Jihadi Dilemmas in Syria

A few days ago, it was reported that Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the radical Jordanian ideologue, had issued a fatwa supporting the revolts in Syria (see here, here and here, for instance). This struck me as odd, since al-Maqdisi has been in prison since September 2010 and has been quiet ever since, presumably because the prison authorities do not allow him to write anything. A quick look at the relevant page on his website, however, reveals that it was not al-Maqdisi himself who wrote the fatwa, but Abu l-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, a member of the Shari’a Council of al-Maqdisi’s website. Despite the obvious mix-up by several media, the fatwa itself is nevertheless quite interesting and worth another look.


Al-Shinqiti has already expressed his enthusiasm for the recent protests in Egypt (see for example Brynjar’s post) but, as the revolutions keep on coming, the questions posed to scholars such as al-Shinqiti become more nuanced. This time, a jihadi from Syria is not only wondering whether it is allowed to participate in protests against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad but he has several more complicated queries. The questions that engendered this fatwa are actually more interesting than the answers because the former provide insight into the dilemmas that jihadis in Syria have to deal with and how at least some of them are apparently weighing the pros and cons of joining the protests.

First, the jihadi wants to know whether it is allowed to participate in peaceful protests against the regime, knowing that the regime will try to kill or arrest the protesters without giving the jihadis any chance to defend themselves. Al-Shinqiti answers that the protests are undoubtedly legitimate and even if some people die during these demonstrations, that will be better than the continuation of the regime. He also encourages the jihadis to engage in violent protests against the regime if necessary but acknowledges in his answer to question no. 6 further down that they don’t have the strength and the numbers to be a match for the Syrian regime.


The most interesting questions start with number 2. In this question, the jihadi states that most of the slogans used by the protesters in Syria focus on national unity, which the jihads consider an un-Islamic (kufr) idea and they therefore find it difficult to shout these slogans along with the rest of the demonstrators. Al-Shinqiti answers that such slogans are indeed against the shari’a but not “un-Islamic”. Muslim protesters should, in his view, participate with the other  demonstrators but shout their own, shari’a-compliant slogans.

Perhaps most interesting of all are questions no. 3 and 5, which state that most Salafis in Syria today participate in the protests because they want to get rid of the regime, even if the alternative is democracy. The latter may be a godless system but at least it offers the possibility of greater religious freedom and more opportunities to proselytize. Still, the questioner is worried that the protests will not lead to a caliphate but to a new system based on international law. Al-Shinqiti, who is clearly no supporter of democracy, agrees that the fall of the Syrian regime may lead to a democracy but that this may also lead to greater freedoms to proselytize which, in turn, could pave the way for the implementation of the shari’a. Moreover, he writes, one should distinguish between bringing down the regime and creating a democracy. The former is good, the latter bad. As long as Muslims stick to good things, they’ll be alright. They should not refrain from participating in attempts to overthrow the regime to avoid the democratic system that may replace it. For the moment, the goals of the democratic and the jihadi protesters are one, even if their ultimate goals differ.

Related to this issue is question no. 7, in which the jihadi wonders whether a person who gets killed during the protests is a martyr (shahid). Al-Shinqiti states that if such a person had the right intention (niyya) to do what is right and to alleviate repression from himself and the Muslims, he may indeed be considered a martyr.

Excuse for repression

One reason often given by Arab dictators for their brutal rule is that their opponents are dangerous terrorists and that the West is better off with a brutal yet predictable tyrant than with unruly and overzealous religious extremists. Syrian president al-Asad has also used this argument to delegitimize the current protesters, which our  jihadi questioner is aware of. He states that using religious slogans during the protests will provide the regime with a powerful argument to blame the unrest on the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qa’ida and subsequently begin an armed conflict against them. Al-Shinqiti acknowledges the dilemma and advises to stick to bland religious slogans, such as Allahu akbar, and to stay close to the other protesters so as not to give the regime the ability to distinguish between religious and secular demonstrators.

For those who read Brynjar’s post on al-Shinqiti’s candid and at times even nationalist talk on the revolution in Egypt, the rather pragmatic views expressed above will not come as a surprise: this jihadi scholar is encouraging his like-minded brethren in Syria to participate in mostly peaceful protests by reform-minded people of all stripes, to co-operate with democrats in bringing down the regime and even sympathizes with their unwillingness and inability to use violence at the moment. Such careful reasoning is certainly no exception among radical scholars and it stresses once again that jihadis are not mindless extremists bent solely on death and destruction but are keenly aware of their surroundings and quite able to adapt to difficult circumstances. This is a sobering and important thing to keep in mind amidst the cheering and celebrating over Osama bin Laden’s death today.

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