Talisman Gate

Friday, July 29, 2005

Pupil Upstages Tutor

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

July 29, 2005 Friday


LENGTH: 1238 words

HEADLINE: Pupil Upstages Tutor

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Earlier this month, American and Jordanian spymasters thought they had a good thing going: They intended to release Isam Barqawi, who goes by the name Abu Muhammed Al-Maqdisi, and see what happened when he blabbed to the press.

Maqdisi was the spiritual and ideological mentor of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, as well as a whole generation of those who call themselves Salafi Jihadists. The spymasters thought that a public ideological rift between Maqdisi and Zarqawi would be broadcast to the whole jihadi world and shake it to its foundations.

But they were mistaken. All that Maqdisi managed to say by way of criticizing Zarqawi was basically: Well done, my son, but don't overdo things like suicide bombings, targeting the Shias in a general fashion, and broadcasting digital images of mayhem. Maqdisi did not say that these things were prohibited, but rather they should be done with some moderation. It came as no surprise to anyone following the couple of letters Maqdisi had written from prison and published on his Web site over the past two years, as well as earlier and more lengthy treatises on the subject matter. Maqdisi never liked the Shias and used to call them treacherous reprobates, but he never went as far as counseling wholesale murder. He also did not rule out suicide bombings, but only took a stand against using the tactic to excess. In fact, he was all in favor of the September 11 suicide attacks, and was the inspiration for a whole gaggle of suicide bombers throughout the 1990s in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

But Maqdisi is also hesitant to start the fight for worldwide jihad this early on, before the seeds of his ideology have been widely planted and harvested: He wants to widen the recruiting pool by educating more and more young men for jihad so that he can build up an army to "avenge the [Islamic] nation, and resurrect its glory." Such skirmishes, as in Iraq or elsewhere, are a "furnace," whereby the best ideological minds are being killed before their prime.

Maqdisi's orchestrated time slot for fame came about in a lengthy interview with Al-Jazeera, broadcast on July 6.

It was thought that by re-introducing Maqdisi as a more moderate foil to Zarqawi, then that would cause confusion and spiritual drift within the camp of the fundamentalist insurgents fighting in Iraq. After all, Maqdisi is the more learned of the two, and was throughout Zarqawi's formative years in Afghanistan, as well as in the brief prison stint they shared in Jordan, the acknowledged ideological figurehead of Salafi-Jihadism. Surely, the reasoning went, Maqdisi will set the tone and re-assert his dominance by putting the upstart Zarqawi in his place. But everyone had underestimated the rapid morphing of radical Islam.

The dangerous deterioration of politicized Islam has been an ongoing process for several decades. It started with Egypt's Seyyid Qutub, whose writing in the years leading up to his execution in the mid-1960s veered the more-or-less benign thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood toward what became the beginning of violent neo-Salafism. Cross-fertilization between neo-Salafism and traditional Wahhabism, pioneered by Qutub's exiled brother in Saudi Arabia, led to neo-Wahhabism, or what was called in the 1980s and 1990s the "awakening." Its violent convergence was the concept of active jihad in Afghanistan, courtesy of American anti-Soviet policy and Saudi petrodollars. By the mid-1990s,Salafi-Jihadism,most closely identified with Maqdisi, emerged in hostility to Arab regimes, but was not taken up immediately by Al Qaeda types. Slowly yet surely, most jihadists began subscribing to those ideas, and more attacks were directed against hated Arab dictatorships.

There is a line in the movie "Schindler's List" whereby a German officer describes the Holocaust as "not just good old-fashioned Jew-hating talk. It's policy now"; anti-Semitism had just undergone a deadly transformation. Today, a similar transformation is under way on the cutting-edge, hard-core version of jihad, and Zarqawi is its master. It is a sign that even the most radical notions of Salafi Jihadism are entering new, uncharted ideological territory.

Zarqawi replied to the Al-Jazeera interview in a widely circulated letter posted on the Internet just a couple of days after Maqdisi's appearance. He hit back with a vengeance: Although maintaining a respectful tone toward his former tutor, he comes back to say that Maqdisi is old-school. Zarqawi hints that Maqdisi is being used as a tool by the enemies of Islam who are "waging the largest crusader campaign of our times." Feigning bewilderment at this lapse of judgment on the part of his former "friend," Zarqawi goes on to say that Maqdisi, who is only four years his senior, was but one of several early influences on his thinking. He also uses his letter to respond to earlier mild admonitions, and states that the battlefield of actual war is the real schooling in jihad.

According to Zarqawi, the battlefield teaches him, among other things, that is it okay to randomly kill Shias since they voted for the current Iraqi government. He slyly makes a play at Baathist sensibilities by saying that his targeting of the Shia is in response to their own provocations of the Sunnis and alliance with the "crusaders," and that he didn't start it. But then goes onto a polemical denunciation of the Shia as reprobates and cites other earlier Wahhabi fatwas that mark the Shia as heretics and thus beyond the pale of Islam.

Zarqawi then sums everything up by saying that he does not need fatwa wonks to tell him what to do; all he needs to justify jihad as he sees it is his own literal and selective interpretation of the Koran. End of story. He has carried the theological debate into a simpler, more murderous realm.

The story actually ends when the Jordanian authorities, only three days after letting Maqdisi go, re-arrest him after realizing the public-relations debacle they have gotten themselves into. Final tally: Zarqawi is the guy with street-credentials, and Maqdisi has been compromised by being infirm. Actually, a couple of hours after he was hauled back to prison, a statement attributed to Maqdisi was broadcast on the Web. He had this to say: "[Zarqawi] is the beloved brother and hero that is seeking to defend the sanctities of [our] religion ... Our mujahedeen brothers in Iraq have their own interpretations and choices that they chose as they see fit in the battlefield that we are distant from."

Zarqawi has emerged as the leading ideologue of jihad, and his ideas are not even faintly rooted in Islamic reasoning, but rather sketched out in battlefield-mandated rationale like the mass annihilation of the Shias. If Zarqawi had a nuclear weapon, he would be even less hesitant than his evil ideological predecessors in using it in Najaf and Karbala, or London and New York.

Skimming through the plethora of Zarqawi inspired Web sites, one finds that there is something they hate even more than Shias, and that is the very idea of democracy. There is what could threaten Zarqawi, more than some other aging jailed jihadist. The talk in Washington now is that promoting democracy is "just too hard. "With political capital scarce, the temptation to back down and switch to a "law enforcement" approach is strong. And it is true, spreading democracy is hard. But even harder would be life in the West if Zarqawi's Nazi-like ideology is left unchallenged.