We have heard Bin Ladin and Zawahiri’s comments, and Marc Lynch and others will tell us how the Arab mainstream reacted. But what are the grassroot jihadis saying about Obama’s Mideast tour in general and his Cairo speech in particular?
Let me begin by lowering your expectations. For a start, we should not expect to see any positive reactions to Obama’s initiative, for anybody thus inclined would not be on the forums in the first place. Second, there is no tradition among jihadi strategists or pundits for parsing presidential speeches. They might pick up on a phrase (like Bush’s reference to a “crusade”) and use it for their own purposes. But generally these guys don’t listen to what America says – they watch what she does.
I should also add that Faloja, the main jihadi forum, has been down since this morning (as has Shuraa), so our ability to gage the reactions to the Obama’s speech is limited. Fortunately I surveyed Faloja for Obama-related material yesterday, and Shumukh, the no.2 forum, is up today, so we have something to work with.
Overall, there is quite a bit of chatter about the Obama tour, and four types of postings recur. First are the political messages which denounce the visit and present it as further evidence that Egyptian and Saudi governments and ulama have submitted to American dominance. “In honour of Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia”, one member reposted the classic bookThe evident proofs of the infidelity of the Saudi state (1990) by Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Other posts circulate the pictures of Saudi and American flags side by side. Yet others claimed Egyptians are suffering as a result of Obama visit, because the security barriers in Cairo “confined 18 million Egyptians to their homes” and because the Sultan Hasan mosque had to be closed for security reasons.
In a widely diffused and entertaining post, a contributor named “Abu al-Bashar” describes a daydream about Egyptian Salafi Ulama confronting Obama. The text is written like a short skit which goes something like this (loosely translated):
“Here are our ulama from Egypt: Sheikhs Yasir al-Barhami, Muhammad Hussain Ya’qub, Ahmad al-Sisi, Abu Ishaq al-Huwayni, Tal’at Zahran, Muhammad Hasan, Muhammad Ismail al-Muqaddam and Mahmud al-Misri. They hear about Obama’s visit to Egypt and decide to convene a meeting in which the following conversation takes place.
Ismail gets angry and says we have been silent for long enough.
Hasan asks: what about Obama? He is coming here to salvage relations with the Muslim world.
Al-Huwayni intervenes: But he’s coming here while is armies are killing Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan and supports the Jews in their killing of Palestinians.
Burhami says: The bottom line is that Obama the pig is coming here to slaughter us and he smiles at us in the process.
Al-Sisi sayd: Sure, but Obama the pig is coming here, so what should we do?
After long discussions, the scholars announce their decision, which consists of two steps.
First, a statement, denouncing Obama’s visit. It would be distributed on the satellite tv stations and on the internet forums and on facebook, and in all newspapers and journals, in Arabic and English and French. Second, a demonstration on the day of the speech. All preachers and scholars and their students would go to the location where Obama will deliver his speech and show their opposition.
– The end –
Here Sheikh Muhammad Husain Ya’qub intervenes, saying ‘I retract my positions’.”
The final part is quite funny – even in a dream official ulama lack moral courage.
The second type of posts are strategic assessments in which writers try to second-guess the real purpose and implications of the visit. These posts are neither numerous nor sophisticated, and so far none of the serious jihadi strategists have weighed in. “Al-Munasir1” warns that part of the purpose of Obama’s visit to Egypt is to make final preparations for an international campaign against Sudan.
The third and most widespread type of post focuses on tactical issues such as the detailed program of Obama’s visit, the size and nature of his security attachment and the prospects of carrying out an assassination. One writer quoted the Saudi opposition abroad as saying observers and Saudi security officials fear for Obama’s life in Saudi Arabia. He argued that the recent shooting in Jubayl is indicative of a surge in pro-al-Qaida sentiment in the Kingdom. The fact that the perpetrators of the Jubayl shooting have not been caught further worried the authorities. Most responses to the post expressed hope that Obama be assassinated, but one commentator drily noted that Obama comes and goes as he wishes so long as the royal family is in power.
Another post by “Baghdad al-Khilafa” presented a more detailed “Plan for killing Barak Obama” in Egypt. It included a picture of Cairo university followed by the note: “the best way of killing Obama: Suicide belt, suicide belt, suicide belt.” Then followed detailed instructions on how to manufacture a suicide belt, including links to downloadable instruction videos.
The fourth type of posting consists of reproductions of articles from other, more mainstream Arab and Islamic media. These posts are interesting not so much for the debates they generate (usually very little), but because they tell us something about which voices the forum participants would at least consider listening to. So we find
– Abd al-Bari Atwan ‘s article “Our advice to Obama”
– An article by Mahmud Abduh Ali at Islamonline entitled “An examination of Obama’s position on the big issues that concern the Muslim world”
– An article from al-Jazeera.net on the Muslim Brotherhood’s reaction to the Obama visit.
– An article from Middle East Online entitled “Egyptians: No Ahlan wa Sahlan for Obama”, which cites a poll showing three quarters of Egyptians were skeptical of Obama’s visit.
Of particular interest is the posting of an article from Sabq News reporting that the Saudi Islamist Ayidh al-Qarni loved Obama’s speech. The article is posted by the same Baghad al-Khilafa who wanted Obama blown up, and he is naturally expressing dismay at al-Qarni’s reaction, to the point of declaring him an infidel. This triggers a debate, with several contributors objecting to the excommunication (takfir) of al-Qarni. “Brothers, don’t declare him an infidel, he is just a regime cleric”, writes “Asad al-Jazira”.
In my two days of surfing the forums I was able to find one single statement mildly favourable to the Obama administration. A contributor named “Khaldun Halwani” wrote in a comment to a post: “Let us hope that this is the beginning of a new direction that will serve Muslim interests. I would add that Foreign Secretary has started changing US policy toward the enemy of Islam, Israel.” But this is of course an isolated statement by an anonymous contributor and thus not indicative of anything.
There are in other words no big surprises in the forum reactions to Obama’s Middle East tour, although it is still too early to tell how the jihadi movement will adapt to these initiatives. Hopefully we will see more serious jihadi strategic studies of Obama’s PR offensive in the weeks to come. I will keep my eye out for them and keep you posted. If anybody sees anything interesting, please let me know.