COMMENTARY
 
Repenting and Recanting Religious Radicalism
Weekly Pulse
May 23-29, 2008
Islam forbids terrorism and recommends severe punishments for those deviating from its path and committing terrorist act against Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Jihad is an inherently non-violent Islamic principle, requiring Muslims to engage in a struggle that manifests itself both internally and externally.

Internal jihad is jihad within oneself to be a better person, to resist human temptations and eradicate character flaws such as greed and wickedness. This is the greater jihad. The second, external form of jihad is personal conduct at a time of war or conflict, during which the Muslims are required not to be aggressors.

If this is the theory of Islam regarding terrorism and jihad, what is the reality on the ground? The reality is surely depressing: For al-Qaeda and a host of other radical religious groups, affiliated with it or not, terrorism is justified and jihad is only a violent concept.

One way of tacking the forces such as al-Qaeda is to counter their terrorism with zero tolerance by employing military tactics. This has been a predominant norm during over six years of the War on Terror since the terrorist events of September 11, 2001 in the United States. While such an approach, also inclusive of stringent security measures adopted by governments around the world, may have succeeded in preventing a spectacular attack such as that of 9/11, it has had the unintended consequence of fueling further radicalism and, by default, terrorism.

Winning Hearts and Minds

What is the way out, then? The good news is that we do not need to try something new, as some Muslim countries have already undertaken credible initiatives in this regard by engaging in an extensive “hearts-and-minds” and “out-reach” campaign to win over the former ideologues of radical movements and their followers. It is a strategy aimed at turning extremists against extremists, and it is making a difference. In Egypt, this strategy produced a spectacular result last year.

For quite some time, the Egyptian government is engaged in an extensive de-radicalization programme that has worked, as no terrorist instance of the scale of November 1997 massacre of 62 foreign tourists in Luxor has occurred so far. Under the de-radicalization programme, detainees serving sentences on charges of inciting or undertaking terrorism are allowed by Egyptian authorities to meet and consult each other in prison and hold dialogue with clerics from Al-Azhar University, which is one of leading authorities on Islamic jurisprudence in the Muslim world.

The programme has successfully converted and rehabilitated members of the Gama’a Islamiyya, once the largest deviant organisation in the Arab world, which mounted countless armed attacks starting in the 1980s until agreeing to a ceasefire with the Egyptian government after the Luxor massacre. The Islamic Group’s top ideologues, who are now mostly freed, have written 25 volumes of revisions in a series called Tashih al-Mafahim (Corrections of Concepts), addressing key doctrinal issues such as the concept of takfir— declaring a Muslim an apostate and therefore permissible to kill; attacks on civilians and foreign tourists; and waging jihad against a Muslim ruler who does not apply Sharia law.

Biggest Success

\Perhaps the biggest success of the Egyptian de-radicalization programme, thus far, is the recantation of radicalism by Sayyid Imam Abdulaziz al-Sharif, popularly known as Dr Fadl, who is the founding leader of Egyptian Al-Jihad Organization and a former compatriot of al-Qaeda’s ideologue Dr Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

In May 2007, Asharq Al-Awsat, one of Arab world’s leading newspapers, published a letter by Dr Fadl, in which he issued a call urging all ‘jihadists’ and their movements in the world to ensure that their ‘jihadist’ operations are carried out in accordance with the rules of Sharia. He stressed that his call was necessary at present, because of the rise in new forms of un-Islamic fighting and killing in the name of jihad that violate Sharia law, like the of killing people based on their nationality, skin or hair color, or being affiliated with a certain sect, and also the killing innocent Muslims or non-Muslims.

In the letter, Dr Fadl urged ‘jihadists’ not to use the excuse of human shields to expand the circle of killing, and to refrain from stealing and destroying property, as all these actions constitute aggression. Almighty God, he explained, prohibits aggression during jihad as illustrated by the Quranic injunction: Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress the limits; for God loveth not transgressors.

Dr Fadl is serving life sentence in Egypt in connection with a 1999 terrorist case, in which members of Al-Jihad had unsuccessfully attempted to blow-up the Egyptian embassy in Albania. Although Dr Fadl had never set foot in Albania, many of those arrested in Albania identified Dr Fadl as an ex-Emir of the group.

Dr Fadl had authored the most important book on ‘jihadist’ jurisprudence in the past quarter of a century, titled The Basic Principles in Making Preparations for Jihad. This book is considered as the ‘jihadist’ movements’ Constitution, laying down the rules of jurisprudence for combat operations by ‘jihadist’ groups, including al-Qaeda.

Dr Fadl’s Revised Text

Now, after recanting his previous thoughts, Dr Fadl has reportedly authored a new 100-page book, Advice Regarding the Conduct of Jihadist Action in Egypt and the World, which, he says, is “not addressed to one particular group and does not criticize any particular party. It is a collection of rules to help jihadists avoid violating Sharia during their conduct of jihad.” From November 2007, Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Yom began serializing his new book.

