As regular readers of jihadi literature know, the RAND Corporation is no friend of al-Qa‘ida. Supporters of the latter have a tendency to blame RAND for trying to destroy them and the rest of the world’s Muslims into the bargain. Although RAND is not alone in being perceived by jihadis as an almost conspiratorial observer of every move the jihadis make (West Point’s Counter Terrorism Center, as long-time readers of Jihadica know all too well, is another), it is probably the one that gets criticised most. (If you were not aware of this, see Jarret Brachman’s excellent post on this subject.) Recently, however, one Nur al-Islam posed a question relating to RAND that I had not seen before: Is there a connection between the RAND Corporation and extremists of takfir?
Takfir and takfiris
Takfir, as many readers will know, is the practice of excommunication, i.e. of declaring another Muslim to be an infidel (kafir). Traditionally, Muslim scholars have generally been careful to apply this concept in their dealings with other believers because of the drastic consequences it could have; according to the shari‘a (Islamic law), a Muslim who consciously and willingly abandons Islam or converts to a different religion may be killed. In recent times, many jihadis have argued in favour of a greater application of takfir, applying it to rulers of Muslim countries for not (fully) legislating on the basis of Islamic law. Since many (but certainly not all) jihadis claim applying the shari‘a is part and parcel of being a Muslim, they contend that rulers who refrain from doing so cease to be believers and are, in fact, infidels. Because of this, they subsequently claim that waging jihad against these rulers is legitimate.
According to most Muslim scholars (as well as probably the overwhelming majority of Muslims), this is a rather extreme application of takfir that will only bring about chaos and civil strife. Jihadis who apply takfir this way are therefore often referred to as takfiris or even extremists of takfir (ghulat al-takfir). These labels are fiercely rejected by many jihadis, however, who associate the term ghulat or ghulat al-takfir with Muslims who not only excommunicate political rulers for their failure to apply the shari‘a but also ordinary Muslims who have nothing to do with legislation whatsoever. In some cases, these ghulat even excommunicate entire societies. This latter group of Muslims (i.e. the ones who are willing to apply takfir to large groups of people) is referred to as “the extremists of takfir” even among jihadis and this is also how Nur al-Islam uses the term.
Annihilating global Jihadi-Salafism
One can justifiably wonder what on earth such extremists have to do with RAND. When I first read the title of this piece, I was rather hoping to find a highly intricate and complex reasoning that starts from a ridiculous premise but is nevertheless so logically argued that one is tempted to believe it all as the only possible outcome. This is often the case with jihadi writings, which are sometimes mistakenly dismissed as the rantings of crazy radicals but are actually often cleverly reasoned, despite their horrific message. Although this piece disappointed me in this respect, it is interesting nevertheless.
The author first gives the reader some general information about RAND and continues by stating that the enemy (i.e. RAND) wants to understand its enemy (i.e. jihadis) in order to fight them better. He then goes on, however, to claim that RAND has actively sought the help of other Muslims, including the scholars of al-Azhar in Cairo and the popular Egyptian preacher ‘Amr Khalid, to “annihilate global Jihadi-Salafism”. These were only second choices, however, since the author states that RAND had first asked other, non-violent Salafis to help them with this task but this had failed. He then asks whether RAND’s next step may be to asks extremists in takfir for their help in destroying (the less extreme and supposedly pure) Jihadi-Salafism. The author continues by pointing out that these extremists in takfir not only adhere to extremist teachings but have also done tremendous damage to Jihadi-Salafism by criticising scholars and activists who do stick to the true and correct teachings, like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Ayman al-Zawahiri and others, including a surprising number of Jordanian Jihadi-Salafis.
At this point, it becomes clear what the author’s real intention is. He is not at all trying to criticise RAND, as so many jihadis have done before. His real aim is to attack the people he calls extreme takfiris for their criticism of the Jordanian Jihadi-Salafi community supportive of al-Maqdisi. This has been done before, as I have pointed out elsewhere, but Nur al-Islam takes the charge of extreme takfiris to a new level. He claims that, just like RAND tries to destroy Jihadi-Salafism worldwide, so do the extreme takfiris. The author states that these ghulat al-takfir may or may not be aware of RAND’s plans “but unfortunately the result is, in any case, the same”, namely that both of them try to “bring down” Jihadi-Salafism and its leaders.
