Islamist diversity is al-Qaeda’s enemy

Almost six years after the great terrorist attack of 9/11, al-Qaeda remains an active terrorist organization. With its Taliban allies, it dominates regions along the Afghan- Pakistani border. It is making the life of NATO forces and the Afghan government very difficult in the rest of Afghanistan, and has compelled American forces in Iraq to contemplate leaving the country. From time to time, the worldwide organization is capable of launching strikes in western and Islamic capitals alike. Perhaps most important, copy-cat organizations with allegiance to al-Qaeda are spreading in Arab and Islamic countries. Al-Qaeda has become a model for Muslim youth to emulate and follow. Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are spreading the word of terror and militancy regularly through the internet and al-Jazeera TV station.

Still, the future of al-Qaeda is uncertain. The world is now capable of fighting the deadly organization better than at any time before. The frequency of its operations in any one country has been reduced. It has not been for lack of effort that al-Qaeda has failed to repeat its attack on the US but rather because of methodical American security work. Worldwide security cooperation has proven fruitful. This struggle between measures taken by security services and al-Qaeda’s ability to reinvent itself in different countries will most likely continue for some time to come.

Al-Qaeda’s future will also be linked to the rest of the Islamic fundamentalist phenomenon all over the world. Islamic fundamentalism is diversified. In a typical Muslim country or community, it expresses itself in diverse ways.

One such way is a sharp increase in the religiosity of the population. The religious establishment (al-Azhar in Egypt, parallel institutions in other Muslim countries) moves from dependency on the government to adoption of more conservative views. The Muslim Brotherhood becomes the Islamic fundamentalist mainstream. The brothers’ view of religion is comprehensive, encompassing life and death, religion and state, the individual and the community. They do not accept terror and violence as a mode of political behavior except when Muslims are subject to aggression by others. They believe in a democratic political process in which the basic tenets of Islam are observed. Their democratic understanding is basically majoritarian. In general they use religious symbols to incite and mobilize the population and energize voters.

Populist Islam, in turn, is represented by individuals who use modern media, particularly television, to influence large numbers of audiences in Islamic countries. They vary from the most moderate to extremists. The vast majority are conservatives who use diverse methods to mobilize Muslim masses.

Radical Islam is represented by a large number of organizations that operate mostly underground and espouse diverse forms of political violence. The most notable are the Gamaat Islamiya and Jihad Islami groups. These terrorists espouse violence in Islamic, Arab, and western countries in order to change the world so that it more closely resembles a virtuous society. The best examples of these are the Taliban and al-Qaeda; although they are the most threatening, most other groups in this category also adhere to the central idea of separation from a western-dominated world. They have negative assessments regarding both the extent to which international relations are just and the moral codes that govern their interactions.

However, the diversity of these groups also reflects different interests and understandings of the world. Ironically, this diversity might contribute to the decline of al-Qaeda and its associates because of their global tendencies, in contrast with the nationalist features of the other groups. Zawahiri’s criticism of Hamas in Palestine, Hizballah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for being soft and consorting with the enemy in parliaments has caused al-Qaeda to lose many of its admirers in the Arab world. The militancy displayed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his colleagues in Iraq against Shi’ites was rejected by other fundamentalists as divisive to the Islamic world and as interfering with the construction of a worldwide front against western hegemony.

Yet in the long term, the future of al-Qaeda is linked even more to the overall political and economic development of the Arab and Islamic world, the resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict and the development of a globalized liberal wing within the ranks of Islamic fundamentalism. The Islamic liberals believe in the congruence between Islam and democracy; the concept of citizenship is central to their moral commitment. They are represented in the Justice and Development party in Morocco, the Wasat party in Egypt and the Justice and Reconciliation party in Turkey. Unfortunately, such groups are not abundant at present, but future developments might make them the majority.

Abdel Monem Said Aly is the director of Al Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies in Cairo.

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