The Forgotten Recantation

‘Abbud al-Zumar, one-time military intelligence colonel in the Egyptian army who was implicated in the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat, has recently released a co-authored document with his cousin and brother-in-law Tariq from prison. The document, al-Badil al-Thalith bayna al-Istibdad wa-al-Istislam (The Third Alternative between Despotism and Surrender) was published by the Egyptian newspaper al-Shuruq in late August and early September 2009 (the document was also published in al-Masriyyun and can also be found on the discussion forum of the Egyptian Islamic Group website – click here for a collated PDF printout).

The text has received surprisingly little media coverage so far. This is curious, not least considering the importance of ‘Abbud al-Zumar to the legacy of the Egyptian al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group). According to Muntasir al-Zayyat (one-time activist in al-Jama‘a and now a lawyer who specializes in defending Islamist activists – see his website), ‘Abbud was the military strategist of the group that was led by Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, the author of al-Farida al-Gha’iba (The Forgotten Obligation) and the leader of the group that assassinated Anwar al-Sadat.

Following Faraj’s execution, a split among al-Jama‘a ensued and ‘Abbud became leader of the group’s wing Tanzim al-Jihad (the Jihad Organization), while Sheikh ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman (who is currently serving a prison sentence in the US for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre) became leader of the wing known as al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya (al-Zayyat, al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, p. 229).

It is worth noting that ‘Abbud and Tariq al-Zumar were not among the authors of the series of books published by al-Jama’a leaders since 1997 as part of the so-called ‘Mubadarat Waqf al-‘Unf’ (The Initiative of Halting Violence).

With al-Badil al-Thalith, ‘Abbud and Tariq al-Zumar have produced what they believe to be an initiative containing a domestic plan of action based on political, not military, reform for Egyptian Islamists; and a global road map for Islamists and jihadis, including al-Qa‘ida, designed to develop a strategy based on working with (not against) select Western forces for the purpose of advancing the Islamist cause worldwide.

Given that this initiative was authored behind bars, to what extent should we assume that this is a document that genuinely represents the authors’ convictions instead of the views their jailors want us to believe that al-Zumars now espouse? For obvious reasons, this legitimate concern cannot be fully resolved, but two important points should be noted in this respect: first, al-Shuruq obtained the rights to publish al-Badil al-Thalith from ‘Abbud’s parents and the publication does not appear to have been orchestrated by Egyptian authorities; second, the authors’ critical stance of the Egyptian regime, as will be discussed below, suggests that that the document has not been tampered with by the hands of the authorities, wallahu a‘alam.

The authors are aware of their readers’ dilemma. That is why they are keen to stress that the muraja‘at (‘revisions/re-examinations/recantations’) cannot achieve their objectives unless three conditions are met: (1) the release of all political prisoners; (2) the removal of all the obstacles facing the youth from taking part in public life; (3) the opportunity of making peaceful regime change feasible, through  finding ways of making leaders accountable and removing them when necessary.

It is within this framework that al-Zumars have put forward a new initiative, proposing an amnesty for all those who participated in the crimes of torture in Egyptian prisons. This, they believe, should be part of a national reconciliation that includes (1) amnesty and release of all political prisoners, (2) compensating the thousands of prisoners who have endured torture and (3) compensating the families of those whose loved ones lost their lives in the process.

What’s in it for the Egyptian government? Al-Zumars point out that it is necessary to end quickly the ‘torture file’ before international forces use it as an excuse to interfere in the domestic affairs of Egypt. They highlight that such an intervention could be either at the hands of foreign governments as well as NGOs that are concerned with violations of human rights around the world. In other words, Husni Mubarak’s regime has more to gain by professing a mea culpa on its own domestic terms instead of being forced to do so through external international legal bodies.

How should ending military struggle proceed?
Al-Zumars enumerate several conditions towards this end. These include a call for regional and international co-operation between Arab and Islamic states, including Iran; forging alliances with those seeking to reform the United Nations in an effort to guarantee the interests of politically marginalized nations and oppressed peoples. While they obviously want the government to govern on the basis of the creed of divine unity (tawhid), al-Zumars stress that the interest of the Islamic mission (al-da‘wa) may entail adopting a neutral stance vis-a-vis the authorities and avoiding confrontations with them.

Islamic movements, al-Zumars hold, should meet several critical challenges. Al-Zumars propose a nuanced approach to dealing with non-Muslims. To begin with, they call for devising a new comprehensive vision that defines the nature of the relationship with Western civilization, away from the ‘clash of civilization’ paradigm (Third Alternative, part 4). In their minds, the importance of forging political alliances cannot be understated and it does not contradict ‘aqidat al-wala’ wa-al-bara’ (i.e., the Islamic creed that provides guidelines related to Muslims’ obligations to associate with and support fellow Muslims and when to dissociate from non-Muslims). Al-Zumars remind their readers that the Prophet himself forged alliances with non-Muslims when the objective of these alliances was in the interest of repelling oppression, as in the case of hilf al-fudul (‘pact of chivalry’ – this pact antedates Islam; the Prophet took part in it when he was young and he is said to have maintained his commitment to its principles after he received the Revelations. In other words, hilf al-fudul is a product of the jahiliyya era, but its principles stand even after the advent of Islam).

Al-Zumars also highlight that the Prophet entered into alliances with non-Muslims when he deemed that such alliances were in the interests of Muslims, as in the case of the ‘constitution of Medina’ (an alliance that is said to have been between the Muslims who escaped Meccan persecution (al-Muhajirun), their supporters in Medina (al-Ansar) and the Jews of Medina). Accordingly, al-Zumars assert that ‘forging alliances and cooperating with non-Muslims is permitted so long as the objective behind these alliances is legitimate’; indeed ‘forging alliances may be an obligation (wajib) if the objective is to realize the freedom of propagating the Islamic mission or simply preserve the life and safety of its preachers.’

Working within this pragmatic framework, al-Zumars argue that co-operating with non-Muslims can be in the interest of effectively resisting occupation. ‘The military and political campaigns led by the US and its allies against the Islamic world’, they hold, ‘do not necessarily represent the will and visions of the American and European people. That is why it is necessary to devise a plan that deals with these campaigns based on differentiating between the leaders/elites and their peoples. For we continue to observe the opposition against the military campaign against Iraq mounted by the American and European peoples; opinion polls in Europe reveal a great sympathy with the Palestinian cause … for this reason, it is not sensible to direct our bombs against societies that are calling on their governments to stop their aggression against Iraq’ and support other Islamic causes (Third Alternative, part 5).

Al-Zumars do not appear to have given up entirely on the hope of the US government changing its policies towards the Islamic world. They remark that the election of Barack Obama represents a clear coup against the aggressive policies of George W. Bush’s administration. The Obama administration’s policies however remain subject to implementation, not least considering that Iraq is still occupied and preparations are underway to send more troops to Afghanistan (note that al-Badil al-Thalith was published before the troop increase in Afghanistan). Al-Zumars called on President Obama to translate his statements into positive practical measures, among them the release of Sheikh ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman.

Al-Qa‘ida and Military Jihad

Despite al-Zumars’ new commitment to peaceful political reform, they do not reject military jihad without qualification nor do they condemn al-Qa‘ida outright. Instead, they state that with respect to al-Qa‘ida, ‘we declare our support for lawful jihad (al-jihad al-mashru‘) that al-Qa‘ida is mounting in those parts of the Islamic world that are subject to occupation or aggression; indeed, al-Qa‘ida’s jihad in this respect is esteemed and respected by all those who are sincere in the umma, and we are perfectly ready to pay with our lives as a price to defend this noble jihad.’  Al-Zumars however go on to call on the leaders of al-Qa‘ida to re-examine their strategies that seek to move military operations to the Islamic world; they hold that this strategy has breached many Islamic legal stipulations. They also call on al-Qa‘ida ‘to re-examine its legal opinion (fatwa) that makes it lawful to shed the blood of Western civilians, for it is not consistent with Islamic law’ (Third Alternative, part 8).

Undoubtedly, al-Badil al-Thalith represents a clear departure from the worldview al-Zumars once espoused. It is to be remembered that they, especially ‘Abbud, were once fully committed to the thesis Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj advocated in his al-Farida al-Gha’iba. Faraj believed that only the path of military jihad could save Muslims in this world and the next and that jihad must be directed first and foremost against the near enemy, i.e., Muslim rulers who are in apostasy of Islam because they do not govern according to the justice Islam preaches.

Why then should al-Badil al-Thalith not receive the attention that other so-called muraja‘at of militant struggle through jihad have received, most notably, Dr Fadl’s Tarshid (2007) and his later response to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s (al-Ta‘riya li-Kitab al-Tabri’a), both of which have been covered here on Jihadica.

In his critique of al-Badil al-Thalith, Hani al-Siba‘i (a London-based Egyptian lawyer sympathetic with the strategy of military jihad and director of al-Maqrizi centre), remarked in a commentary that the reason why al-Zumars’ initiative has not received much media attention is due not just to its bad timing (it was released during Ramadan) but more importantly because its message did not win the approval of Egyptian authorities.

I suspect there is some truth to that. As al-Siba‘i remarks, unlike Dr Fadl who personalized his attacks against al-Qa‘ida and especially Ayman al-Zawahiri and therefore lost credibility, al-Zumars have refrained from polemical attacks.

There is more to this than al-Siba‘i is suggesting. From the Egyptian authorities’ point of view, Dr Fadl didn’t really present an alternative to Egyptians who might be sympathetic with al-Jama‘a, whereas al-Zumars are presenting a proactive alternative based on peaceful and political reform. While al-Badil al-Thalith is by no means a comprehensive plan, it nevertheless highlights basic and legitimate demands of the Egyptian government, most notably, accountability for the rulers and the freedom for all to partake in the political process.

Al-Badil al-Thalith presents yet another challenge to the Egyptian authorities, namely al-Zumars’ recognition of the efforts and sacrifices the Muslim Brotherhood has made to ‘open up channels for Islamic political engagement’ despite all the obstacles the government has placed in its way. Saluting the model of the Muslim Brotherhood could signal a potential problem for the Mubarak regime: a scenario whereby al-Jama‘a and al-Ikhwan could form an alliance and contest elections is not a prospect the Egyptian government is willing to entertain, especially with a Presidential election looming in 2011.

Will al-Badil al-Thalith make a dent in the jihadis’ global strategy? Probably not. Indeed, the jihadis are likely to point out that al-Zumars’ proposal has gone undebated not just in the Arab and Islamic world, but also in the West, which, in their minds, goes to prove that only polemical statements like those allegedly authored by Dr Fadl make it into the headlines. They are also likely to point out that Western analysts who rush to promote recantations such as those authored by Dr Fadl are wittingly or unwittingly doing the bidding of the Egyptian government. All this, they would say, proves why military jihad is the only path that could lead to genuine reform in the Islamic world.

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