With the Arab Spring going strong in several countries, al-Qaida (in a broad sense, so including ideologues and scholars supportive of the organisation) still finds it necessary to comment on what is happening. In a series of posts, I will deal with the advice al-Qaida is giving the people of several countries, starting with Syria.
One of the men “advising” the Syrians currently revolting against the regime of President al-Asad is Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaida. In an epistle meant solely to greet, encourage and heap praise on the people he is addressing, al-Zawahiri spends one of the first paragraphs of his letter saying “salamun ‘alaykum” to his audience no fewer than eight times. He addresses them as “the mujahidun who command good and forbid evil”. This seems to be an attempt to claim that al-Qaida-like people are the ones trying to overthrow the Syrian regime, which is a good thing from his point of view because it allows him to create the idea that his organisation is alive and kicking and busy overthrowing “infidel” rulers, as it should be. From the Syrian people’s point of view, however, it is doubtful whether this is going to do them any good. As radical scholar Abu l-Mundhir al-Shinqiti pointed out in a fatwa that I wrote about in a previous post, it may actually be more advisable for Syrian jihadis to lay low, not giving the regime any extra excuse to crack down on them with the argument that the demonstrators are, in fact, terrorists. Al-Zawahiri doesn’t seem to realise this, urging his audience to tell President al-Asad that he is “a partner in the war on Islam in the name of terrorism and a protector of the borders of Israel”. Even more explicitly – in a phrase that sounds better in Arabic than it does in English – he tells them to say to al-Asad: “We have broken the shackles of fear and smashed the prison of weakness. The free [men] of Syria and its mujahidun have decided that they will live as honourable people and die as martyrs (ya’ishu a’izza’ wa-yamutu shuhada’).”
Al-Zawahiri also keeps going on about the supposedly strong American ties to the Syrian regime. He states that “America, which has co-operated with Bashar al-Asad throughout his reign, now claims that it is on your side”. He advises the Syrian protestors to say to the U.S. and President Obama that “we are the sons of the conquerors, the offspring of the mujahidun and the heirs of the murabitun (fighters operating from garrison cities).” The battle fought against the Syrian regime, al-Zawahiri claims, will obviously continue until “we raise the banners of victorious jihad” over Jerusalem. How exactly this is to be achieved in the face of a brutal regime that is not afraid to kill thousands of its own people is not entirely clear.
A more rational and level-headed approach is taken in another document, this one by Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a scholar living in London who is in no way part of the core leadership of al-Qaida but is one of the major thinkers reponsible for the organisation’s ideology. The originally-Syrian Abu Basir is churning out writings on Syria faster than you can say “the people want to topple the regime”, which may force me to dedicate another post to this country. In any case, Abu Basir wouldn’t be a true Salafi if he didn’t start by criticising the sect of the al-Asad family, the ‘Alawites, which Salafis (and, to a lesser extent, Sunnis in general) view as deviant or even infidel. He claims that they – among other things – are batinis (i.e. people who believe the Qur’an has an inner, esoteric meaning apart from its outer, exoteric meaning), idol worshippers and people who claim that caliph ‘Ali b. Abi Talib is God.
These ‘Alawites, Abu Basir claims, do not care about their homeland, or about its citizens. They have never amounted to anything and have never given any thought to what the people need. Abu Basir claims that the Syrian sectarian system is largely to blame for this, probably because the large number of sects and the differences between them encourage their members to act only on behalf of their own group, at the expense of loyalty to the country and the people as a whole. As a result, this regime has only brought awful things such as destruction, division and poverty. Surprisingly, however, given Abu Basir’s views of ‘Alawites in general, his approach is nuanced enough to distinguish between ‘Alawites who are part of the governing circle of President al-Asad and the majority of ‘Alawites, who suffer from poverty just like other Syrians. His wrath is therefore directed towards the regime and he thus advises the Syrian people to unite and express only one demand: the fall of the regime. Raising any other demand, Abu Basir claims, would be quite unwise, presumably because he realises that Syrians are not united enough to form a coalition on the basis of any demand other than the fall of the regime.
In two other writings (here and here), Abu Basir continues about the situation in Syria and stresses the need for peaceful resistance but also the legitimacy of self-defence. The regime, he says, has killed or wounded tens of thousands of people and the latter should therefore learn how to protect themselves by setting up security committees that can defend the protestors. These committees, he states, should not participate in demonstrations or in any peaceful activities, so as not to give the regime an extra reason to crack down on protestors. Abu Basir also wants “the noble free officers” (i.e. the ones that abandoned the regime’s army) to increase in number, expand their military activities and co-ordinate them with the aforementioned security committees.
Apart from advising the Syrian people on using non-peaceful methods, he tries to convince them that violence is justified. While he keeps stressing that peaceful resistance is good and commendable, he fails to see its use after so much bloodshed and scolds Syrians for refusing even to take violent means into consideration after it has become clear that sit-ins and other peaceful means have proved useless. He encourages the people to obtain arms and even quotes a verse from the Qur’an about military preparedness to underline the legitimacy of the use of violence. After having compared the Syrian regime with the French colonialism of the past, he wonders what the difference between the two of them really is and calls on the remnants of the army to fear God and take their responsibility towards Syria and its people by defending them and their honour “against the imperialism of the sectarian regime of al-Asad”.
If and how this advice is accepted by Syrians in general and jihadis in particular is unclear. What is clear from Abu Basir’s writings, however, is that he obviously cares about Syria. The tone of his work here is not one of fighting against “infidel” rulers who fail to apply the shari’a but much more one of concern for his native land, which he even refers to as “the beloved Syria”. Whether this is also the case with other commentators “advising” demonstrators in other countries is something I intend to explore in future posts.