Since the October 7, Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel, there has been broad criticism of the support for the attacks expressed on American college campuses. The tepid response of many college and university presidents to the atrocities has also been noted.
American academics and students are well known for their support of Hamas and the “Free Palestine” movement. Less well-known is the intellectual movement within American (and European) academia that enables many to justify the massacre of civilians. As the NAS noted in its first response, behind the attacks lies “a pivotal American institution that suckles such murderous animosity to the Middle East’s sole democracy.”1
The violent and hate-filled doctrines that motivated the Hamas attacks are directly connected to the theories taught on today’s American college campuses.
The Hamas Doctrine
Hamas, which means "zeal" in Arabic and is the acronym for Haraqat al Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement), has its origins in a car accident in the Gaza Strip on December 8, 1987, when an Israeli truck collided with vehicles carrying Palestinians, several of whom were killed. This triggered protests in what became known as the First Intifada. In January 1988, the newly created Hamas issued leaflets identifying itself a wing of the long-established Islamic group Muslim Brotherhood.
The founding charter2 as well as subsequent political platforms3 and ideological statements4 of Hamas in the 35 years between 1988 and 2023 remained largely consistent. The key elements of its ideological creed center on a series of cascading claims:
- Identity: Hamas takes a reductionist and narrow view of Palestinian society as centered on one single ascriptive identity, namely being Muslim. This insistence on identity as the most salient and determinative way to describe Palestinian society thus rejects a plural view that would include other features such as individuality, individual choices, political orientation, age cohort or generation, local origins, Arab dialect, gender, social class, economic class, lifestyle, or other features. This static and reductionist identity is key to the following.
- Historical wrongs: Hamas believes that all of the land of what was historical Palestine that was put under a British colonial mandate after World War I belongs to Muslims and to Muslims alone. The value of the land and property is not so much economic as cultural, and thus the violence of history was not merely to rob but to culturally erase a whole people. As an early statement put it: “Here are the Jews, the brothers of monkeys, the murderers of the prophets, the bloodsuckers, the war agitators—murdering you, depriving you of your life after they have stolen the Motherland and your home.”5
- Victims: The result is that Muslims around the world are shared victims of not only British colonialism but of the State of Israel. Ineluctable and ongoing victimhood is thus attached to the salience of reductionist identity.
- Victimizers: While the historical ups and downs of the Arabs of Palestine could be attributed to any number of external groups—Turks, British, French, Egyptians, Jordanians—as well as to internal actors, Hamas identifies just one group as the source of its woes: Jews, a crystallization and simplification of vast historical processes into a single, clearly identified enemy.
- Reparations: In Hamas doctrine, the restitution of harms requires the removal of colonial legacies, and, therefore, the elimination of Israel. The demand to free Palestine “to the sea” is code for driving all Jews out of Palestine.
- Utopia: Hamas aims not merely to retake “stolen” land or to restore cultural patrimony but to replace modern liberal society altogether. The Hamas political program emphasizes social and economic transformation into an Islamic society where “Western values” of individual choice and pluralism are rejected while vaguely defined “social welfare” rules.
- Anti-Capitalist: The Hamas charter refers to “the Capitalist West” and promises a vague social welfare state in its place.
- Anti-System: Despite occasional pauses in armed attacks and recognitions of political processes, Hamas views liberal politics as a sham. It repeatedly uses “Camp David” as a metaphor for its broader rejection of political compromise, believing that plural politics is insufficient to remove the structural barriers to oppression faced by Palestinian Muslims.
- Anti-Western, Anti-White: The Hamas charter refers repeatedly to the broader context of its Jew-hatred as residing in hatred of the West. It anachronistically cites the Crusades (about which no records existed in the Muslim world until they read about them from the West6) and then the formation of the League of Nations as evidence of the constant assaults of the West on Muslims. Jews are in this view “white,” and the West is associated with the depredations of the European races upon Muslims.
- Violence: Since Hamas views Israel as an illegitimate entity, in effect as a criminal organization, it believes it has the right to engage in all and any forms of violence against the country and its inhabitants. Indeed, its charter insists on the obligation of all Muslims to wage jihad on Israel, an obligation which it dates to 1936. To die in the name of Allah is considered by Hamas as the highest aspiration of movement members.
