Check out my new article for Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel: “Maqdisi’s disciples in Libya and Tunisia”

Ever since the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and U.S. Embassy in Tunis in September, there has been a large spotlight on the Islamist groups viewed as the main culprits — Katibat Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi (ASB) and Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). While much of the understandable focus has been on the violent actions of individuals in these organizations, much of the scope of their activities lies outside violence. A large-portion of the activities of these groups is local social service provision under their particular dawa (missionary) offices. This broader picture is crucial to better understanding emerging trends in societies transitioning from authoritarian to democratic rule.

ASB and AST can broadly be considered jihadi organizations based on their ideological outlook. However, these jihadis are different than past incarnations. Jihadis have a good track record in fighting and less so in governing or providing social services. The only example of jihadi governance has occurred when the Somali-based Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin and Yemeni-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) held actual territory. What sets ASB and AST apart is that they are providing aid to local communities in a non-state actor capacity, which has been unheard of previously.

While many analysts view jihadism only through the prism of al Qaeda, it misses the influence of independent jihadi religious scholars. Since the excesses of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al Qaeda in Iraq last decade, Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (the Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad), a library of jihadi primary source material founded by Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi who is currently imprisoned in Jordan, has attempted to steer the jihadi community to a more “pure” jihad. To do this, Maqdisi established a sharia committee of like-minded scholars in 2009 for Minbar that provide fatwas answering questions along a range of topics from the mundane to political to jihad. This has been well documented by Dutch scholar Joas Wagemakers.

One of the main critiques Maqdisi presents, and hopes to create a course correction within the jihadi movement, is his differentiation between the idea of qital al-nikayya (fighting to hurt or damage the enemy) and qital al-tamkin (fighting to consolidate ones power), which he expounds upon in his book Waqafat ma’ Thamrat al-Jihad (Stances on the Fruit of Jihad) in 2004. Maqdisi argues the former provides only short-term tactical victories that in many cases do not amount to much in the long-term whereas the latter provides a framework for consolidating an Islamic state. In this way, Maqdisi highlights the importance of planning, organization, education, as well as dawa(calling individuals to Islam) activities. As Wagemakers has noted, the creation of the Minbar sharia committee was to forward these views to “protect” the jihad and to better advance the pursuit of a true Islamic state based on the sanctity of the tawhid (monotheism) of God.

The formation of Ansar al-Sharia groups in Benghazi and Tunisia are likely a logical conclusion and implementation of Maqdisi’s ideas, changing emphasis on the groups’ actions. One of the main avenues for advancing ASB’s and AST’s ideas has been through their social services programs. This provides an outlet for advancing the consolidation of a future Islamic state that cultivates followers in a broader fashion than the more vanguard-oriented organizations that have been involved in jihadism in a local, regional, or global capacity over the past 30 years.

Click here to read the rest.

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