Moral shock constellates into a complex of disbelief, rage, and grief. In response to human violence, it is both an instinctive and normative motor of human action, one that consumes attention and commands action. As a structure of affect, moral shock, in and of itself, is blind; on its own, it determines nothing and comprehends less. It is a brute fact. For its part, the “political” is not the same as moral shock. Political are a distinct and narrow but not separate set of questions regarding action and attribution. What is the cause of an action and what is its end-purpose? Who are the agents to whom one attributes responsibility for an action? What are the internal and external dynamics that determine any particular action or action in general? Questions such as these are painfully acute in relation to catastrophic suffering. What political forces and historical forces lead a people into violent debacle? Under whose leadership and authority do the people suffer, under what ideological conceptions, and according to what kind of strategic calculations and miscalculations?
Setting aside moral shock, the horrific human toll of the October 7 terror-assault on civilians in the south of Israel is entirely legible on its own. The slaughter and mayhem were not irrational acts of irruptive rage, not the “natural” resistance of a people under occupation confined to an open-air prison. Proceeding in logical order from a set of ideological and operative premises, the assault on civilian life was engineered by military-political actors who considered and calculated (miscalculated) the balance of forces and probable outcomes with end-goals in mind. The men who planned and executed this assault understood in advance at least something of the staggering loss of life that the people of Gaza would suffer in the wake of a violent Israeli response. Was this all gamed out? Some here are speculating that the strategic assumption seems to have been that a full-on assault and mass casualty event would catalyze a multi-front war that would draw in Hezbollah in Lebanon and other regional actors, and a mass uprising of West Bank Palestinians all of which would overwhelm Israel.
Bracketing shock at the sheer scale of violence, my own attention to October 7 has been dominated by religion –namely “anti-civil religion” as an analytic category. Anti-civil religion is a type of radical religion. Anti-civil religion usurps by way of violence the public-political sphere which religious actors seek to stamp in their own image. To understand something about this, I found and am posting below in this post reported statements and recorded video clips of open-access interviews with leading Hamas political figures. (The military spokespeople who dominate the movement have said nothing.). For context, I am placing these statements alongside founding ideological declarations of principle by Hamas. Lastly, I would not have dared to draw any conclusions of my own regarding anti-civil religion apart from the work of Palestinian political scientists. The clarity these primary and secondary sources bring together do nothing to dispel, but only magnify the shock of this unfolding human nightmare.
Assuming that religion and religion-in-politics are neither irrational nor epiphenomenal is to recognize that acts of ideologically rooted violence are rational. The rationality of religious violence in politics reveals a cold, anti-human, logical core having nothing to do with “feelings.” Without an iota of sentiment, decisions that affect the life of a ordinary people are made upon the basis of premises stamped in religious language, concepts, and values. These are semi-autonomous in relation to society. Understanding that religion is inherently social and political, what matters first in radical and also anti-civil religion is religion itself. What matters is the religious interest or motive as perceived, not society or the life of the polis or human well-being. Radical religion presses the life of ordinary people into the service of the holy. More than mere rhetoric masking “real” political forces, the radicality of anti-civil religion is a rigid and ungiving political force that destroys from the inside the society in which it settles.
In its non-heroic and everyday aspect, politics is the loose and banal social form of the polis. The first rule of ordinary-profane politics is to maintain and sustain the life and well-being of a political community. “Political” are acts predicated upon the exercise of power and authority intended to protect, preserve, and project the group interest. Political leaders secure the common good as they understand it according to ideological presuppositions and practical formulations. In the exercise of power, they are looked upon to lead the people out of and away from ruin instead of deeper into it. “Religious” is something else, a highly symbolic mode of human-being more-or-less detached from the semblance of ordinary reality as conventionally conceived. The political form of radical religion (religion at its most intensely saturated) remains set apart from the ordinary politics of human well-being. The primary, if not sole, object in radical religion remains the symbol, the sacred or the holy. At this highest pitch, religion, ordinarily a form of social order, is transformed into a force of social disorder with a curious and even antinomian relation to death.