From Marx to Said
The Hamas doctrine is thus composed of a series of interlinked propositions. The academic roots of this doctrine are wide and deep. It is important to see that, in addition to its embrace of long-standing radical Islam, Hamas was a product of the 1980s. One might readily ask what sorts of ideas were in currency in the Western academy concerning the Middle East in the 1980s that might have shaped the Hamas doctrine.
The most direct reference to an academic theory to be found in the Hamas charter is contained in this sentence: “Fundamental changes must be brought about in the education system to liberate it from the effects of the Ideological Invasion brought about at the hands of the Orientalists and Missionaries.”
The term “orientalist” was an obscure and anachronistic description of the field of Near Eastern and Far Eastern studies until given dramatic redefinition by the 1978 book Orientalism by Columbia University professor Edward Said (d. 2003). With this book, the term orientalist went from a dusty dictionary to a mainstream battle cry for Islamic fundamentalists.
In the extensive research on the origins of campus anti-Semitism, wrote Webman in 2013, scholars repeatedly and consistently identify “one culprit”: Edward Said and the uncritical adoption of his theory into the teaching and ideologies promoted on American and European college campuses.7
While Hamas was formed out of many influences, only one of which was modish academic theories, Said’s influence over the intellectual environment that would shape Hamas in the subsequent decades was immense. Said’s argument was that the historical wrongs perpetrated against Muslims by the West went far beyond colonial government, or even economic interaction, but were instead embedded in the very fabric of Western society and its “dominating, restructuring, and having authority over” the East.
Said argued that Palestinians were ground-zero of this Western creed, which had infected their brains: “The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed, and it is this web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing destiny.”8
Said is the keystone whose work links Hamas's backwards in time to a series of academic claims that begin with Marx and then layering on top of those of Adolph Hitler9 and then, in the post-war period key figures including the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci (d.1937) and the French philosopher Michel Foucault (d.1984). That Marx, Gramsci, and Foucault (but not Hitler) continue to be widely taught in Western institutions of higher education shows the significant foundations on which Said’s claims were built.
From Marx, Said drew the stark structuralism and deep anti-capitalism of his theories, seeing Western society as impelled towards exploitation and imperialism no matter its time or place. This explains the extraordinary inversion of reality in which modern academics, and Hamas, began to describe Israel as a “settler-colonial” state. This did not reflect historical ignorance. Rather, it reflected a re-definition of the Jews based on structural determinism. Since the Jews inherited the British colonial mandate, and since British colonialism was a product of orientalist expansionism, it followed that the Jews, whatever their ancient roots, had returned as colonial Europeans, not indigenous Levantines.
The oppressors vs. oppressed dichotomy is also owed to Marx, as well as the utopian promise of a future freed of all constraints on human freedom. Without mentioning it, Said was aligned with Nazi doctrine, in particular the doctrine of historical victimization and Jew-hatred, which the Nazis saw embodied in the Treaty of Versailles, much as Islamists like Hamas would point to the Balfour Declaration.
The rottenness of liberal society was then amplified critically by post-war communists like Gramsci and Foucault, whom Said cites as his inspirations. Said drew from them the idea that the evils inherent in the West were cultural, not political. It was not through guns or butter that the West shaped the very identity of Muslims but through the discourses inherent in a liberal society. Ideas like objectivity, merit, equality, and debate were daggers driven into the heart of colored people everywhere. The role of the academic was to compile an “inventory” of the various theoretical assaults upon the oriental person so that a battle-cry for freedom could be raised.
This ineluctable cultural identity, the need for “critical consciousness,” animates the fight for reparations and is sustained by a deeply anti-system (as opposed to merely anti-capitalist) doctrine that emerges in Orientalism from the additional influences of Gramsci and Foucault.
