Nablus, West Bank - He has been charged with no less a mission than ridding the local branch of the Palestinian religious authority of Hamas’s influence. But when a reporter arrives in his office, Hassan Hilali goes stiff.
“I am only a simple man,” he apologizes, while dialing a superior to get authorization to talk. “I’ve only been in the job for a month.”
In Nablus and across the West Bank, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority is frantically training its own to replace Hamas-affiliated staff at public mosques and seminaries. Part of a rolling crackdown by President Mahmoud Abbas since Hamas violently took control of Gaza earlier this year, the Fatah-led government appears dead set on preventing the Islamists from using religious institutions to establish a strong base in the West Bank.
“These are very influential positions,” said Ghassan Khatib, an independent former Palestinian Cabinet minister. “These are people who are giving the Friday prayers in mosques, which are full with hundreds of people. It’s a place where Hamas-linked persons used to take advantage of the contacts that could be made.”
Using religious and charitable institutions neglected by Fatah, over the years Hamas was able to establish a beachhead in Palestinian society that allowed it to lead the latest Palestinian uprising as well as build itself into a powerful political rival. In a tacit acknowledgment that it has a lot of catching up to do, the secular Fatah has been keenly recruiting fresh trainees and imams to fill as many spots as possible in the Palestinian religious authority, known as the Waqf.
“The mosques were abused,” Hilali said. “They were used for people carrying the slogans for one group — for factional agendas. We would like to raise a generation that is religious and rational. It should be a generation which is flexible and which can deal with life in a democratic fashion.”
In the last month, the P.A. has also closed down dozens of not-for-profit charities that it says are linked to Hamas. The stated goal of Abbas’s government is to separate the mosques from party politics. But by focusing on Hamas-affiliated officials, say some of those who have been targeted by the crackdown, Fatah appears to be playing the same game.
“I think that the government doesn’t want the preachers affiliated with a certain party to deliver their message,” said Sheik El Akhbar Fayyad, whom Hilali replaced as director of the Waqf’s branch in Nablus. He insists he was demoted to mosque imam last month because of his membership in Hamas. “We were only delivering God’s message,” he explained.
With the spiritual hearts and minds of Palestinian Muslims hanging in the balance, the new trainees, according to Hilali, are expected to offer a counterweight to Hamas’s version of Islam. But with the Islamists already firmly entrenched in Palestinian religious life, and political Islam gaining traction elsewhere in the Middle East, Fatah’s brand of Islam may be a tough sell.
“In the mind of the people, religion is something related to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Iyad Barghouti, director of the Ramallah Center for Human Rights Studies and an expert on political Islam.
Fatah member Sa’d Sharaf, who runs a training class for religious instructors hoping to fill the many recently vacated spots, has been trying to change that. A clean-shaven sheikh from the moderate Sufi denomination, Sharaf says that his calls for Fatah to confront Hamas on its religious turf are finally being heeded.
“They feel the danger of losing their credibility among conservative people if they don’t deal with religion in a positive way,” he said. “They need to put into the minds of the people that there are scholars who understand Islam much, much better than Hamas preachers.”
Jamal Muna, a computer store manager studying with Sharaf in the hopes of getting appointed as a volunteer instructor, appears to have soaked in his mentor’s message.
“They are preparing us to carry the message of Islam,” Muna said. “They teach us that Islam is a religion of unity. They teach us that Islam came to make people brothers. Our responsibility is not to Muslims but to all humanity.”
Hamas’s teachings are problematic, he says, because “the message they are spreading is trying to divide the people into believers and nonbelievers.”
Back in the Waqf office in Nablus, Hilali sounded a similar note. Mosques throughout the West Bank, he said, should have preachers who support dialogue rather than extremism, and who respect the opinions and religious beliefs of others.
“We need to extricate the atmosphere in the mosque from factionalism,” Hilali said. “I would like all of Palestine to have the same message.”
A short walk through the alleyways of the nearby Balata refugee camp, however, highlights how difficult it will be for the P.A. to separate mosque and state. At the entrance to the Balata Al-Balad Mosque, the faithful are greeted by a poster of assassinated Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi alongside a flier for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
“I am against the partisan use of the mosque,” said Jamal Dweikat, the mosque’s imam. “At the same time, I reject limits placed on political discussions in the mosque. If it is an objective political topic, then you are only creating awareness.”