With Tunisia’s President Bin Ali tucked away in Jedda and the world’s attention fixated on the popular uprising in Egypt, al-Qaida may be about to lose one of its main ideological selling points: that only armed struggle can bring down the regimes in the region.
Not surprisingly, the jihadi online community is captivated by the uprising, but many are also bewildered about what this means for their cause, and their leaders have been slow to respond. Jarret Brachman has a point when he taunts Zawahiri: “Your Silence is Deafening.” As of Thursday afternoon, the leading jihadi forum Shamikh only featured a handful of authoritative responses to the events in Egypt, from pro-jihadi pundits, a legal scholar and other participants. However, not a word from the leadership. The closest thing to an official response is AQIM’s statement on the events in Tunisia (available also in translation).
Over the past few days, the most popular sub-forum on Shamikh, the “Umma Affairs Forum”, claiming more than 300,000 visitors, has gradually increased the number of “sticky posters” dealing with the situation in Egypt. The rank-and-file participants are organizing in Q & A sessions and open discussions to bring more clarity to the situation.
Among the few authorative voices we find Abu Mundhir al-Shanqiti, a member of the legal council at Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad and a prolific fatwa writer. A few days ago, he issued a fatwa on “the permissibility of participation in the present revolution in Egypt,” which expands on a previous article from January 25th entitled “Revolt against Mubarak”. But don’t let the word “fatwa” mislead you. This is all about politics.
The first thing that strikes me is how much praise Shaykh al-Shanqiti heaps on the anti-Mubarak demonstrators and how frank and outspoken he is about the jihadi movement’s failure to remove the regime: “We need to acknowledge that removing the ruling regime in Egypt is a matter which may be hard even for the largest jihadi organizations, so if these demonstrators succeed in toppling it [the regime], it will be a great victory for Islam and Muslims.” Yes, you read it right: al-Shanqiti openly declares that these demonstrators, who by all accounts have no jihadi links or sympathies whatsoever, are apparently achieving what the jihadis have tried to do for decades. Of course, al-Shanqiti quickly turns his attention to the usual enemy, the Western world and the United States, claiming that they are trembling in fear of losing “one of their most important agents” in the region. Furthermore, Shaykh al-Shanqiti alleges that Western powers are now polishing ElBaradei to become their next “dependent agent”.
But this does not mean that we are back to jihadi ranting as usual. In al-Shanqiti’s view, the repercussions of Mubarak’s downfall will be significant; indeed it might cause “a large earthquake similar to the 9/11 raids”. He points to Israel’s dependence on the Egyptian regime as its Southern “border guard”, but also to implications for the region as a whole. Al-Shanqiti cannot overstate how recent events have overwhelmed him: “we are facing a historic moment and a critical phase in the history of the Islamic nation.” But instead of plunging into the usual jihadi tirades, he is surprisingly nationalist in tone. Check out this quote: “As for the Egyptians today, it means that they have wrestled back their dignity, honour, and freedom and have gotten rid of Western agents. This means the birth of a new era, in which Egypt will possess its own will and realize its own future and belonging, to its religion, to God’s laws and to its Islamic nation.” And this one: “How we long to be among our brothers in Egypt so that we could enjoy the honour of contributing to the downfall of this regime, be it only with half a word”. Al-Shanqiti’s fatwa is so filled with enthusiasm and excitement over events in Egypt, that he almost forgets to provide the obligatory religious justifications for his fatwa. Rarely have I seen a pro-al-Qaida cleric being so excited about secular demonstrators!
True, he hasn’t entirely forgotten the jihadis, and he hopes to see them play a role: “If some of the mujahidin are present today in Egypt, their most preferable jihad would be to participate in this blessed revolution.” Al-Shanqiti also suggests that the mujahidin should be prepared to sacrifice “ten or even hundred of their best fighters” in a suicide operation to put an end to Mubarak and his regime. He also portrays events as though the Egyptian public now finally is about to realize what the jihadi groups have said over the past two decades. Conveniently glossing over the huge differences between the armed strategy of the militant Islamist opposition of the past and today’s non-violent mass protests, al-Shanqiti presents one comparison after the other, attempting to create a sense of historic continuity.
But again, Shaykh al-Shanqiti’s enthusiasm for the (largely secular) protesters is what really stands out. He applauds “the courage of the non-committed youth and their dedication and struggle for the Islamic nation”. He even holds them up as a shining example compared to Egypt’s Salafi current who “call themselves seekers of knowledge”, but “are not even lifting their heads.” Al-Shanqiti accuses them of serving the regime’s cause by their warnings about “fitna”, and he rages against Egyptian Salafis who have claimed that the toppling of Mubarak’s regime will lead to secular rule. Shaykh al-Shanqiti’s order of priorities is clear, politics first, then religion: “the issue we are talking about is the removal of the regime. This is a demand on which we are in agreement with the rest of the [Egyptian] people. We should contribute to realizing this goal. After the regime has gone, it is possible to strive for the creation of a new regime which implements God’s Law”. In other words, the revolutionary agenda takes precedence over the Islamic character of the revolution.
To be continued.