Said provides a modern statement of ancient anti-Semitism with all the necessary trappings: nineteenth century anti-capitalism, fascist illiberalism, and post-war anti-Westernism—a broad condemnation of the culture and peoples of the West. Academics worldwide now had a radical and simple toolkit for professional advancement, whether writing about Tunisian literature or Cambodian dance. All it took was “decolonization” of these fields of human endeavor, inserting hatred for the West into every other sentence. For Middle East scholars, as Kressell wrote, “the cause was the empowerment of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims. The struggle was against an axis of evil composed of Western Orientalism, American imperialism, and Israeli Zionism.”10
From Said to DiAngelo
Hamas changed and evolved its practices after 1988. The use of fanatical violence was sporadic in the decade after 1988 but began to accelerate in frequency during the 2000s. Likewise, while the legitimacy of violence against “orientalists, imperialists, and Zionists” had been muted in Edward’s Said’s initial theory, this changed as he began to advocate for an explicitly violent response. Academic supporters and enablers of Hamas in Western universities were now offering a clear justification for terrorism.
We see this evolution in Said’s 1993 book, Culture and Imperialism, which revels in the violent fantasies of Frantz Fanon, a black psychiatrist, born in the French Caribbean in 1925. Fanon is best known for his 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth, a bitter censure of Western society written while serving the insurgency against French rule in Algeria from 1953 until his death in 1961. The Wretched of the Earth is an explicit embrace of violence, and one with a direct attempt to praise and emulate the Nazis of Germany. The French writer Pascal Bruckner called Fanon’s “fantasies of violence as a means to self-purification” the “masterwork of a new theology” because it replaced the traditional scapegoats of prophetic traditions—Philistines, infidels, Jews—with the white man.11
In Fanon’s view, the virtuous chosen people of the Third World could be redeemed through the mass killing of Europeans. As his interpreter, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote in the book’s introduction: “Killing a European is killing two birds with one stone, eliminating in one go oppressor and oppressed, leaving one man dead and the other man free.”
Third World struggle against colonial rule, Fanon believed, was a continuation of the Nazi fight against the colonial rule of the Treaty of Versailles. As he wrote:
When German militarism decides to resolve its border problems by force, it is no surprise [. . . .] When the Algerians reject any method which does not include violence, this too is proof that something has happened or is in the process of happening. The colonized peoples, these slaves of modern times, have run out of patience.
The German scholar Elon Flaig points out that in this book we see “the adoption of formerly anti-Semitic clichés and their straightforward application to ‘the whites’.”12 This then explains how Jews become whites through their adjacency to Orientalist culture.
Culture and Imperialism is the road-marker of the turn to violence in academic theories of the Middle East. It is an ode to Fanon and his justification for violence as a means not just to political ends but to the metaphysical transformation of the world.
For Said, the “military struggle” of Fanon becomes “more not less adversarial” as time goes by. “An entirely new history unfolds” as a peasant army kills Europeans, “armed activists who return to the city for the final stages of the insurgency.” Violence is “the synthesis that overcomes the reification of white man as subject.” In other words, violence is now justified even in the interests of the white man himself, to be liberated from his awful identity. Said says that Fanon’s incitements to violence held “extraordinary power” for readers, a fact that would be echoed after the October 7 Hamas attacks by Cornell University professor Russell Rickford, who called them “exhilarating” and “energizing.”13
Said’s embrace of violence flowered with academic theories taught in the 2000s and 2010s. In the 2000s, following the Islamic terrorist attacks of September 11, a perfect Gramscian response emerged in the academia in the form of “Islamophobia” studies, that made Muslims the victims of misplaced Western discourses. The important role of postmodernism in denying basic facts, such as Islamic terrorism, gave college students a taboo and compelling narrative: the counter-terrorist response of the West is yet further evidence of the discursive ability of the West to shape reality in its interests. As one article in a mainstream political science journal insisted, this “discourse is highly contestable, and the discourse as a whole consists of a number of over-simplifications, misconceptions and mistaken inferences.” Groups like Hamas were peace-loving social justice advocates with “well-established internal democratic processes.” The mistaken claim that there was such a thing as Islamic terrorism “thus facilitates or enables the uninterrupted exercise of US and British power in the international sphere.”14
The culmination of Said’s Orientalism into a fully developed doctrine of anti-Western hatred that provided the academic cover for the Hamas doctrine came in the 2010s with the emergence of “critical race theory.” The assumption here was of pervasive racism being inherent in the West and its white and “white-adjacent” groups, including Jews, Asians, some Hispanics, and Christian Arabs.
