After nearly four years of Hamas rule, the Gaza Strip’s small secular community is in tatters, decimated by the militant group’s campaign to impose its strict version of Islam in the coastal territory.Women with face veils, once rarely seen in Gaza, are now a common sight. Hamas has bullied men and women to dress modestly, tried to keep the sexes from mingling in public and sparked a flight of secular university students and educated professionals. Most recently, it has confiscated novels it deems offensive to Islam from a bookshop and banned Gaza’s handful of male hairdressers from styling women’s hair. Some argue that the case of Gaza could also be a warning sign for those pushing for quick democratic reforms in the region. Hamas rose to power in part by winning internationally backed parliamentary elections held in 2006. Hamas officials say claims that they are trying to Islamise Gaza are meant to help deter the international community from recognising their rule. “This isn’t true,” said Yousef Rizka, a senior Hamas government official. “We respect freedom.” Gaza, a tiny sliver of land squeezed between Egypt and Israel, always had a significant Islamic flavour, but once tolerated bars and cinemas, especially during Egyptian rule from 1948 to 1967. A conservative religious movement began to take hold in the 1980s, as part of a larger, region-wide religious awakening. The trend accelerated with the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in 1987, which coincided with the founding of Hamas. In June 2007, Hamas seized control of Gaza after ousting forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The trend toward religious fundamentalism preceded the Hamas takeover. In recent years, hardliners have burned down the cinemas. Their charred remains are still visible in Gaza City. Militants blew up the last bar in 2005. Gaza women, whose attire once varied from Western pants and skirts to colourful traditional embroidered robes, began donning ankle-length loose robes. Women with face veils, once rarely seen in Gaza, are now a common sight. After winning the 2006 election, Hamas vowed it wouldn’t impose Islamic law. But within two years, bureaucrats began ordering changes that targeted secular Gaza residents. Today, plainclothes officers sometimes halt couples in the streets, demanding to see marriage licenses. Last year, the Interior Ministry banned women from smoking water pipes in public. Islamic faith does not ban women from smoking, but it is considered taboo in Gaza society. “In the end, the people who think differently are leaving,” said Rami, a 32-year-old activist in one of Gaza’s few secular groups. He refused to give his last name, fearing retribution.
The Hamas charter states that it “is one of the wings of the Muslim Brothers in Palestine” and an Israeli TV station has reported that in 2008, Muslim Brotherhood “representatives” traveled to Gaza from Egypt through the open border to meet with Hamas. An earlier media report indicated that shortly after Hamas took over the Gaza strip, Muslim Brotherhood representatives were present to review Hamas military formations. Last June, a Hamas journalist acknowledged the role that the “international Muslim Brotherhood” has played in providing funds for the purchase of weapons.The Global Muslim Brotherhood support Hamas through the Union of Good, a worldwide coalition of charities headed by Global Muslim Brotherhood leader Youssef Qaradawi.