Moderate Muslims must discredit Al-Qaeda's ideology

Daily News Egypt
6 Min Read

Al-Qaeda sprung into the popular conscience of the world with the attacks of Sept. 11 2001. Since then the organization has taken a beating – many of its senior commanders were killed or arrested, others are in hiding. Given the various counterterrorism initiatives, it has proven more difficult to source arms, to move money and to merely communicate. Under these circumstances, the leadership of Al-Qaeda has become more diffuse, with local leaders in charge of command and control while Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri provide merely inspirational leadership through the odd audio and video recording. Thus, from being a tightly knit organization, Al-Qaeda has morphed into a loose amalgamation of independent cells that may or may not receive direct support from the main organization and which can operate independently from the main organization. According to the historian R.T. Naylor, “Al-Qaeda itself does not exist … [It] is a loose network of likeminded individuals [who] pay homage to the same patron figure who they may never have met and with whom they have no concrete relationship. They conduct their operations strictly by themselves, even if they may from time to time seek advice. This loose amalgamation of independent cell structures is increasingly the Al-Qaeda of the future and poses challenges to counterterrorist officials the world over. This is not the terrorism of old. In the cases of both the Baader-Meinhoff Gang and the Japanese Red Army, neutralizing the leadership of the organization meant neutralizing the entire organization. Intelligence officials trying to penetrate the new Al-Qaeda can at best hope to neutralize an independent cell, while other cells continue to function. In the process, the war against terror will be measured in years, if not decades. Patience and perseverance will be watchwords in this new struggle for the future of humanity. At the same time, this new diffuse Al-Qaeda network also challenges the “leadership of the organization. Bin Laden has to rely on local leaders such as, until recently, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, with his ruthless gang of cutthroats in Iraq. Their excesses against both Sunnis and Shias, however, reflect negatively on Al-Qaeda as a whole. Another organizational challenge confronting Al-Qaeda is that this loose network needs glue to bind the disparate parts together. That glue is ideology. The broader parameters of Al-Qaeda’s ideology are easily discernible: it is anti-Western and anti-Semitic. It seeks to destroy what it terms apostate regimes, like those in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It is violent, it is opposed to tolerance and plurality and seeks the restoration of the caliphate. This is Al-Qaedism, a form of Islamofascism that shares many characteristics of other totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. Given the importance of this ideology to the existence of the organization, it is imperative that the struggle against Al-Qaeda also take the form of an ideological struggle. Here it is crucial that the Muslim ulama, or clergy, academics, journalists and teachers all be at the forefront of the struggle. They need to discredit the ideology in order to reclaim the faith as their own. But in so doing, they will also be drying up the extremists’ recruitment pool – why give up your life for something you do not believe in? But it is also imperative that Western countries understand that Al-Qaedism is nourished by real grievances. It is a fact, as King Abdullah II of Jordan stated in his recent address to the United States Congress, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has poisoned relations between Muslims and Jews and between Muslims and the West the world over. Its speedy resolution is essential for the broader struggle against terror. It is a fact that while talking about democracy, the US has allied itself with some of the most repressive regimes in the Arab world. This hypocrisy only fuels anger and magnifies the terror threat. It is also a fact that the combined GDP of 22 countries of the Arab League is less than the GDP of Spain; that 40 percent of adult Arabs are illiterate; that a third of the population of the broader Middle East live on less than $2 a day; and that only 2 percent of the region’s population has access to the internet. The economic development of the Middle East is a vital necessity. History has demonstrated time and time again that the existence of a large and vibrant middle class is the natural bulwark against extremist thought. In a nutshell, Al-Qaeda can only be defeated if its ideology is discredited by Muslims; and if the West recognizes that this ideology, no matter how twisted and violent it is, reflects real grievances that need to be addressed if we are to achieve a world without terror and fear. Hussein Solomonlectures in the department of political science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, where he is also director of the Center for International Political Studies. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter that publishes views of Middle Eastern and Islamic issues.

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