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Nations and Nationalism 20 (4), 2014, 801820.

DOI: 10.1111/nana.12081

Between religion and nationalism in

the Palestinian diaspora
Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

ABSTRACT. This article examines Palestinian refugee articulations of the Palestinian

homeland and struggle in relation to religion and nationalism. My contention is that
the impact of Hamass electoral victory in Palestine is visible within the discourse of
Palestinians in Jordan. This discourse suggests a transformation of the meaning of
Palestinian nationalism in which religion is taking an important albeit complex role in
nationalism. Using the concept of intertwining, this article considers how Islam has
been intertwined with Palestinian nationalism in ways that have privileged particular
ideas about the national homeland and fight for liberation. While many suggest that
Islamist politics is incompatible with nationalism, this article takes the local discourse
of refugees and argues that Hamas and its supporters have yet to abandon the framework of nationalism, although certain tensions exist.
KEYWORDS: Hamas, Jordan, nationalism, Palestinian, refugees, religion

In 2006, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip voted in favor of a new
government led by Hamas.1 The organizations victory signaled a critical shift
in Palestinian national politics as the dominant party, Fatah, suffered its first
electoral defeat since the creation of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA)
in 1994. Many scholars have since examined the implications of Hamass
political ascent for Palestinians living in the occupied territories (Baumgarten
2005; Hroub 2011; Lybarger 2007; Usher 2006). Few, however, have considered its significance for the millions of Palestinians living throughout the
region who could not participate in the national elections. Thus most of the
literature about Hamas and its supporters has shed little light on the organizations importance for Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon or Syria,
and whose fate remains inextricably linked to the political future of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
Drawing on two years of ethnographic research in Jordan,2 this article
examines how Palestinian refugees in Amman articulate the meaning of the
Palestinian homeland, struggle and nation. In particular, my analysis shows
how Palestinian refugees frame the meaning of nationhood in ways that (1)
intertwines Islam and nationalist ideology, and (2) underscores the significance
of homeland politics for the meaning of nationalism to one segment of the
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Michael Vicente Prez

Palestinian diaspora.3 As such, this study highlights multiple issues relevant

for the analysis of religion and nationalism and the meaning of nationhood for
displaced peoples.
Recent scholarship on the question of religion and nationalism suggests
significant disagreement over what role, if any, religion can play in the
meaning of nationhood (Brubaker 2012; Friedland 2002; Juergensmeyer 1994;
Mihelj 2007; Smith 2000; van der Veer 1994). In areas of the Middle East, the
popularity and success of political organizations including Hamas and
Hizbillah have raised considerable suspicion about the national status of
Muslim political actors. My analysis engages these debates by arguing that
neither Hamas nor its supporters in the diaspora can be easily written out of
the fold of nationalism. Rather, the discursive representations of nationhood
offered by Palestinians in Jordan indicate a complex intertwining (Brubaker
2012) of Islam and nationalism that underscores the possibility of a religiously
inflected form of nationhood. By privileging ideas about the sacred Islamic
homeland and the particular status of Muslims within the nation, Palestinians
have yet to undermine their nationalist agenda. Rather, they have only
re-inspired their nationalist dreams of liberation and return through an intensified sanctification (Smith 1999) of the homeland and people.
Although my analysis considers the elite discourse of Hamas, I am ultimately
interested in the meaning of nationalism for non-elite Palestinians who identify
as part of the nation in the diaspora. In particular, I examine how ordinary
Palestinians articulate the nation in ways that are both reflective and constitutive of dominant ideologies in the field of Palestinian politics. Such a focus
represents one contribution to the growing interest in what has been called
everyday (Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008; Menon 2012) or banal (Billig 1995)
nationalism. According to this approach, understanding nationalism requires
attention to how national identities take shape among ordinary people; that is,
how those for whom nationalists speak the folk (Smith 2000) engage
dominant conceptions of the nation. As Billig (1995) notes, attention to banal
nationalism means attending to the ideological habits that enable the reproduction of particular nation forms. Informed by these approaches, I examine how
a displaced community living beyond the center of nationalist politics implicates itself in national debates and the Palestinian future. In particular, I show
that nation talk (Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008) among refugees not only reveals
their ideological support for Hamas but, more importantly, their positioning as
a displaced portion of the Palestinian nation. More than a simple endorsement
of Hamas, the appropriation of the organizations nationalist discourse among
refugees reflects their particular status as a community stranded in refugee
camps still hoping for the liberation of Palestine and an opportunity to return.
Research context
My research began in 2006,4 less than two weeks before Hamas won a decisive
electoral victory claiming 74 seats in the PNAs 132-member parliament.5
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Religion and nationalism in the Palestinian diaspora


