Thursday, March 17, 2005

Analysis of a Speech by Al-Qaeda's Number 2

The Democrats had their rebuttal to the State of the Union address last week; yesterday Al Qaeda offered its own. Ayman Al Zawahiri, the organization's number two, broadcast a recorded message about five minutes in length on Al Jazeera around noon, eastern standard time. In it, he offered an alternative take on the meanings of "freedom" and "reform." Al Zawahiri's speech represents a departure from the Al Qaeda addresses of recent memory, most of which amounted to direct threats of violence targeting Western and Muslim regimes (including, needless to say, their civilian populations). This statement, by contrast, was not so much threat as political argumentation, and the audience was not Western but rather Arab and Muslim. Implicit in Al Zawahiri's speech was an acknowledgement that the United States is now actively competing in the war for hearts and minds in Muslim countries--leaving Al Qaeda no choice but to engage America at the level of politics and ideas. The irony, however, is that Al Zawahiri seemed in his speech to be entering the realm of politics precisely to make clear what Al Qaeda won't do politically: namely, countenance the entrance of Islamists into the democratic arena.
Below is my translation of parts of the speech, with my commentary. Al Zawahiri began by explaining what freedom is not:

The freedom that we want is not the freedom of interest-bearing banks and vast corporations and misleading mass media; not the freedom of the destruction of others for the sake of materialistic interests; and not the freedom of AIDS and an industry of obscenities and homosexual marriages; and not the freedom to use women as a commodity to gain clients, win deals, or attract tourists; not the freedom of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and not the freedom of trading in the apparatus of torture and supporting the regimes of oppression and Copts and suppression, the friends of America; and not the freedom of Israel, with their annihilation of the Muslims and destruction of the Aqsa mosque; and not the freedom of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

No big surprises here. Al Zawahiri draws attention to mainstream Muslim grievances against the United States, ranging from the universal abhorrence of our own human rights violations to the more parochial Islamist disdain for America's liberal sexual culture. The dig at "Copts," Egypt's sizeable indigenous Christian minority, is also a dig at the Mubarak government, which the Egyptian-born Al Zawahiri regards as more closely allied with American and Christian interests than the agenda of Islamists. This laundry list of anti-American headlines is Al Zawahiri's way of making the case to mainstream Muslims that America is not a desirable model for democracy or reform. He goes on to offer an alternative:

Our freedom is a freedom of monotheism and morals and probity and asceticism and justice. The freedom that we are striving toward is on three foundations: The first is the rule of the Shari'a. The Shari'a, revealed by Almighty God, is the path that is obligatory to be followed. ... The second foundation, upon which reform must be established--and this is a corollary to the first foundation--is the freedom of the lands of Islam and their liberation from every robbing and looting aggressor. It is unimaginable that any reform may be realized for us while we are under the coercion of American and Jewish occupation.

Al Zawahiri is developing an argument that many in the Arab world would embrace for reasons of their own--the notion that there can be no political freedom under occupation. This is Al Qaeda's equivalent of speaking to the center--trying to reach Al Jazeera's mainstream Arab and Muslim audiences. Having made his pitch to them, however, he moves on to what is almost certainly a less popular plank of his argument:

Reform cannot be realized under the coercion of governments installed by the occupier, through fraudulent elections, administered under the supervision of the United Nations, and under the protection of B-52 bombers and the missiles of Apache planes [sic].

The "governments" he is alluding to are apparently both the forthcoming Iraqi government and the government formed by the recent Palestinian election under "Jewish occupation," which he regards as equally illegitimate. Although there is no specific reference to Tuesday's Israeli-Palestinian mutual ceasefire declaration in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh, it's fair to assume that the Al Qaeda leadership is eager to see the nascent quest for a truce derailed. Arguing for the illegitimacy of the Palestinian elections--and any moves toward rapprochement subsequently attempted by the elected Palestinian leadership--is Al Zawahiri's contribution to ongoing Islamist attempts to thwart the peace process. But perhaps more importantly, it is also his way of saying that Islamist groups like Hamas should accept no role in the deliberative democratic institutions emerging in the Palestinian territories.

As for the third foundation, which is also a corollary of the first foundation, it is the liberation of man. The Ummah [pan-Islamic nation] must snatch back its right to choose its ruler and call him to account and criticize him and depose him, and snatch back its right to enjoin good and end that which is abominable. ... The Ummah must undertake [to end] repression and brute force and theft and fraud and corruption and dynastic succession in rule, which our rulers are practicing with the blessings and support of the United States.

The reference to dynastic succession is meant to condemn the Gulf regimes, Morocco, Syria, and Egypt--where Hosni Mubarak is believed to be grooming his son Gamal for succession--all in one fell swoop. But note that Al Zawahiri refrains from using the word "democracy" or calling for free elections. He is in essence calling for the freedom of Muslim nations to choose an Islamist ruler. Mind you, he uses the word "ruler" in the singular, because Al Qaeda calls for one caliph to preside over the whole region.

As for the reference to the "liberation of man," it is a trope that Islamists experimented with during the 1990s--notably the urbane leader of Tunisia's Islamist Al Nahda ("Renaissance") movement, Rashid Al Ghannouchi. The idea, then as now, was to espouse a pseudo-universalist rhetoric that might begin to sound palatable to human-rights activists and the secular left. Islamist groups such as Al Nahda have historically been aware of the importance of making rhetorical overtures to left-wing and human-rights movements in the West--valuing their intervention on behalf of political prisoners tortured by Arab regimes, not to mention the potential for making common cause in a united front against globalization. (Al Zawahiri, to be sure, can only pay lip service to these ideas because, as evidenced by his anti-Coptic and anti-gay references, there isn't exactly a place for all mankind in the political union his movement envisions.)

But while Al Zawahiri is willing to make a nod to the Western left, he makes no similar overture toward reformers in the Arab world. On the question of whether Sunni Islamists of any shade should participate in Arab elections--be they in Gaza and the West Bank a few weeks back, or perhaps in Egypt down the road--Al Zawahiri seems to be taking a decisive stand. He urges the Ummah to "snatch back" the reins of power, apparently eschewing the possibility of gains for Islamists through a nonviolent electoral process. This is a rejection, for example, of Hamas ideologue Mahmoud Al Zahhar's statement earlier this week to a Gaza newspaper suggesting that his movement might join the Palestinian legislative assembly.

Al Qaeda may kill hundreds of innocents in Spain to influence the outcome of elections there--or deliver a tirade against George Bush on the eve of the American elections, apparently to influence voters here--but the movement seems to have no appetite for achieving its goals through elections in Arab and Muslim countries. In this respect, today's message wasn't just another hyperbolic rant. It drew a philosophical line in the sand. And among Arabs and Muslims, it may prove to be an unpopular one.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay first appeared in The New Republic Online on February 11, 2005.

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