I’m pessimistic that social and political changes going on in some Arab Muslim countries will have much of an effect on global Salafist-jihadism. Understood in the West (if at all) as al-Qaeda and its affiliates, Salafist-jihadism is far more ideologically diverse than Bin Laden and Zawahiri, and far more theologically nuanced than most analysts and policy makers give it credit. Unfortunately, it will endure this glorious revolution, because it has always been outside the mainstream of Islamic religious practice, and there it will remain. I’m more pessimistic about the future of political Islam, Salafist-jihadism’s theological antagonist and ideological counterweight.
Political Islam -- manifested by, but not limited to, the Muslim Brotherhood -- emerged as a response to secularization of post-Ottoman and post-colonial governments. It’s clear from many of the Hassan al-Banna’s 30s-era essays -- like Towards the Light -- that he was building an alternative to Western ideas of secular governance. The promise of that alternative rose as the promise of secular Arab/Muslim states faded. It became enough of a problem in the 1950s and 60s that the Brotherhood and other Islamist movement were persecuted in most of the Arab/Muslim world. When Sadat offered the group political legitimacy in the early 1970s, it embraced its new role as the de facto alternative to the regional status quo.
How did the Muslim Brotherhood benefit from its rapprochement with Sadat’s new government? Over the decades it thrived outside of Egypt and other Arab countries. Islamism has been wildly successful in Western countries. It practically defines Sunni Islam in the United States. Yet, it’s current place as the one and only recognizable opposition force in Egypt certainly didn’t help it much during the revolution. It has, perhaps, become too dependent on the regime it opposed and without it, it has to build a new legitimacy. In yesterday’s New York Times, Gilles Kepel points out the group’s relative docile reaction to the revolutionary onslaught in Tunisia and Egypt,
Islamists kept a low profile — even in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has the biggest and best organized network of charities, mosques and local associations. They couldn’t beat the democrats, so they joined them.
Listening to their slogans, reading their publications in Arabic, one is struck by the fact that — as opposed to Khomeini in 1978-79 — they were unable to control the revolution’s vocabulary. Now, they must either keep on that track — and relinquish “sovereignty to the people,” albeit with their own religious tradition and culture — or they must capitalize on the dissatisfaction of the disinherited and push their old “Islam is the alternative” agenda.
The Islamists, for the time being, are divided along generational and ideological lines, but they have not vanished from the Arab street — let alone from Tahrir Square, where Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, back from Qatar, addressed the crowd for the Friday prayer. They find themselves, along with the whole of society, at a defining moment. It has little to do with the grand schemes of the clash of civilizations, and far more with grass-roots issues.
On the other hand, Salafist-jihadism emerged as a response to the mainstreaming of political Islam in Egypt in the early 1970s. Shukri Mustafa (Takfir wa’al Hijrah) and his compatriots in the Egyptian university movements - EIJ, IG, etc - were inspired to push political Islam to its extreme, and over the course of the next two decades would develop the theological and ideological foundations of contemporary Salafist-jihadism.
Al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and many of Salafist-jihadist groups, manifest their movement differently from the Islamists. They will often claim that they represent a vanguard of righteous men and women are the embodiment of pure Islamic practice through commitment to (both greater and lesser) jihad, and other practices. In Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet (2001), Zawahiri describes them “the Islamic movement and its jihad vanguard with all its good quality, purity and offering...”
The conception of a vanguard isolates Salafist-jihadist from the mainstream of any society. If it is a true vanguard then it can never be mainstream. As a result, a small group of pure Muslims who seek God’s good graces will be a theological elite (in their own eyes) whether they live in stable France, disintegrating Pakistan, a newly democratic Egypt, or in an apartment complex off Leesburg Pike in Northern Virginia.
Azzam, Qatada, Maqdisi, Dr. Fadl and the al-Sahwa sheikhs all matter because they built the foundation for contemporary Salafist-jihadism. At some point the Salafist-jihadists chose to be a theological vanguard rather than a political movement. In so doing, they may have guaranteed the movement’s survival, relatively unscathed by the twists and turns of political revolution.