The Great Debate

Posted by Admin On Sunday, 15 September 2013 0 comments

Muhammad Amir Rana

During the mass movement against then president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, concern was raised that radical and violent actors could try to exploit the situation in pursuit of their objectives. However, a smooth transition in Egypt has proven wrong apprehensions of violence by jihadist groups.

After the transition, it was claimed that Mubarak had crushed the jihadists in the 1990s and those that had remained were unable to mount a serious challenge. Some commentators have argued that mass movements are not the domain of jihadists. Many others have denied the presence of jihadist networks in Egypt. Further explanations have been given in this regard but a major element that has not really been factored in is the in-depth debate that challenged the militant narrative in Egypt.

Egypt passed through a violent phase in the 1990s when the government made all-out efforts to dismantle jihadist groups in the country. The Mubarak regime had filled up the prisons with thousands of suspects. Although rejection of violence by the Muslim Brotherhood had shrunk the space for violent actors in Egyptian society, the discourse facilitated among captive members of the Islamic Group and Al Jihad, the two main jihadist groups in Egypt, on the issue of the legitimacy of pursuing a violent path, contributed much towards countering violent ideological tendencies.

The debate was initiated among thousands of imprisoned members of the Islamic Group and questioned the justification of violence for achieving their stated goals. After the discourse, reading and furtive conversations, the detainees came to feel that they had been manipulated into pursuing a violent path. Although it was difficult to start the debate as initially it had faced strong opposition both inside and outside the prisons, at some point the imprisoned members of Al Jihad, the most violent group in Egypt and led by Ayman Al-Zawahiri, also began to express an interest in joining the non-violent initiative. But Dr Fadl, the architect of Al Qaeda’s ideological paradigm, was the man who turned the initiative into a great debate.

Fadl, an Egyptian physician and scholar, was one of the first members of Al Qaeda’s top council and proponent of the literature that Al Qaeda used for indoctrination. His book Compendium gave Al Qaeda the licence to murder all those who stood in its way. Al-Zawahiri had declared the book a victory from God. Later, Fadl accused Al-Zawahiri of adding new chapters to his book and rephrasing it in parts, which caused a rift between the two.

Al-Zawahiri’s amendments to Fadl’s work provoked a debate among the imprisoned leaders of the Islamic Group in the late 1990s. They started to examine the evidence and felt that they had been manipulated into pursuing a violent path. In 2001, Fadl was arrested in Yemen and handed over to Egypt. Fadl joined his former colleagues in prison and started revising his previous work and came up with a title Rationalising Jihad in Egypt and the World. This new book attempted to reconcile Fadl’s well-known views with sweeping modifications from Compendium.

Apart from covering many critical issues including the conditions for jihad in foreign lands and the killing of innocent civilians, Fadl critically examined the question of takfir and observed that there were various kinds of takfir, and that the matter was so complex that it must be left to competent Islamic jurists, and that members of the public were not qualified to enforce the law. He cautioned that it was not permissible for a Muslim to condemn another Muslim.

The debate provided an opportunity to Islamic Group and Al Jihad members to review their strategies and give up violence. At the same time, on a societal level, it helped to strengthen non-violent narratives. One has not even heard echoes of such a discourse in Pakistan, although the dire need for that cannot be emphasised enough.

Religious scholars in Pakistan have issued more than a dozen conditional religious decrees against suicide attacks, stating that there is no justification for such attacks on Pakistani soil. However, in the decrees they have not failed to mention that terrorist attacks are a reaction to the government’s policies. There has been intentional evasion of talking about extremism mainly on the ideological front. This attitude of putting the entire burden on the state and shirking one’s own responsibility has almost become the norm in Pakistan.

Fear for personal security, as much as any other factor, has hindered the initiation of a debate on such sensitive issues. A number of religious scholars from all schools of thoughts hold contrary views on the militant discourse but these views either do not have support within their sectarian domains or the scholars do not want to expound their thoughts vociferously for fear of risking their lives.

Very few scholars have been willing to speak out in the face of personal threats. Allama Javed Ghamdi is one such scholar who has been the voice of reason in the ideological proliferation in Pakistan. But the clergy in Pakistan does not accept his narrative because of his modern credentials. There is an urgent need to find the voice of reason among the clergy, which has an influence in the militant circles and can courageously initiate debate on critical issues.

In this context, one example is a young Deobandi scholar, Muhammad Ammar Khan Nasir, son of Maulana Zahidul Rashidi, who wields influence in the Deobandi school of thought and is well respected even among militant groups in Pakistan.

Nasir, in his newsletter, Al Sharia, has declared that it is not permissible on religious grounds for non-Afghan Muslims to fight against international forces in Afghanistan. He has argued that Pakistan is in agreement with the international community in Afghanistan and if the government supported the Taliban it would be going against the principles of Islam. He has also spoken about the militants’ limited understanding of world politics and stated that they required intellectual guidance. He has urged the clergy to abandon its state of denial and recognise, rather than justify, the Taliban’s weaknesses.

The debate initiated by Ammar Nasir has formed the basis for an intellectual discussion among Deobandi scholars. This is a ray of hope that the intellectual discourse is still intact in the religious community in Pakistan. But the crucial question is: can these discussions be transformed into something close to the great debate in Egypt?

Courtesy Dawn, March 28, 2011


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