Even from behind bars, the influential jihadi scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi continues to command a following. Last week the Ansar al-Mujahidin forum launched a media campaign demanding freedom for the Palestinian-born shaykh, who was imprisoned in Jordan in September 2010 and is serving a five-year sentence. Tellingly, the campaign to free al-Maqdisi (observable on Twitter at #أطلقوا_العلامة_المقدسي) drew far more attention on the jihadi forum than Ayman al-Zawahiri’s most recent statement marking the anniversary of the Nakba. No one, it would seem, possesses jihadi cachet online like the imprisoned Palestinian. (For more on his influence and ideology, check out Joas Wagemakers’ new book.)
“The Ibn Taymiyya of Our Age”
This contrast says much about the nature of the Jihadi-Salafi community, where it is often independent writers and thinkers—more than the al-Qaeda leadership itself—who chart the ideological course of the movement. Al-Zawahiri himself has acknowledged his debt to al-Maqdisi, describing him as a “teeming ocean of knowledge and scholarship…and deep-rooted steadfastness in the face of the idolatrous rulers of the age.”
Even more flattering is a recent comparison with Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), the persecuted Hanbali scholar from Damascus whose writings, controversial in their day, now form the scholarly core of Salafi Islam. As one of his colleagues recently put it, al-Maqdisi has become “the Ibn Taymiyya of our age”: suffering abuse and ridicule and repeated terms of imprisonment, and standing accused of “extremism and deviancy” in religion. The passage of time, it is believed, will vindicate him.
The United States and (most) Arab governments hold a different view: that he is a terrorist agitator. His incarceration is counted a blessing. Last week the State Department issued a report praising Jordan as “a steadfast partner in counterterrorism” and summarizing (with a hint of approval) the charges brought against the Palestinian ideologue: “plotting unsanctioned acts that would subject the [Jordanian] kingdom to hostile acts, undermining Jordan’s relations with another country, and recruiting persons inside the kingdom to join armed terrorist groups and organizations.” Al-Maqdisi holds that his imprisonment is simply a function of his beliefs and writings.
The last three years have not been kind to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. As Joas Wagemakers has noted, prison terms have previously been some of his most productive periods in terms of writing. Yet since this latest arrest almost no new writings of his have surfaced online. Meanwhile, he has suffered significant personal hardship: losing his wife and being denied permission to attend her funeral; enduring a hunger strike and being refused medical care; and undergoing 60 days of solitary confinement (beginning in March) for angrily destroying a telephone in the prison visitors’ area. In a more heroic account circulated on jihadi media, this punishment was meted out after a physical fight that al-Maqdisi instigated with six prison guards.
Jail time, al-Maqdisi has previously written, can be an opportunity or a danger for jihadis. In his words: “Prison is a trial—either fruitful, or destructive, or deranging.” Fruitful because it can offer one ample time to write; destructive because it can lead to “defections” from the jihadi methodology; and “deranging” because it can transform jihadis into radical takfiris (extremists in the excommunication of fellow Muslims). This may not be a fruitful prison term for al-Maqdisi. He does claim success, however, in indoctrinating fellow inmates in jihadi thinking. He has also managed to publish a small number of writings in recent months.
Toward an “Islamic Spring”
Since March, a trickle of essays, fatwas, and poems has appeared on al-Maqdisi’s website. These writings, dated between December 2012 and May of this year, offer advice and encouragement to the jihadi community as it grapples with the post-Arab Spring environment. The author, despite some criticisms, conveys an unbounded optimism. This is glimpsed in a poem describing a tree shooting up between the cement cracks of a prison courtyard, symbolizing for him “resolve, hope, and the power of the weak to triumph over the strong”:
Arise, o dawn light
for we desire brightness.
After darkness is not but
dawn light emergent.
Bloom, o spring of Islam,
fill the world with radiance…
Along these lines, al-Maqdisi’s writings outline a general strategy for transforming the Arab Spring into an “Islamic Spring.” In the following I draw on two essays in particular: “From Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi to His Monotheist Brothers” and “Dear Advice to the Supporters of the Lofty Shari‘a.”
The first theme taken up in these essays is that of jihadi unity. Al-Maqdisi says it is a shame to see jihadis engaging in infighting while their enemies (secularists and others misguided) combine forces to thwart the advance of Islam. Unified leadership and coordination of efforts are needed.
Particularly distressing to him is reported infighting among jihadi scholars, an issue to which he devotes several pages. This is almost certainly a veiled reference (al-Maqdisi typically writes in an oblique manner) to the Mauritanian Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti and his series of vicious attacks against the Syrian Abu Basir al-Tartusi. To remind readers, this dispute between the two jihadi ideologues peaked last year after Abu Basir criticized the al-Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and endorsed voting in elections in limited circumstances—among other things seemingly unbecoming of a jihadi. Al-Shinqiti condemned him in several book-length monographs as having deviated from the jihadi methodology and called on his followers to abandon him.
