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Saturday, 27 September 2008

Jihad revised

By Q. Isa Daudpota

IMAGINE you are a radical Islamist leading a war against the infidels from the badlands bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan. In front of you is the statement, “We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that.”

You are Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second highest leader of Al Qaeda, and this thunderbolt comes from your comrade, a long time spiritual and intellectual leader of your group and a former fellow medical student in Cairo University.

Around 1977, the author of the statement, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, joined Egypt’s Al Jihad terrorist group formed by Zawahiri. Sharif (Dr Fadl being his underground identity) and Zawahiri were two of the original members of Al Qaeda, the formation of which dates back to August 1988 when they met Osama bin Laden in Peshawar. Earlier, Dr Fadl escaped arrest when thousands of Islamists were rounded up after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat by soldiers affiliated with Al Jihad. Zawahiri suffered torture in prison and was released after three years, thirsting for revenge. His reputation also came under serious doubt in prison as he divulged the names of his comrades under torture. Dr Fadl, during this time, moved to Peshawar to join the Afghan war and worked as a surgeon for injured combatants.

Jihadis needed guidance through a text on the real objective of fighting battles which was not just victory over the Soviets but martyrdom and eternal salvation. Fadl’s The Essential Guide for Preparation appeared late for the Afghan war but became one of the most important texts for jihadis’ training. Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, notes that the Guide begins with the premise that jihad is a natural state of Islam: Muslims must always be in conflict with non-believers. Fadl asks that peace is recommended only in moments of severe weakness. Otherwise every Muslim must seek divine reward through sacrificing his life for Islam and thereby bring about an Islamic state.

After 1989 Zawahiri and most of Al Jihad moved to Sudan. From there they watched the Islamic Group wage a vicious war against the Egyptian state. The Group launched a social revolution, ransacking video stores and cinemas, demanding hijabs for women and bombed churches of the Coptic minority. One of the founders was Karam Zuhdy, who ended up living in prison for two decades with about 20,000 Islamists. During the ’90s, the Group killed more than 1,200 in terror attacks.

In 1994, Fadl wrote the 1,000-page Compendium of Pursuit of Divine Knowledge. In it he declared war on the rulers of Arab states and considered them infidels who should be killed. The same punishment was to be meted out to those who served them and to others working for peaceful change. The Compendium gave Al Qaeda the mandate to murder all who opposed it. This is just the book that Zawahiri wanted, but it went a bit too far. Fadl was livid when he learnt that parts of the book had been removed and the title changed and published under Zawahiri’s name.

With so many years wasted in prison since 1981, the leaders of the Islamic Group began reading books and analysing their past, and realised that they had been manipulated into pursuing a violent path. Zuhdy, the Group’s founder, found that any such discussion led to strong opposition within and outside the prison.

Meanwhile, secret talks continued with the Egyptian government until they became known in 1997. Zawahiri was disappointed by the move away from violent jihad, which to him was the main galvanising force for his movement. Along with Islamic Group leaders outside Egypt, he arranged for the murder of 62 tourists near Luxor, hoping the move would derail rapprochement between the Group and the state.

The Group’s leaders countered by issuing a statement condemning the act, and followed up with writing a series of books and pamphlets collectively known as The Revision in which they explained their new thinking. Zuhdy publicly apologised to the Egyptian people for the Group’s violent deeds. The government responded by releasing over 20,000 Group members.

Meanwhile Fadl who had landed in a Yemen prison was smuggled onto a plane and taken to Cairo in 2005. It is from his cell that he wrote his latest book, Rationalising Jihad. To avoid the charge that he had been tortured or coaxed into writing it, a majority of the Al Jihad members in prison signed the manuscript. To exclude the possibility of coercion, an editor interviewed Fadl extensively.

Here’s a summary of some of the controversial points raised which clearly will not go down well with radical Islamists such as Zawahiri: (a) There is nothing more that invokes divine wrath than the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property; (b) the limitation placed on jihad restrict it to extremely rare circumstances; (c) it is forbidden to kill civilians — including Christians and Jews — unless they are actively attacking Muslims, (d) indiscriminate bombing such as blowing up hotels, buildings and public transportation is not permitted, (e) there is no legal reason for harming people in any way, (f) one cannot decide who is a Muslim or a non-believer, and (g) the end does not justify violent means.

Zawahiri warned that Fadl’s revision of the jihad concept placed restrictions on action which, if implemented, would destroy the jihad completely. Zuhdy commented that this exchange between the Al Qaeda ideologues showed that the movement is disintegrating due to internal dissent.

Pakistan, which is being torn apart by jihadis from within and across its border, needs to make Fadl’s latest work widely available in translation, to be studied in madressahs and discussed in the media. Who knows what reformation this could bring about?

The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and environmentalist.

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