Revisions Add to Islamic Moderation, Interview with Rafiq Habib

Revisions Add to Islamic Moderation, Interview with Rafiq Habib

Dr. Rafiq Habib is one of the most prominent specialists in Islamic movements. Commenting on the revisions adopted by Dr. Sayyid Imam (theorizer of Jihad Group in Egypt), he said that they have nothing to do with the security pressures or torture practiced against the members of the group in prisons. These revisions, he said, came as a product of a vision assuming that the use of armed violence in the process of internal change proved to be a failure and that violence caused harm to the “Islamic” groups and the Egyptian society as a whole.

Dr. Habib argued that the revisions of Jihad Group and Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah can be regarded as a value added to the moderation of Islam, (Wasattiyah), and a peaceful approach toward change.


Dr. Habib urged the heralds of those revisions to establish visions based on peaceful change, where this change itself can become a form of struggle that gathers the Islamic and national powers together, so that no violence happens anymore.


Revisions: A Product of Experience (IOL): What are the real reasons behind the revisions? When and how did they start?


Dr. Habib: I believe that the real reasons behind the revisions are included in the experience itself. This is because the use of violence in the process of internal change harmed all parties involved, including the Jihad-oriented groups, as well as the Egyptian society and the authorities. This also had a negative impact on the da`wah-oriented role of these groups as far as Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah is concerned. Moreover, it affected the sympathy of the masses that used to support them, whether Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah or Jihad Group.


This means that the consequences of using violence led to “reassessing” this approach , and this was the real reason behind the revisions. This vision is supported by the fact that the ideas related to such revisions appeared for the first time in the beginning of the 1980s among those who were sentenced after the incident of President Sadat”s assassination. However, they remained as individual ideas until they were adopted by the movements themselves; namely, Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah in 1997 and Jihad Group in 2007.


IOL: How can one differentiate between the thoughts of takfir (accusing others of disbelief), which appeared in prisons during the 1960s, and the takfir-related thoughts, which appeared later during the 1970s, including the revisions that followed them?


Dr. Habib: When the idea of takfir appeared during the 1960s at the hands of Shukri Mustafa and others, it was a product of the experience of prison. Consequently, it had nothing to do with the project of the Muslim Brotherhood, which appeared about four decades before that time. On their part, the Muslim Brotherhood could refute and overwhelm this idea from the very beginning. Yet, the takfir-related thoughts, which appeared during the 1970s, did not come as a result of the experience of prison, as they actually expressed an attitude that rejected life as a whole and the prevalent political conditions in Egypt and other Arab countries at that time.


Thus, these thoughts continued and led to internal and external armed confrontations, which have been there since the 1970s until now. This is because such thoughts still exist in Al-Qaeda and other similar groups, and that is why we call what happened in the 1970s a “birth” of the phenomenon of a wide-ranging Islamic rejection of the existing state of affairs. Nevertheless, it is quite important to confirm that the revisions are not a “reassessment” of an attitude that rejects our present situation. They are only a reexamination of how to deal with this status quo.


IOL: Some argue that the reason behind these revisions is the security pressures and cruel torture undergone by members of Jihad Group inside prisons. What do you think about this?


Dr. Habib: First of all, if these revisions came as a result of torture, they would have appeared long before that. But, in fact, following the assassination of Sadat, these revisions started as a form of self-criticism, but they were limited to the idea of whether the assassination of Sadat had any positive effect or it only had a negative effect on the group with no change of the existing state of affairs in Egypt.


Later on, the revisions turned into a collective, communal operation (i.e. they became group-based, not individual ideas). The first statement about them was made in 1997, but the security officials did not take them seriously. Anyway, the revisions were not to be made widely known under such circumstances, as the security officials of the time refused to have any dialogue with the Islamists and regarded violent security actions and reactions as the only solution.


In my opinion, the security officials started to change their attitude, firstly when a new minister of the interior came to office and secondly after the incident of Luxor. This incident was a start of random violence undertaken by small groups that were not under the control of any leadership from the big groups.