Despite international disbelief, Hamass victory was no surprise. Indeed,

several factors assured Hamass win long before the elections. One of those
factors had to do with Palestinian frustrations over the failures of Fatah and
the Palestinian Authority. Between 1996 and 2004, for example, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) suggested a steady decline in
support for Fatah (Shiqaqi 2006). At the heart of public concerns were issues
linked to governance and state-building including public services and corruption. These issues reached their peak in the 2006 elections when PSR polling
suggested that corruption, inadequate services, lawlessness and an inability to
end the Israeli occupation led Palestinians to cast their votes against Fatah
candidates in a protest vote (Hroub 2004; Milton-Edwards 2006; Turner
2006; Usher 2006; Zweiri 2006). In addition to voter disapproval of Fatah, the
organization itself made several mistakes that weakened its chances of
winning. One of its principal errors had to do with internal divisions. Prior to
the elections, Fatah failed to unify its own candidates despite warnings by
high-ranking officials.6 Instead of running all candidates on a single list as
Hamas did divisions within the party resulted in multiple party lists and,
consequently, a split vote (Milton-Edwards 2007).
While the protest vote gave certain advantages to Hamas candidates in the
elections, it alone cannot account for its 2006 victory. Only a year prior to the
national vote, local elections in 2005 resulted in significant wins for the organization. In areas of Ramallah and throughout most cities in Gaza, Hamas
candidates took a majority of seats in elections that, to some extent, signaled
the rising popularity of the organization among Palestinians (Shiqaqi 2006;
Zweiri 2006). Even before the 2005 elections, but certainly after that, Hamas
cultivated a positive image among Palestinians through the development of its
own institutional apparatus and its shifting political discourse (Chehab 2008;
Hroub 2004; Mishal and Sela 2006). As Milton-Edwards (2007) noted, for
many Palestinians, the motivation to vote for Hamas lay in its proven capacity
as a sustainable organization and its already substantial network of social,
religious, welfare and political activities in the OPT. Polling after the 2006
elections support this view as the PSR documented governance and statebuilding as two of the top voter priorities. Moreover, contrary to its image as
a militant organization, Hamas ran its 2006 campaign agenda on a Change
and Reform agenda. Accordingly, it promoted itself not as a religious organization devoted to the destruction of Israel but as a trustworthy institution
capable of providing effective services and ending corruption (Hroub 2006).
The importance of Hamass ascent in the Palestinian territories notwithstanding, I was in Jordan. And while I was certain that the elections were
paramount for Palestinians in the OPT, I was unsure of its importance for
Palestinians in Jordan. As I soon discovered, within Jordans refugee camps, a
different kind of discussion was taking place. Glued to Arabic news networks
like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabi, Palestinians closely followed the elections.
Whatever the world had to say about Hamas, Palestinians were articulating
their own ideas about the new Palestinian government. For many Palestinians
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Michael Vicente Prez

I met, Hamass political ascent signaled new possibilities both politically and
discursively. On the political front, refugees spoke optimistically about a new
course for the Palestinian struggle for independence and, more specifically, the
return of the refugees. Discursively, many Palestinians spoke in terms of a new
national framework in which Muslim political activists would play a certain
role. In other words, while Palestinians in the OPT judged Hamas according to
local matters, in Jordan, the organization received a different kind of endorsement. As a Muslim political organization, Palestinians in Jordan believed
Hamas represented a new phase in the Palestinian national struggle. According to their reading, which I will discuss below, Hamas was their newly elected
leader of the national movement.

Religion and nationalism

The recent success of religious political actors throughout the world has
breathed new life into the question of religion and nationalism (Hibbard 2012;
Juergensmeyer 2009). While traditional scholars of nationalism have defined
nationhood outside of, or against, religious communal identifications (Anderson 2006, Hobsbawm 1991), a recent stream of scholarship suggests other
possibilities (Friedland 2002; Juergensmeyer 1994; van der Veer 1994).
Juergensmeyer, for example, suggests that religion can play a constitutive role
in the formation of what he calls religious nationalism. What distinguishes
this form of nationalism from other nationalisms is the inclusion of a religious
perspective in the social and political destiny of the nation (Juergensmeyer
1994: 6).7 The new religious revolutionaries, he claims, are not so much concerned about the political structure of the nation-state as they are with the
rationale for having one its moral basis and why it should elicit peoples
loyalty (Juergensmeyer 1994: 67).
In a recent article in this journal, Brubaker (2012) argued against the idea of
a distinct form of religious nationalism. Whatever the nexus between religion
and nation espoused by religious political actors may be, it must be grounded
in the nation as the primary source of value, legitimacy, loyalty and identity
(Brubaker 2012). It is for this reason that Brubaker rejects the idea of religious
nationalism presented by Juergensmeyer and others. In the particular case of
Islamist movements like Hamas, he believes that working through the idea of
the nation-state is insufficient for saying that they are working for the nation.
Commitment to the idea of a modern state, in other words, is not the same as
commitment to the modern nation.
Despite his objections, Brubaker does not completely refuse the idea that
religion can play a role in nationalism. According to him, religious ideas can be
intertwined with nationalism in three particular ways. First, the religious
boundaries can be imagined as coterminous with national ones; that is, the
religious community is the nation. Second, religious and national boundaries
can coincide but not so far as to include all co-religionists; such is the case of
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Northern Ireland where the borders of the nation include all Irish Catholics
but not all Catholics. A third kind of intertwining has to do with the religious
inflection of nationalist discourse. In this form, Brubaker suggests that religion does not necessarily define the boundaries of the nation, but it supplies
myths, metaphors and symbols that are central to the discursive or iconic
representation of the nation (Brubaker 2012: 9). In this approach, Brubaker is
not alone. Smith (2000) has also explored this issue by highlighting the role of
religion in the formation and maintenance of national identities. According to
him, religious traditions, and especially beliefs about the sacred, underpin and
suffuse to a greater or lesser degree the national identities of the populations of
constituent states (Smith 2000: 795).
Central to the approaches offered by Brubaker and Smith is an identifiable
commitment to the idea of the nation. Religion, in other words, is not necessarily antithetical to the nations it supports. Rather:
[Nationalism] and religion are often deeply intertwined; political actors may make
claims both in the name of the nation and in the name of God. Nationalist politics can
accommodate the claims of religion, and nationalist rhetoric often deploys religious
language, imagery and symbolism. Similarly, religion can accommodate the claims of
the nation-state, and religious movements can deploy nationalist language (Brubaker
2012: 16).