Traditional anti-Semites hated Jews because they were deemed alien, not exactly “white.” Now, the need to implicate Israel in Western imperialism as outlined by Said led to a reconceptualization of Jews as oppressors. Thus the widespread “diversity, equity, and inclusion” projects in American higher education, which took their mission to “decenter whiteness,” could only hate Jews, not because they are non-white, but because they were white, and Israel was a Western-style liberal, free-market democracy.
Critical race theory is explicitly invoked by American universities as a key academic theory that incites Islamic violence of Hamas to correct perceived historical wrongs. In Maydan, an online publication of Abu Sulayman Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University, a writer in 2020 made explicit the important claim that “White people — not Black — were evil by nature.” This then justifies the violence of Islamist movements in the U.S., including the Black Panther Party for self-defense.15 The apotheosis of this in Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility would not be a surprise.
This then led to a return to Palestine, as in Said’s theory, but now reconceived as a “identity of the oppressed everywhere,” captured neatly in the widely circulated slogan: “We are all Palestinians.” In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas styled itself a partner with the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S.16 George Floyd was now a martyr of Palestine, fueled by the “exhilarating” violence on display during the George Floyd Riots of 2020.
“The Palestinian people, like other colonised nations before them, will persist in their struggle for freedom, even when the weight of oppression makes them hardly able to breathe,” wrote Emile Badarin, a European scholar, praising the Hamas attacks as a “struggle for freedom [. . .] and decolonization.” His essay, published on October 16, is a masterclass in the academic theories fueling Hamas terror, complete with odes to Said and Fanon.17
By the early 2020s, Hamas’s ideology had been constructed upon the foundation of academic theories that had begun in the West during the nineteenth century, crystallized in the work of Edward Said, and then espoused in full expression and teaching in American higher education with the rise of critical race theory, or wokeness.
As the Muslim apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote, the modern dogmas of American college campuses—cancel culture, social justice, critical race theory, intersectionality—are simply general theories of which Hamas terror is an instance:
Islamists shout, “Allahu Akbar” and “Death to America”; the woke chant, “Black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe.” Islamists pray to Mecca; the woke take a knee. Both like burning the American flag.
Both believe that those who refuse conversion may be harassed, or worse. Both take offense at every opportunity and seek not just apologies but concessions. Islamism inveighs against “blasphemy”; wokeism wants to outlaw “hate speech.” Islamists use the word “Islamophobia” to silence critics; the woke do the same with “racism.”
Islamists despise Jews; the woke say they just hate Israel, but the anti-Semitism is pervasive. The two share a fondness for iconoclasm: statues, beware.
Both ideologies aim to tear down the existing system and replace it with utopias that always turn out to be hellish anarchies: Islamic State in Raqqa, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle. Both are collectivist: Group identity trumps the individual. Both tolerate—and often glorify—violence carried out by zealots.18
Thus, Hamas represents nothing more than the manifestation in the real world of the academic ideas that have gestated in the minds of Western intellectuals since the 1970s. The atrocities and the support for those atrocities, we might say, are products of the Western intelligentsia. The anti-Western, anti-white, anti-meritocratic, anti-liberal, “oppressor vs. oppressed” mentality of Hamas is the same one that champions DEI on campus—it animates the constant search for new oppressed groups and historical wrongs, no matter how fabricated and distorted.
The corollary is that the same ideas that champion and applaud Hamas are those that motivate BLM supporters to attack police, loot stores, and burn down cities; the same that motivate indigenous activists to occupy roads and burn down Catholic churches; the same that motivate climate alarmists to deface public works and occupy bridges and roads. Any crime, in this view, is to be not just excused but praised. It represents a “historical reckoning” with the oppressor.
