Last week, the Guardian's Ian Black reported on "a remarkable recantation" by one of the founding figures of the modern jihadist movement, Sayid Imam al-Sharif. A former comrade-in-arms of Ayman al-Zawahiri -- al Qaeda's own Dick Cheney, the "deputy" who actually runs the gang -- Sharif was the mastermind behind the Islamists' first great "spectacular": the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Now Sharif, imprisoned in Egypt, is finishing a new book "that undermines the Muslim theological basis for violent jihad" and is already creating fissures throughout the Islamist movement, the Guardian reports.
Sharif is now repudiating the very jihadist methods that his group, Islamic Jihad, helped pioneer, instead citing the Quranic precept, "Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress the limits; for God loveth not transgressors." In a letter from prison indicating his new line, Sharif declared: "We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that," reports Asharq Alawsat, the London-based Arabic daily. "Armed operations [are] wrong, counterproductive, and must cease."
Sharif's earlier work, "Basic Principles in Making Preparations for Jihad," is considered "the jihadist movements' constitution and all researchers use it as a reference. It lays down the rules of jurisprudence for combat operations for all jihadist groups. Al-Qaeda regards the book as its guide for combat," says Asharq Alawsa. And while hundreds of jihadis have embraced his new principles, Sharif's old colleagues in al Qaeda have been stung into a response, the Guardian reports.
Zawahiri has tried to pre-empt Sharif's book, releasing a video debunking Sharif's "conversion" as the product of Egypt's notorious torture cells (where Zawahiri himself was tortured.) The CIA has also had a crack at Sharif since his capture in Yemen in 2004. But as the Guardian reports:
"...Egyptian and western experts, government officials and former jihadis agree that Sharif's shift is both genuine and highly significant."People will say things to stop being tortured, but this is the result of a long process of reflection and debate," insists Muntasir al-Zayyat, a lawyer jailed for Islamic Jihad membership in the 1980s. "When the book comes out there will be a furious reaction from Zawahiri and the global jihadi movement. It is clear that Sayid Imam will call a halt to killing operations in Egypt and abroad."
In his recantation, Sharif is following in the footsteps of another major jihadist faction, Gama'a Islamiyya, "once the largest jihadist organization in the Arab world...which mounted countless armed attacks starting in the 1980s until calling a ceasefire after massacring 62 foreign tourists at Luxor in 1997." After that atrocity, the group's top ideologues began writing a series of "Corrections of Concepts," rejecting any theological basis for their former terrorist actions. The "corrections" of Gama'a and other penitent jihadis "have included apologies to victims of terror attacks, recognition of their victims as martyrs, and the annulment of fatwas condoning terrorist violence," the Guardian reports.
The jailed jihadis have been allowed by Egypt to engage in dialogue and debate "with the clerics of al-Azhar, the fount of mainstream Sunni jurisprudence," a process which has brought some of the extremists somewhat closer to normative modern Islam. As the Guardian reports:
"Of course the Egyptian government is benefiting from this," Zayyat agrees. "But it's not done for their benefit, or for the Americans."
Indeed, one main point made by the "revisionists" is that jihadi terrorism only helps the Americans, the Israelis, the Arab despots -- and non-Muslim minorities in Arab countries, such as Egypt's Christians:
"The Egyptian state is holding all this out as a huge triumph," says a foreign diplomat. "But the views these people preach are still pretty sinister. The state has to some extent accommodated itself to the Islamists."
The sentiments and strictures of the "corrected" Islamists remain repugnant -- as are all blinkered, self-righteous fundamentalisms, of whatever religious or secular character. But the repugnance of a set of beliefs -- or our fierce disagreement with the believer's ultimate dreams and ambitions -- are not, in the end, as important as the methods that believers adopt to achieve those ends. For example, if the neo-cons had stayed cozily nuzzling on the teats of rightwing cash cows, dreaming their dreamy dreams of "national greatness," "full spectrum dominance" and what have you -- and not sought to impose their extremist ideology on the world by state terrorism on a near-genocidal scale -- then who could object to what those consenting adults got up to in the privacy of their own think-tanks? Let them -- and the Islamists -- and any and all groupthinkers ply their music as they will, make their cases, proselytize, publicize, peddle their wares in the marketplace of ideas. But when an ideology arms itself, when blood is its argument and force and fear are its methods, then it becomes a crime against humanity.
For years now, the world has been suffering from a nasty gang war between two such criminal factions -- the Islamists and the Bushists. Both are tiny, radical minorities within the wider polities they falsely claim to represent. The fact that some major figures in one of these factions are now renouncing the use of "killing operations" to advance their odious ideas is surely a welcome development. If it saves only one innocent life from destruction, that is cause enough for rejoicing.
Yet this process -- which began in some quarters years before 9/11, and now involves hundreds of jihadist leaders and activists -- is being ignored by the very people who, ostensibly, have the greatest reason to trumpet it. But of course, such a development is actually bad news for the fanatical militarists of the Bushist faction. They ignore, reject or twist anything that undercuts their cartoonish myth of a vast, monolithic "Islamofascism" bent on world conquest at any cost -- and capable of carrying it out, unless stopped by multitrillion-dollar American war machine ranging over every continent.
That's why they will never declare "victory" in the "War on Terror." The "Terror" part of their PR slogan has never mattered in the slightest to the Bushists; this is evident in the fact that all expert analysts -- including America's own intelligence services -- say clearly that the Bushists' policies have actually increased terrorism around the world. It is the "War" in the "War on Terror" that the Bushists are concerned with. If bin Laden himself came down from the mountain (or, more likely, got up from his grave) and denounced terrorism as an abomination in the eyes of Allah; if every Sunni militant and Shiite militiaman in Iraq laid down their weapons and embraced Gandhian non-violence; if every jihadi training camp locked its gates, dismantled its bombs and turned its suicide belts into swaddling clothes, the Bushist "War on Terror" would go on. Some suitable terrorism would be provoked, fomented or manufactured to justify their militarist, authoritarian agenda. ***