The religious ideology defining Hamas as an uncompromising or radical Islamic-resistance movement explains two things about the violent acts of terror on October 7 against southern Israel and the toll of the Hamas-Israel war on civilian death in Gaza.  Shrouded in a religious aura of purification and resistance genocidal violence against Israeli civilians was not simply reactive or passive. It forms an active part of a larger complex of ideological principle and strategic calculation that follow an intentional means-end logic. Violence against Israeli civilians is a purposeful act based on notions and principles having to do with the purity and purification of Palestine under the name of divine greatness.  A complement to anti-Jewish violence, the glory of martyrdom is the core ideological concept explaining the intentional decision on the part of Hamas to sacrifice thousands of innocent Palestinian lives in its war against Israel. Strategic and calculated as an expression of “resistance,” religious principle overshadows the general welfare of 2.1 million Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
Political analysts assumed that Hamas was fundamentally split in its identity and internal organization after Hamas took political control over the Gaza Strip in 2007. On the one hand, Hamas remained self-constituted as an Islamic-resistance movement committed to armed struggle and the destruction of Israel. On the other hand, Hamas became and remains a semi-sovereign political authority and governing entity responsible for the well-being of the 2.1 million people in Gaza living under its control. Analysts assumed that Hamas political leadership would seek to secure a tenuous and short-term political modus-vivendi with Israel, modulating long-term ends and religious-ideological principles. It was widely assumed that the responsibility of governance would moderate Hamas as a militant movement committed to the practice and ideology of religious violence or terrorism. Political actors and observers thought that political exigency would be the lever with which to “contain” Hamas, once and for all (see especially Tareq Baconi, Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance; see also Khaled Hroub, Hamas A Beginner’s Guide).
Islamic-resistance and governance are two things, religion a third component power, a switch that determines the balance between them. An offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, by its own self-definition, is a religious movement, the Islamic Resistance Movement as translated from the Arabic acronym. Saturated by symbolism, the worldview of Hamas is composed of concentric circles around a sacred topos. Palestine is the holy trust (waqf) at the very epicenter of this symbolic map. Palestine is nested inside the Arab world that surrounds it, inside the Muslim world that surrounds the Arab world. The centrality of Palestine is a foundational component of the first Hamas Covenant (1988), which boasts about the clarity of its ideology, the nobility of its aim, and the loftiness of its objectives. (I am quoting in part verbatim). Inherently sacred, Palestine is the navel of the globe and the crossroad of the continents. It is necessary to instill in the minds of the Muslim generations that the Palestinian problem is a religious problem and should be dealt with on this basis. Palestine is an Islamic Waqf. It is possible for the followers of the three religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – to coexist in peace and quiet with each other. But peace and quiet would not be possible except under the wing of Islam. The Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas] calls on Arab and Islamic nations to take up the line of serious and persevering action to prevent the success of global Zionism, etc.
Claims that the revised Hamas covenant of 2017 moved the Islamic Resistance Movement in any substantive manner beyond its founding covenant are not credible. The 1988 charter was never formally revoked. Crafted for international consumption by the political leadership cadre of the movement, the revised charter seeks to scrub some of the militant and all of the anti-Semitic content in the original charter, including reference to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In 2017, Hamas now claims to promote a model of coexistence, tolerance, and civilizational innovation. It expresses putative willingness to accept a temporary 2 state solution, albeit on a short-term basis. But the rigid core of the basic symbolic structure remains intact in the revised charter. : from the river to the sea, Palestine remains the inner heart of the Arab and Islamic world. Resisting the occupation with all means and methods is a legitimate right guaranteed by divine laws and by international norms and laws, etc. (Here I am again citing in part verbatim)
October 7 makes clear that armed resistance-terrorism against Jewish civilian targets, not governance, remains at the core of the vision and strategy of Hamas as a religious-political-militant movement dedicated to the violent destruction of Israel and armed liberation of Palestine. In a 2014 study published by the Institute for Palestine Studies, political scientist Khaled Hroub describes “a theoretical justification that goes deeper and beyond regrets or adopting a tit-for-tat policy.” Citing Hamas sources, Hroub explains that the strategic vision behind terrorist attacks is to drive Jews out of Palestine. Meant to exhaust and weaken Israel, “Hamas’s goal has been to transform Israel from a land that attracts world Jews to a land that repels them by making its residents insecure.” By targeting civilians, Hamas would be striking at “the weakest and most vulnerable spot in the Zionist body” (Hamas Political Thought and Practice, 247).
