The rise of ex­trem­ism

Aca­demic Shi­raz Ma­her’s back­story to the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIL is not only es­sen­tial read­ing for pol­i­cy­mak­ers but an ac­ces­si­ble his­tory for gen­eral read­ers, Robin Yassin-Kassab writes

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Cur­rently un­der mil­i­tary pres­sure in Iraq and Syria, and still ter­ror­is­ing civil­ians far be­yond those lands, ISIL has hor­ri­fied and be­wil­dered Mus­lims and non-Mus­lims alike.

Its care­fully stud­ied bar­barism and cin­e­matic sav­agery seem to owe as much to Hol­ly­wood ac­tion movies and com­puter com­bat games as to in­ter­pre­ta­tions of clas­si­cal Is­lamic ju­rispru­dence; the fu­ri­ously de­struc­tive pas­sions of its ad­her­ents ap­pear in­sane.

ISIL is cer­tainly im­moral, but its ac­tions are rooted in spe­cific po­lit­i­cal con­texts and based on a greatly con­tested anal­y­sis of an­cient and con­tem­po­rary Is­lamic texts.

Shi­raz Ma­her’s mag­is­te­rial Salafi-Ji­hadism: The His­tory of an Idea pro­vides an “ex­plana­tory back­story” to this and other man­i­fes­ta­tions of what could be called in short­hand the Al Qaeda tra­di­tion.

Bri­tish-Pak­istani scholar Ma­her, a fel­low at the In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for the Study of Rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion, Kings Col­lege Lon­don, re­searches the topic from an aca­demic per­spec­tive. In his stu­dent years, as a mem­ber of the now-banned ex­trem­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion Hizb ut-Tahrir, he ex­pe­ri­enced it from within.

Salafists preach “pro­gres­sion through re­gres­sion”, specif­i­cally a re­turn to the prac­tice of the first three gen­er­a­tions of Mus­lims known as the Salaf Al Salih, or the “righ­teous pre­de­ces­sors”.

Although its an­tecedents go back at least to the me­dieval the­olo­gian Ibn Taymiyya, Salafism is a mod­ern phe­nom­e­non – a re­sponse to moder­nity – de­vel­oped in the past 150 years. There are “qui­etist” and “ac­tivist” strains, but Ma­her’s book fo­cuses on the “vi­o­lent-re­jec­tion­ists” who have risen to promi­nence even more re­cently. Their as­cent since the early 1990s co­in­cided with a de­cline in those va­ri­eties of po­lit­i­cal Is­lam that hoped to achieve power through re­formist or demo­cratic means.

Ma­her quotes Trot­sky’s dic­tum that “war is the lo­co­mo­tive of his­tory”. The war sparked by the sus­pen­sion of Al­ge­rian democ­racy, the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, the wars in Iraq, and to­day’s con­flict in Syria, con­sti­tute sta­tions in the de­vel­op­ment of Salafi-Ji­hadism, a move­ment which is at once revo­lu­tion­ary and deeply re­ac­tionary.

Ma­her de­fines Salafi-Ji­hadism in terms of its par­tic­u­lar in­ter­pre­ta­tions of five key con­cepts: ji­had, tak­fir, al-wala’ wa-l-bara’, tawhid and hakimiyya.

To take the last first, mod­ern in­ter­est in hakimiyya, or “the se­cur­ing of po­lit­i­cal sovereignty for God”, was pro­voked by neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences of colo­nial con­quest and forced in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion. Sev­eral im­por­tant Mus­lim thinkers in Bri­tish In­dia, in­clud­ing Abul A’la Maududi and the poet Muham­mad Iqbal, urged Is­lamic cul­tural re­nais­sance along­side so­cial jus­tice.

Af­ter po­lit­i­cal in­de­pen­dence, “ac­tivist” Salafists in the Arab world pri­ori­tised “ad­vis­ing” govern­ments in­stead of re­bel­lion against them. While in­sist­ing on the supremacy of Is­lamic law, they called for con­sul­ta­tive coun­cils to guide the rulers in in­ter­pret­ing the law.

Vi­o­lent-re­jec­tion­ists, on the other hand, con­sider democ­racy in any form to be a “man-made de­ity” usurp­ing God’s powers. They hold that all Mus­lim states have failed to se­cure di­vine rule, and must there­fore be fought.