From the already published sections of the book, it is apparent that Dr Fadl is reinterpreting the meaning of jihad in ways which explicitly forbid declarations of takfir (under most circumstances) and the killing of non-Muslims in Muslim countries or members of other Muslim sects.

Dr Fadl now rejects the “jihad-centric” view of Islam characteristic of “Salafi-Jihadist” doctrine, while demanding that jihad be understood within a more rigorous understanding of Sharia and jurisprudence. He specifically refutes a range of interpretations of jihad which have justified attacks on state employees and government officials, civilians, tourists, Shia, and non-Muslims in Muslim countries or elsewhere.

On the proliferation of proclamations of takfir, Dr Fadl’s revised text declares that this should be a legal (Sharia) judgement, not a political or intellectual accusation—as with jihad, seeking to establish rules to govern it rather than to reject it.

The Ensuing Debate

Dr Fadl’s recantation has trigged a debate in Egypt and the Arab world as to what led to the change in his views about jihad. It is generally believed that Dr Fadl has repented and recanted his previously held notions of violent jihad as a result of a long process of reflection and debate, facilitated by the Egyptian government’s de-radicalization programme.

Some argue Dr Fadl may have been repressed by the Egyptian prison authorities to change recant his views on jihad. However, those who have known him believe the cleric cannot be succumb to state brutality. Dr Fadl has, however, said his transformation was voluntary, a result of personal reflection and introspection, and a reaction to terrorism against Muslims and non-Muslims by al-Qaeda. He argues that recanting while in prison is perfectly Islamic.

Al-Qaeda Number Two, Al-Zawahiri has reacted to Dr Fadl’s recantation by terming it a ploy of the Egyptian government. Both shared medical profession and religious radicalism. The Al-Jihad Organization was involved in the 1981 assassination of the former Egyptian President, Anwar Sadaat. Dr Zawahiri was consequently imprisoned in Egypt. It has continued militant activities even after the declaration of ceasefire by its Egyptian compatriot Gama’a Islamiyya that had also carried out the 1995 terrorist bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad.

Now, Dr Fadl claims to have obtained the signatures of several hundred members of the Al-Jihad Organization on his revised text regarding the religious justifications and pre-conditions regarding jihad.

Other Success Stories

Saudi Arabia has also pursued a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. As part of this strategy, for those among the deviants who are arrested and jailed on charges of inciting or committing terrorism, the Saudi government has put in place an extensive “out-reach” campaign, whereby religious scholars engage in a productive discourse with the detainees and their families, who are likewise taken care of.

The government has also attempted to make former detainees responsible and useful citizens of the state, by offering them incentives such as jobs and facilities for learning a variety of skills of their liking. The “out-reach” campaign has produced results, as many of the detainees suspected of inciting or committing terrorism during their trial in court or prison term repented their past deeds, and declared never to encourage terrorist activity or take part in it.

In Indonesia, another success story of counter-terrorism in the Muslim world, there is increasing recognition on the part of the government that words of militants matter more to other potential militants—say, young men thinking of joining a terror group—than some sermon from Muslim moderates.

In order to emphasize the seriousness of the terrorist threat, the government televises the videos of local suicide bombers and has recruited top Muslim clerics to issue public messages against the terrorists. Jakarta has even employed former terrorists to preach that violence has no place in Islam. As part of this campaign, the Indonesian government has succeeded in building up an extensive web of former militants working to persuade hard-liners to change sides.

The Indonesian government co-opts those among the terrorists, suspected or convicted of terrorism, who show a commitment to helping authorities and express regret for their terrorist actions. In engaging the terrorists, Indonesian authorities often exploit a long-standing rift in the militant movement over the morality and strategic benefit of bombing soft targets such as the Bali nightclubs, which saw a terrorist bombing in October 2002.

Those cooperating with authorities can expect shorter sentences, cash payments and medical care for themselves or relatives. A few work publicly with authorities; one former Jemaah Islamiyah regional leader, a Malaysian named Nasir Abbas, occasionally briefs the media alongside police. Most remain behind the scenes, identifying a voice recording or photo of a suspect or meeting detainees in jail to challenge their views. The strategy has paid dividends

Like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia, the contours of a “hearts and minds” campaign to turn people against extremists are also increasingly visible in Iraq, where al-Qaeda has tried to benefit from the precarious security environment since the arrival of the US-led coalition forces in the country in March 2003.

Over time, the al-Qaeda’s sponsorship of suicide-bombing missions in Iraq seemed to succeed, as such terrorist attacks against the Iraqi government officials and security personnel, US-led coalition forces and against the various ethnic and sectarian communities of the country, including both Sunnis and Shias, gained momentum.

To counter that, the Iraqi government and coalition authorities have in recent months attempted to steel the initiative from al-Qaeda, by isolating the terror network from the general Iraqi population aggrieved due to post-March 2003 deterioration in the country’s security environment characterizing by horrific killing spree making Iraqi people as its foremost victims.

Access column at weeklypulse.org