GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – After nearly four years of Hamas rule, the Gaza Strip's small secular community is in tatters, decimated by the militant group's campaign to impose its strict version of Islam in the coastal territory.
Hamas has bullied men and women to dress modestly, tried to keep the sexes from mingling in public and sparked a flight of secular university students and educated professionals. Most recently, it has confiscated novels it deems offensive to Islam from a bookshop and banned Gaza's handful of male hairdressers from styling women's hair.
The Hamas push toward religious fundamentalism is especially striking at a time of great change in the Middle East. With the Iranian-backed group firmly entrenched in power, Gaza seems unlikely to experience the type of pro-democracy unrest that has swept through much of the region.
In Gaza, defense of human rights and democracy has traditionally been the role of people whose world view is not shaped solely by Islam. Their shrinking influence could undermine those values.
Some argue that the case of Gaza could also be a warning sign for those pushing for quick democratic reforms in the region. Hamas rose to power in part by winning internationally backed parliamentary elections held in 2006.
Hamas officials say claims that they are trying to Islamize Gaza are meant to help deter the international community from recognizing their rule. "This isn't true," said Yousef Rizka, senior Hamas government official. "We respect freedom."
Gaza, a tiny sliver of land squeezed between Egypt and Israel, always had a significant Islamic flavor, but once tolerated bars and cinemas, especially during Egyptian rule from 1948 to 1967. A conservative religious movement began to take hold in the 1980s, as part of a larger, region-wide religious awakening and because of intensifying conflict with Israel, which occupied the territory from 1967 to 2005.
The trend accelerated with the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in 1987, which coincided with the founding of Hamas. In June 2007, Hamas seized control of Gaza after ousting forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In Gaza, whose 1.5 million people are overwhelmingly devout Muslims, "liberal" and "secular" are loose, interchangeable terms. They apply to women who exchange modest Muslim headscarves for Western clothes, men who don't observe obligatory Muslim prayers, as well as those who call for separation of faith and politics.
Because the terms are used loosely, it's hard to know how many Gazans are actually secular. They dominate Gaza's human rights organizations, art collectives and youth groups.
Since the Hamas takeover, their numbers appear to have shrunk. There are no firm statistics, but their public profile has certainly diminished. Many left to study abroad and never returned. Others obtained refugee visas in Europe or found work in the Gulf.
"In the end, the people who think differently are leaving," said Rami, a 32-year-old activist in one of Gaza's few secular groups. He refused to give his last name, fearing retribution.
The Gallery Cafe, one of Gaza's last secular spots, is a freeze-frame of their lonely fortunes.
About a dozen chain-smoking men and three women swigged nonalcoholic beer and sugary mint tea on a recent night as they debated the protests sweeping the Arab world. They huddled on plastic chairs under a marquee, pummeled by chilly wind.
The trend toward religious fundamentalism preceded the Hamas takeover. In recent years, hard-liners have burned down the cinemas. Their charred remains are still visible in Gaza City. Militants blew up the last bar in 2005.
Gaza women, whose attire once varied from Western pants and skirts to colorful traditional embroidered robes, began donning ankle-length loose robes. Women with face veils, once rarely seen in Gaza, are now a common sight.
After winning the 2006 election, Hamas vowed it wouldn't impose Islamic law. But within two years, bureaucrats began ordering changes that targeted secular Gaza residents.
During the summer of 2009, plainclothes Interior Ministry officials on beach patrols ordered men to wear shirts.
Today, plainclothes officers sometimes halt couples in the streets, demanding to see marriage licenses. Last year, the Interior Ministry banned women from smoking water pipes in public. Islamic faith does not ban women from smoking, but it is considered taboo in Gaza society.
In November, officials shuttered the U.N.-funded Sharek Youth Forum, Gaza's largest youth organization and a popular hangout for secular youth.
Sharek employees say they were interrogated over pornography found on some staff computers. They said it was the personal material of some employees and offered to punish them for inappropriate behavior.
In January, the Culture Ministry confiscated two novels from Gaza City's dusty Ibn Khaldoun bookshop. They said residents complained the books offended Islamic values.
One described the lives of Egyptian immigrants in the U.S. and has been criticized for portraying a romantically involved unmarried couple. The other, an 18-year-old book by Syrian writer Haidar Haidar called "A Banquet for Seaweed," was deemed blasphemous in parts of the Muslim world because it contains phrases describing God as a "failed artist" and the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer.
Pockets of dissent remain. Gaza human rights groups frequently and publicly denounce Hamas campaigns.
One group of Gaza youth issued a call for support on Facebook, raging against their Hamas rulers, the U.N., and Israel. Most people who joined the effort live abroad.
Jamal Sharif, an English-language lecturer, said many Gazans live two lives: They submit to Hamas rules on the streets, but keep their own, more secular, ideas alive at home through the Internet and satellite TV.
"That's where we learn to be cultured," Sharif said.