Sayed Imam Al-Shareef, chief ideologue of the Arab Jihadists and Emir of Egypt’s Jihad organization, has recently publicized revisions of his previous writings. These revisions, however, beg the question: What is the impact of these revisions on Jihadi groups worldwide?
The gravity of this question springs from two main reasons. First, are these groups convinced with the religious and political necessity of such revisions and with the fact that they were not obtained through coercion or abuse? Second, what is the nature of the relationship between Al-Shareef and the new generation of Jihadists, who have perhaps never even heard of him.
Al-Shareef authored what is regarded as nothing short of a Jihadist manifesto for all violent religious movements in 1988 titled “Al-Omda fi Edad El-Edda” (Preparating for Jihad). Hence it seems that despite Al-Shareef’s eminent position, the idea of putting an end to religious violence merely through the revision of some misguided thoughts seems too far-fetched, especially since this will depend primarily on the social, political and economic framework that nurtures fundamentalist thought and exploits it politically.
In this context, the current media hype speculating on how these revisions can potentially end violence, or even eliminate it regionally and internationally, seem exaggerated.
On the one hand, the concept of Jihad as violent political action is unrelated to religious literature that manipulates texts to serve certain interests, but is more related to the daily life challenges. These circumstances have fuelled the Jihadi climate, which prevails now, perhaps more than it did 30 years ago.
On the other hand, one cannot deny the close link between Jihad, as a dynamic ideology and the interpretations to which violent religious currents resort to justify their actions because the majority of these movements believe that “the text is fixed, but interpretations vary.”
When Mohamed Abdel Salam Farag wrote his seminal article “The Absent Duty” in which he crystallized the Jihadi methodology, he not only referred to Sayed Qutb’s “Milestones” but also went back to canonical works to support his vision. This is the same interpretation methodology adopted by Jihadists even after the gurus of Jihad were arrested and Qutb and Farag died.
Regrettably, the nature of relationship between the leading Sheikhs and followers in Jihadi movements usually breaks down when the disciples sense that their leaders have recanted, regardless of the motives or reasons.
Jihad, as they see it, not limited to fatwas issued by Sheikhs, no matter how charismatic they are, but is more akin to a bullet shot years ago that maintains its momentum with no end in sight.
I contend that if Al-Qaeda leaders Osama Bin Laden, or Ayman Al-Zawahri, attempted to revise their ideology, not much would change. On the contrary, new Al-Qaeda leaders would emerge, adopting the same vision and message of their godfathers. They would always find evidence to support their righteousness claiming that those who recanted either strayed from the right path or were coerced.
It would be extremely naive to expect such revisions to have a substantial effect on Al-Qaeda cells and their followers with whom they merely maintain a spiritual relationship.
The ideological and spiritual relationship between Al-Shareef and the post-9/11 Afghanistan and Iraq Jihadi generation seems very weak. This is not only due to the lack direct interaction between the two, but also because the old Sheikhs have been supplanted with new ones who have monopolized the theories influencing new Al-Qaeda members.
At the forefront of these is Abu Mohammed Al-Maqdesy, who has written more than 50 books that are more narrow-minded and literal than Al-Shareef’s. His website attracts more followers every day. Another is Abu Qatada the Palestinian (Omar Muhammed Othman), whose Fatwas fueled the Jihadist violence in Algeria for a long time.
It will be difficult for these revisions to have an effect on the fragmented Al-Qaeda. Why, for instance, has there been no change over the past decade, particularly after Islamist Jihad groups in Egypt launched their famous initiative to end violence in July 1997? Merely six months later Al-Qaeda was formed. And why were the “new generation” Jihadists not deterred by 25 documents released by the organization proposing serious revisions to its violent methodology?
It would also be ridiculous to ignore the direct relationship between the state of fundamentalist ideology in the region and the regional and international polarization that feeds these violent currents, justifying the maintenance of their Jihadi project.
Only through correcting distorted religious and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) concepts, for which we have already paid a heavy toll, can we stop the Jihadi tide spreading through our countries. We must also find radical solutions to the political, economic and social problems that are a fertile breeding ground for these violent currents.