Friday, January 14, 2011

The Mutating Tragedy of Salafi-Jihadism (Part I)

On the murders in Alexandria and Punjab and Hazem Amin’s new book The Orphaned Salafi

In a region riven with violence, a silencer long favored by the state before it became an article of faith for the fanatically “faithful,” what’s a Coptic church bombing in Alexandria or a murder of a defiant Punjabi governor, Salam Taseer, who dared “blaspheme”?

Rack them up, reflex urges you, for these are only the latest distress signals from a chronically troubled people. And true enough, you can actually run a line of connecting dots from Gaza to Sana’a to Darfur to Nahr al Bared to Cairo, Baghdad and Kandahar. The common denominators are a few, the shared experiences many.

Confronted by an unnerving blend of low-grade hate and full-fledged mayhem, the predictable—and dangerous—reaction by many is a contentment to let thoughts float on the surface of seemingly inexorable events, because, well, this is the Middle East, after all.

And when a hideous act demands some kind of an answer, the habit is to dump it in the lap of extremists, be they—depending, of course, on who’s making the argument--in cahoots with or the duped mercenaries of foreign masters, renegades from otherwise nonviolent fundamentalist camps, or desperate individuals simply unhinged by an abundance of poverty, humiliation and tyranny.

It’s not that Extremism is the wrong answer; it’s just a non-answer. As an Arabic proverb has it, it’s like “explaining water with water.” It takes you everywhere and nowhere. When you utter it, it’s as if you’ve said absolutely nothing at all. Worse still, it’s a wonderful escape hatch. Walk through it and all you need to do is cut and paste the standard set of band aid solutions: symbolic goodwill gestures towards the victims, branding the perpetrators as alien to society and system, an orgiastic show of national pride and unity, anti-terrorism clampdowns and, always, blaming the outsider.

But there is something very specific and very disturbing to be said about the murders in Alexandria and Punjab and much of the violence in this heaving and burning expanse. And Hazem Amin’s just published The Orphaned Salafi (Saki Books, 190 pages), a fascinating collection of vignettes that frame and explain Salafi-Jihadism and those who gave it the kiss of life, says it.

Once you have implanted religion at the center of a society’s identity and value system in an environment that is as illiberal in its parts (homes, curricula, personal status laws, politico-religious parties, mosque…) as it is in sum (authoritarian polities), it is literally a very short and easy ride between mainstream and extreme.

Islamism, made commonplace, visceral and transcendent, becomes an ecosystem, a freewheeling democracy of a sort, where laws and norms and dos and don’ts are any believer’s business.  Under it, unifying civil codes are negotiable for some, anathema for others. Morality is an exhortation or a sword. The community (umma) is uniquely Muslim. Citizenship is an exclusive club membership, with privileges and pecking orders. The Other is potentially everyone but the blessed self and its silhouette.  Sure, there are Shiite nuances and fine distinctions between one creed and the other, but these are details that accessorize the essence.

In Islamism’s orbit, differences of opinion or strategies between, say, the ever so mainstream Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and more radical Islamist elements, or tensions between the state and fundamentalist activists are real but beside the point and misleading when exploring origins and exits.

Seen from this prism, Extremism is not an oozing wound; it’s a condition. It’s not a noxious smell seeping from the basement; it’s the musty air that hangs everywhere in a long shuttered house. You can’t lock it up or chase it away, but you can lift away those pitch-black curtains, open wide those windows and let in the light.


This is not what Hazem Amin sets out to do in his book, the overarching purpose of which is to pull the Palestinian dimension into the heart and start of Salafi-Jihadism. But this is what I walked away with.

Not that Amin’s purpose is not worth probing. The Orphaned Salafi is a whirlwind of traumas and their traumatized men, of birthplaces and early decisive encounters, of stations on the warpath and cities that became incubators for combustible converging trends, of ominous meetings bringing together fearsome duets, fiery shaykhs and brutal disciples mad about their faith and dying to shed blood in its name.

The language is Arabic, the style is smooth, the footnotes are a sprinkle and the research is devoid of any foreign input.

