We’re probably now at the point of diminishing returns, but the issue of Jihadi revisions is important enough to work through the particulars until it’s clear what’s fact, what’s unproven, and what’s merely a matter of taste. It’s important not just for assessing the impact of Sayyid Imam’s work but for understanding how ideological challenges to Jihadism fail or succeed. My response to Rob is below the fold:
First, Rob characterizes my position incorrectly when he says:
My view is that Sayyid Imam’s new book will have no impact on Jihadist groups throughout the region so CT people should not spent much time focusing on them. Will seems more optimistic and says lets wait and see.
As I’ve said repeatedly, I do not believe Sayyid Imam’s book will have any impact on Jihadi groups (with the exception of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, but there are other factors at play there). I do believe it will have a positive impact on more neutral readers, the fence sitters, if they have a chance to read it. (By “positive impact,” I mean that their favorable opinion of Zawahiri will decrease.)
Second, Rob believes that for a Jihadi revisionist to succeed in dissuading Jihadis from fighting, he must be high minded and engage in jurisprudential debates alone. Engaging in a “cat fight,” or personal attacks, will not be effective because Jihadis will be too turned off to read the book. So will everyone else for that matter.
I do not believe a sober discussion of jurisprudence is enough to sway a committed Jihadi and I agree with Montasir Zayat, who Rob cites as his authority for the opposite position, that no jurisprudential debate will dim Zawahiri’s glow among those who adore him. As I said in my last post, I think that makes Zayat a pessimist. The only thing that might have a chance of influencing admirers of Zawahiri is destroying his good name and I don’t think that will do much good either among Jihadis (on that, Rob and I agree). But Rob’s portrayal of Jihadis as high-minded academics who dislike trash talk is belied by their love of Zawahiri, who is the greatest trash talker of them all. Perhaps Zawahiri knows a little something about swaying his target audience, the fence sitters.
Third, Rob says of Imam’s new book that “the religious methodology is weak and is not going to convince anyone who would take the time to read it.” Really? On what grounds? Imam seriously addresses a lot of jurisprudential issues. Where did he screw up? How do we judge that?
Fourth, Rob asserts that Imam’s target audience is Jihadis. However, Imam himself says he’s trying to reach the masses, especially the “young youth,” so they are not taken in by Zawahiri. I’ll take Imam at his word. As for Jihadis, Imam is pessimistic about reaching them, saying that he has tried for decades to guide them in a different direction and hasn’t had much luck. So outside of the membership of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Jihadis are not his primary audience–according to him.
Fifth, Rob states: “…’Neutral pious, educated Arabs’ aren’t paying the slightest attention to Imam and have no idea who he is.” How does he know this? And didn’t his last round of media attention give him some notoriety in the Arab world? It sure did in the U.S., thanks to Larry Wright’s article.
Sixth, Rob says: “There is no evidence to suggest any significant interest in the Arab world towards Sayyid Imam’s new book.” How does Rob know this? Because, he posits, there have been no big name op-eds of the sort that Khalil al-Anani posted on his blog for Imam’s last book. As for the thirteen news stories I mentioned, Rob says they “were all in the context of people saying how it was a disgrace or embarrassing.” Finally, Rob avers: “The sense amongst Arab commentators on this issue is that Sayyid Imam is not an important or influential character in radical Islamist movements. ”
Where to being? I did not post links to the thirteen news stories, so I don’t know how Rob can say they “were all in the context of people saying how it was a disgrace or embarrassing.” He has no idea what stories I am referring to. I’m happy to share the links with him and anyone who sends me an email (although most of them can be found by doing a Google news search). The majority neutrally describe the content of Imam’s book. Of the opinionated pieces, some think it’s terrible and others think it’s incredible. Of the latter, there’s `Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari’s review for Kuwait’s al-Jarida. He characterizes the book thusly:
This new book, “The Denudation Note,” is considered, in the eyes of observers, the strongest Sharia criticism of the pillars of al-Qaeda’s ideas. Or rather, it is the most important (book) in the history of the intellectual revisions of the Jihadi groups. This book has dismantled the intellectual structure of al-Qaeda–the Jihadi Constitution–on the basis of which al-Qaeda carries out its military and suicide operations.
In addition, Khalil al-Anani, mentioned above as one of Rob’s authorities for assessing Imam’s popularity, wrote an excellent article for al-Hayat on December 3 analyzing the Mumbai attacks in light of Sayyid Imam’s latest book, which he likes a great deal. I’ve just posted a summary for those who are interested.
In light of the above, it’s hard to credit Rob’s assertion that “The sense amongst Arab commentators on this issue is that Sayyid Imam is not an important or influential character in radical Islamist movements.” Personally, I agree with Rob that he’s not influential among militants, but I would not apply my opinion to all other Arab commentators.
Measuring Influence Online
Finally, I suggested that one way to assess how Imam’s book was resonating with its target audience is to look at discussion of it on mainstream news forum comment sections, blogs, and discussion groups. Rob replies:
If we accept that this is a way of measuring the significance of Sayyid Imam’s new book, where are the specific examples? There are none that I am aware of. Where is this issue being discussed in any place of note?
There are over two thousand examples. Just put this سيد إمام” التعرية” in Google (that’s “Sayyid Imam” and the name of his new book) and take your pick. (By comparison, when I put in Imam’s name and the title of his last book, I get over 10,000 hits.)
As for being discussed in a place of note, what should I be looking for? Is the comments section of Asharqalawsat.com a good start?