Sunday, May 25, 2008

The academic side of Al Quaeda

Lawrence Wright has an article in the New Yorker about the 'transformation' of "Dr. Fadl", an Al Qaeda mastermind. Fadl, we learn, wrote a book in the nineties -- The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge -- that provided "religio-intellectual" legitimacy to that organization's terrorist tactics -- particularly those involving suicide attacks; his current, 'revised' views -- which appeared in Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World (2007) -- have raised serious questions about terrorism as a jihadi tactic. Wright uses Fadl's two books as a backdrop for the kinds of arguments that have been going on among radical jihadists in Egypt (primarily) and elsewhere. Along the way, he also traces the history of some of the (Egypt-based) radical Islamic movements and the personalities -- and personal rivalries -- that shaped them.

When thousand-page books and 200-page rebuttals have a go at each other, the discussion is bound to assume an academic tone, with each side citing religious scholars, sometimes going all the way back to the Prophet himself. Here's Wright writing about Zawahiri's rebuttal to Fadl's second book:

Some of Zawahiri’s commentary may seem comically academic, as in this citation in support of the need for Muslims to prepare for jihad: “Imam Ahmad said: ‘We heard from Harun bin Ma’ruf, citing Abu Wahab, who quoted Amru bin al-Harith citing Abu Ali Tamamah bin Shafi that he heard Uqbah bin Amir saying, “I heard the Prophet say from the pulpit: ‘Against them make ready your strength.’ ” ’ Strength refers to shooting arrows and other projectiles from instruments of war.”

When the discussion takes a decidedly academic turn, (a) it tends to cover all bases, and (b) the underlying issue (in this case, terror) becomes, well, academic. The effect is eerily comical. In the example below, Fadl invokes sanctity of contracts as an argument against the 9/11 attacks, and Zawahiri has a pointed response.

The most original argument in the book and the interview is Fadl’s assertion that the hijackers of 9/11 “betrayed the enemy,” because they had been given U.S. visas, which are a contract of protection. “The followers of bin Laden entered the United States with his knowledge, and on his orders double-crossed its population, killing and destroying,” Fadl continues. “The Prophet—God’s prayer and peace be upon him—said, ‘On the Day of Judgment, every double-crosser will have a banner up his anus proportionate to his treachery.’ ” ...

When Zawahiri questions the sanctity of a visa, which Fadl equates with a mutual contract of safe passage, he consults an English dictionary and finds in the definition of “visa” no mention of a guarantee of protection. “Even if the contract is based on international agreements, we are not bound by these agreements,” Zawahiri claims, citing two radical clerics who support his view.

Go read the whole thing.

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While we are on this subject, let me point you to the NYRB article titled Jihadi Suicide Bombers: The New Wave in which Ahmed Rashid reviews a bunch of books on Al Quaeda.