Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Justifying terrorism

Introducing an article about "Al Qaeda in Iraq," Frederick W. Kagan provides a useful description of the ideological/religious doctrines of al Qaeda and its allies. What is it that motivates the adherents of these extreme groups within Islam? An extended excerpt:
Al Qaeda's ideology is the lineal descendant of a school of thought articulated most compellingly by the Egyptian revolutionary Sayyid Qutb in the 1950s and 1960s, with an admixture of Wahhabism, Deobandi thought, or simple, mainstream Sunni chauvinism, depending on where and by what group it is propounded.

Qutb blended a radical interpretation of Muslim theology with the Marxism-Leninism and anticolonial fervor of the Egypt of his day to produce an Islamic revolutionary movement. He argued that the secularism and licentious (by his extreme standards) behavior of most Muslims was destroying the true faith and returning the Islamic world to the state of jahiliyyah, or ignorance of the word of God, which prevailed before Muhammad. The growing secularism of Muslim states particularly bothered him. According to his interpretation, God alone has the power to make laws and to judge. When men make laws and judge each other according to secular criteria, they are usurping God's prerogatives. All who obey such leaders, according to Qutb, are treating their leaders as gods and therefore are guilty of the worst sin - polytheism. Thus they are - and this is the key point - not true Muslims, but unbelievers, regardless of whether they otherwise obey Muslim law and practice.

This is the defining characteristic of al Qaeda's ideology, which is properly called "takfirism" (even though al Qaeda fighters do not use the term). The word "takfir" designates the process of declaring a person to be an unbeliever because of the way he practices his faith. Takfir violates the religious understanding of most of the world's Muslims, for the Koran prescribes only five requirements for a Muslim (acknowledgment of the oneness of God, prayer, charitable giving, the fast, and the pilgrimage to Mecca) and specifies that anyone who observes them is a Muslim. The takfiris insist that anyone who obeys a human government is a polytheist and therefore violates the first premise of Islam, the shahada (the assertion that "There is no god but God"), even though Muslims have lived in states with temporal rulers for most of their history. The chief reason al Qaeda has limited support in the Muslim world is that the global Muslim community overwhelmingly rejects the premise that anyone obeying a temporal ruler is ipso facto an unbeliever.

Today's takfiris carry Qutb's basic principles further. Some pious Muslims believe that human governments should support or enforce sharia law. This is why Saudi Arabia has no law but sharia. But to Osama bin Laden and his senior lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri, it is not enough for a state to rule according to sharia. To be legitimate in the eyes of these revolutionaries, a state must also work actively to spread "righteous rule" across the earth. This demand means that only states aligned with the takfiris and supporting the spread of takfirism - such as the Taliban when it was in power - are legitimate, whereas states aligned with unbelievers, like Saudi Arabia, are illegitimate even if they strictly enforce sharia law. Some takfiris, particularly in Iraq as we shall see, argue in addition that all Shia are polytheists, and therefore apostates, because they "worship" Ali and Hussein and their successor imams. This distorted view of Shiism reflects the continual movement of takfiri thought toward extremes.

These distinctions are no mere theoretical niceties. The Koran and Muslim tradition forbid Muslims from killing one another except in narrowly specified circumstances. They also restrict the conditions under which Muslims can kill non-Muslims. Takfiris, however, claim that the groups and individuals they condemn are not really Muslims but unbelievers who endanger the true faith. They therefore claim to be exercising the right to defend the faith, granted by the Koran and Muslim tradition, when they endorse the killing of these false Muslims and the Westerners who either seduce them into apostasy or support them in it. This is the primary theological justification for al Qaeda's terrorism. ....

While takfirism is the primary theological justification for the actions of al Qaeda, it is not the only important component of the terrorists' ideology. Western concepts are deeply embedded in the movement as well, primarily Leninism. Qutb was familiar with the concept of the Bolshevik party as the "vanguard of the proletariat" - the small group that understood the interests of the proletariat better than the workers themselves, that would seize power in their name, then would help them to achieve their own "class consciousness" while creating a society that was just and suitable for them. Qutb thought of his ideology in the same terms: He explicitly referred to his movement as a vanguard that would seize power in the name of the true faith and then reeducate Muslims who had gone astray.

Bin Laden underscored this aspect of the ideology in naming his organization "al Qaeda," which means "the base." Qutb and bin Laden envisaged a small revolutionary movement that would seize power in a Muslim state and then gradually work to expand its control to the entire Muslim world, while reeducating lapsed Muslims under its power. Al Qaeda's frequent references to reestablishing the caliphate are tied to this concept. The goal is to recapture the purity of the "Rashidun," the period when Muhammad and his immediate successors ruled. This was the last time the Muslim world was united and governed, as bin Laden sees it, according to the true precepts of Islam.

Leninism (along with the practical challenges faced by revolutionaries in a hostile world) has informed the organizational structure as well as the thinking of al Qaeda. The group is cellular and highly decentralized, as the Bolsheviks were supposed to be. It focuses on seizing power in weakened states, as Communist movements did in Russia and China, and on weakening stronger states to make them more susceptible to attack, as the Communist movement did around the world after its triumph in the Soviet Union. Al Qaeda's center of gravity is its ideology, which means that individual cells can pursue the common aim with little or no relationship to the center. It is nevertheless a linked movement, with leaders directing the flow of some resources and ordering or forbidding particular operations around the world.

These, then, are the key characteristics of al Qaeda: It is based on the principle of takfirism. It sees itself as a Muslim revolutionary vanguard. It aims to take power in weak states and to weaken strong states. It is cellular and decentralized, but with a networked global leadership that influences its activities without necessarily controlling them. ....[the article]
Al Qaeda In Iraq

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