By BRET STEPHENS Do minors require their parents' consent to become suicide bombers? Believe it or not, this is the subject of an illuminating and bitter debate among the leading theoreticians of global jihad, with consequences that could be far-reaching.
On March 6, Al-Sahab, the media arm of al Qaeda, released a 46-minute video statement1 titled "They Lied: Now Is the Time to Fight." The speaker is Mustafa Ahmed Muhammad Uthman Abu-al-Yazid, 52, an Egyptian who runs al Qaeda's operations in Afghanistan, and the speech is in most respects the usual mix of earthly grievances, heavenly promises and militant exhortations. It's also an urgent call for recruits.
"We call on the fathers and mothers not to become a barrier between their children and paradise," says Abu-Al-Yazid. "If they disagree who should first join the jihad to go to paradise, let them compete, meaning the fathers and the children. . . . Also, we say to the Muslim wives, do not be a barrier between your husbands and paradise." Elsewhere in the message, he makes a "special call to the scholars and students seeking knowledge. . . . The jihad arenas are in dire need of your knowledge and the doors are open before you to bring about the virtue of teaching and jihad."
These particular appeals are no accident. Last year, imprisoned Egyptian radical Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif, a.k.a. "Dr. Fadl," published "The Document of Right Guidance for Jihad Activity in Egypt and the World." It is a systematic refutation of al Qaeda's theology and methods, which is all the more extraordinary considering the source. Sayyed Imam, 57, was the first "emir" of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, many of whose members (including his longtime associate Ayman al-Zawahiri) later merged with Osama bin Laden and his minions to become al-Qaeda. His 1988 book, "Foundations of Preparation for Holy War," is widely considered the bible of Salafist jihadis.
Now he has recanted his former views. "The alternative" to violent jihadism, he says in an interview with the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat (translated by Memri), "is not to kill civilians, foreigners and tourists, destroy property and commit aggression against the lives and property of those who are inviolable under the pretext of jihad. All of this is forbidden."
Sayyed Imam is emphatic on the subject of the moral obligations of the would-be jihadist. "One who lacks the resources [to fight jihad] is forbidden to acquire money through forbidden means, like [burglary]," he says, adding that "Allah does not accept martyrdom as atonement for a mujahid's debts." As for a child's obligations toward his parents, he adds that "it is not permitted to go out to fight jihad without the permission of both parents . . . because acting rightly with one's parents is an individual obligation, and they have rights over their sons."
"This has become pandemic in our times," he adds in a pointedly non-theological aside. "We find parents who only learn that their son has gone to fight jihad after his picture is published in the newspapers as a fatality or a prisoner."
These "Revisions," as Sayyed Imam's book is widely known in Arab intellectual circles, elicited a harsh and immediate response from unreconstructed jihadists. "What kind of guidance does the 'Document' offer?" asked al Qaeda commander Abu Yahyha Al-Libi in a March 9 Internet posting. "Is it guidance that tells the mujahadeen and the Muslims: 'Restrain yourselves and [allow] us [Arab regimes] to shed your blood'?"
Even more sarcastic was Zawahiri himself. "Do they now have fax machines in Egyptian jail cells?" he asked. "I wonder if they're connected to the same line as the electric-shock machines." Zawahiri then penned a 215-page rebuttal to Sayyed Imam, whom he accuses of serving "the interests of the Crusader-Zionist alliance with the Arab leaders."
The gravamen of the hardliners' case against Sayyed Imam is that he has capitulated (either through force or persuasion) to the demands of his captors, and has become, in effect, their stooge. The suspicion seems partly borne out by Sayyed Imam's conspicuous renunciation of any desire to overthrow the Egyptian regime. One Turkish commentator, Dogu Ergil, notes that "in prison many jihadist inmates were encouraged by the Interior Ministry and security apparatus to engage in religious dialogue with clerics from al-Azhar," a Sunni religious university overseen by the state. Mr. Ergil calls this part of a deliberate "counter-radicalization program" by the Egyptian government.
But whatever Sayyed Imam's motives, it is the neuralgic response by his erstwhile fellow travelers that matters most. There really is a broad rethink sweeping the Muslim world about the practical utility -- and moral defensibility -- of terrorism, particularly since al Qaeda began targeting fellow Sunni Muslims, as it did with the 2005 suicide bombings of three hotels in Amman, Jordan. Al Qaeda knows this. Osama bin Laden is no longer quite the folk hero he was in 2001. Reports of al Qaeda's torture chambers in Iraq have also percolated through Arab consciousness, replacing, to some extent, the images of Abu Ghraib. Even among Saudis, a recent survey by Terror Free Tomorrow finds that "less than one in ten Saudis have a favorable opinion of Al Qaeda, and 88 percent approve the Saudi military and police pursuing Al Qaeda fighters."
No less significant is that the rejection of al Qaeda is not a liberal phenomenon, in the sense that it represents a more tolerant mindset or a better opinion of the U.S. On the contrary, this is a revolt of the elders, whether among the tribal chiefs of Anbar province or Islamist godfathers like Sayyed Imam. They have seen through (or punctured) the al Qaeda mythology of standing for an older, supposedly truer form of Islam. Rather, they have come to know al Qaeda as fundamentally a radical movement -- the antithesis of the traditional social order represented by the local sovereign, the religious establishment, the head of the clan and, not least, the father who expects to know the whereabouts of his children.
It would be a delightful irony if militant Islam were ultimately undone by a conservative, Thermidor-style reaction. That may not be the kind of progress most of us imagined or hoped for. But it is progress of a kind.BRET STEPHENS
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