Several days ago, Marc Lynch linked to a very a thoughtful article by Hussam Tammam on the significance of the revisions by the Islamic Group and by Sayyid Imam. Today, Rob at the Shack has cited the article as one more piece of incontrovertible evidence for his Imam-doesn’t-matter argument. I won’t rehash all of that (if you’re interested, you can start here), but as you’ll see, Tammam’s article is a lot more complicated than Rob’s assessment suggests.
Tammam’s basic argument is that organizations like the Islamic Group and al-Jihad will not be able to stop violence today because the nature of Islamist authority in Egypt has changed. In the past people had to join groups and institutions to engage in Islamist activism. But in the last ten years, the role of organizations and institutions has faded because of the rapprochement between the Egyptian regime and Islamist groups and because the state controls so many Islamic institutions. So today, Islamist activism, both violent and nonviolent, is more individualistic. It is loose associations of people engaging in the “market of religious performance.” In this new environment, missionaries and teachers are more influential than organizations and movements. For these reasons, Tammam argues, the revisions of groups like the Islamic Group and al-Jihad have no impact on Jihadis because these groups no longer have power over people committed to an ideology, not an organization.
I’m intrigued by Tammam’s general thesis that individualism is on the rise in Egyptian Islamism. I also agree with his general assertion that Imam won’t impact other Egyptian Jihadis. But I disagree with the way he reached this conclusion. For one, Imam is not the head of al-Jihad, trying to exert organizational control over Egyptian Jihadis. He’s trying to change the minds of his former al-Jihad associates in prison with him and secure their release. More importantly, Imam’s not trying to persuade other Jihadis at all. As he says repeatedly, he is reaching out to youth that might be swayed by Jihadis. Since Tammam himself argues that Egyptian Islamists today care more about a learned man’s opinion’s than his organizational affiliation, perhaps Imam will have greater traction with the fence-sitting sort. But that’s not where Tammam or Rob are looking, which is a mistake.