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Al-Zawahiri Rides the Reform Wave | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Al-Zawahiri Rides the Reform Wave

Al-Zawahiri Rides the Reform Wave

Al-Zawahiri Rides the Reform Wave

In his most recent videotaped message, Ayman al Zawahiri appeared on the Arabic language TV channel al Jazeera on Friday 17 th June 2005 and, rather intriguingly, spoke about the recent political activity of non-religious movements across the Arab World, as represented by Kifayah, or the Egyptian Movement for Change.

Al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second in command, was cynical about peaceful methods to bring about change in the region. Instead, he reiterated that, “Jihad (holy struggle) is the only way to reform the Islamic nation. Expelling the infidels and invaders, the Jews and the Crusaders, will not be achieved by demonstrating and voicing one’s demands, but by jihad and war.

Dismissing the usefulness of latest displays of popular participation, such as the Kifayah movement in Egypt and the anti- Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon , and the increasingly loud talk of reform and political participation since the fall of Saddam Hussein, al Zawahiri discussed his organization’s three- pronged program to change the Islamic World.

Accordingly, al Qaeda believes in the application of Sharia Law (Islamic Law), the liberation territories inhabited by Muslims from foreign occupation, and the freedom of the Islamic Nation to run its affairs as it please, unlikely until the judiciary system becomes free. An analysis of al Zawahiri’s proposal reveals that al Qaeda hasn’t significantly modifieded the form and content of its discourse in recent years. The only change involves the use of terminology applicable to the present international situation; a proof that al Qaeda is in tune with current affairs.

If one were to review the pronouncements of al Qaeda’s leadership since the begging of the war on terror and examine the speeches of Osama bin Laden and al Zawahiri, one will notice that the core ideology, to apply Islamic Law according to Salafi (following the methods of the early Muslims) belief, by way of jihad, has remained constant.

Periodically, however, al Qaeda announcements reflect the concerns of the day. For example, in a videotaped message shown on al Jazeera, in February of this year, al Zawahiri said US military practices at Camp Delta in Guantanamo put in question the country’s claims that it supports democracy and freedom. The speech doesn’t attack the concepts of democracy and reform, it doubts whether the administration of President George W. Bush adheres to them.

Similarly, in November 2004, al Zawahiri revealed, in a recording partly broadcast by al Jazeera, the stark choice in front for the US administration: either to treat Muslims with respect in accordance with mutual interests, or continue regarding the lands of Islam and its resources as liable for conquest and face the consequences. It is worth mentioning that the al Qaeda official uses a pragmatic language by emphasizing mutual relation. This is in marked contrast to the common militant jihadist stance in support of military confrontation until the world comes under the authority of Islamic Law and the “Kinghts of the Prophet”, to quote a recent book al Zawahiri where he attacks those who subscribe to peaceful ways to change.

In a video shown on the al Arabiyah channel, timed to coincide with the meeting of Arab leaders in Tunisia in May 2004, al Zawahiri rejected the reforms proposed at the meeting as useless. Some observers believe that the statement was intentionally meant to coincide with the conference that discussed US plans for reform in the Middle East . Yet again, al Zawahiri attacked the Bush administration for depriving Muslims of freedom and democracy. He said, “The US doesn’t want reform in the Arab World. It will never allow democracy or freedom in the region because it doesn’t Muslims to enjoy them”, in a language that reminds us of a human rights activist.

If one is to take a step back and examine al Zawahiri’s philosophy and views on jihad, as publicized in his writings, it becomes evident that he has ferociously attacked both democracy and freedom. In his book “A Bitter Harvest”, a critical assessment of sixty years of the Muslim Brotherhood, he equates democracy with the absence of religious sentiment.

According to Egyptian Islamist, Kamal Habib, the book was a response to the Brotherhood swearing allegiance to President Hosni Mubarak, in 1987. Al Zawahri criticized this approach and said: “Beware of the democracy that implies the rule of the people. It is a new religion that deifies humans and gives them the authority to formulate their own laws, independently from any higher authority.”

He added, “Democracy is positivist religion that encourages atheism, by giving people the right to legislate, while Islam gives it exclusively to Allah.” Speaking of Egyptian politics, he warned the reader about “the Members of Parliament who assume they are God”, indicating that Egyptians should avoid “running for election”.

In these extracts, the reader encounters a strict rejection of the principal of democracy and freedom that is repeated in a later book by al Zawahiri, “Knights Under the Prophet”s Banner”. It is only in his latest statements that we see evidence of a possible development of his beliefs. This is reminiscent of the change in the language used by bin Laden, in a speech last October, a few days before the US electorate cast their votes in the presidential election. Al Qaeda’s leader used few religious terms, choosing instead, a language of political analysis, for example repeating the word free and emphasized he is fighting for freedom. He asked: “If Bush says we fight the US because we hate free countries, why hasn’t al Qaeda targeted Sweden ?” He also revealed that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 marked a turning point in his life and attacked the US government.

As for the claim that bin Laden was radicalized as a result of Tel Aviv’s military operation in Lebanon, the Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, who personally knew the al Qaeda leader, remembered in an interview with Asharq Al Awsat, how “in 1987, Osama spoke of boycotting US goods as a response to the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) but never mentioned bombing and destroying towers.” Therefore, it is safe to conclude that the last statements by the al Qaeda leadership, where they appear to modify their stances, are nothing more than an appropriation of the latest terminology. In other words, the turban might be adjusted slightly, but the person wearing it remains the same.