Small Wars Journal

Militant Islamist Renunciations from Egyptian Prisons

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.


Giles Goat boy (not verified)

Tue, 11/16/2010 - 8:55am

Talk of fracturing within 'Islamist' community is all very interesting - and comparisons to similar schisms infecting communist regimes also edifying no doubt - but let's face it the real divide is all about secularism and the rise of the individual, why and how these cultural permutations evolved in the West but languished in the East in general and within Islamic cultures in particular - 'extremism' is just a subset of that central disconnect between East and West - in this regard a study of the rise of Europe from the fall of Rome to Westphalia and contemporaneous developments in China and Islam are most revealing - in other words, you can't just think of the problem merely in terms of religion and its theological extensions.


Tue, 11/16/2010 - 5:09am

Thank you...I enjoyed reading this review and hope that these ideas get the traction that they deserve...this is how to take the battle to the adversary on his own take it from the physical domain into the information domain where for so long we have been would be interesting to see what further commentaries might come from the Islamic world on this topic...