The author’s seemingly critical piece about RAND thus turns out to be little more than what may be the start of a larger smear campaign against al-Maqdisi’s jihadi enemies. By even suggesting that these supposedly extreme takfiris may possibly be working with the widely-hated RAND, the author tries to undermine their credibility. To me personally, this charge seems a bit too far-fetched to be taken entirely seriously and I therefore doubt whether the accusation will be picked up by like-minded jihadis to frame their opponents as being in bed with RAND. Still, it would be interesting to see if the already impressive array of labels Islamists use to discredit each other is soon going to be joined by another one: Randis.
Excellent piece Joas ! One question that comes to my mind is whether these “Ghulat al Takfir” are in favor of waging of Jihad ? For instance, in the case of the Koeweïti shaykh Abu Maryam, there are indications he holds rather extreme positions with regard to takfir, while alledging at the same time there can not be Jihad right now, since there exists no ‘Dar al Islam’.
There is another reason must Muslims (and `ulama’ esp.) do not make takfir lightly, and it seems to be rarely described in the literature. There are consequences for the accuser that are just as serious. To paraphrase the hadith, if one calls another Muslim a kafir, and he is wrong, the accuser will be the one judged a kafir.
On the authority of Ibn `Umar: the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him) said: Any person who calls his brother: O Unbeliever! (then the truth of this label) would return to one of them. If it is true, (then it is) as he asserted, (but if it is not true), then it returns to him (and thus the person who made the accusation is an Unbeliever). In Sahih Muslim
We can add “Randi” to a new list that already includes the term of derision “Randawi” used to describe the sort of “moderate Muslims” RAND’s Bernard proposes that we support.
More seriously, I wonder if anyone in our scolarly community has looked seriously at the quality, reasoning and strategy used by Muslims scholars who have taken on the challenge of countering jihadi ideology in their own countries or via the net. Do they cover all the necessary weaknesses/vulnerabilities of the jihadis, including the takfiris? Do the weaknesses of the regimes they have to live with or work for undercut or limit the arguements they can put forth? We know that the jihadis see them as a threat, but just how effective are they?
SuperB post. This article shows why Jihadica is one of the best blogs out there.
OSINT235: there are indeed many ghulat al-takfir who are in favour of jihad and some have actually gone off to Iraq or somewhere else to take up arms and fight “the enemies of Islam”. In some cases, the victims of these men are people who are so remotely involved with the “apostate” regime that they would not be considered enemies by most radical scholars.
There are also, as you say, scholars who believe in applying takfir on a wider scale but may not favour jihad for reasons such as the one you mention. It depends on the context whether these armchair takfiris are taken seriously or not.
Chris: that’s correct. I do believe, however, that the fear of getting it wrong and being labelled a kafir oneself is more a personal inhibition to applying takfir than the one I mention, which is more concerned with preserving the peace in Muslim communities. Since scholars will obviously study and analyse a case before going so far as to apply takfir, they may be less worried about being called a kafir themselves than about the consequences it may have for the stability of a community or country.
Retired: there are indeed scholarly studies about the counter-terrorism efforts of particularly Saudi scholars. Roel Meijer has written several excellent articles about this, taking an in-depth look at the counter-terrorism discourse of Saudi scholars, although he doesn’t analyse whether this discourse is actually sound or correctly takes on the jihadis’ arguments. I have also written a paper in a forthcoming book about the (undesirable) labels of “Khawarij” and “Murji’a” that radical and quietist Salafis apply to each other. I analyse the correctness of their claims and conclude that both are partly right in their accusations but that, unfortunately, the radicals actually have stronger case against their quietist opponents than vice versa.
The fact that many non-jihadi scholars are strongly affiliated with the states they live in is indeed a major impediment of their arguments since they are often more or less forced to defend the state, even in cases where there is clearly something wrong. This is particularly pertinent to Saudi Arabia.
Fernando: thanks for the compliment.