Thus whether the nation is imagined as a geographically bounded religious

community, or a community that draws some of its strength and legitimation
from religious resources, it nevertheless remains the orienting force behind the
vision of community; that is, an imagined political community that is inherently limited, sovereign and characterized by a deep horizontal comradeship
(Anderson 1991).
In the analysis that follows, I engage the debate over religion and nationalism in the context of the Palestinian diaspora. By putting contemporary
work on Hamas in conversation with my own work among refugees in Jordan,
I argue that within the Palestinian field of discourse, neither religion nor nation
has conceded victory. It is my contention that groups like Hamas, and those
who support them, are engaged in a complex intertwining of ideas supplied by
religion in this case Islam that are radically shaped and acted upon within
the ideology of nationalism. But this intertwining of religion with the ideology
of nationalism is not enough to distinguish it as a unique form of nationalism
or to preclude its connection to the nation. It is, rather, a nationalism infused
with religious meanings.
Hamas and nationalism
Since its founding, Hamas has proved to be a flexible and dynamic organization.8 At times reformist, at others militant, its essential character as a sociopolitical movement has been difficult to define in any certain terms. Perhaps
more challenging has been accessing a framework capable of accounting for
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Michael Vicente Prez

the movements shifting positions on the question of religion and nationalism.

While some scholars have prioritized Hamass religious dimensions and thus
located it within broader trends of what has been called political Islam or
Islamism, I believe there are several factors that suggest the organizations
religious hue is insufficient for fully negating its nationalist character. First,
while Hamas employs a discourse saturated with religious references to the
Quran, hadith and the concept of jihad, the target audience of this discourse is
nonetheless confined to the Palestinian people. Put simply, Hamas is not
speaking to the Muslim umma9; rather, it is speaking particularly to Palestinian
Muslims and more generally to the Palestinian nation. It wants to put Muslim
Palestinians at the forefront of the national movement. Palestinian Muslims
thus represent a vanguard of the nation who, in virtue of their invented
religious tradition and identification, have a critical role to play in the liberation of Palestine from Israel. In pragmatic terms, Hamas has also confined its
efforts to the geography of the national context. It has not, for example,
directed its attacks beyond the borders of historic Palestine nor has it called for
violence against any other state but Israel. Its disdain for US support of Israel
has not compelled it to endorse Palestinian attacks on US citizens or government officials.
Hamass reformist and military approach to the struggle against Israel has
also been defined within the limits of the Palestinian territories. It does not
work for a transnational reformation of the Muslim world in preparation for
a global jihad against Israel and its allies. Rather, it works through a diverse
network of charitable institutions in Palestine to support all Palestinians while
promoting an Islamic reformation within Palestinian society (Roy 2011).
While such a program has been interpreted by some scholars as an
Islamization, such an interpretation is not without complications. Hamas
locates the Islamic reformation of Palestinian society within a greater program
of national liberation. Thus turning Palestinian Muslims toward a more pious
(Islamic) lifestyle is inextricably linked to the struggle against Israeli occupation and the Palestinian nationalist cause. As Hroub notes, the more devout
the individual is, the more self-sacrificing on the battlefield he or she will be
(Hroub 2006: 28). In this sense, religious reformation is understood as an
essential step toward succeeding in the national struggle where secular organizations have failed. Finally, even the very distinction between what is definitively Islamic and what is definitively national about Hamas remains unclear.
An analysis of Hamass discourse suggests that it is appropriating religious
concepts in Islam for nationalist purposes. As Aburaiya has observed, since its
establishment Hamas [has] appropriated the goals of secular Palestinian
nationalism, as defined by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and
other Palestinian organizations the liberation of historic Palestine from the
(Jordan) River to the (Mediterranean) by armed resistance (Aburaiya 2009:
63). In a similar assessment, Baumgarten has argued that Hamass religious
discourse has never sufficiently negated its status as a nationalist organization.
Whatever the Islamic underpinnings of Hamass positions may be, she
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suggests that the organization has retained an essential nationalism that,

according to its own charter, is part and parcel of its religious ideology
(Baumgarten 2005: 39).
To the extent that religious ideology can be distinguished from nationalism
in Hamass discourse and practice, it is clear that neither is sufficient for
trumping the other. Indeed, an analysis of Hamass engagement with nationalist ideology suggests that it has had a significant impact on the shape of its
religious politics. Thus the idea that Hamas offers a distinct form of nationalism seems untenable. Rather, it appears that Hamas is engaged in an intertwining of religion and nationalism that, while privileging religious symbols,
concepts and, at times, identifications, is nonetheless still committed to the
nation and nationalist goals. Hamas can thus be described as a blend of
national liberation movement and Islamist religious group . . . [whose] driving
forces are dual, its daily functioning is biaxial and its end goals are bifocal,
where each side of each binary serves the other (Hroub 2006: 26).
This duality is not only visible within the organizations rhetoric and activities in Palestine but, as I will show, it is also visible within the discourse of
Palestinian refugees in Jordan who identify with the organizations articulations of a religiously inflected nationalism. In the following sections, I will thus
move to demonstrate the complexity of Hamass intertwining within the discourse of Palestinian refugees living in the camps of Amman. My analysis will
focus on two particular themes that reveal the dense intertwining of Islam and
nationalism: the homeland and the national struggle. By focusing on refugees,
I seek to emphasize how ordinary Palestinians (non-elite actors) interpret and
represent nationalist ideologies in ways that not only reflects the influence of
homeland nationalism but also their active engagement with these ideologies.
a. The Islamic national homeland: Muslim Palestine
The idea of Palestine as a land of religious importance to Palestinians has a
long historical record. Khalidi, for example, described the religious connotail Al-Quds literature of the nineteenth
tions of Palestine expressed in the Fada
century, which offered pilgrims and visitors information about Jerusalem and
holy sites throughout historic Palestine (Khalidi 1998: 29). Since the 1990s,
however, the religious value of Palestine has gained significant traction among
Palestinian Muslims. To a large extent, the increasing popularity of what has
been called Muslim Palestine (Nusse 1998) can be attributed to Hamas.10
Playing a critical role in organizing social welfare and resistance activities
during the intifada, their intertwining of religion and nationalism has offered
a compelling discourse for Palestinian Muslims seeking an alternative to
secular politics and a fresh approach to the conflict with Israel. Echoing
historical conceptions of Palestine as an integral component of an imagined
precolonial Islamic homeland, the idea of Muslim Palestine articulated by
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Michael Vicente Prez

