Major ‘Abbud al-Zumur, the former military intelligence officer who served on the governing bodies of both the Jihad organization and al-Gama‘a al-Islammiyya (Islamic Group – IG) in Egypt, published a book entitled The Third Alternative: Between Authoritarianism and Surrender in August 2009. In the book, which analyzes the causes of violent radicalism and prescribes ways of ending political violence within Arab- and Muslim-majority states, al-Zumur strongly argues for the necessity of electoral participation as well as for alliances with the ideological “other.”
The book is the latest development in what can be called a second wave of modern Islamist de-radicalization. The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood began the first wave by authoring Preachers not Judges in 1969, during an attempt to dismantle the Brotherhood’s armed wing and de-legitimize takfiri ideology (which can legitimize violence against nonbelievers, including Muslims who are deemed apostates). The IG began the second wave in July 1997, and in recent years has produced some 25 books to de-legitimate violence against the state. Those ideological revisions were followed by similar ones from various organizations including al-Jihad, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and several other Islamist leading figures in the Arab-majority countries.
The new literature features a departure from upholding fiqh al-‘unf (Islamic jurisprudence justifying violence) toward discouraging armed confrontations in general and de-legitimating political violence in Muslim-majority societies in particular. While most of the theological, ideological, and rational arguments in the de-radicalization literature were not new, the message bearers made a difference. As one of the former commanders of the IG’s armed wing puts it: “Hearing the [theological] arguments directly from the sheikhs [IG leaders] was different….we heard these before from the Salafis and from al-Azhar…we did not accept them…we accepted them from the sheikhs because we knew their history.”
The new body of literature, which is composed of more than 30 books, mainly deconstructs the eight major arguments of jihadism: al-hakimmiyya (God’s exclusive right to legislate), al-riddah (apostasy, mainly of ruling regimes), al-jihad/qital (fighting) for the Islamic state, jihad al-daf‘ (defensive jihad), ahkam al-diyar (rules of conduct in the “abode of Islam” and the “abode of infidelity”), methods for sociopolitical change, the inevitability of confrontation, and the “neo-crusader” arguments.
Deconstructing those arguments in the post-jihadist literature entails an inference shift. The theological arguments of jihadism rest on the idea that literal orders from God supersede any rational calculations or material interests. In other words, al-nass fawq al-maslaha (the text is above interests); believers are to follow divine commands literally and leave the consequences and results to God. This usually translates into an impetus to engage in armed confrontations against much stronger powers.
In post-jihadist literature, there is a shift to the idea that interests determine the interpretation of religious texts. If a confrontation, or any other behavior, is likely to lead to negative consequences, it must be forbidden and should be avoided. In other words, it is theologically sanctioned pragmatism. Such ideas developed in Sunni mainstream political thought and jurisprudence as early as the 7th and 8th centuries, following a series of failed revolts against the Umayyad dynasty that led to massacring Muslims, including the Prophet’s grandson.
Al-Zumur’s recent book was one of several instances of de-radicalization literature to address political participation and pluralism explicitly. There are mixed messages on this subject, sometimes by authors from the very same movement. The IG’s ideologue Nagih Ibrahim, for example, has called on Islamist movements to abandon politics and focus on missionary activities. The IG leader, Karam Zuhdi, however, declared that the group’s current rejection of democracy could change based on its interests. Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and Saudi clerics’ messages on democracy are not any clearer. For example, the recent LIFG book (Corrective Studies in the Understandings of Jihad, Hisba, and the Judgment of People) did not declare a stance on democracy. This failure to address political participation is due largely to the fact that it seems irrelevant in such authoritarian contexts.
In any case, these developments on the ideological front show that despite the persistence of jihadism and violence, a post-jihadist era has began. Post-jihadism has well-defined characteristics. On the ideological level, it involves de-legitimization and discouragement of political violence in general as well as upholding theologically-sanctioned pragmatism. On the behavioral level, criticizing Islamists who still engage in violence is another feature. And on the organizational level, disbanding armed wings and secret units is a third defining feature.
Most post-jihadist literature does not take a clear stance on democracy. But accepting the “other,” moderating rhetoric and behavior, and participating in electoral politics may be the only viable options for these groups if they want to remain politically significant. In other words, if jihadism heralded the inevitability of armed confrontation, post-jihadism might well entail the inevitable acceptance of democratization.
Omar Ashour is a Lecturer in Politics at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK). He is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements (London, New York: Routledge, 2009).