The strategy of violence against Jewish and other civilians in Israel carries a religious charge of its own. This symbolic saturation appears in the words attributed to leader of the military wing Mohammed Deif prior to the October 7 assault on southern Israel. Deif is reported here at the NYT to have called on an online audio message, “Righteous fighters, this is your day to bury this criminal enemy. Its time has finished. Kill them wherever you find them….Remove this filth from your land and your sacred places. Fight and the angels fight with you.” About these words and the charge they convey, all the reporter at the NYT can hear is an as-if unthinking expression of rage and vengeance. What this misattribution overlooks is the character of religion formed out of its logical structure. The genocidal rhetoric reflects a coherent ethos based on objectives and calculations steeped in its own version of spiritual values. These are the sense of place as holy, the perception of time as eschatological, a preoccupation with righteousness and purity.
More than mere rhetoric, religious ideology constitutes the symbolic part of action that overwhelms the world of ordinary politics. Commenting on Deif’s remarks reported in the NYT, political scientist Dana El Kurd notes that these words “[speak] to the fact that these kinds of groups or movements have political objectives that they pursue and the human cost will be a secondary consideration to that.” El Kurd’s emphasis on costs bears special attention. In this statement by Deif and other statements and recorded interviews, Hamas leaders raise the value of killing Jews in Palestine to a primary religious principle. In retrospect, the call by Deif and the crimes committed by Hamas terrorists on October 7 echo the apocalyptic thinking in the original Hamas charter from 2008 citing what is today a well-known and infamous hadith (a traditional saying attributed to the Prophet). “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, (evidently a certain kind of tree) would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.”
El Kurd’s remark about the secondary value of human life in this ideological matrix is confirmed in comments made by a senior Beirut-based Hamas official in charge of external relations. Ali Baraka brags here in an October 8, 2023 interview with Russia TV about Hamas fooling Israelis into believing that Hamas was interested in securing the welfare of 2+ million people in Gaza, while military leaders were secretly planning for some two years this assault on the south of Israel. In line with Baraka’s euphoric boast and also supporting El Kurd’s analysis, Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist based in Gaza, confirms that Hamas political leadership had actually been left in the dark about October 7 and were not in control. Again relating to human life, according to Abusada, “The Palestinian people in Gaza have a lot to lose. Most Palestinians don’t want to die, and they don’t want to die in this ugly way, under rubble. But an ideological organization like Hamas believes that to die for a just cause is much better than living this meaningless life.”
As a complement to anti-Jewish violence, the strategic logic of resistance combines with the blatant disregard for innocent Palestinian civilians. The strange myopia is also apparent here in this October 27, 2023 interview at Russia TV with Mousa Abu Marzouk, a member of the Hamas Political Bureau. Costing hundreds of millions to construct, the elaborate tunnel system under Gaza was meant for Hamas leaders and fighters. Palestinian civilians were left without protection in a war they did not start. Abu Marzouk states openly that it was the responsibility of the United Nations and the Israeli occupation to protect the people in Gaza, not Hamas.
