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Pakistan: Revulsion at Al-Qaeda’s espousal of takfir and killings of Muslims “apostates”

By S Iftikhar Murshed

April 25, 2011

 In a desperate attempt to re-brand its image aimed at capturing the hearts and minds of Muslims, Al-Qaeda has asked its affiliates such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan to cease attacks on the local population and focus instead on operations against Western targets. In statements made over the last several months Al-Qaeda leaders such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi have emphasised the “sanctity of Muslim blood.”

These appeals were obviously prompted by no higher a motive than Al-Qaeda’s nervousness at the rapid erosion of its support base in Pakistan and in other Islamic countries. There has been a wave of revulsion against its espousal of takfir under which Muslims are declared apostates and killed.

In early September 2007, Sheikh Salman al-Ouda, a widely respected religious scholar and one of the founders of Shawa, the fundamentalist movement that engulfed Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, challenged Osama bin Laden during a rare appearance on television: “How much blood has been spilt? How many innocent people, children, the elderly and women have been the name of Al- Qaeda? Will you be happy to meet God Almighty, carrying the burden of these hundreds of thousands of victims on your back?”

A few days later, Sayyed Imam al-Sharif, an influential Afghan Arab who, according to analysts, was the “ideological godfather of Al-Qaeda” and a staunch proponent of takfir, withdrew his support from Osama bin Laden. His book, Rationalising Jihad in Egypt and the World, details the reasons for his renunciation of Al-Qaeda as well as abandoning the concept of takfir.

This had a far-reaching impact and prompted new thinking among jihadist organisations. For instance, in September 2009 the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), once closely associated with Al-Qaeda, announced a new “code” for jihad which is elaborated in a 417-page document titled Corrective Studies. Scholars do not doubt the credibility of the LIFG and feel that its re-formulated concept for jihad is likely to become a major impediment for Al-Qaeda’s recruitment drive.

On Sept 10 last year, former LIFG leader Noman Benotman, or Abu Mohammad al-Libi as he is known in Afghanistan, sent an open letter to Osama bin Laden in which he described himself as a previous “comrade in arms” of the Al-Qaeda leader and then bluntly stated: “Your duty is to prevent your organisation from going further down the road of ghulu (extremism), takfir (excommunication) and shedding of innocent blood that was forbidden by God.” Several other important jihadists of the Arab world have also been vehemently critical of Al-Qaeda.

Three major events in the Muslim world in 1979 not only resulted in an irreversible surge of religion-motivated extremism but also altered the course of global politics. The first was the Iranian revolution in February, which led to the establishment of the world’s first modern Muslim theocracy; the second was seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca on Nov 20 by fundamentalist dissidents who sought to overthrow the Saudi monarchy; the third was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Dec 27, which sparked the decade-long Afghan jihad culminating in the withdrawal of the occupation forces and the eventual collapse of the bipolar, Cold War world order.

It was against this backdrop that Al-Qaeda was to emerge some years later. After the dramatic Grand Mosque episode, the Saudi government launched a purge of potential radicals. The highly influential Palestinian scholar and theologian, Abdullah Yusuf Azzam (1941-1989), was expelled from the faculty of the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, and he relocated to Pakistan in order to be close to the yet nascent Afghan jihad.

Azzam taught briefly at the International Islamic University in Islamabad in 1980 and then moved to Peshawar where he founded the Maktab Khadamat al-Mujahideen for the purpose of facilitating the Afghan jihad. The trademark slogan which he never abandoned was: “Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences, no dialogues.”

In 1981 Osama bin Laden also proceeded to Peshawar after graduating from the university in Jeddah, where Abdullah Azzam had been his teacher and mentor. On Azzam’s request he financed the training of the recruits and later, in 1984, established the Bait-ul-Ansar to reinforce support for the Arab volunteers in the war and eventually created his own independent militia.

Azzam succeeded in building a scholarly, ideological and practical paramilitary infrastructure for the globalisation of Islamic movements that had previously focused on separate national and revolutionary liberation struggles. His philosophical rationalisation of global jihad and practical approach to recruitment and training of Muslim militants from around the world blossomed during the Afghan war and proved crucial to the subsequent creation of Al-Qaeda.

After the successful struggle against the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan, differences arose among the Mujahideen leaders over where to launch the next jihad. Abdullah Azzam’s vision of a global struggle against the “far enemy” (al adu al baeed) put him at odds with another influential faction of Afghan Arabs, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was convinced that the target should be the “enemy nearby” (al adu al qareeb).

The focus on the “near enemy” implied that the immediate priority was not jihad against “unbelievers” such as Israeli Jews, European Christians or Indian Hindus, but the “self-professed” Muslims of the Egyptian government and secular dispensations of the Islamic world. In other words, Muslims who did not follow the narrow, literalist interpretation of Islam were apostates and had to be killed under the concept of takfir.

Abdullah Azzam, whose belief that “one hour of jihad is worth more than 70 years of praying at home” was adopted by Al-Qaeda, nevertheless fervently opposed takfir because of its potential of spreading fitna (sedition) and disunity among the Muslim community. This resulted in his assassination in Peshawar on Nov 24, 1989. Analysts are convinced that the murder was perpetrated by Al-Qaeda operatives loyal to Zawahiri. Several other scholars, notably Khaled Ahmed, are inclined to believe that Azzam was “a non-terrorist internationalist” whose concept of jihad did not envisage the killing of innocent civilians and, with his assassination, Al-Qaeda “moved away from defensive jihad against the invading Soviet Union and embraced terrorism as its methodology.”

Researchers agree that Al-Qaeda was formally launched on Aug 11, 1988, during a meeting between Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam and several leaders of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad where it was decided the organisation would devote itself to fighting on behalf of oppressed Muslims worldwide. Initially the group’s real name was not mentioned in public because its existence was still a closely guarded secret. All this was to change with Azzam’s assassination, and Muslims increasingly became the main victims of terrorism carried out by Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

It is against this background that the insincerity of Al-Qaeda appeals to its associates to refrain from attacking Muslims becomes immediately obvious. Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, a former prime minister of Thailand, once said that “a wolf at the doorstep is more dangerous than a tiger in the forest.” It is the homegrown terrorist outfits supported by Al-Qaeda, or the “enemy nearby” in Zawahiri’s words, that pose the gravest threat to Pakistan. Yet a counterterrorism strategy has not even been thought through by the country’s inept leadership.

Source: The News, Pakistan