The great lie is that many modern academics believe they are engaged in purely theoretical acts, which they consider part of academic freedom—with little utility as an incitement to violence. Quite the opposite. Social justice activism instead of education became mainstream on American college campuses in the 2000s. The “decolonize” movement was about the transition from theory to praxis. Students are today called upon to struggle—to wage jihad—against perceived social injustice. After the Hamas attacks of 2023, UC Berkeley professor Victoria Huynh offered her students extra credit to “attend the national student walkout tomorrow against the settler-colonial occupation of Gaza.”
In retrospect, the violence and barbarism of Hamas was not taken seriously because the violence and barbarism of modern academic doctrines was not taken seriously. American policymakers are largely trained in, and informed by, the same academics who espouse such doctrines. As Spoerl wrote: “The reason for this persistent and dangerous blind spot is that the academic establishment that educates U.S. policymakers, journalists, and intelligence analysts [. . . prefers] to focus obsessively on the moral failings of white, Western societies.”19
A prescient observer in 1978 might have seen these implications of Orientalism. When it was memorialized in the Hamas founding charter, the evidence was clear. It has taken the massacre of Jewish civilians to highlight the terrorist implications of the modern mainstream university.
Bruce Gilley is Professor of Politics and Global Affairs, Portland State University; Member of the Board and Treasurer, NAS.
2 Muhammad Maqdsi, “Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) of Palestine,” Journal of Palestine Studies (1993).
3 Menachem Klein, “Hamas in Power,” Middle East Journal (2007), pp. 450-454.
4 Ziad Abu-Amr, “Hamas: A Historical and Political Background,” Journal of Palestine Studies (1993), pp. 9-13.
5 Shaul Bartal, “Hamās: The Islamic Resistance Movement,” in Handbook of Islamic Sects and Movements (2021), p. 382.
6 Thomas Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades (2006); Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (2009).
7 Esther Webman, “Treading in Troubled Waters: Seeking the Roots of Muslim Antisemitism,” Bustan: The Middle East Book Review (2013), p. 130.
8 Edward Said, Orientalism (1978, Vintage edition 1979), pp.3, 27.
9 Matthias Küntzel, Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11(2007); Jeffrey Herf, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (2009).
10 Neil Kressel, “The Sons of Pigs and Apes”: Muslim Antisemitism and the Conspiracy of Silence (2012) p. 94.
11 Pascal Bruckner, The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt (1983), pp. x, 185.
12 Egon Flaig, “Faschistoider Antikolonialismus: Frantz Fanon [The Fascist Anti-Colonialism of Frantz Fanon],” in Die Niederlage Der Politischen Vernunft: Wie Wir Die (Errungenschaften Der) Aufklärung Verspielen [The Defeat Of Political Reason: How We Gamble Away the Achievements of the Enlightenment] (2017).
13 Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (1993), pp. 249, 282, 283, 326, 283.
14 Richard Jackson, “Constructing Enemies: 'Islamic Terrorism' in Political and Academic Discourse,” Government and Opposition (2007), pp. 412, 415, 421.
15 Stephen Jamal Leeper, “In Defense of Critical Race Theory: Islam, Race, & the Modern Public Intellectual,” Maydan, February 5, 2020, https://themaydan.com/2020/02/in-defense-of-critical-race-theory-islam-race-the-modern-public-intellectual/
16 Fabiola Cineas, “How Black Support For Zionism Morphed Into Support For Palestine,” Vox News, October 17, 2023, https://www.vox.com/2023/10/17/23918689/black-palestinian-solidarity-jewish-alliance-israel.
17 Emile Badarin, “Israel-Palestine war: Gaza has sparked a meltdown in the West's colonial mindset,” Middle East Eye, October 16, 2023. Israel-Palestine war: Gaza has sparked a meltdown in the West's colonial mindset | Middle East Eye.
18 Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “What Islamists and ‘Wokeists’ Have in Common,” Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2020.
19 Joseph S. Spoerl, “Parallels Between Nazi and Islamist Anti-Semitism,” Jewish Political Studies Review (2020), p. 226.
Kobi Gideon / Government Press Office, "Scenes of destruction in Kibbutz Bari, the Iron Swords War, the fourth day of the war, after the eighth Saturday of the Sukkot gathering, terrorists from the terrorist organization Hamas invaded the settlement and carried out an indiscriminate massacre of the residents of the kibbutz," CC BY-SA 3.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons