Militant Islamist Renunciations from Egyptian Prisons:
An Ideological Challenge to al-Qaida
by Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN
Grand abstractions such as Islamophobia or the classifying of all Islam as the
problem may be satisfying for some think-tanks, commentators, or blog sites, however
in the real world of countering violent Islamist ideology such abstractions are
of no real worth. Among the questions being asked among Muslim Arab intellectuals
fighting militant Islamists are: Is al-Qaida generally and its deputy leader Ayman
al-Zawahiri specifically, isolated ideologically among Islamist and militant Islamist
groups? If so, what narrative will Zawahiri produce to maintain al-Qaida's
relevance among militant Islamist groups? In a 2010 book by a former Gamaa
Islamiyah (Islamic Group) operative Abdel-Moeim Moneeb, the jihadist revisionism
and renunciation of violence by Egypt's militant groups is collected in a single
volume. The author was jailed from 1993 to 2007, for being part of several
conspiracies to commit acts of terrorism on behalf of the Islamic Group (IG).
His "Murjeeat al-Jihadiyeen, al-Qisaa al-Khafiyah li murajiyat al-Jihad
wal Jamaa al-Islamiyah dakhil wa kharij al-sijn," (Jihadist Renunciations: The
Hidden Story of the Revisionism of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group
in and out of Prison) is 286 pages, and was published by Madbooli Press in Cairo,
Egypt. It catalogs the counter-narrative of former violent Islamist ideologues
starting with Zawahiri's mentor Imam al-Sherief (aka Dr. Fadl) to some of the founding
leaders of violent jihad of the 1990s and 1980s. While many of these individuals
are not friends of the United States, this volume shows that we should not be intimidated
by Zawahiri's pseudo-intellectual worldview and his peculiar brand of Islamic interpretations
that even elements of the most radical Islamists have since abandoned.
In addition, the book offers a deconstruction of al-Qaida ideology using jihadist
language, and further demonstrates al-Qaida's ideological marginalization among
the kaleidoscope of radical and violent Islamist groups. Finally, Zawahiri's
critique of this criticism from jihadists who have written detailed ideological
renunciations reinforces that the al-Qaida senior leaders cannot be reasoned with
and only marginalized.
Zawahiri Ideologically Attacks His Mentor
Zawahiri 300-page critique, entitled "The Exoneration," of Imam al-Sherief's
(hereafter referred to as Dr. Fadl) book is that his former mentor does not suggest
any remedies for the (modern) Muslim condition. Zawahiri reduces Dr. Fadl's
ideological attacks to six choices, all of which are unacceptable to the al-Qaida
deputy, they are: (1) Migration; (2) Isolation; (3) Forgiveness; (4) Capitulation;
(5) Patience; and (6) Remaining silent to injustice. Zawahiri says that his
mentor does not take into account the fatwas (religious opinions) of Shawkani
(d. 1834) and Ghazali (d. 1111) one cleric focuses on the importance of jihad as
fighting and not striving, the later cleric focuses on the idea of what constitutes
an Islamic state, and Ghazali finds his answer using pre-Islamic Persian sources
merging kingship and religion. Zawahiri just mentions the names of these clerics
despite both these scholars have written volumes of works, so one has to assume
what fragments of both these scholars Zawahiri is referring to in criticizing Dr.
Ideological Schisms on Who and When to Conduct Offensive Jihad?
Zawahiri levels his own confusion of the requirement for parental permission
to undertake jihad (as fighting), and does not (likely on purpose) engage in debate
on the nuance between jihad as a fard kifaya (limited obligation) versus
fard ayn (collective obligation). He focuses on Dr. Fadl heaping criticism
on the mujahideen fighters and not against the west that he consistently
refers to as "crusaders" and what they have done from the caucuses to Spain.
There are much ideological, psychological, and social insecurities embedded in Zawahiri's
responses to Dr. Fadl that needs to be highlighted and commented on. What
he chooses to highlight is as significant as what he chooses to ignore, and it weaves
an Islamic narrative that is purely Zawahiri's of which he has delusions of grandeur
that more and more Muslims would take seriously.
Egyptian Intelligentsia Attacks al-Qaida
The author then assesses the work of Dr. Muneer Goma'a who advocates that Dr.
Fadl although critical of Zawahiri, has not renounced a key concept in militant
Islamist ideology, that of takfir or declaring fellow Muslims apostate.
Goma'a, who is influential among Islamic scholars in Egypt, has called on al-Azhar
Rectory, the most organized body in Sunni Islam, to issue commentary marginalizing
and Islamically refuting both Zawahiri and Dr. Fadl. Goma'a makes an interesting
argument that Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, and militant Islamists like
al-Qaida confuses muwatanah (citizenship and civic duty) with ilmaniyah
(secularism) and that shariah (Islamic law) upholds the highest ideals of
citizenship, such as the protection of non-Muslims in Muslim lands. He also
argues that jihad as fighting, can only be undertaken by a collective of Muslims,
and not based on individual desires. Goma'a cites the great grandfather of
militant Islamist ideologues Sheikh Taqi ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1327), a person held
in high esteem among radical Islamists to critique them. Goma'a highlights
that Ibn Taymiyyah wrote that jihad def'aa (as a defensive obligation) can
only be undertaken based on one's capability and only after one has confirmed their
iman (piety). He challenges militant Islamists by writing that there
is a struggle for rights, democracy, and freedom to apply shariah (Islamic
law) that is neglected by the obsession with violent direct action. While there
is much to disagree about in Goma'a's thesis his are among a cacophony of voices
undermining al-Qaida ideology.
Dr. Kamel Abdel-Fatah is another critique of violent Islamist ideology who advocates
the ulema (clergy) develop an Islamic political jurisprudence that takes
into account realistic current events. He argues that militant Islamists are
filling a niche due to the lack of current interpretations of what constitutes Islamic
civil society in the 21st century. He highlights such issues as
the clergy commenting on civil affairs between Muslims and non-Muslims in Islamic
nations. Abdel-Fatah advocates standing by Egypt's Christians who are asking
for the right to build churches, and the free exercise of their faith. He
wants Egypt's clerical body at al-Azhar to address such issues as the status of
the Muslim Brotherhood, since it abandoned violent action in 1966. There is
much to argue with Abdel-Fatah, such as defining Islamic civil society like the
question of imposing Islamic government opens the question who's Islam? However,
these are the voices competing with al-Qaida in Egypt and among the Arab intelligentsia.
Assessing the Seriousness of Groups and Persons Renouncing Violence
Kamal Habeeb argues about the naiveté of Islamists and militant Islamists who
thought they could use the 1979 Iranian Revolution as a template in Egypt.
He says these Islamists demonstrate an appalling ignorance of social differences
between Egyptians and Iranians, not to mention the religious expressional differences
between Sunni Egypt and Shiite Iran. He offers an interesting observation
that Islamist movements of the 1980s and 1990s that were once violent have turned
to thinking about socio-economic problems of the masses. The day to day issues
of justice and development have occupied much of Islamist political discourse in
the 21st century, thereby transforming themselves into a political party.
If Habeeb's premise is true, this begs the question is al-Qaida not catching up
with this general trend in Islamist grassroots organization within the political
process? Judging Islamist versus militant Islamist groups should center upon
the following questions from Amru Hamzawy:
- To what extent has militant Islamist revisionism translated to true reform?
- Is this true revisionism or a tactical retreat?
- Is this a tactical renunciation of violence that is temporary or permanent?
- What do individuals or groups within the militant Islamist movement do after
Hamzawy makes an interesting observation that Islam's general trend in the last
fourteen centuries have centered on orthopraxy (good practice) and the law, much
like traditional Judaism. Those fixated on ideology were a minority and do
not last long. He cites the Kharijites (the fringe group) who rejected
mainstream Islam and whose disagreement was political and became theological lasted
no more than sixty years before being marginalized. The book also discusses
how prison offers a quiet place, in which the prisoner's basic needs are met, and
they are free to pursue the kind of serious Islamic study they never undertook as
children, or while being indoctrinated my militant Islamists, which channels operatives
into fragments of Islam designed to get them to commit violent acts.
Hamzawy's discussion opens all kinds of possibilities, for whenever Zawahiri
is frustrated by Islamic argumentation that undermines him he states this is the
Islam that America wants. Zawahiri uses this as a means to marginalize the wide
Islamic opinions that differ from his own, just like Anwar al-Awlaki, the spiritual
leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), labels theological arguments
that challenge him "New World" Fatwas. Zawahiri concludes his 300 page critique
of Dr. Fadl, be addressing the Muslim community, the security apparatus, to those
jailed who remain steadfast, and to those jailed partaking in this renunciation
initiated by the security apparatus. This work is worrying Zawahiri that he
has spent much time and effort issuing his own refutations.
The book highlights that twenty-five volumes have been written by previous leaders
of the militant Islamist movements from within Egypt's prisons. Dr. Fadl is
on his fourth volume that is attacking Zawahiri and Bin Laden by name and labels
al-Qaida as the cult of these two leaders. This demonstrates a higher level
of nuance needed for America's counter-terrorism analysts. The author compares
the differences in debate to the difference within Communism of Stalin versus Lenin
versus Mao, with the Red Brigades conducting suicide missions in the name of Marxist-Leninism
on the extreme end. The Turkish Peace and Justice Party (AKP) wants to enter
the European Union, while al-Qaida wishes to destroy the nation-state. These
are the kinds of nuances George Kennan advocated, and what is needed in delineating
between Islam, Islamist political theories, and militant Islamist ideologies.
Dr. Fadl matters because he is not only a mentor to Zawahiri but also influenced
Abu Qatada al-Filistini (Bin Laden's representative in Europe) and Abu Muhammad
al-Maqdisi (Al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi's mentor).
The criticisms by former militant Islamist leaders of Zawahiri and how he chooses
to respond tells us much about the state of al-Qaida's ideological and strategic
mindset and should be highlighted and studied by America's counter-terrorism experts.
This review essay is an attempt at highlighting the Arab discourse that attacks
al-Qaida ideology to American readers for debate, discussion and a higher level
of counter-terrorism intelligence analysis.
Commander Aboul-Enein is a Navy Medical Service Corps and Foreign Area Officer.
He is the author of "Militant
Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat," published in 2010 by Naval
Institute Press. Commander Aboul-Enein teaches an elective on Islam, Islamist Political
Theory and Militant Islamist Ideology at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
He wishes to thank the University of Iowa and National Defense University Libraries
for providing this work for analysis.