Hamas stands as one of the most precise offered by any Palestinian national
movement. According to Article 11 of its charter, the land of Palestine is an
Islamic Waqf [Trust] upon all Muslim generations till the day of Resurrection.
It is not right to give it up nor any part of it? (Maqdisi 1993: 125) Palestines
unique Islamic character is further articulated in Article 14, where the homeland is described as an Islamic land accommodating the first Qibla, the third
Holy Sanctuary, [and] the place where the ascent of the Messenger took place
(Maqdisi 1993: 126).
In Jordan, such articulations were widespread among Palestinian refugees.
In particular, the idea that Palestine was a sacred territory and that its liberation represented a sacred national duty was common among Palestinian
Muslims when articulating their relationship to the homeland. During our
shid in the Baqaa camp, for example, described Palestine in
discussions, Ra
ways that resonated with those offered by Hamas. Displaced in 1967, he and
his family lived modestly within a small corner dwelling that was walking
distance from his shop. Rashid claimed that Palestine was of equal religious
value to him as it was to all Palestinian Muslims. Praise to God, he said
during our discussion, Palestine is our land and is an Islamic land. It is like
a creed and (the) Al-Aqsa mosque is our sanctuary. Palestine will thus be
defended with our blood. My discussions with Rma, a Palestinian woman at
sr camp, resulted in similar ideas. Accordan Islamic womens center in the Na
ing to her, Palestine was a religious land with a specific connection to Muslims.
mosque is
All Muslims have a right in Palestine, she said, because Al-Aqsa
t (holy sites)
there; it ties us [Muslims] all to Palestine. There are mu
in Palestine that makes it our Islamic land. During a visit with Abu Imran in
the Baqaa camp, I asked him about the status of Palestine for the refugees.
What, I asked, is the significance of Palestine for you as a Palestinian and for
the Palestinians in Jordan? Emphasizing his homelands religious value as an
Islamic territory, he claimed that
Palestine is for all the Muslims and the Palestinian issue is [fundamentally] an Islamic
issue. So this is more important than my existence as a Palestinian. But this does not
negate [the importance it has for a Palestinian]. We say that Palestine is not for the
Palestinians alone. Palestine is for the Muslims. And we do not . . . we will not forget
Palestine. We did not and will not forget Palestine and we will remember it for the rest
of our lives and we will work for the sake of its return to its people the legitimate
people in all the permissible [observable, in religious terms] ways.

These excerpts emphasize the significance of Palestine to Muslims and Palestinian Muslims in ways that privilege its sacred religious value. In particular,
the designation of Palestine as an Islamic territory in these representations
reflects a sanctification of territory (Smith 1999) in which the faithful are
inseparably bound to the land. It is thus a territory whose holy sites and
location within an imagined Islamic precolonial geography establishes its connection and importance to all Muslims. As such, Palestine achieves a status
resonant with previous ideas about the territory that draw their significance
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from its religious sites and history. Yet within this seemingly historic and
religious identification of a homeland for all Muslims remains a basic national
claim for Palestinian Muslims. To see how, one has to begin with the very idea
of Palestine implicit within these claims. The antiquity and religious importance of Palestines holy sites notwithstanding, the specific geographic identification of Palestine referred to above reflects a fairly recent idea. The Palestine
of Hamas and Abu Imran, in other words, is a modern one adapted to the
language of history. It is a Palestine constituted within the structures of the
British Mandate and the creation of the state of Israel. It is also a Palestine
identified through the nationalist framework of those who fought for its
independence during both historical periods. Thus one can say that the idea of
Islamic Palestine represents an imagined territory that, while deriving its value
from Islam, gains its identity through modern nationalism.
In addition, although the discussion of Palestine above suggests the mere
identification of a territory, the more important issue concerns the implications of that identification. To say that Palestine is an Islamic territory is as
much a statement about its meaning as it is about the duty one has toward it.
n indicates, Palestines religious status among Muslims means
As Abu Imra
that he and others must work for the return of its people the legitimate
n is referring to
people. By legitimate people, it is clear that Abu Imra
Palestinians since its connection to the idea of return matters most for those
who, like him, were forced to leave. In this sense, the idea that Palestine is a
sacred Islamic territory serves to legitimize Palestinians claim to that territory
and thus the intertwining of religion and nationalism become readily apparent.
By emphasizing the homelands Islamic significance, in other words, Palestinians can claim the validity of their national struggle.
b. The indivisible homeland and the national struggle
Understood as a territory with religious significance, the idea of Palestine
among refugees also reflected an additional claim, namely that no authority
could legitimately partition the homeland. Embracing the discourse of Hamas,
Palestine was widely described as an Islamic waqf that could not be divided by
any secular political authority. Consequently, political negotiations based on
the partition of Palestine in 1947 represented a violation of the basic unity of
Palestine as a distinct territory but also as an integral component of the
broader Islamic homeland. According to Rashid, for example, the Islamic
importance of the Palestinian homeland meant that the territory could not be
divided. As he stated:
Palestine is an Islamic land. There is no person anywhere in the world . . . that can reject
this fact. [Palestine] is from the river to the sea.