In 1998, the year following the first statement about the revisions, the security authorities dealt with this initiative prudently; then they started to react to it gradually. Of course, the security officials tried to use these revisions for their own interest, but the historic leaders of Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah reasoned that it was very important to prevent bloodshed because they realized that any opposite procedure might lead Egypt to a massive bloodshed as was the case in Algeria.


The historic leadهrs of Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah مooperated with the security authorities because the latter gaveàthem the opportunity to dialogue with the bases of the groups. Such cooperation was crucial, simply because if the revisions came out without enough accord concerning them among the bases, thks would limit the impact of theàrevisions and allow for the emergence of groups seceding from Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah.


IOL: Do you think that Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah and Jihad Group can be politically used against the Muslim Brotherhood?




Dr. Habib: I think that the security authorities are trying to make use of Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah and Jihad Group in the confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood. But the authorities fear any political confrontation between them because the leaders of Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah and Jihad Group have a historical weight, which makes it dangerous — from the viewpoint of the ruling regime — to let them indulge in any political work. Besides, I believe that the leaders of Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah and Jihad Group may refuse to be used against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Revisions and Cease of Violence


IOL: Do you think that these revisions will close the door of violence in the future?


Dr. Habib: I believe that these revisions can limit violence, but they cannot totally prevent it. Revisions of the religious rulings justifying takfir and assassination make it difficult to resort to the rulings themselves. Still, the phenomenon of violence did not come as a result of Shari`ah rulings but as a product of an existing state of affairs with which the rulings justifying takfir and assassination were a mere attempt of dealing with a rejected, complicated status quo.


The problem is that this status quo has not changed so far, and this makes the reasons behind violence still present. Violence did not also come as a response to a religious idea. Rather, it was a political reaction to a rejected reality, and this reaction appeared in the form of an Islamic movement. The reason behind deterioration was not only economic or political; it included morals and values as well, which made it an inclusive civilizational collapse that required the appearance of Islamic movements seeking to bring the Ummah back to its religious and civilizational sources of reference. Thus, Al-Qaeda and its thought will remain during the coming years, especially because of the US and Zionist policies being practiced in the region.


Additionally, this violence will sometimes extend into the inside of the Arab countries in consequence of the alliance between the Arab regimes and the Zionist-American project. But the part that is to be most affected by the revisions would be “violence versus ruling regimes.” The incidents of violence may recede in the Arab countries, and the idea of undertaking violent actions in Western countries may slightly decline as well. In this way, there will be more focus on confronting the US and Israel in the regions witnessing military confrontations.


By this I mean that the revisions will push Al-Qaeda (the real origin of repelling jihad), toward focusing on resisting the occupation.


IOL: How far have these revisions influenced the trend of violence inside and outside Egypt?


Dr. Habib: Egypt has played a central role in the history of both moderate and extremist Islamic movements since the beginning of the twentieth century. Most of the thoughts of violent movements stemmed from Egypt. A person like Sayyid Imam Ash-Sharif has an effective position inside and outside Egypt. That is why these revisions can play a role outside Egypt, but its role and effect may be besieged by the continuation of the US and Zionist policies, yet it is difficult for activists in the armed Islamic movement to turn to inactivity and apathy. Therefore, as I said, the best thing we hope for is that armed jihad be redefined and restricted to the occupied regions.


IOL: Some argue that these revisions mainly serve the peaceful approach of change. What do you think?


Dr. Habib: Obviously, the appearance of Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah”s revisions represents an additional support to the moderation of Islam and the peaceful approach toward change. Such is a success of the Islamic school to which the Muslim Brotherhood belonged from the very beginning of its emergence.


However, the real problem in the revisions, whether those of Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah or those of Jihad Group, is that they have not set a methodology of peaceful change as an alternative to the methodology of forceful change. So many times, these revisions would find it sufficient to confirm that the Islamic movement is in a stage of istid`af (i.e. weakness), and so it cannot use force as it is not yet qualified for this. This refers to a provisional cease of violence that would not turn into a permanent cease unless a peaceful methodology of change is set to be applied inside the Arab and Muslim countries. The armed jihad would then be restricted to “repelling jihad” or jihad against the occupiers.


