Many jihadist groups are undergoing a process of “revision”, in which violent methods are being largely eschewed. Lynsey Addario / Corbis
Across the Arab and Muslim world, jihadists are beginning to renounce violence as a means to change their societies – and not just because they lost, writes Nathan Field.
The need for revival has been a central theme in recent Arab history: for more than a thousand years, Arab countries dominated (or at least saw themselves as dominating) their western rivals. But in the last two centuries, colonialism and globalisation made it painfully clear to Arab thinkers that their countries had fallen behind politically, economically and technologically. The region’s intellectuals have therefore long been preoccupied with devising ways to revive Arab society from its slumbers – and to return it to its previous glory.
Some looked outward in search of answers: for the great Egyptian writer Taha Hussein, who had studied in France, mimicking Western Europe was the key to revival since, in his view, Egypt had always been more Mediterranean than Eastern or Islamic. Like many in his era, Gamal Abdel Nasser looked favourably at how Soviet-style socialism had transformed Russia, a backwards agriculture-based economy, into an industrial super power in the span of two decades, and tried to apply that approach to Egypt.
For Islamists, most prominently the Muslim Brotherhood, the path to revival required a more inward -looking approach. In their view, countries like Egypt and Algeria had declined and fallen prey to colonial dominance because they had minimised the significance of Islam, the source of the society’s original greatness. Rather than copying non-Islamic models from the West, the Islamist approach has been to attempt a re-Islamicisation of Arab society, to rid it of corrupting western influences.
The majority of Islamists have always taken a peaceful approach to this reform process. But radical elements are a feature of most political movements, especially those aiming at reform; everywhere Islamist movements have flourished, small minority factions have seen violence – usually framed in the language of jihad – as a legitimate tool to change society. In Algeria and Egypt during the 1980s and 1990s, radical groups of this sort engaged in prolonged and bloody clashes with their governments – and similar, if smaller, battles, took place in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Morocco. To many outside observers, this violence appeared random and irrational, but we must understand it as the jihadists themselves did: as part of the same movement for reform that has been the dominant strain in Arab intellectual thought throughout the modern era.
During the last decade, however, this local violence has declined dramatically. In Egypt violence from organised militant groups has disappeared. The country’s two main jihadist groups, al Jihad and al Gama’a al Islamiyya, have both published books denouncing their past actions, usually referred to as the “Revisions”, and most of their members have since been released from jail. In Algeria, the overwhelming majority of the violent Islamists of the 1990s have embraced the National Reconciliation project and returned home. And in Saudi Arabia, several hundred arrested jihadists have passed through “rehabilitation” or “re-education” and been reintegrated back into society.
These developments have generally been regarded as separate and distinct events. There are differences, to be sure: in Egypt the shift came from within the jihadist movement, while in Saudi Arabia the state funded and sponsored the “re-education” programmes. But we must begin to understand them as local versions of a broader regional trend resulting from sustained religious reflection, in which jihadists have recognised the mistakes of their violent attempts at reform and begun to formulate non-violent alternatives. In the last three decades, small factions within the Islamist movement shifted decisively toward violence, but today we are seeing a reversal of this intellectual trend.
Some observers contend that the departure from violence has been caused not by internal reflection but by harsh treatment at the hands of the state. Egyptian intellectuals I have interviewed – many of them harsh critics of their government – tend to emphasise the brutality of the security forces as the critical factor driving the change. It is true, of course, that everywhere jihadists fought their governments they lost, and it cannot be denied that such defeats – and the long jail terms that followed – must have encouraged radicals to rethink their approach.
But there is ample evidence to suggest that jihadists reached this conclusion on their own, without being coerced into doing so. In Algeria, for example, there has been a spate of recent defections from the al Qa’eda-linked Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) with militants “coming down from the mountains” to surrender. When al Gama’a announced its initial ceasefire in 1997, it took Egyptian authorities, who viewed it as a trick, entirely by surprise. Several reports in the Arabic-language media have presented evidence of a non-violent turn inside al Jihad even before the group’s one-time leader, Sayyid Imam – also known as Dr Fadl – published his “Revisions” in 2007.
It seems likely, in fact, that religious reflection has been the most important factor in the move away from violence. Even violent radicals require some imprimatur from religious authorities, and in Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, at least in the past, there were some among the ulema (the scholars who are the arbiters of Islamic law) who were ambivalent or approving – just enough legitimacy for a jihadi seeking it. There was also, at least initially, some degree of social support among the population for their actions.
But in each of these countries, the situation has changed as society – and more importantly, religious scholars – have turned strongly against violence. Given the emphasis on religious conformity in Islamic societies, no group claiming to act in the name of Islam and the people can retain support if both denounce its actions.
A recent Al-Hayat interview with Hassan Hattab, the founder of the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, but now a major advocate of reconciliation, demonstrates this clearly. Asked why he embraced reconciliation after such a violent past, he pointed to the change in the ulema’s position: “We noticed that the ulema turned against the continuation of violence and this was an essential factor in our decision to stop operations. There wasn’t a single cleric who supported our fight against the government. Where previously they were silent about what was happening, now they take a clear position against the violence.”
Some commentators have argued that the retreat from violence is insincere, a ploy by jihadist factions to get themselves out of jail or obtain lenient treatment. In certain cases this may be true, but given that few of those released from jail have returned to violence, until they do, it is necessary to give them the benefit of the doubt.
We can measure the depth and seriousness of a group’s conversion by studying their efforts to formulate alternative strategies for reform. For while some jihadists have renounced violence as a means to reform, the conditions that drove them to violence in the first place have not changed.
Egypt’s al Gama’a al Islamiyya has gone the furthest. Not only did they denounce violence as a tool of change, outlined in several books published in 2002-2003, but it is trying, despite being prohibited from doing so, to enter mainstream politics. On its website, the group issues statements on current affairs not dramatically distinct from those of the Muslim Brotherhood or other groups considered mainstream. When Barack Obama was elected president in November, the group posted a statement congratulating him and called on him to repair relations with the Muslim world – hardly the type of behaviour associated with hard-core religious fanaticism.
Dr Fadl’s vaunted 2007 “Revisions” are not as significant as al Gama’a’s moves toward reform, as they do not lay out a formula for dealing with the conditions that drove the group to violence in the first place. Fadl merely says that trying to overthrow the ruler is wrong if the group does not have the ability to do so – which seems to imply it would be right if they did. Meanwhile, according to a recent article at Islam Online, the Libyan Armed Fighting Group, nominally affiliated with al Qa’eda, is on the verge of issuing its own “Revisions”, supposedly based on an even more far-reaching formula for reform than that of Egypt’s al Gama’a. If true, this would be extremely significant.
There are, of course, significant caveats to temper excess optimism about the end of jihadist violence. The trend toward non-violent means has included organised groups but not necessarily individuals or smaller factions. Most Egyptian analysts argue that violence has “stopped” but not “ended”: the underlying conditions remain unaltered and there is no predicting the actions of isolated violent individuals.
These revisions, furthermore, are relevant only to “near enemy” violence – against Arab states and populations – and may have little bearing outside of tactical readjustment on al Qa’eda actions against the United States or its allies. The revisions in Egypt, the Saudi re-education programme and the Algerian reconciliation are concerned only with the morality of Muslim-on-Muslim violence inside Muslim countries.
In every country there are some holdouts who refuse to accept this change, but they are a very small minority of the total number who once embraced violence. The broader trend – across the Arab world – reflects the firm position of Arab publics and Islamic scholars against internal violence, and it would appear a formidable obstacle to future groups who seek to affect change with violent means.
Nathan Field is a journalist who writes about Egyptian politics.