Aqil, another Palestinian refugee I interviewed in the Hittn camp, rejected

any attempts by the Palestinian Authority to negotiate a settlement with Israel
that did not include the totality of Palestine. Palestine, he explained, is an
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Michael Vicente Prez

Islamic land. It is not Jewish nor was it divided in 1947. Maybe the politicians
speak this way but we know that this is not true. Palestine cannot be divided.
Here both Rashid and Aqil stressed that Palestines religious status meant
that it cannot be divided by secular political decisions. Speaking against the
possibility of any settlement between the PA and Israel that entails partitioning Palestine, their basic claim rested on the idea that the homeland is forever
for the Palestinians and Islam makes it so.
Affirming the indivisibility of Palestine has to do with more than the Palestinian leadership; it also meant that, for these Palestinians, exclusive Jewish
rule in the territory is illegitimate and that the struggle against Israel represents
a duty incumbent upon all Palestinian Muslims. The state of Israel, in other
words, cannot legitimately assert its authority in Palestine since its rule is
contrary to Muslim rights in the territory. As Shadi expressed during our
interview in the Wihdat camp:
The Jews do not have the right to control or occupy our land even if we are not there.
We reject their occupation . . . Palestine is part of the Islamic lands. Why did they come
and expel the people from Palestine and steal our homes and homeland?

According to Palestinians, the illegitimacy of Israeli rule in the homeland also

underscores the legitimacy of armed struggle to liberate Palestine. In terms
n, another Palestinian refugee
similar to those expressed by Hamas, Ghassa
from the camps, stated that:
The land of Palestine is an Islamic land. And regarding those that describe Palestine as
a divided Arabic land, Palestine will not be returned by or through negotiations.
Palestine will be returned by the power of arms just as it was taken. The Day of
Judgment will not come until the Jews understand the right of the Palestinian people to
t [diaspora] knows
their land. And this is a central point. Every Palestinian in the shata
this. And even the Jews know that Palestine will be returned to the Muslims.
n, Palestine belongs to the Palestinians and its liberation will occur
For Ghassa
through the specific actions of Palestinian Muslims. The Jews will thus
return Palestine to the Muslims.
Nadia, a Muslim Palestinian refugee active within a womens center in the
Wihdat camp, also framed the struggle for Palestine in religious national
terms. Palestine, she claimed, is an Islamic land and will be returned to its
rightful owners.

100% of the ahadith [sayings of the Prophet Muhammad] say that Palestine will be
returned to us. Even if not during our generation or the next generation, or even the
generation after that, Palestine will return to the following generation of Palestinians.
There will be a generation [of Palestinians] to whom the God of all worlds will return
hid] for Palestine and it will return to
Palestine. By the will of God, we will struggle [ja

Nadia was careful to balance the general significance of Palestine to Muslims

with the particular significance of Palestine to Palestinians. Thus she believed
that the Prophet of Islams own words support the idea that Palestine will be
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Religion and nationalism in the Palestinian diaspora


returned to a generation of Palestinians and by doing so, Palestine will return

to its original status as an Islamic land. Only through Palestinian Muslim
liberation could Palestine become part of the larger Islamic homeland. This, in
many ways, resembled the claims of Arab nationalists working within the
framework of pan-Arab nationalism. Like Nadia, many Arab nationalists held
a particularist view in which the idea of a greater Arab homeland did not
dissolve the presence of individual Arab nationalities. Rather, the integrity of
the Arab homeland was sustained through the independence and unity of each
individual Arab nation. Thus for Nadia and others, while the liberation of
Palestine will restore the integrity of an Islamic homeland, it will not cease to
exist. Palestine will remain a distinguishable territory within the greater territory of Islam.
c. The national martyr
Dying for the nation, according to Anderson, reflects disinterested love and
solidarity (Anderson 2006: 144). It is an act grounded in the ideals of sacrifice
and historical destiny and thus distinguishable from racism and hatred. Moreover, as Smith (1999) has observed, martyrdom represents a critical dimension
of the sanctification of territory in which dying for the homeland constitutes a
sacred act for and by the people. Linked to the quest for liberation and utopia,
the willingness to give ones life for the homeland draws its strength from, and
gives meaning to, the sacred territory for which one dies. In the history of
Palestinian nationalism, sacrifice has played no small part. Faced with ongoing
war, dispossession and occupation, Palestinian nationalism has committed
innumerable lives for the liberation of the nation and homeland. Among the
Palestinians I worked with in Jordan, the idea of sacrifice for the liberation and
return of the homeland to its people was a prominent theme that reworked
religious conceptions of martyrdom within the context of national struggle.
The religious connection between Palestine and Palestinian Muslims meant
that sacrifice or, more specifically, dying for the homeland, represented a
sacred duty. It was an act reflective of the religious value of Palestine and of the
sacred nature of its liberation. Understood this way, Palestinian resistance was
widely constructed in terms that offered its fighters a particular religious
status. More specifically, insofar as the fight for national liberation was a
hidn (fighters in the jihad)
religiously sanctioned national struggle, its muja
were granted the status of martyrs.11 During our discussions in the camp, for
instance, Nadia described the Palestinian resistance movement as a divinely
guided struggle of religious significance. To die for the cause of Palestine thus
meant that one died as a martyr.
Our goal [to liberate Palestine] is by the will of God. It is akharaw [pertaining to the
judgment day]: it is religious. Our end is by the will of God almighty because the
Prophet said that Palestine is for the Muslims and he who dies without his country is a
martyr. And the Prophet said that he who dies without his family is also a martyr. We
are without Palestine, our homeland. If we die fighting for our homeland or die without
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Michael Vicente Prez

our homeland, then we are all martyrs. Whether with Palestine or without it, our
struggle means we are the winners by God.

