Commentary Magazine


Wright on al-Qaeda

Lawrence Wright, author of the brilliant book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, has written an extremely significant essay in The New Yorker, “The Rebellion Within.”

Wright’s article is devoted to an issue that has fascinated me for months now and which I have written on (see here and here): how the tide within the Islamic world is turning against jihadism and more specifically, the significance of Sayyid Imam al-Sharif–who is more widely known by the pseudonym Dr. Fadl–breaking with the extremist and violent ideology he helped develop and popularize. This is one of the most significant and, until now, unreported ideological developments within the Islamic world. (Wright wisely points out that Fadl’s defection is not the only relevant data point; we have seen key Saudi and Palestinian clerics make similar arguments. For example, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Aal al-Sheikh, the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa in October 2007 forbidding Saudi youth from engaging in jihad abroad. And a month earlier, Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, an influential Saudi cleric whom Osama bin Laden once lionized, wrote an “open letter” condemning bin Laden).

By way of background: Fadl, an Egyptian, is a living legend within the Islamic world and former mentor to Ayman Zawahiri, the ideological leader of Al Qaeda. In November 2007, the first segment of Fadl’s book appeared in the newspapers Al Masri Al Youm and Al Jarida. Titled “Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World,” it attempted to (in Wright’s words) “reconcile Fadl’s well-known views with his sweeping modifications.” The result is that “Fadl’s arguments undermined the entire intellectual framework of jihadist warfare.” Wright argues that Fadl’s book is “a trenchant attack on the immoral roots of Al Qaeda’s theology:”

The premise that opens “Rationalizing Jihad” is “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property.” Fadl then establishes a new set of rules for jihad, which essentially define most forms of terrorism as illegal under Islamic law and restrict the possibility of holy war to extremely rare circumstances. His argument may seem arcane, even to most Muslims, but to men who had risked their lives in order to carry out what they saw as the authentic precepts of their religion, every word assaulted their world view and brought into question their own chances for salvation.

There is more:

Fadl repeatedly emphasizes that it is forbidden to kill civilians-including Christians and Jews-unless they are actively attacking Muslims. “There is nothing in the Sharia about killing Jews and the Nazarenes, referred to by some as the Crusaders,” Fadl observes. “They are the neighbors of the Muslims . . . and being kind to one’s neighbors is a religious duty.” Indiscriminate bombing-“such as blowing up of hotels, buildings, and public transportation”-is not permitted, because innocents will surely die. . . .

Speaking of Iraq, he notes that, without the jihad there, “America would have moved into Syria.” However, it is unrealistic to believe that, “under current circumstances,” such struggles will lead to Islamic states. Iraq is particularly troubling because of the sectarian cleansing that the war has generated. Fadl addresses the bloody division between Sunnis and Shiites at the heart of Islam: “Harming those who are affiliated with Islam but have a different creed is forbidden.” Al Qaeda is an entirely Sunni organization; the Shiites are its declared enemies. Fadl, however, quotes Ibn Taymiyya, one of the revered scholars of early Islam, who is also bin Laden’s favorite authority: “A Muslim’s blood and money are safeguarded even if his creed is different.”

Wright’s essay–which includes fascinating details on Fadl’s life, his relationship with Zawahiri, the rift that developed between them, and their recent debate about the nature of meaning of jihad–concludes:

One afternoon in Egypt, I visited Kamal Habib, a key leader of the first generation of Al Jihad, who is now a political scientist and analyst. His writing has gained him an audience of former radicals who, like him, have sought a path back to moderation. We met in the cafeteria of the Journalists’ Syndicate, in downtown Cairo. Habib is an energetic political theorist, unbroken by ten years in prison, despite having been tortured. (His arms are marked with scars from cigarette burns.) “We now have before us two schools of thought,” Habib told me. “The old school, which was expressed by Al Jihad and its spinoff, Al Qaeda, is the one that was led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Sheikh Maqdisi, Zarqawi. The new school, which Dr. Fadl has given expression to, represents a battle of faith. It’s deeper than just ideology.” He went on, “The general mood of Islamist movements in the seventies was intransigence. Now the general mood is toward harmony and coexistence. The distance between the two is a measure of their experience.” Ironically, Dr. Fadl’s thinking gave birth to both schools. “As long as a person lives in a world of jihad, the old vision will control his thinking,” Habib suggested. “When he’s in battle, he doesn’t wonder if he’s wrong or he’s right. When he’s arrested, he has time to wonder.”

“Dr. Fadl’s revisions and Zawahiri’s response show that the movement is disintegrating,” Karam Zuhdy, the Islamic Group leader, told me one afternoon, in his modest apartment in Alexandria. He is a striking figure, fifty-six years old, with blond hair and black eyebrows. His daughter, who is four, wrapped herself around his leg as an old black-and-white Egyptian movie played silently on a television. Such movies provide a glimpse of a more tolerant and hopeful time, before Egypt took its dark turn into revolution and Islamist violence. I asked Zuhdy how his country might have been different if he and his colleagues had never chosen the bloody path. “It would have been a lot better now,” he admitted. “Our opting for violence encouraged Al Jihad to emerge.” He even suggested that, had the Islamists not murdered Sadat thirty years ago, there would be peace today between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He quoted the Prophet Muhammad: “Only what benefits people stays on the earth.”

“It’s very easy to start violence,” Zuhdy said. “Peace is much more difficult.”

The tectonic plates have been shifting within the Islamic world for many months now. Thanks to Wright’s new essay, many more people in this country will recognize what is unfolding and its ramifications for al Qaeda specifically and jihadism more broadly. And while there is plenty of work that remains to be done and this struggle is far from over, what we have seen are heartening, far-reaching, and perhaps even pivotal developments in the history of jihad.

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