What effect does the language of violence and extremism have in Gaza? Palestinian democrats, liberals, and moderates have been systematically silenced by Hamas. It is this squelching of independent thought and free speech that cements Gaza's dictatorship. Witness Hamas' cultural repression. In May, Hamas closed down a literary festival because it was deemed too critical. In January, it banned "Palestinian Idol" for being too secular. Last October, Hamas dispersed a hip hop party and confiscated recordings of the event. In the summer of 2011, it banned a Palestinian film which showed positive interactions between Israelis and unveiled women. In 2010, Hamas shuttered a youth center because it taught music and dancing.
Instead of welcoming independent thought, Hamas has filled Gaza's airwaves, summer camps, and schools with the most incendiary rhetoric imaginable. Children are taught a mix of unremitting hatred and wild conspiracy. Perhaps most troubling is glorification of death. Hamas leaders like Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh proudly declare that "death for the sake of Allah is our most supreme desire." The deputy speaker of the Hamas parliament, Ahmad Bahr, explicates a hadith by saying, "When a man is having sex with his wife, he should be praying for a son who would wage jihad for the sake of Allah." Of Americans and Israelis, he adds, "They are cowards, who are eager for life, while we are eager for death for the sake of Allah." How can children in Gaza love life over death when their leaders teach the opposite?
It's hard to imagine how Gazans can accept a peace agreement when their leaders make statements like this one from ex-Culture Minister Atallah Abu Al Subh: "The Jews are the most despicable and contemptible nation to crawl upon the face of the Earth." It's hard to imagine how Gazans can reject the views of Osama bin Laden when their prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh (pictured above), declares of him: "[M]ay Allah have mercy upon him and may [he] take his rightful place together with the martyrs and the righteous."
Hamas' uncompromising and incendiary rhetoric cements its dictatorial actions. It calls for killing all Americans and Jews and has no problem launching barrages of missiles at civilians. It glorifies death over life and suicide-terror becomes palatable. It preaches that dissent will be silenced and opposition figures are arrested, tortured, and shot. It imposes the language of terror and its people live in fear.
Democracy in Gaza cannot succeed under such conditions. Language is both a reflection of society and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hamas' rhetorical war on liberalism, dissent, sanity, and compromise is strangling any hope of civil society and democratic transition in Gaza. It's hard to arrest every dissident, but make an example of a few and threaten the rest, and you've achieved the same goal. Tolerance does not occur in a vacuum. It is cultivated in families, schools, media, and the language of everyday life. Stifle free speech and mindless policy has a way of making it to the top.
Some are tempted to draw equivalency between incitement in Gaza and incitement in Israel. It goes without saying that there is a degree of hate-speech in every society. More important than the clear quantitative difference between the extreme rhetoric that sometimes occurs in Israel and the government-sponsored hate-speech in Gaza is the space allowed to confront such extremism. In open societies such as America and Israel, radicalized speech is countered by a vibrant free press in which political leaders are routinely castigated and held accountable for their words. Closed societies like Gaza do not allow for dissent to challenge authority, and therefore hate-speech reigns supreme.