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The Contemporary Godfather of Islamic Extremist Ideology - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The truth is we did not, or at least personally I did not, need an American study to prove that the Jordanian fundamentalist Abu Mohammed al Maqdesi is the most important ideological source and influence for the Salafi Jihadist followers. This is a known fact that many of us have echoed before, not to say that al Maqdesi is the ‘creator’ of this phenomenon, but rather to regard him as representative of the theoretical and doctrinal depth that frames the deeds of the violent and terrorist Sunni trends.

Needless to say, the reference here is to the ideological, theoretical, and doctrinal support used by members of the Salafi Jihadist trend to dispute and argue with the sheikhs and scholars who oppose their ideology – whether traditional Islamic sheikhs or contemporary ones such as al Qaradawi and al Hawali, among others. The focus lies on illustrating the thread of influence that al Maqdesi is responsible for, rather than stressing the prevailing political and social climate, among other factors.

According to the news, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point has compiled a book entitled ‘The Militant Ideology Atlas’ which states that despite Osama Bin Laden being considered the most prominent symbol of Islamic extremism worldwide that his influence on Islamic ideologies is rather limited in comparison to other Islamic thinkers and scholars of lesser renown. The study also revealed Abu Mohammed al Maqdesi to be the most influential living Islamic thinker, and that Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s number two man, appears to be of no significance in this intellectual network despite being portrayed as a driving force in the al Qaeda network.

Responsible for the Middle East operations, General John Abizaid, the chief of the US Central Command said in a lecture entitled “The Long War”, which he recently delivered at Harvard University that he worried about the possibility of a third world war erupting because of the growing Islamic extremist ideology in the Middle East, and the Islamic world in its entirety. He said, “if we do not have enough courage to confront this today, we will enter into a third world war tomorrow”. What was interesting though was his comparison of the dominating surge of radicalism today to the surge of Nazi ideology before the Second World War.

It was commendable of General Abizaid to resume his talk about the nature of the huge problems that consume this afflicted part of the world. He added to the dangers of fundamentalism, the incapacity to resolve the Arab-Israeli struggle, and the problem posed by Iran with its ambitions and nuclear weapons. It goes without saying that the general speaks from the perspective of the American assessment of the strategic dangers. To add a third point; it was one that I stumbled across in the Asharq Al Awsat archive, published November 17th 2005, about the disciples of the famous extremist who is one of the stars of ‘Londonstan’ – Omar Bakri. The report says that Najm Chaudhry, Bakri’s successor in London, amidst efforts of reviving the fundamentalist group [Al Muhajiroun] under the new name ‘Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaa’ said of his party, “We will become a part of the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaa that is spread throughout the world. Among our sheikhs and mentors are Omar Bakri, Abu Mohammed al Maqdesi and Abu Qatadah al Filesteeni.”

Another indicator was the conclusion stated by the Saudi sheikh Abdul Mohsen al Obeikan on July 7, 2005 after lengthy debates with the Saudi detainees who were being held in local prisons under suspicion of being members of Al Qaeda or the Salafi Jihadist trend that the most influential factor, from a doctrinal and intellectual perspective, is the figure and writings of Abu Mohammed al Maqdesi. The truth is that Essam Barqawi, which is Abu Mohammed al Maqdesi’s real name, represents a striking example of the depth of the intellectual malfunction from one side, and the political one from another, under which Muslim generations have been living for the past century and a half. Al Maqdesi’s main ideas which brought about his popularity, making him a leader and an authoritative figure on theory and doctrine for scores of youth seeking Jihad are simple ones – but ones that have been meticulously studied. He has been known to cause much embarrassment to sheikhs, by virtue of employing texts that they approve of, and even rely on, citing the same sources they accept on a doctrinal, creed and Hadith level. Add to that his remarkable argumentative ability – perhaps those who remember his famous interview on the Al Jazeera channel after his short release by the Jordanian authorities in July 2005 (he was quickly detained again!) can recall the man’s fluency and the clarity of his doctrinal dialogue.

I have personally pointed that out on more than one occasion; I chanced upon him some 16 years ago at the Holy Mosque in Mecca during one of the Ramadaniyat [gatherings that take place in mosques during the month of Ramadan]. I listened to him address the young men in a persuasive and moving language, using justifications and evidence that was familiar to their minds and ears in an attempt to spread his idea of a revolutionary jihad. The essence of his thought depended on the necessity of eradicating ‘the tyrants’, by which he meant all Arab governments so as to staeblish true unity through an honorable jihad, namely a “guiding book and an incisive sword” – in the words of Ibn Taymiyyah – which is the phrase that flashes on the front page of al Maqdesi’s website ‘al Tawheed wal Jihad’ (Unity and Jihad).