Incomplete Revisions?


IOL: In your opinion, what do these revisions lack?


Dr. Habib: The problem that these revisions raise is that they affect the members and leaders of existing movements, but they may not have a big impact on what we may call groups adopting random violence. Such are small groups that adopt the ideology of violence and undertake violent operations. Within a short period of time, they disappear and then other groups appear, as in the case of Taba incidents. This random violence needs a social and political treatment so that we may be able to treat the state of general rejection afflicting many youth.


IOL: Following these revisions, how do you see the political future of the leaders and members of Jihad Group and Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah?


Dr. Habib: The political status quo in Egypt is witnessing revisions by the armed groups released with the restriction that they abstain from indulging in politics. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood is being inclusively besieged in an attempt to drive its members away from the political arena.


However, the door is left open for some groups belonging to extremist Salafism provided that they work only in the religious field without approaching politics. Because they are considered peaceful groups, they are also asked to confront the Muslim Brotherhood. Consequently, these groups can be confronted with the thoughts of radicalism and thoughts questioning their principles.


This can eventually lead to keeping the Islamic movements away from the political arena. It can also raise generations within the society that adopt extremism. This, in turn, can pave the way for reproducing the ideology of violence. When the extremist thoughts are kept away from the political arena, they can easily turn into armed actions.


Many extremist Salafist trends propagate visions featuring radicalism, and they are the same visions on which the Jihadist Salafist trend was established, whether on the part of Jihad Group of Egypt, Al-Qaeda, or other similar groups.


This means that these trends construct a very wide base of Islamic radicalism without indulging their bases into any political work. This makes them more isolated, which can make them tend to radicalism. Moreover, they would have juristic views that justify using force for changing the status quo, but this can happen only when they feel that they are not weak.


Future of Jihad Group


IOL: Once again, do you think that Sayyid Imam (or Dr. Fadl) is the first influential factor behind the revisions of Jihad Group and Al-Qaeda at the international level?


Dr. Habib: I think that Sayyid Imam was one of the most effective figures during a certain period of time, but the phenomenon of violence was not born because of a certain person or a certain group of persons. Rather, it came as a result of a historical moment to which those persons responded in a way that drew others who followed them. Even the violence-establishing ideology was taken from books; it existed from the beginning, but it was figured out based on a certain understanding of the status quo as well as a political vision that explained that convoluted status quo. Then, on the grounds of such vision, relevant rulings were deduced.


Dr. Fadl is just redefining the status quo, which is still rejected according to him, but he is considering the Muslims” current state of affairs and knows that they are in a state of weakness. In this way, he deduces rulings conforming to the way he views this state of affairs.


IOL: In your opinion, what are the challenges facing the leaders and members of Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah and Jihad Group following these revisions?


Dr. Habib: Certainly, there is a security-related factor that precludes any political activity on the part of the leaders and members of Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah and Jihad Group. This includes hindering any organizational activities. Accordingly, the leaders said they would occupy themselves only with da`wah-oriented activities.


Still, they can practice such daw`ah activities only as individuals, not as organized groups. This can eventually lead to the following question: “How can this form of da`wah reach the political field to change it according to the Islamic vision adopted by these groups?” This, in turn, means that these leaders are facing a primary challenge: setting a methodology of change that their followers and members comply with as a way to close the door of resorting to the methodology of violence.


Another challenge is that any methodology of peaceful change will lead to some political activity. That is why I expect that these organizations and their leaders will try to practice da`wah with the tightest possible limits so that they can carry out wider activities of da`wah, after which they would reach the political arena once again. In the meantime, the Egyptian security authorities will besiege these leaders in an attempt to destroy their political and da`wah-oriented future.


IOL: How do you see the future of Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah and Jihad Group after these revisions?


