But while the incursion’s scale was astonishing, the savagery of the assault and the misogynistic sadism that accompanied it were predictable to anyone who has studied the nature of Islamism.
The videos Hamas posted on social media, showing them gloating about defiling women’s bodies and taking children hostage made clear this wave of violence was not a desperate “act of self-defence” or “breaking free from prison” as some sympathisers have tried to portray it. If anything, these horrors might make those who have been critical of Israel’s policing of its borders think again, now the world can see exactly what the Israelis have been trying to keep out.
[See also: Israel, Gaza and a war without limit]
Hamas’s appalling treatment of women and children derives from the same murderous and chauvinist ideology that female activists in Iran have been protesting against. Palestinian militant groups have been lavishly funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran with sums in excess of $100m annually.
Those who seek to excuse or “contextualise” the rapes, kidnappings, public humiliations and executions of Israelis by citing Palestinian suffering must answer this question: why do the paymasters of Hamas in Tehran habitually commit the same crimes against their own female population? Iranian women who offend against Islamist dogma are beaten, separated from their children, imprisoned and raped by brainwashed thugs, some of whom have been involved in training Hamas.
At the heart of this violence are men who peddle Islamism: a warped, politicised version of Islam – one of the world’s great Abrahamic religions, practised peacefully by hundreds of millions – to exert control over their citizens and extend their influence across the region. As the Iranian human rights activist Maryam Aslany wrote in this magazine a few weeks ago, Western commentators need to see that the theocratic regime of the ayatollahs is not an authentic representation of the people but a colonising force that has engineered a hostile takeover of a great country, the cradle of one of the most significant civilisations in history.
Yet, while many in the West have rightly criticised the Iranian theocracy’s assaults on the human rights of its own citizens, they remain mute when the same regime exports its dogma to Gaza. It is as if they believe the religious fanaticism they condemn in Iran transmogrifies into something authentic and benign once it reaches the borders of Gaza and Lebanon. Iranian liberals are more clear-eyed about their government’s role in the ongoing terror of Israeli citizens. In recent days, fearless younger Iranians have expressed their solidarity with Israel and condemnation of Hamas – at football stadiums, in the streets and on social media. Masih Alinejad, the prominent campaigner for women’s rights, stated that “millions of Iranians express their solidarity with the victims and their families. We the people of Iran know very well [who] is behind this assault… The Islamic Republic is doing what they have exactly promised.”
Twenty years ago, I started researching and writing about the rise of a new form of radical Islam that was spreading in British Muslim communities, imported from abroad. Even after the 9/11 attacks in the US and the 7/7 bombings in London, few people understood the ideology that was driving these and other suicide attacks.
There were American intellectuals, such as Samuel Huntington, who saw these acts of terrorism as an inevitable aspect of a “clash of civilisations” deriving from the incompatibility of 7th-century Islamic values with the modern, developed world. Yet many of the terrorists had studied in the West and had experienced Western culture. There were also those who claimed the terrorist attacks were a desperate response to oppression and poverty in the Global South and inner-city neighbourhoods of the West, although most of the perpetrators were middle class and highly educated.
What has become clear from more recent research is that Islamist ideology has an internal logic of its own, one that appeals to a particular demographic. It is extremely useful to people running autocratic regimes who need to hold their populations in check. It is a dogma that dehumanises non-Muslims (and ex-Muslims), treats women as lesser beings and preaches hatred of Jews. Its simplistic and Manichaean view of good vs evil can be manipulated by unelected religious leaders.
Islamism remains a powerful force, despite 20 years of efforts to eradicate it. The Western media may have been distracted over the past 15 years by economic crisis and internal domestic strife, but Islamism is still a potent influence in the Middle East and in some Muslim communities in the West. We still experience occasional terrorist incidents, such as the Manchester Arena bombing or the London Bridge attack, both in 2017, but the public is unaware of the multiple foiled plots (including Iranian-backed assassination attempts on UK soil) and ongoing attempts by Islamists to build support in Britain. We see it when mobs of entitled men – and they are almost always men – gather outside schools demanding censorship of reading materials and punishment for teachers who defy them.
The Western liberal mindset struggles to understand this quasi-religiosity and how it can drive people to commit violence. Why, we ask, would any sane person kill himself or others in pursuit of the restoration of the medieval Islamic caliphate? The concept that there are some among us who want to commit genocide against Jews is so beyond our ken that it is easier to believe the excuses about oppression and imperialism. The immense complexity of the situation in the Middle East is reduced to a cartoon formulation of triumphalist Jews and oppressed Arabs who have no choice but to react with terrorism.
For many Western observers, the solution is to “address poverty” or “give back land to the Palestinians”, although Israel could argue that each time it has withdrawn from land, that same territory has then been used to launch attacks on Israelis. The Islamist mindset, which uses Palestinians as human shields and forces Iranians to live under totalitarian control, does not act in the best interests of Muslims, but instead seeks a holy war and the total annihilation of its enemies.
This zealotry and aggression is not innate, as some racists would claim. It is taught from an early age by sinister old men with a keen determination to maintain their own power. Contempt for the West, repression of speech, subjugation of women and a relentless dehumanisation of Jews is pumped into the minds of the young on TV, in sermons and via social media. Most Muslims see this propaganda for what it is, but unfortunately enough buy into it, often as a salve for more personal issues.
The terrible events in southern Israel have created a moment of clarity that allows people to understand the reality of what Islamism is, and why people who care about liberal values need to oppose it.
[See also: A new age of volatility]
This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits