As all academics know, defining the subject you study is very important and often complicated. This is obviously no different in the study of jihadis, where terms such as “radical Muslims”, “Muslim extremists”, “Jihadi-Salafis”, “takfiris” and even “Islamo-fascists” are often used to describe Muslims engaging in violence against others. Such terms are based on criteria set by outsiders, sometimes resulting in terms that are crude, imprecise and/or used to describe people who strongly differ from one another.
Others take the approach of simply listening to what the people that one’s research focuses on – in this case jihadis – call themselves. This often yields widely divergent and biased answers that are frequently ill-suited to be used by academics. Terms such as “Muslims”, “mujahidun” and “ahl al-Sunna wa-l-jama’a“, for example, are rather general and, more importantly, are also claimed by Muslims who have nothing to do with al-Qa’ida whatsoever.
Defining one’s subject of research is thus often quite difficult. The fact that asking jihadis – for lack of a better term – to define themselves often yields unsatisfactory answers does not mean, however, that it is not interesting to listen to what they say. An example of a radical Muslim scholar who recently tried to provide an answer to the question “Who are we?” is Abu l-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, the Mauritanian shaykh who seems to be running the Shari’a Forum of the Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad – originally a collective effort by about a dozen scholars – entirely on his own these days.
Al-Shinqiti’s starting point is that Islam is one and that the jihadis he is addressing should stand together against “the enemies”, which they are apparently not doing now, according to him. Although it is clear that Abu l-Mundhir believes jihad is legitimate, both against non-Muslim invaders and “apostate” rulers in the Muslim world, unity should not be limited to fighting but should encompass every aspect of Islam and he cites many a hadith to make his case.
If jihadis came together to practise their religion as one, al-Shinqiti states, they should also have one name to describe themselves. This name should reflect the fact that jihadis strive for the application of the Shari’a, as well as their desire to fulfill the obligations of Islam. What name could possibly cover this?
An name that al-Shinqiti briefly considers is “Salafis”. He states that several names are applied to jihadis that lead to a misrepresentation of who they are, and “Salafis” is one of them. Sure, Abu l-Mundhir writes, we are Salafis, but that label has come to be associated with people who do not wage jihad, help “apostate” rulers and take part in democracy. These are obviously characteristics that al-Shinqiti wants to avoid and therefore he dismisses “Salafis” as a good name.
What about the label “Jihadi-Salafis” then? Doesn’t this distinguish them from other Salafis? Al-Shinqiti answers this question in the affirmative but nevertheless objects to the term because to him it suggests that Jihadi-Salafis only engage in jihad. This is not correct, he maintains, since other activities such as the propagation of Islam (da’wa) also play a role.
The name to end all names
The name that al-Shinqiti comes up with to cover exactly what he wants is “Ansar al-Shari’a” (“helpers/protectors of the Shari’a”), a name reminiscent of, but not necessarily connected with, the Yemeni militant group of the same name. (As I pointed out before, al-Shinqiti supports this group and has defended it against criticism.) The name undoubtedly also reminds Muslims of the original ansar in Islamic history: the believers from Medina who accepted the Prophet Muhammad as their leader and helped him in his battles with Meccan polytheists.
This name is so good, al-Shinqiti writes, because “it describes what is considered the goal and the end that the upholders of the unity of God unite for” and serves as “a title, a banner and a goal at the same time”. Unlike terms such as “Salafism” and “Jihadi-Salafism”, Abu l-Mundhir states, “Ansar al-Shari’a” cannot be criticised since “who can refuse and reject it? Who can be against it?” Anybody who is serious about fulfilling the obligations of Islam cannot feel different about this, he maintains.
A bigger goal
As interesting as this labelling business may be, al-Shinqiti seems to have a bigger goal in mind. He calls on like-minded Muslims to set up da’wa groups in their own countries and to call them “Ansar al-Shari’a”. These groups should unite and become one group. They should focus on studying “useful knowledge”, spreading the right creed and correcting wrong ideas and misconceptions. They should obviously call for the application of the Shari’a and reject democracy and “man-made laws” and try to motivate others to join them, thereby working to transform public opinion into one that is supportive of applying the Shari’a but rejects Western ideas.
Such goals – to be achieved through means such as sermons, lessons, spreading writings, etcetera – will unite these groups “around one goal and around one project”, will make their leadership more prominent and will take them away from “reckless action that scatters power and wastes energy”, among other things. This way, the Shari’a might be applied through legitimate means instead of through democracy.
This last argument suggests that al-Shinqiti partly responding to Salafi groups in Egypt and elsewhere that are now trying to achieve their goals through elections and parliamentary participation. This is probably true. His emphasis on unity, learning the right knowledge, da’wa, collective efforts and the inadmissibility of recklessness in action probably hint at something else, however, namely his more long-term efforts to achieve these goals for the jihadi movement. As I have argued elsewhere, uniting and correcting jihadis and making them more effective in their actions was probably the main reason why the Shari’a Council of the Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad was founded several years ago. Al-Shinqiti’s attempts to label them all as “Ansar al-Shari’a” seems to be part of this bigger goal.
Now let’s just see if the name catches on.
Great summary, Joas.
It’s interesting that Shinqiti wrote this piece after there were already Ansar al-Shari’ahs in Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya. Since then, jihadis have also created ones in Egypt and Morocco. An interesting development to say the least.
With regard to the correctives, it appears that Maqdisi/Shinqiti and his fellow ulama’ of Minbar are trying to steer the community in a direction that is led not by laymen, but by clerics. With the decline of AQ and its brand, it appears this could be the next phase of the global jihadi movement.
The question I have then is, besides the use of democracy as a means, is there much other ideological difference anymore between a group like al-Nur and a group like Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia?
Thanks for your response Aaron. You’re correct that there are other Ansar al-Shari’as out there, although I wasn’t aware there were so many of them and I’m not sure that even the ones in Morocco and Egypt adopted this name because of what al-Shinqiti wrote. It is, as you say, certainly interesting, however.
As for steering the community into a direction led by scholars: I agree that this is part of the trend (and have published article on this aspect in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 34, no. 7, 2011), although I think it’s broader than this and may also include laymen who simply fight according to the rules. I very much doubt whether people like al-Shinqiti and al-Maqdisi would be so worried about what fighters are doing if the latter acted less recklessly. Being in control of the trend is probably part of what the scholars want, but I believe they also genuinely care about the rules and the image of Islam.
As for Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia: I don’t follow North African politics well enough to be able to answer that question, but since Hizb al-Nur stems from a specific school within Egyptian Salafism, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are some ideological differences between the two groups underneath the surface.
I was actually just reading through the first two statements of the Moroccan group, which formally calls itself Tansiqiyat Ansar el-Sharia bil-Maghreb (adding “Tansiqiya” to the standard name). It seems to be a regular daawa group, but with a bit of salafi-jihadi flavor to it.
They acknowledge but actually take care to distinguish themselves from the A Sh groups in Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, noting that they all work in different contexts: “Ansar el-Sharia in Yemen opted to break with the ruler (ra’at el-khurouj 3ala el-hakim), in Libya it joined the revolutionaries, while in tunisia it’s a daawa group, and in Saudi Arabia it’s a welfare (khayriya) organization.” For their own part, they say that “at this stage” they’re going to engage only in peaceful daawa.
There’s no reference to Chinguetti, as far as I can see. From what I recall from his text, which I skimmed very briefly, he only makes reference to the Yemeni group, right?
Very interesting piece. Today, the Israeli court sentenced sheikh Nizam Abu Slim, head of “Ansar al-Sharia” in Nazareth, to spend the next 3 years behind bars. I wonder if there is any connection between those guys.