The idea that death in the struggle for Palestine earns one the status of a
martyr has been a fairly consistent theme within the Palestinian struggle
beginning with the PLO. During the 19601970s, PLO fighters who gave their
iyn (those who sacrifice). Emphasizing the
lives in battle were honored as feda
religious status of a Muslim martyr within struggle for Palestine, however,
da: the
Hamas crafted its own vision of martyrdom during the first Intifa
istishad (Abu Amr 1993; Abu-Amr 1994; Abufarha 2009; Hroub 2000).
According to Abufarha, the creation and rise of the discourse of the
d) in the resistance movement created a new
istishadiyn (plural of istisha
cultural space for the status of the martyr, one that occupies the highest, most
noble ground in the Palestinian national struggle (Abufarha 2009: 10). In this
sense, Hamas attempted to exalt the status of its own Muslim Palestinian
martyrs above those of secularists working within the national independence
The religious value of the national struggle for Palestine and the status of
those who struggle fl sabl-illah (in the path of God) as martyrs articulated
above was reflected within the dawa12 activities of young Palestinians working
in the refugee camps. Several students I met who attended a college in Zarqa
said they promoted the message of Islam among Palestinians in order to
remind them of their duty as Muslims in the national cause. Concerned about
the Jordanian authorities and the idea that their work represented extremism,
these Palestinians often relied on more anonymous methods of communication including the distribution of audiocassettes and multimedia CDs. For
example, one of the students I met provided me with one of the CDs his
organization distributed among Palestinians.13 On the disc were a variety of
multimedia options including audio lectures by Hamas leaders, recitations of
Quranic excerpts and key Quranic verses for thikr,14 anashd,15 photographs
of the resistance in Palestine, and the position points of the organization. One
of the more striking features of the disc concerned its attempt to situate the
national struggle of Palestine with a larger imagined Islamic struggle against
invaders, colonizers and infidels.
For example, in the organizations position points shown below (Figure 1),
the group articulated a call for a return to Islam and promoted the vision of
a pan-Islamic struggle in which Palestine was but one site of a larger Muslim
battle. Titled thawabatna nalnaha lakum (a clarification of our positions), the
page begins with the idea that deviation from Islam has limited Muslims
ability to deal effectively with their issues. It then proceeds to underscore the
importance of intma, or attachment to the homeland, which according to
them, is a foundational brick in the unity of Arab Muslims (Al-Wahda
mya). In this sense, the liberation of particular homelands
Al-Arabya Al-Isla
represented a duty necessary for restoring the integrity of the united ArabIslamic peoples a claim not unlike those of pan-Arab nationalists committed
to the preservation of particular nationalisms. Although the idea of a united
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Religion and nationalism in the Palestinian diaspora


Figure 1. Position page of the CD.

Arab-Islamic people is suggested, the page goes on to describe the conditions

of non-Arab countries including Chechnya and Afghanistan as bleeding
wounds that Muslims must remember [be aware of] and/or defend. Reflecting the reformist strategy of Hamas, the position points conclude by stating
that activism on the part of the students is necessary for the completion of a
balanced personality.
While this may seem an exclusively religious calling, as the CD goes on to
suggest, a balanced personality has a much more important purpose. Specifically, achieving moral excellence via an Islamic lifestyle is intimately linked
to national liberation. This directly represents Hamass intertwining of religion
and nationalism. Educating Palestinian Muslims about Islam, as these students do, is much more than a religious imperative. It is a national imperative
since the liberation of Palestine cannot occur without a social reformation.
Dawa efforts, in this sense, are constituted within a nationalist paradigm in
which moral and military training goes hand in hand: only the religious will
succeed in the struggle for liberation.
Whereas in the position page the students promoted a more generic vision
of a pan-Islamic struggle against invaders in which the liberation of Palestine
constituted an integral albeit particular effort, the menu page (and following
pages) offered a much clearer appeal to Muslim Palestinians regarding the
relevance of the national struggle and the importance of martyrdom. For
(our martyred
example, in the menu page shown below, titled qa
leaders), only two Palestinian martyrs are represented (Figure 2): Abdl Azz
Al-Rants and Ahmed Yasn. In addition, while the figure depicted in the
lower right-hand corner could be any Muslim fighter, it is clear that the image
is that of a Hamas fighter,16 which again emphasizes the Palestinian dimension
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Michael Vicente Prez

Figure 2. Menu page from multimedia CD titled Our Martyred Leaders.

of the struggle. Moreover, the first option in the menu specifically concerns the
sn. Within this feature, the CD provides an
martyrdom of Al-Rants and Ya
in-depth account of the two Palestinian leaders and their dedication and
sacrifice (martyrdom) for the struggle. In the top center icon, titled saba
Al-Khair ya bilad (good morning my country), and the bottom right-hand
icon, titled sawt Al-Watan (the voice of the homeland), Palestine again
emerges as a prominent feature of the organizations dawa. In both cases,
country and homeland refer specifically to Palestine and thus further
emphasize the centrality of the Palestinian national struggle in the imagined
pan-Islamic battle.
National ambiguities: Christians in Muslim Palestine
The Palestinian refugee camps of Jordan are diverse in the backgrounds of
their populations. Despite such diversity, the majority of camp residents
throughout the Kingdom are Muslims. This is not to say that Christian Palestinians were not refugees or displaced during 1948 or 1967. On the contrary,
a significant population of Christians fled alongside their Muslim neighbors
during all of the major wars of Palestine. Yet these communities do not reside
in the refugee camps of Jordan and thus remain separate from the camp
populations. The result was that my discussions with refugees took a Muslimcentered approach that raised an important question about the status of
Christians vis--vis Palestinian Muslim national discourse.
During my interviews with Muslim Palestinians, I asked about the relationship between Christians and Muslims and the status of their claims to Palestine. The most common response concerned the idea that both religious
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Religion and nationalism in the Palestinian diaspora


communities shared the same origin and goals in Palestine. Both Christians
and Muslims, Rma said, suffered the same and thus felt the same about their
homeland. Similarly, Asad, a Palestinian refugee who worked at an Islamic
orphanage, described the differences between the two communities as trivial.
For him, both shared a commonality of experience and, more importantly, a
common goal: the liberation of Palestine and the realization of the right to
return to the homeland.
The Muslim and Christian Palestinian share the same foundation and goal. There are
no differences in our goals. We are from the same country and share the same struggle.
Just as in Palestine, during the holidays, we still visit each other and share everything.
There is no conflict between us.