Al-Maqdisi, without addressing the details of the debate or the names of the parties to it, plainly rebukes al-Shinqiti for causing a “distraction” that has threatened unity in jihadi ranks. Frustrated by the one who “exhausted paper and wrote pages and long refutations on the internet” against “our brothers,” blowing out of proportion “minor issues,” al-Maqdisi cautions the unnamed individual (al-Shinqiti) against divisive provocation. Dialogue among jihadis ought always to be elevating, he says, quoting the Prophet’s statement that “whoever believes in God and the Last Day should say something good or remain silent.” This is quite a strong refutation of the Mauritanian, who serves on the Shari‘a Council of al-Maqdisi’s website. Al-Shinqiti, who offered the generous comparison of al-Maqdisi to Ibn Taymiyya, seems to have desisted from his campaign to stigmatize Abu Basir.
Adapting to a New Reality
The new political situation in the Arab world, following the Arab Spring, is a welcome opportunity in al-Maqdisi’s view, entailing a change of emphasis in jihadi strategy. In countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia the appropriate strategy for the moment is not violent jihad against the new governments but rather da‘wa (peaceful propagation of Islam). This is not to say, he makes clear, that the new governments are led by legitimate Muslim rulers. They are not, for these new rulers do not rule according to God’s law and so may be deemed apostates. Nonetheless, he advises against violent confrontation with the powers that be for practical reasons.
The rise of Islamist governments in the wake of the Arab Spring is generally analogous, al-Maqdisi says, to the rise of Hamas rule in Gaza in 2007. Concerning Hamas, he previously advised that while the Hamas and Fatah governments may be equally unbelieving, this did not mean that it was suddenly appropriate to excommunicate the entirety of the greater Hamas movement. One was also to recognize that it was better to have Hamas in power than Fatah as a practical consideration. The appropriate strategy was not to fight Hamas—except in cases of self-defense—but rather to engage in “jihad with the tongue,” or da‘wa.
Such also applies to the post-revolutionary Arab states, where al-Maqdisi says it would be “politically stupid to open up battle fronts at this stage” with the rulers. Clashing with the governments and people will only put further distance between jihadis and the masses. Rather “patience and gradualism” (al-sabr wa-l-tadarruj) are in order as jihadis take advantage of this opportunity “to reorganize their ranks and instruct their brethren…and engage the masses by bringing them da‘wa, spreading tawhid (God’s unicity), and educating them in their religion,” in addition to engaging in charitable activities to earn their goodwill. In a sentence, al-Maqdisi summarizes the logic of this strategy: “As long as the supporters of tawhid remain too weak to overthrow these regimes and seize the reins of power, then it is unwise for our brothers in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere to embroil themselves in fighting and clashing with these governments.”
Of course, al-Maqdisi is not the first jihadi to outline such a strategy. Al-Zawahiri, for example, does not call for revolution against Muhammad Mursi in Egypt. Al-Maqdisi’s strategy is rather the new jihadi orthodoxy represented by groups across the Arab world calling themselves Ansar al-Shari‘a (the Supporters of Shari‘a). Indeed, al-Maqdisi praises the proliferation of Ansar al-Shari‘a groups that have refrained from both violence and the temptation of participating in democracy. Wisely, he says, these groups have avoided using the unpopular and alienating al-Qaeda brand name.
In his commentary on the civil war in Syria, al-Maqdisi heaps praise on Syria’s al-Qaeda branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. The group in his view represents the maturity of jihadis and their ability to learn from previous missteps. He notes the group’s ingratiating approach to Syrian society—helping those in need, distributing food and clothes—and its wisdom in having a Syrian leadership. It would be a mistake, he says, for the mujahidin leadership of one country to come from another, even if in theory we refuse to recognize the Sykes-Picot boundaries that falsely distinguish between Islamic lands.
From these remarks one can assume that al-Maqdisi would have opposed the attempt by the Islamic State of Iraq’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to assert authority over Jabhat al-Nusra last April. Al-Maqdisi says he is opposed to founding separate emirates in jihad theaters, particularly when they are controlled by foreign jihadis. This type of activity only alienates the population that jihadis are trying to win over. He writes that after the fall of the Asad regime the real battle with the world (the United States and Europe) and neighboring states will begin, and that is why it is necessary to earn popular support now.
As he has before, al-Maqdisi emphasizes that it is the “near enemy”—regional tyrants—who ought to be the focus of jihadis’ attention. Even Syrian jihadis, observing the watchword of “gradualism in jihad,” should avoid provoking or even speaking about “one of the greatest of our enemies”—Israel. At this stage jihadis must work within the parameters of the Sykes-Picot borders, which define the modern Arab states and Israel, even while the final stage envisions the erasure of such boundaries. Elsewhere, jihadis should know that this is not the time “to attack the world all at once, sending out threatening statements left and right.” They should avoid attracting negative attention with calls for “death to all the infidels” and provocative actions such as destroying shi‘i shrines. This is, for al-Maqdisi, more than ever before a campaign for hearts and minds.