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Jihad coming home?

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COMMENTS

26 June 2008 10:10

Today, two striking and entirely separate trends are emerging on the Islamist landscape:  on the one hand, growing criticism of al-Qaeda by other Islamists and one-time partisans; and on the other hand, a conservative ascendancy within and among mainstream Islamist movements in the Middle East. 

Taken together these two trends (combined with some other developments) could culminate in a return of jihadism to the Middle East.

A recent article by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank in The New Republic is just the latest in a string of reports suggesting al-Qaeda’s leaders are under rhetorical attack from one-time supporters over their targeting of innocents and the lack of tangible achievements.

Some analysts question whether these criticisms will have much effect, while others have raised the possibility that they may be part of a disinformation campaign run by Western and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies.  

Nevertheless, it does also coincide both with evidence that support for suicide bombings and for al-Qaeda has dropped markedly in the Muslim world since 2002 and with the dramatic turnaround in Iraq, where Sunni insurgents have turned their guns on al-Qaeda.

But among mainstream Islamist movements that are often unfairly lumped in with al-Qaeda there have also been some setbacks in the last year. 

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has paid the price for its electoral successes in 2005 by seeing hundreds of its members arrested by the regime. In Morocco and Jordan, Brotherhood political parties have performed poorly in regime-controlled elections. 

Even the AKP, often held (including by some Islamists) as the best example of ‘post-Islamist’ integration into democratic politics, faces the distinct possibility of being banned by Turkey’s secular constitutional court (despite winning a sweeping election victory just last year).

As the Egyptian analyst Amr Hamzawy has noted, for mainstream Islamists the costs of participating in political life in recent years have been high and the returns low. 

The result is that some mainstream Islamist are openly questioning the benefits of political participation. Pragmatists are on the back foot, unable to justify the benefits of ideological compromise for the sake of paltry political gains, while political setbacks and regime repression – especially in Egypt and Jordan — have strengthened conservatives and hawks.

Alongside this, more fundamentalist Salafist thought is gaining ground within and around  these  movements. In Kuwait, Salafists, who are usually known for eschewing political activism, did better in parliamentary elections than the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

So what do these two separate trends, taken together, mean? On the surface it doesn’t look too bad. Al-Qaeda’s terrorist campaign against the West is losing popularity, while mainstream Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood are being beaten back by pro-Western regimes in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere, potentially withdrawing from politics and focusing more on religious predication (da’wa).

In fact, the result might well be precisely the opposite. By blocking the path of political participation, Middle East regimes might push younger members of more mainstream movements that have hitherto eschewed violent activism (at least domestically) toward confrontation.

As with generations of young Islamists before them, many of these activists are unlikely to be satisfied with conservative calls to return to more gradualist preaching and social activism. For example, there is already disquiet among younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood over the movement’s leadership and direction.  

Some of that disquiet had earlier and more infamously erupted in a martial arts display on the Campus of al-Azhar university in 2006. While the significance of this episode was exaggerated by the Egyptian Government, it did, nonetheless, underline the frustration among some members of the Brotherhood youth with both regime repression and their own movement.

Moreover, as another Egyptian analyst, Khalil al-Anani, recently noted, the growing interest in Salafism among Middle Eastern youth may not be problematic as a scholarly or religious pursuit, but could become so if you combine Salafism’s literalist and uncompromising approach with a charged political atmosphere.

Indeed, what makes the current climate in the region especially volatile is the difficult social and economic times being experienced by many Middle Eastern countries with high inflation and food crises.

Against this background, al-Qaeda could well capitalise by re-orienting its propaganda away from a prioritisation of struggle against ‘the far enemy’ (the West), back toward ‘the near enemy’ – the rulers of Middle Eastern states. 

Moreover, just as the return of ‘Arab Afghans’ fuelled violence in Egypt and Algeria in the 1990s, the return of al-Qaeda’s fighters in Iraq to their home countries could provide a vanguard for renewed violence and terrorism directed against Arab regime.

Or to put it crudely, jihad might be coming home.

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