Of course, tawhid, or the one­ness of God, is cen­tral to any Mus­lim’s world view. Once again, how­ever, Salafi-Ji­hadists have given their own take on the con­cept. Tawhid im­plies unity of wor­ship, “some­thing that re­quires man­i­fes­ta­tion through prac­ti­cal agency”.

It is there­fore eas­ily as­so­ci­ated with ji­had, specif­i­cally through the mu­jahid’s ab­so­lute con­vic­tion that he can­not die un­til the mo­ment pre­des­tined by God. Next comes al-wala’ wa-l-bara’, an am­bigu­ous term trans­lated as “loy­alty and dis­avowal”, which re­in­forces the bound­aries be­tween “us” and the non-Mus­lim “them”. For po­lit­i­cal Is­lamists as well as the Salafi-Ji­hadist fringe, this con­cept means that the world­wide Is­lamic com­mu­nity, the umma, is “the sole ba­sis of cit­i­zen­ship, iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, loy­alty and al­le­giance”.

It was used as a tool for pop­u­lar mo­bil­i­sa­tion against ex­ter­nal chal­lenges dur­ing the first Saudi king­doms, then framed the de­bates over the per­mis­si­bil­ity of host­ing Amer­i­can mil­i­tary bases, specif­i­cally of seek­ing western aid to ex­pel Sad­dam Hus­sein from Kuwait. Fi­nally Salafi-Ji­hadists em­ployed it to mo­bilise against all es­tab­lished power struc­tures on the ba­sis of their sup­posed un­be­lief.

Which brings us to tak­fir, “the process of declar­ing an­other Mus­lim, or a group of Mus­lims, to be out­side the fold of Is­lam”.

The first tak­firis were the khawarij, a group who pro­nounced tak­fir on Ali, the fourth Caliph and the Prophet’s nephew, when he agreed to ar­bi­trate a dis­pute in the early Is­lamic com­mu­nity rather than al­low God to choose the vic­tor through bat­tle. Khawarij means “those who left” the Mus­lim con­sen­sus and turned to ex­trem­ism, and Mus­lims to­day of­ten ap­ply the ti­tle to ISIL.

In his sem­i­nal text Mile­stones Along the Way, writ­ten dur­ing his im­pris­on­ment in the 1950s, Egyp­tian Is­lamist Sayyid Qutb ar­gued that Mus­lim so­ci­eties had re­gressed to a state of jahiliyya, or pre-Is­lamic ig­no­rance. Fol­low­ing this lead, Khalid Is­lam­bouli de­clared, “I have killed Pharaoh” af­ter as­sas­si­nat­ing pres­i­dent An­war Sa­dat in 1981.

Dur­ing the in­sur­gency against the Amer­i­can oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq, Salafist-Ji­hadists ex­panded the range of those they de­clared un­be­liev­ers to in­clude not only heads of state but enor­mous sec­tions of civil­ian so­ci­ety. Na­tion­al­ists, com­mu­nists and democrats were all fair game. Soon the Shia were added to the list.

The prac­tice of tak­fir aims to ho­mog­e­nize the faith by shut­ting down de­bate and dis­sent. It also tends to de-con­tex­tu­alise and de-his­tori­cise po­lit­i­cal con­flict. Many Iraqi Shia lead­ers chose to work with the Amer­i­can oc­cu­pa­tion. Rather than un­der­stand­ing this “treach­ery” as a re­ac­tion to Sad­dam Hus­sein’s op­pres­sion of the Shia com­mu­nity and a prag­matic ap­proach to es­tab­lish­ing com­mu­nal power, Salafi-Ji­hadist pro­pa­ganda re­ferred to Shia Mus­lims as Zoroas­tri­ans, Mon­gol agents, and Safavids – in other words as eter­nal, un­chang­ing op­po­nents of Sunni Mus­lims. This sec­tar­ian en­mity, of course, did not serve Sunni in­ter­ests. It was one rea­son why the in­sur­gency de­gen­er­ated from a na­tional lib­er­a­tion strug­gle into civil war, and its con­tin­u­a­tion to­day boosts the nar­ra­tive of those con­vinc­ing gullible Shia to fight on Bashar Al As­sad’s front lines in Syria.