The disregard for human life is also steeped in religious ideology. Perverting a central topos in Islam, martyrdom is no longer a matter of individual devotion, as would have been traditionally conceived. Martyrdom now turns into the sacrificial act of a political-military leadership cadre putting other people to death. The values of sacrifice are prominent here in a televised interview with former leader Khaled Mashal at Al-Arabiyah news. For Meshal, based in Doha, the strategy behind October 7 was nothing less than to open a regional war including Iran, Hezbollah, West Bank Palestinians, and Palestinian Israelis. Reflecting Hamas ideology, Meshal places Palestine at the center of the Arab and Muslim world. He compares Hamas to the leadership of the Soviet Union which lost 30 million [sic] of its people during World War II. He compares Palestine to Egypt, a regional power of some 88 million people. Meshal’s comments reflect a religious myopia oblivious to the welfare of a small and battered people whose lives Hamas is willing to sacrifice in the name of resistance and the glory of martyrdom.
About violence and death, Baconi cites an infamous statement by Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh before a violent spike in fighting between Hamas and Israel in 2014 that cost the lives of some two thousand Palestinians and seventy Israelis. Haniyeh is cited as having said, “We are a people who value death, just like our enemies value life.” A few weeks later, another Hamas leader is cited as having called on the people to face the occupation “with their bare chests” and to “embrace death if it came their way.” Regarding statements of this kind, Baconi pushes back against orientalist notions that would identify Palestine itself as a “culture of death.” Against this orientalism, he insists that self-sacrifice in the armed defense of one’s homeland is an almost universal political value(pp.ixx-xx). Baconi, however, remains troubled by religion-based political violence. In the meditation that opens his study, he associates decolonial struggle with carnage and fratricide. About Hamas in particular, he concedes, “One has to grapple with the organic thoughts, emotions, and feelings that give rise to a universe that is often at odds with the dominant Western-centric framing of political violence” (p.xx). Baconi allows us to understand a basic tension. Palestinian society is society steeped in values of human life and human sympathy. But at the axis point of resistance, the callous disregard for civilian life on the part of Hamas is ultimately bound up into a sub-culture of destruction and death that is uniquely religious, not “political.”
What for Baconi is the “marriage of resistance and politics” in the vison of Hamas represents what I would say is a distinct inversion of Clausewitz’s famous maxim about war being an extension of politics (see Baconi, p.75). According to Baconi, Hamas adapted the tool of government as an extension of resistance only after the failure of armed struggle to achieve its military goals in the 1990s (p.80). Baconi cites Khaled Meshal from a press conference from Cairo in 2006, “The world will see how Hamas can encompass resistance and politics, resistance and government.” But then Meshal is cited as saying, “Government is not our goal, it is a tool…Democracy is not a substitute for resistance. Democracy is our internal choice to reform our house, whereas resistance is our choice in facing the enemy. There is no conflict between the two” (pp.104-5). Baconi goes on to identify what is, in fact, a structural contradiction, “Hamas’s aspiration rested on institutionalizing the notion of ‘resistance’ into the very philosophy of the order it envisioned.” He cites Musa Abu Marzouq, another leader in the political cadre, who explained, “We are in government, yes, but the government is not whole. We are a government under occupation. We cannot assume that we have a government similar to others in the world. Or as the Americans demand, that we act only as a government. Hamas’s program in government is one which is aligned, which is compatible, with its program of resistance” (p.105, emphasis added).
If the “marriage of resistance and politics” was always incompatible, it was because the marriage was unequal from the start. Baconi contends that “Hamas failed to understand the balance that had to be struck between government and revolution. It had mistakenly assumed that revolution could be launched from within the very systems that had been created to domesticate the national struggle…With its takeover of Gaza, Hamas effectively merged revolution and state-building. The movement’s approach to governance has been based on an effort to situate the notion of resistance at the heart of the polity within the Gaza Strip” (p.242).The stabilization of society requires the domestication of violence, which is impossible to do as long as violence remains at the heart or core of society. It is there at the core where violence assumes the status of an end, not a means.
