The revolt against al-Qaeda
Lawrence Wright, author of the Looming Tower, a best-selling account of the beginnings of al-Qaeda, may now be chronicling its end. In a 14-page article in the New Yorker, Wright describes the revolt of al-Qaeda's theological pillars against its version of the Jihad.
The most prominent Jihadi intellectual to turn against al-Qaeda is Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (AKA Dr. Fadl), an Egyptian surgeon and Islamic scholar, who among other things mentored Ayman al-Zawahiri and was the spiritual mentor of fighters in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Dr. Fadl's 'Guide' "begins with the premise that jihad is the natural state of Islam. Muslims must always be in conflict with nonbelievers, Fadl asserts, resorting to peace only in moments of abject weakness." Subsequently Fald went on to author a monumental tome, "The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge", in which Dr. Fadl says:
salvation is available only to the perfect Muslim. Even an exemplary believer can wander off the path to Paradise with a single misstep. Fadl contends that the rulers of Egypt and other Arab countries are apostates of Islam. “The infidel’s rule, his prayers, and the prayers of those who pray behind him are invalid,” Fadl decrees. “His blood is legal.” He declares that Muslims have a duty to wage jihad against such leaders; those who submit to an infidel ruler are themselves infidels, and doomed to damnation.” Anyone who believes otherwise is a heretic and deserves to be slaughtered.
Dr. Fadl was as bloodthirsty as they came and could quote from the Sacred Texts to prove it, a fact which recommended him highly to the fighters in the field and made him an authority within the movement. He was so gruesomely brilliant that he threatened to put Zawahiri in the shade, a condition which Zawahiri plotted to reverse by subtly putting Dr. Fadl down and issuing distorted versions of the master's magnum opus. This set the stage for Lawrence Wright's major narrative: the "revisions" of Dr. Fadl, who now asserts that al-Qaeda's brand of bloodshed has no legitimate place in Muslim theology.
Fadl's eventual about-face had several roots. The first was his resentment of Zawahiri. The second was the outrage over al-Qaeda's many murders of Muslims in in different countries. The third, sad to say, was regret over how it had all turned out. The triumphal march Dr. Fadl had envisioned had gone wrong. After 9/11 Dr. Fadl was arrested in Yemen and extradited to Egypt, and may never be released. While in prison, he wrote a series of "revisions" to the Jihadi doctrine. This is the primary intellectual basis for the "revolt against al-Qaeda".
One senior Egyptian cleric regarded as the model of Islamic moderation by Westerners told Wright that he understood Fadl's change of heart because one had to adapt to the times. "We accept the revisions conditionally, not as the true teachings of Islam but with the understanding that this process is like medicine for a particular time". Dr. Fadl located the roots of his newfound pacifism much more directly:
"People hate America, and the Islamist movements feel their hatred and their impotence. Ramming America has become the shortest road to fame and leadership among the Arabs and Muslims. But what good is it if you destroy one of your enemy’s buildings, and he destroys one of your countries? What good is it if you kill one of his people, and he kills a thousand of yours? . . . That, in short, is my evaluation of 9/11."
In short, Dr. Fadl's critique of Bin Laden's leadership and doctrine is driven by two assessments. The first is that it has resulted in provoking an unmanageable response; the second is that Bin Laden has inflicted too much collateral damage on Muslims. But it did not occur from some newly discovered revulsion to taking innocent human life. Regarding terrorism, Fadl writes:
Fadl acknowledges that “terrorizing the enemy is a legitimate duty”; however, he points out, “legitimate terror” has many constraints. Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks in America, London, and Madrid were wrong, because they were based on nationality, a form of indiscriminate slaughter forbidden by Islam. In his Al Hayat interview, Fadl labels 9/11 “a catastrophe for Muslims,” because Al Qaeda’s actions “caused the death of tens of thousands of Muslims—Arabs, Afghans, Pakistanis and others.”
He laments the fact that, in a globalized world, it is no longer so easy to distinguish between infidel and Muslim, observing that Western converts may look un-Muslim, and thereby killed by mistake; while contract workers in the Middle East are protected from violence by an implied Islamic treaty and may inconveniently get the way. In short, he has no regrets for the Jihad, only reservations about the way things are going within the framework of an unchanged strategic perspective.
