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Thursday, November 11, 2010

More Ruminations about Al Qaeda's War on Scholarship

Aaron Zelin has an interesting and informative post over at al-Wasat that provides some very useful context to my recent post about the newest messages from Anwar Awlaki and Adam Gadahn.

My post analyzed a recent move by Al Qaeda's American shills to throw out any Islamic scholarship that potentially refutes Al Qaeda's positions on jihad in favor of truthiness -- following a gut feeling that military jihad in the form of killing Americans is simply right, or as Awlaki put it "obvious."

Awlaki openly argues that no scholarship is necessary to justify this conclusion; Gadahn argues that Al Qaeda has its own scholarship which supports jihad, but like McCarthy's oft-cited list of Communists in the State Department, you'll just have to take his word for it.

Aaron shows that there is a lot of historical context behind this move and that jihadists have historically thrown out scholarship that they don't agree with. I would tentatively argue that what's new(ish) here is an attack on the actual process of scholarship.

Of the examples Aaron cites, Hassan Al-Banna, Osama bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Muhammad Al Maqdisi all dispute the scholars who disagree with them, arguing that they are corrupt or simply wrong. That's a little different from what Awlaki is saying in his latest message, which is that scholarship is itself unnecessary -- a radical shift from a cleric who has in the past tried very hard to justify his own scholarly prowess.

Compare this to Abdullah Azzam, the father of the modern jihadist movement, who believed the conclusions of scholarship fully justified his position on jihad and bemoaned the lack of Islamic scholarship and education among the soldiers who came to Afghanistan. In "Join the Caravan," he wrote:

As for the juristic details of jihad, such as distribution of booty and treatment of prisoners of war, these matters have arisen in many regiments. Due to ignorance about them, however, they were forced to pass them on to an area in which there was a scholar or scholars who could give their decisions according to the Islamic law. You will become aware, on account of the profound signs left by the Arab youths of modest education (possibly not even surpassing secondary school), of the severe need for propagators, Imams, reciters of the Qur'an and religious scholars.

The final example Aaron cites is a particularly interesting one, from "The Neglected Duty" by Muhammad Faraj, which corresponds pretty closely to the position Awlaki just staked out:

So he who says that knowledge is Jihad must realize that what is fard [obligatory] is fighting … If a person wants to increase his knowledge … he could do so, because there are no restrictions on knowledge, which is available for everybody. But to delay Jihad because of seeking knowledge is an evidence of the one who has no evidence … However, we do not underestimate knowledge and scholars, rather we call for that. But we do not use it as evidence to abandon the obligations that Allah ordained.

While Faraj goes out of his way to say he's not underestimating scholarship, he's saying that thinking shouldn't get in the way of killing. Or, in American idiom, shoot first and ask questions later.

Rather than competing in the battlefield of ideas, Awlaki walks his readers through an argument that dismisses the entire debate and says that it is incumbent on individuals to accept the common-sense argument for jihad without regard for scholarship as a process, or finding consensus, another key process in Islam.

Fighting Satan does not require a jurisprudence. It does not require consulting. It does not need a prayer for the cause.

Gadahn says almost exactly the same thing in his recent message, emphasizing the supremacy of "common sense" over scholarship and learning:
I shall mention briefly here a number of obvious facts which young men recognize before old men and laymen recognize before Ulama [scholars]. [...] This is why anyone who wants to debate the legal basis for the contemporary Jihad must refute all those fatwas and reject all those proven consensus and not just make do with relying to one fatwa or Alim [scholar].
Gadahn, however, hedges his bets by explaining that the mujahideen have their own scholarly books of jurisprudence, which he may or may not disclose at a later date, assuming someone gets around to writing them.

In sum, I am reading these latest communiques as an attack on the process of scholarship itself, rather than on specific types of scholars, i.e., corrupt vs. pure, or modern vs. historical.

Will this initiative against scholarship per se (as opposed to fighting individual opinions) will take hold in Al Qaeda? We'll see. Back in the 1980s, I think you could get away with this, because there was much less emphasis on self-education about Islam. There was no Internet. Would-be jihadists were shaped by those who they met and learned from.

Today, the online pool of potential jihadists loves to endlessly dissect Islamic scholarship and pose as educated people themselves. You can find interminable, tedious arguments about fiqh, madhabs and precedents on almost every jihadist message board. This process helps harden extremist views for many of the participants. The lesson here? A little knowledge is a lot more dangerous than no knowledge.

On the other hand, the core argument used by Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups is more political than religious and is predicated on the assumption that Muslims are being victimized all over the world. This is the primary driver of jihadist recruitment; the religious arguments are a form of secondary reinforcement.

The approach Al Qaeda is beta-testing with these releases may attract more unstable people in the short term (a speciality of Awlaki's), but it's only going to accelerate the transformation of Al Qaeda's membership from soldiers to thugs, a shift that has been sapping the organization's effectiveness for some years now.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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