Regarding the more specific issue of Christian Palestinian rights to Palestine,

however, Palestinian Muslims offered an important qualification. As an
Islamic territory, my interlocutors believed Palestine belonged to the Muslims
and thus could only be ruled by a Muslim government. Christians, as ahl-AlKitab (people of the book), had rights to their holy sites and, as Palestinians,
had rights to live in their homeland. They did not, however, have the right to
rule over Muslims. During her discussion of the homeland, for example, I
asked Amal, a young Palestinian from the Wihdat camp, what she believed
regarding the rights of Christians in Palestine. In a clear and assertive
response, she said:
Regardless of whether one is Christian or Muslim, they all have a right to their holy
sites in Palestine. There is no conflict between the religions. In terms of the Palestinians
in the diaspora spread throughout the world including Europe, even if he has British or
American citizenship, he carries in his veins [his Palestinianness] and in his dialect [he
expresses his connection to Palestine]. He is therefore a Palestinian and has his rights in
his homeland. But Palestine belongs to the Muslims. Since Umar ibn al-Khattab
opened Jerusalem, it has belonged to the Muslims.

For Amal, an individuals origin in Palestine was sufficient for establishing her
rights in the territory. Christian Palestinians thus had as much right to Palestine as Muslim Palestinians. But that right was restricted in religious national
terms. As her comments illustrate above, insofar as Christians are Palestinian,
they had a right to live in Palestine. Moreover, because they are Christians,
they also had a right to their holy sites within Palestine. They did not, however,
have the right to rule as an authority over the territory. That right, according
to her, was the exclusive privilege of the Muslims grounded in the Caliph
n offered a similar answer to the
Umars conquest of Jerusalem. Abu Imra
question of Christian Palestinians. Although Palestine was a Muslim territory,
he said, Islam did not preclude the rights of Christians or even Jews in Palestine. They could live in Muslim Palestine without fear.
First, the Christians are our brothers in humanity. They are our brothers as members
of the human family and Islam compels cooperation between all humans . . . they are
all welcome.
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Michael Vicente Prez

The comments above suggest an interesting attempt to resolve a fundamental

problem within the discourse of Palestinians concerning the unequal status of
religious communities within the imagined nation. According to Abu Imrans
vision of Palestine, its identity as a Muslim territory did not negate the rights
of non-Muslim Palestinians to live within it. Palestinian Christians thus had
rights within Palestine both because of their religious status as people of the
book and as members of the Palestinian nation displaced from the homeland.
Moreover, many Palestinians did not see the presence of Palestinian Christians
or even Jews in Palestine as a necessary source of conflict. Rather, they
believed it was their idea of an exclusivist Jewish state in Palestine that contradicted the idea of Muslim Palestine. In addition, most Palestinians believed
that only through a return to Islam could Palestine be liberated. Consequently,
Palestines liberation at the hands of the Muslims would bring about Muslim
rule in the territory. Hamas, as the leading Palestinian national movement,
reflected the closest approximation of an Islamic authority and their success in
the Palestinian national elections served to underscore the idea that only
through Islam could Palestine be freed from Israeli control. Finally, Palestinians conceptualized Muslim Palestine as a utopian ideal in which both Christians and Jews could live in peace and as relative equals, yet subordinate to the
Muslims. Insofar as the idea of Muslim Palestine did not represent an
exclusivist form of Zionism, that is, the idea that Israel exists only for the Jews,
the homeland was imagined as a progressive ideal and solution to the conflict
in general.17
The positioning of Palestinian Christians as unequal subjects in an Islamic
homeland revealed a certain tension in the relationship between religion and
nationhood as envisioned by Palestinians in the camps and in Hamass discourse more generally. In particular, the idea of Muslim rule in Palestine
underscored the challenges of asserting the sovereignty of the nation while
privileging the status of a specific religious community within that nation. It
therefore revealed the inherent vulnerability of nationalism when intertwined
with religion. Indeed, the subordinate status of Christians underscored the
way religious identifications can mediate national ones. Thus despite the idea
that Muslim Palestinians were members of the Palestinian nation, their religious identification gave them a privileged position vis--vis Christians. The
nation, in this case, was fundamentally unequal.
It is clear that these problems highlight the limitations of the kind of
intertwining among Palestinians claiming the discourse of Hamas. They reveal
the challenge of making claims as and for the Palestinian nation while privileging the religious meaning of that nation, its homeland, and its struggle to its
Muslim members. These issues also point to the undefined vision of a Palestinian polity. In all of the discussions represented above, Palestinians did not
assert any particular idea of what a Muslim-ruled polity would actually look
like. Offering Christians and Jews a place within a Muslim-ruled Palestine thus
does not explain how these communities would participate in the governing of
the state. Moreover, the lack of a developed idea of the future Palestinian state
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Religion and nationalism in the Palestinian diaspora


underscores the marginalized location of a nation far removed from the

state. Living in refugee camps for decades has meant that many refugees
emphasize a discourse focused on the nation more than on the state. Refugees
seem to be more concerned with a nationalism that can ensure a future return
than with the state they will return to.