But Zawahiri could not of course take Dr. Fadl's denunciations lying down. Al-Qaeda had been called a name, and moreover, a loser, to its face. He responded by casting aspersions on Dr. Fadl, hinting he was being used by Egyptian intelligence. Zawahiri sarcastically wondered how prisoners in Egyptian jails could so easily spread their messages abroad. He tellingly disparaged Dr. Fadl's own competence, comparing the beaten men in jail with the Jihadis on the outside who were shaking the world. And Zawahiri rejected the notion that 9/11 was a gratuitous attack, claiming that it was merely a reprisal for an earlier American outrage. Readers will be surprised to learn what that outrage was.
He compares 9/11 to the 1998 American bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, in retaliation for Al Qaeda’s destruction of two American embassies in East Africa. (The U.S. mistakenly believed that the plant was producing chemical weapons.) “I see no difference between the two operations, except that the money used to build the factory was Muslim money and the workers who died in the factory’s rubble”—actually, a single night watchman—“were Muslims, while the money that was spent on the buildings that those hijackers destroyed was infidel money and the people who died in the explosion were infidels.” ... "The majority of scholars say that it is permissible to strike at infidels, even if Muslims are among them,” Zawahiri contends. He cites a well-known verse in the Koran to support, among other things, the practice of kidnapping: “When the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolators wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.”
In the words of Frank Sinatra, Zawahiri said, "regrets I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention." Nor did the "fair" treatment enjoyed by Muslims in other countries deserve any reciprocity. Zawahiri wrote sadly about the inconveniences of living in the West:
To dispute Fadl’s assertion that Muslims living in non-Islamic countries are treated fairly, Zawahiri points out that in some Western countries Muslim girls are forbidden to wear hijab to school. Muslim men are prevented from marrying more than one wife, and from beating their wives, as allowed by some interpretations of Sharia.
It makes for depressing reading. The Jihadi revolt against al-Qaeda is predominantly based on the fact that it is losing the military struggle. It is not, insofar as I can glean from Dr. Fadl's writings, the result of some upsurge of pity, some inclination to mercy or anything like a qualm of conscience. The intellectual foundations of the jihad remain undisturbed; as adamant as ever.
At the psychological root of this mental intransigence lie two things. First the conviction that the West is to blame for the backwardness, poverty and violence of Muslim countries; and second, that the West itself is an abomination to Allah. The former perception has been cemented by centuries of resentment; the second springs from the immutable word of Allah. And while al-Qaeda has been kicked to pieces by the US, Wright observes that these psychological foundations remain. Therefore while al-Qaeda itself may be finished or dying, it may regenerate. The King of the Jihad may be wobbling on his throne. But all around him, the pretenders, eager for the scepter, close in from the shadows on every side. Wright concludes:
According to a recent National Intelligence Estimate, Al Qaeda has been regenerating, and remains the greatest terror threat to America. Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, says that although Fadl’s denunciation has weakened Al Qaeda’s intellectual standing, “from the worm’s-eye view Al Qaeda fighters have on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, things are going more their way than they have in a long time.” He went on, “The Pakistani government is more accommodating. The number of suicide bombers in both countries is way up, which indicates a steady supply of fighters. Even in Iraq, the flow is slower but continues.”
Still, the core of Al Qaeda is much reduced from what it was before 9/11. An Egyptian intelligence official told me that the current membership totals less than two hundred men; American intelligence estimates range from under three hundred to more than five hundred. Meanwhile, new Al Qaeda-inspired groups, which may be only tangentially connected to the leaders, have spread, and older, more established terrorist organizations are now flying the Al Qaeda banner, outside the control of bin Laden and Zawahiri. Hoffman thinks this is the reason that bin Laden and Zawahiri have been emphasizing Israel and Palestine in their latest statements. “I see the pressure building on Al Qaeda to do something enormous this year,” Hoffman said. “The biggest damage that Dr. Fadl has done to Al Qaeda is to bring into question its relevance.”
Yet if all the "revolt against al-Qaeda" achieves is to renew the quest for a more effect way of waging the Jihad then it is hardly a strategic achievement for the West at all. What is required, and what multiculturalism specifically refuses to do, is engage its foundations. The Western world must win the intellectual equivalent of Israel's basic demand: the right to exist. Somehow and in some way, the zero-sum game set up by Mohammed must be replaced by a non-zero sum version in which all humanity can peacefully share the planet.
Nor is the goal as fanciful as it seems. One of the most striking things about Wright's New Yorker article is the importance of doctrine to the Jihad. It is a discourse dominated by bearded academics in Cairo and Muslim intellectuals in London. American JDAMs may strike anywhere in the world, but here, in the intellectual heart of the Jihad the West is only silence.
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