Tawheed and Jihad is the stricter version of the famous Muslim Brotherhood’s axiom ‘the sword and the Quran’, both of which spring from the same source. It was adopted by al Maqdesi’s disciple and cellmate in the infamous Swaqa Prison, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, following his departure from Jordanian prisons in 1999. After a long journey, he became the mastermind of killing in the name of Jihad in Iraq, naming his group Kataeb al Tawhid wal Jihad (The Battalions of Unity and Jihad) who filled Iraq with brutal slaughter: from Americans to Iraqis, to Nepalese workers and Jordanian truck drivers. This adoption bothered none other than al Maqdesi himself who expressed his irritation over ascribing the name of this website to al Zarqawi’s group in the famous letter he sent from Qafqafa prison in Jordan in September 2004), until the latter changed the name of his sect to Tanzeem Qaedat al Jihad fi Bilad al Rafidayn (Al Qaeda Jihad Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers).

Yet this change was only a superficial one that took place on the level of ‘involvement’ because of the ‘sheikh’s’ embarrassment – however the dialogue between the two men remained unchanged. But the purpose is not to highlight the relationship between al Zarqawi and al Maqdesi; it has more to do with al Maqdesi’s appeal – where does it come from? Why has he become the most influential figure in radical religious militancy, or what is known as the Salafi Jihadist trend, based on acknowledgements from various different sides? The answer is a composite and complex one, where transitory and permanent elements exist; the transient of which is the political turmoil in the region, the wars that beget wars, suffice it to mention the state of semi-war that we have lived under in the region since Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 until the present day – that is without mentioning the Iran-Iraq war and the October war that preceded it – however, President Sadat’s war was the more important of the two, it was the war for peace.

These are existing ‘circumstances’ that generate anxiety and frustration and a readiness for change. Since the mid-seventies, political Islamic groups started to dominate the Arab street, in fact it became the gate through which feelings of public resentment entered. As for the permanent reasons, which are more dangerous and destructive and more difficult to handle, the most important of which is the lack of attempt on the behalf of the Muslims to bring about a true and tangible reform of the set of ideals that govern the religious dialogue – which is a painful but true observation. With the exception of some attempts that fall into the categories of the ‘interpretation’ or ‘exegesis’ of the doctrine, it then makes it rather effortless for some like al Maqdesi or Abu Qatadah to respond to, or convince ‘countless numbers’ from among their followers of the inaccuracy and fallacy of such interpretations, or to deliver flawless doctrinal refutations. It should suffice to acquaint oneself with the responses of the Salafi Jihadist sheikhs to those who accuse them of being Khawarij (dissidents), or that they wrongly denounce Arab governments as infidels. It is enough to read their defenses of the doctrine and the tradition to realize the size of the crisis and the problem that we confront, and to imagine what it must be like for the youth – or even the elderly! The best-case scenario for those who read those arguments or listen to them is that the young man does not heed the propositions of al Maqdesi and the likes of him, but in his heart there will always be a little ‘what-if’, and perhaps he will refrain from following and implementing al Maqdesi’s ideas – not because they lack the correct proof but because he cannot bear the consequences of such following!

Perhaps this talk is disturbing but there is no escaping the truth when we say that it does not mean that all Muslims are prone to extremist notions by nature. That would be incorrect; the proof of which is that the followers of al Maqdesi and others like him are still the minority – but the fact remains that this cancer must be treated at its root without stopping this ‘painful’ treatment after a single session or two because then the cancer simply returns more aggressive than before.

The second of the permanent, or semi-permanent reasons that would perhaps allow for al Maqdesi’s thought to have such influential power is the lack of a good example or effective model for progress and advancement in the Arab world, coupled with the retardation in political, social, and “educational” development, which creates a huge gaping hole with nothing and no one to fill it save men like Bin Laden and al Maqdesi’s books whose flames feed on the firewood of frustration.

And so, al Maqdesi remains a force, even though to this day he is imprisoned in Jordan, while Bin Laden will remain a symbol to many, even though he will die or might even be dead already; not because we favor extremism and detest life and freedom, as George Bush said – but rather because we do not undertake a true exploration of ourselves and have yet to present a successful, permanent, real and transparent model of success – and that is the mother of all malaises.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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