Dr. Habib: As dubbed in the very beginning, these revisions were an initiative for stopping violence. Until now, they have not been turned into a complementary Islamic project that aims at changing the existing state of affairs. The initiatives started with suppressing the previous rulings justifying assassination. This was not because the leaders saw the then status quo as being better than what it used to be (according to their perception), but it was because they found out that using force during that time would harm their main goal: change.


Accordingly, the related justifications would include the idea of istid`af (weakness) and the permission of tuqyah (hiding one”s real beliefs to protect oneself from others in case of danger). This means that the leaders still reject the status quo and believe that it has to be changed, but they only suppressed the ruling calling for changing it by force.


This vision is the beginning of a new stage but not a final one. Thus, if the revisions stop at this limit, Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyyah and Jihad Group will end historically; if the revisions present a new complementary vision, this will actually be a new birth with which those leaders will enter the field of politics. This is because the process of change will sooner or later reach the political field, even if it started with the social field.


Religion and Violence


IOL: Some say that all ideological projects, whether Arab or international, religious or secular, are deteriorating. What is your comment?


Dr. Habib: I think that this argument is wrong, because there is no society without an ideological framework of reference. Also, there is not any political system without a source of reference. However, the utilitarian secularist vision has made some people think that the world is moving toward a state in which it would achieve interests without values. Such a vision is itself an ideology that has nothing to do with human values, as it is based on the absolute values of materialism.


In our countries, however, we are trying to restore our identity and civilization. Therefore, the Islamic project will remain the real motivator for the idea of restoring our civilizational belonging, because our societies would deteriorate and fall apart because of the materialistic values. This would push them via the fitrah (natural disposition) toward restoring their human and spiritual values so that they can in turn restore their coherence, firmness, and progress.


IOL: But how far is the phenomenon of violence connected to the phenomenon of religiosity?


Dr. Habib: The seventies of the past century witnessed a phenomenon that we call resorting to religion. This phenomenon appeared because the society fully realized that its values and morals had started to deteriorate. Thus, the society started to restore its identity by restoring its religiosity. Such is the background from which reasonable religious revitalization came out, and so did the extremist religious thought, as well as the violence-based thought of the armed groups.



The phenomenon of extremism and violence, along with the phenomenon of religious revitalization, came as a result of deterioration in the societal status quo, as well as the deterioration of Egypt“s position on the Arab and Islamic levels. Meanwhile, the authorities could not express those visions of religious revitalization in a way that would turn them into a project of renaissance and communal progress. With all these factors, the process of religious revitalization, which was basically motivated by a need to change the status quo, faced the following options:

1. To adhere to moderation. But the present circumstances would not make that easy.


2. To isolate itself from the status quo. But this would allow extremism to grow.


3. To face the status quo, But this would allow violence to appear, especially because peaceful confrontation with the status quo (which is the approach of the Muslim Brotherhood) would lead to violence on the part of the authorities (and this sheds some light on the reason behind the wide appearance of violence among Islamic trends).


Therefore, I would assume that striking Islamic moderation and the peaceful methodology of change represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and others is considered a strike against the ideology on which the revisions are based. Moreover, this is apt to create an environment where extremism can widely grow up among the masses and appear again in violent forms.


It is still important to understand the idea of violence as a methodology of change because it was based firstly on rejection of the status quo and secondly on the inexistence of channels for peaceful change.


That is why I believe that the Egyptian authorities” policy of closing the door of peaceful change leads to the reappearance of violence. Meanwhile the revisions (including those of Sayyid Imam) try to qualify the Islamic trends that previously adopted violence for working in the peaceful political field. After all, the leaders of the revisions can delay the stage of political change, but they cannot cancel it.


IOL: Finally, what is your advice for the proponents of revisions?


Dr. Habib: We should greet the proponents of these revisions, for they endured many accusations and shouldered the burden of issuing such revisions when they were imprisoned. Yet, they should set up visions basically adopting peaceful change, so that such change can be a form of struggle that gathers the Islamic and national powers together. If the peaceful political struggle stops, this will open the door once again for the return of violence.