This article has taken the question of religion and nationalism from a local
perspective among a displaced community of Palestinians in Jordan. In so
doing, it breaks with a tradition of analysis that takes nationalist leaders as the
focus of nationalism. Instead, I have examined how the recipients of nationalist politics and discourse engage the field of nationalism and articulate their
own claims of identification. From this analysis, two particular points are
First, this article argues that the division in studies of nationalism has failed
to adequately account for the complexities of religious national discourse. On
one hand, the position that nationalism can be distinctly religious does not
capture the nature of claims put forth by Muslim political actors such as
Hamas and their supporters. The Muslim Palestinians I worked with have not
abandoned the idea of a national community nor have they focused their
efforts on the exclusive question of the state. On the other hand, the idea that
Islamists have sacrificed the nation at the altar of the umma is not necessarily
true. In the Palestinian context, there remains a central role for the Palestinian
nation: its struggle for the liberation and reunification in the homeland. My
argument thus rests on an intermediary position grounded in the notion of
intertwining. I suggest this approach offers a more productive analysis that can
account for the ways religion is brought into nationalist discourse without
necessarily undermining nationalism. Given the continued rise of religious
political actors working within the structures of the nation-state, such an
analysis is critical as it points to the necessity of seeing the subtle and often
tense interactions between religious ideals and nationalist visions.
The second contribution this article makes concerns the significance of
nationalism from below (Hobsbawm 1991) or folk nationalism (Smith
2000). My analysis has focused on a displaced community of Palestinians who
remain marginal both within the localnational context of Jordan and to the
Palestinian center in the OPT. In their articulations of the homeland and its
struggle, it is clear that this community has embraced the discourse of Hamas.
However, this does not mean that refugees are passive recipients of the politics
of the Palestinian national center. Instead, the appropriation of Hamass
discourse should also be seen within the specific context of displacement in
which Palestinian refugees lived. The appeal of this discourse cannot be
divorced from the growing marginalization of refugees from the Palestinian
political process in general and the larger conflict with Israel in particular.
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Michael Vicente Prez

In this sense, my analysis offers an opening for examining how local

diasporic communities engage homeland politics from afar. The ongoing
deterritorialization of peoples and simultaneous weakening and strengthening
of borders (Appadurai 1996) suggests a need for understanding how movement and confinement shape visions of community. Attending to the local
construction of nationhood in Jordan affords us a perspective on nationalism
that highlights its continued relevance for populations (paradoxically)
excluded by its logic. It allows us to see how nationhood remains hegemonic
for peoples struggling with its political, economic and geographic
I would like to thank the Wenner-Grenn Foundation and Fulbright IIE Fellowship for generously funding the research for this article. I also want to
thank Drs. Sahera Bleibleh and Cabeiri Robinson, in addition to the anonymous reviewers of this publication, for their helpful comments on the draft of
this article.

1 Hamas won 76 out of 132 parliamentary seats.
2 My research was generously funded by a Wenner-Gren dissertation research grant and a
Fulbright IIE.
3 By diaspora, I am relying on Tllyans idea of diasporicity, which manifests itself in
relations of difference wherein a community sees itself as linked to, but different from, those
among who it has settled and sees itself as linked to the people in the homeland (Tllyan 2007).
4 This research is based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in UNRWA refugee camps in
Amman, Jordan. The research period began in January 2006 and concluded in December 2007.
During my time in Amman, I conducted over 100 formal and informal interviews with registered
Palestinian refugees of multiple generations in the camps of Amman, Jarash and Irbid. In addition, I observed several functions within the camps that emphasized aspects of Palestinian identity
and nationalism including weddings, summer camp activities with refugee youth, orphan center
activities and camp meetings between activists.
5 One could increase the number to 78 by including four Hamas supporters that ran as independents (Shiqaqi 2006).
6 According to Zweiri (2006), Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas ignored warnings by the
prime minister Ahmed Qurei that divisions among Fatah candidates could compromise the
7 Emphasis mine.
8 For Hamass political structure, see Milton-Edwards and Farrell (2010); Tamimi (2011); Roy
(2011); Gunning (2010); and Mishal and Sela (2006).
9 This is not to suggest that Hamas is disinterested in regional political actors. Its external
leadership is fully engaged with states throughout the region and thus employs multiple rhetorical
approaches that speak both to the Palestinian inside and regional outside (Hroub 2010; Mishal
and Sela 2006).
10 In addition to Hamas, one could add Islamic Jihad and, more recently, salfist organizations.
However, none have been as institutionally successful as Hamas.
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Religion and nationalism in the Palestinian diaspora


11 The status of martyrs has been thoroughly discussed in several works including (Abufarha
2009; Allen 2006; Khalili 2009).
12 In Arabic, the word dawa means to call, appeal, request or summons.
Al-Ahlya (The Islamic Position
ha Al-Isla
mi, Ja
miat Al-Zarqa
13 The CD referred to Al-Ittija
of the Civil University of Zarqa
14 Thikr, in this context, refers to particular words and/or phrases meant for promoting the
remembrance of God through religious invocations.
15 Anashd is commonly used to refer to songs that do not include particular instruments and
thus do not violate what some Muslims believe is a prohibition on music.
16 Hamas fighters are known for their black hoods and green bandanas bearing the Muslim
testament of faith, there is no God but God and Muhammad is Gods messenger.
17 For a detailed exposition of Hamass official and practical position on Christian Palestinians,
see Hroub, 2000 (especially chapter 3, p. 139).

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