My own sense is that the incoherence between resistance and government identified by Baconi is bound up with religion. More than a simple instrument or rhetorical flourish, Hamas ideology of Islamic-resistance rests upon an ideology of purity that hardens political violence. Implacably religious is “the liberation of the entirety of the land of historic Palestine and the reversal of the impact that Zionism has had, and continues to have, on Palestinians.” As maintained by Baconi, the maximalist effect articulates the tenets of Palestinian nationalism in an Islamic framing, imbuing a national struggle with religious meaning. It has always been the case that it was the religious framing that “restricted any ideological maneuverability for the movement’s leaders and defined limitations that would make concessions appear blasphemous” (p. 228).Once raised to a religious-metaphysical principle, the violence of resistance is transformed. It becomes a self-destructive force of purification at odds with mundane politics, which is the art of the impure, a civil power of compromise.
The catastrophic cost in Palestinian life and the corrosive impact on Palestinian life underscore the terrible consequence of political religion. Baconi is unequivocal. Morally bankrupt in and of itself, the targeted killing of Israeli civilians “[threatens] to erode the very social fabric of the Palestinian community under occupation” (p.243). With Gaza in ruins, this now seems more the case than ever. Hamas deliberately subjecting Palestinian society to the crushing power of Israeli state violence constitutes nothing less than an act of auto-genocide that feeds off the lives of innocent people according to a strict sacrificial logic. Isamil Haniyeh, in an October 26, 2023 address, called upon all the “free people of the world” to stop the bombing of Gaza, which he referred to as the “new holocaust.” Then he says, “I have said this before, and I say it time again. The blood of the women, children, and elderly… I am not saying that this blood is calling for your [help]. We are the ones who need this blood, so it awakens within us the revolutionary spirit, so it awakens within us resolve, so it awakens within us the spirit of challenge, and [pushes us] to move forward.” In the same vein here, on October 24, senior Hamas member Ghazi Hamad told Lebanese TV channel LBC that the October 7 massacre was just the first of many, that “there will be a second, a third, and a fourth” attack if the group is given the chance. “Will we have to pay a price? Yes, and we are ready to pay it,” he said at the time. “We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs.”
The first level of moral shock is shock before the ugly reality of death: the crimes against humanity in the south of Israel, the death and destruction in Gaza during the course of the war. Another and deeper level of moral shock follows upon the realization that death and destruction are intentional, a part of a strategic-sacrificial logic. No emotion, no rage is heard in the recorded interviews. As reported here, the death and destruction wrought by Hamas on October 7 upon innocent people in Israel and upon their own civilian population was a pre-calculated and miscalculated act based upon a program of a permanent state of war they believed Hamas would win by marshalling Arab support around the cause of Palestine.
Religion occupies a strange and stubborn place at the heart of this war by Hamas against Israel. An enduring principle of Enlightenment political philosophy is that the unbridled religious imagination let loose on society is a uniquely destructive force. (I have written before here at the blog in a similar vein about the radical religious right in Israel, how radical Judaism as a destructive and uncivil political force undermines Israeli society.) It is a common and utterly mistaken notion by politicians and political scientists that religion is a malleable, political instrument that can be simply written off as epiphenomenal. If anything, religion assumes a life of its own, a real force in society. Just as religion is shaped by the political, religion shapes the polis. In the Israeli occupied West Bank and in Hamas controlled Gaza, radical formation of anti-civil religion is a source of disorder and violence. Religious-settler mayhem in the Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank and the utter violence of the Hamas assault on southern Israel mirror each other. In both cases, the disaster brought to their own people is a pre-determined malfunction of a religious-ideological program. The death and destruction represent a grotesque mutation of religion, where one might have otherwise sought an elementary and vital expression of spiritual life and a human source of moral community in rites and representations before God.