The elusive question is Salafi-Jihadism. Amin’s path to it is through a series of human portraits, and the names, the places, the influences and the situations that etched them.

The locales are between a lost Palestine and the shores of the Gulf, neighborhoods crowded with a people in exile and deserts swimming in oil and long immersed in an austere Salafi faith with a particularly prickly temperament.

The founding fathers are Palestinian men shorn of a home and a national identity looking for a community to embrace them as brothers in an inhospitable Arab habitat.

The destination is the Muslim umma, where rootlessness and “foreignness” melt in the all-encompassing embrace of Islam.

The nannies are mainstream politico-religious parties (MB) that offer sanctuary and span borders, and seemingly laical “revolutionary” movements (Yasser Arafat’s Fatah) eager to nurture every manner of Palestinian would be soldier. It just so happens the two are more than acquaintances; they know each other well from back when, during the days of Abu Ammar in Kuwait.

The mood is somber, the psychology latently “perturbed.” The self thirsts for an identity that transcends borders and is committed to radical change for its sake. Behind this agitation stands an inspiration: Sayyid Qutb, that most famous of Egyptian Muslim Brothers who was one of the first to call for jihad against a “heretical” Arab order.

Things are simmering. And, for Amin, as opaque and shifty as the environment that nurtures Salafi-Jihadism is, in the “Palestinian case,” three factors give it anchor: a “weakness in the original [Palestinian] identity and the others that followed it…a turmoil of values, and the Diaspora’s exposure to a wind coming from the desert and another from the river’s western shores.” (p.143).

It is worth serious consideration, then, that the first act on the road to global jihad was Palestinian Islamist Saleh Sarriya’s failed takeover of the Egyptian Technical Military Academy in 1974, in an attempt to overthrow Anwar Sadat. That the all-time rallying cause, when it finally comes, would be Afghanistan, thousands of miles away from Palestine, led by Palestinian Islamist Abdullah Azzam, “the first Shaykh of the Saudi Jihadi” (p.50) and of Osama himself. That Palestinian Islamist Abu Muhammad al-Maqdissi and Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death dance would play itself out in Iraq. That Palestinian Islamist Abu Qtadeh presides now as the Mufti of al-Qaeda in North Africa.

Although there is very little room for larger contexts in Amin’s narrative, certainly one of the most compelling implications of his argument concerns the Palestinian problem itself. For those in the West who are still wondering about its true impact on our politics and its weight in one of this region’s most confounding dilemmas—global jihad--Amin’s is a very persuasive and original angle. 

But it is also in the way that he disentangles the skein of forces that give shape to these men and their mission that the reader begins to understand the real depth and breadth of the presumably fringe phenomenon that is Salafi-Jihadism.

It is therefore nothing short of illuminating to meet Mohammad Ibn Sourour, a Syrian Muslim Brother who brought Salafism into the Ahkwani (MB) house, and Nasser al Din al Albani, the father of Salafism in the Levant, both of whom helped nudge into one two technically separate faiths--Jihadism and Salafism. Equally, to know that it is to Mohammad Rifai, the head of the MB branch in Zarqa, Jordan, and Muslim Brothers like him that Azzam turned when recruiting Afghan Arab fighters for Afghanistan.

The Orphaned Salafi is bound together with such like threads. Amin, a Lebanese journalist with quite a few years on the trail of global jihad behind him, is surefooted in his insights but is a skeptical storyteller wrestling with a subject that refuses to keep still. Mine is not a review, though, and I am not a jihad expert. It is ultimately for those to argue with Amin over emphases and omissions, many of them not altogether inconsequential to the debate itself. Such as, for example, the degree to which Iran can take credit for the rise of Islamism within the Sunni Lebanese scene (of all ironies!) and specifically the Palestinian refugee camps--a major argument in Roger Bernier’s Everyday Jihad, and a total exclusion from The Orphaned Salafi. It’s intriguing as well that Amin does not feel the need to follow the money, an essential piece in any investigation of the spread of Salafi-Jihadism, even if his attention was focused on other dimensions.

Suffice it to say that Amin’s material is sure to make the field of Salafi-Jihadism even lusher than it already is.

Larger contexts next in Part Two.