salafist groups and managing the dispute-resolution system. By discussing how Hamas approached each of these challenges, Brenner sketches its governance style. He first describes Hamas’s turbulent relations with Fatah, stressing that the latter’s removal and the former’s ascendance to power hardly mirror the leadership succession in established democracies. On the contrary, what the Palestinians did with their vote was to effectively catapult Hamas "straight to governmental office from the position of an extra-parliamentary outsider" (p. 30). Brenner traces the various episodes of the problematic Hamas-Fatah relationship both before and after the January 2006 elections.
He describes in detail how Hamas developed the perception that it was the victim of a conspiracy and how this led to a political output that saw its military wing acting "pre-emptively to break the paralysis gripping the government and to avoid what they believed to be an imminent attack" (p. 34). Finally, he presents the modes of informal cooperation that developed between the two factions in the midst of a division that effectively became normalcy. In this section, Brenner opts to display basic facts and chains of events so as to reach out to readers who are not well-acquainted with the conditions of the Palestinian split. Yet, this choice comes at the detriment of the analytical discussion. The long descriptive passages leave little room for probing how Hamas’s governance style was shaped partly by its interaction with Fatah and enhancing this section with narrative details.
The third and fourth chapters of the book deal with the threat posed by the emergence and empowerment of radical Salafist groups in Gaza. Hamas, after assuming office and ousting Fatah from Gaza, tried to solidify its grip on power by not provoking the secular segments of Gazan society and by trying to maintain calm with Israel. However, Hamas’s reluctance to confront Israel and to ramp up the Islamization of Gaza resulted in the disaffection of a considerable number of young Gazans who were prone to radicalization. As the author notes, this process was facilitated by the fact that, in today’s world, "the physical presence of radical leaders is being replaced by websites and online chat fora" (p. 67). Adding to the problem, many of the disaffected youth came from Hamas’s own rank and file, especially its military wing. Official Hamas statements have always oscillated between denying and downplaying these matters, but Brenner’s research offers a rare insight that not only includes a thorough description of the phenomenon and its roots, but also shows how seriously Hamas took the threat and what countermeasures it enacted. Due to the ideological proximity between Hamas and the Salafists, their criticism "struck a raw nerve" (p. 77). As a result, Hamas paid great heed to the issue and tried to resolve it with a combination of prevention, appeasement and rehabilitation measures, described at length — even if some of its aspects, especially the rehabilitation process, were hardly successful. It is also noteworthy that, in a section discussing internal threats from Islamic groups, Brenner does not make any reference to Islamic Jihad, an armed faction that remains active in Gaza and has criticized Hamas from an Islamic perspective.
In Chapters Five and Six, the author discusses how Hamas approached the issue of dispute resolution, describing both the general context and historical background, thereafter linking it to Hamas’s pre-election pledge to restore order in the coastal enclave. He makes the point that in an area like Gaza, facing chronic chaos, "Justice is secondary to communal security" (p. 128). From this basic assumption, Brenner sketches how Hamas, despite its initial reluctance, co-opted the existing informal legal traditions, not only to overcome difficulties in the function of the judicial system after the refusal of most of the judges to report for duty, but also to consolidate the social order and, thus, reach a point where "law and order was little by little returning to a society torn apart by crime, inter-factional and inter-familial disputes" (p.147).
The author provides a detailed depiction of the several modes of Gaza’s informal dispute-resolution bodies and explains not only how their activity subtly promoted the use of Islamic law, but also how their interaction with the formal judiciary and Hamas’s security apparatus helped the official courts operate more effectively and discouraged many Gazans from taking matters into their own hands. However, although Brenner describes how Hamas favored the use of informal legal traditions in order to alleviate the burden on the formal courts, he barely discusses the functioning of the latter. A less than careful reader might end up thinking that the June 2007 takeover resulted in the absolute suspension of formal statutory courts.
In the concluding chapter, Brenner summarizes his arguments and evaluations of Hamas’s performance relating to the three challenges he discussed. He argues that, in terms of perspective, Hamas appears to have been more religious than secular and more democratic than authoritarian. Yet, in terms of political practices, Hamas seems to have been less democratic than authoritarian. These two things together place Hamas somewhere between the Islamic-theocratic and Islamic-democratic modes; perhaps it is actually closer to the former than the latter. Yet, in general, Brenner assesses Hamas’s governance style as "multi-faceted and ideologically unprincipled … [and] adaptable to the circumstances at hand" (p. 191). He also argues that Hamas members are close to becoming good procedural democrats and that it remains to be seen if they "are also willing to call new elections to the PLC" (p. 200). It appears that the author takes rather lightly the fact that Hamas has not resorted to ballots for more than a decade.
There is little doubt that Brenner’s book, despite a few weaknesses, constitutes a significant contribution to the Hamas-related literature. It departs from the conventional discussion about the group’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and treats Hamas as an instance of Islamic governance. Moreover, the book is written in a way that renders it useful to both the specialized and the general readership. It contains information that helps one reconstruct the conditions leading to the status quo in the Gaza Strip and also provides the full picture, including the background and aftermath, of incidents that made headlines but soon fell into oblivion. Brenner discusses in depth the conditions of the abduction and release of British journalist Alan Johnston and the abduction and killing of the Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni. Additionally, the book enhances the reader’s understanding of tribal and Islamic customary law and procedures by defining terms and notions that go far beyond sharia (Islamic law), including, among others, diyya (blood money), sulh (social reconciliation) and urf (customary law).