The best-known con­cept of the five dis­cussed by Ma­her is ji­had. The Sufi tra­di­tion con­sid­ers the Shi­raz Ma­her C Hurst & Co Dh91 be­liever’s strug­gle with the self as the “greater” ji­had, but the war­like mean­ing has larger, and an­cient, res­o­nance. The Prophet him­self par­tic­i­pated in 27 bat­tles, and Ibn Taymiyya held that “the first obli­ga­tion af­ter iman [faith] is the re­pul­sion of the en­emy ag­gres­sor”.

Tra­di­tional Is­lamic war­fare, in the­ory at least, was pros­e­cuted within an eth­i­cal frame­work. The first caliph, Abu Bakr Al Sid­diq, set out rules in­clud­ing the fol­low­ing: “You must not mu­ti­late dead bod­ies. Nei­ther kill a child, nor a wo­man, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire ... Slay not any of the en­emy’s flock.”

A dis­tinc­tion was also made be­tween de­fen­sive and of­fen­sive ji­had. The lat­ter could only be sanc­tioned by an Is­lamic ruler.

How do we ar­rive from this ori­gin to to­day’s in­dis­crim­i­nate “lone wolf” at­tacks against western civil­ians?

Ma­her ex­plains the in­ter­pre­tive gymnastics which trans­ferred the eye-for-an-eye law of qisas, or equal re­tal­i­a­tion, to the field of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions. The West is blamed for keeping tyran­nous or in­suf­fi­ciently Is­lamic regimes in power in Mus­lim coun­tries. Cit­i­zens of western democ­ra­cies, be­cause they are gov­erned by con­sent, are then con­sid­ered li­able for their govern­ments’ ac­tions. This is what scholar Ni­bras Kaz­imi called “the tri­umph of bat­tle­field logic over the­ol­ogy”.

At some points, Salafi-Ji­hadist jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for ter­ror aban­don the­ol­ogy al­to­gether. Al Qaeda leader Ay­man Al Zawahiri and oth­ers ar­gue that the Is­lamic rules con­cern­ing tar­tarus, or hu­man shields, are out­dated be­cause mod­ern weaponry does not dis­tin­guish be­tween civil­ians and com­bat­ants.

Ji­hadists, more­over, as non­state ac­tors, are com­pelled to pros­e­cute asym­met­ri­cal war­fare through ter­ror­ism. By this faulty logic the large-scale slaugh­ter even of Sunni Mus­lim civil­ians is jus­ti­fied.

Surely such free and easy treat­ment of clas­si­cal ju­rispru­dence is an ex­am­ple of the bida’, or in­no­va­tion, which is sup­pos­edly anath­ema to Salafis? Salafi-Ji­hadists such as Abu Bashir Al Tar­tusi have con­tested Zawahiri’s ni­hilism. Ma­her points out that these fault­lines in the move­ment are most ap­par­ent be­tween the­o­rists and “those who are op­er­a­tionally ac­tive in the field”.

The self-in­ter­ested le­gal­is­tic sophistry of these or­gan­i­sa­tions elim­i­nates the role of the con­science, surely God’s first gift to mankind. Like the dic­ta­tors they claim to op­pose but of­ten end up serv­ing, Salafi-Ji­hadists seek to en­force obe­di­ence through ter­ror. The fear they pro­mote has de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects on so­ci­ety, crush­ing thought and block­ing new di­rec­tions.

The size of the prob­lem adds to the im­por­tance of Ma­her’s book. Es­sen­tial read­ing for pol­i­cy­mak­ers, Salafi-Ji­hadism is an aca­demic work of in­tel­lec­tual his­tory well enough writ­ten to in­ter­est the gen­eral reader too.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is a critic, nov­el­ist and the co-au­thor of Burn­ing Coun­try: Syr­i­ans in Rev­o­lu­tion and War.

Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Civil­ians ap­proach an Iraqi Army Ninth Ar­moured Divi­sion Humvee on the road to In­ti­sar, Mo­sul. The city is ISIL’s last strong­hold in Iraq and ef­forts to re­cap­ture it have met heavy re­sis­tance from the ex­trem­ists who base their doc­trine on Salafi...

Salafi-Ji­hadism: The History of an Idea

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