The release of a letter, allegedly from Al Qaeda’s chief ideologue, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi outlining AQ’s strategy for creating a transnational Muslim susperstate has drawn a few highly sceptical reactions, noted here at Lenin’s Tomb.
The overriding question seems to be whether this letter is genuine or merely a bit of well constructed propaganda to support the continuation of US involvement in Iraq – a question which, for the moment, seems to hinge on apparent logical anomalies in the text of the letter itself, anomalies whihc, it has to be remembered, could be more the product of problems in translation and transliteration than evidence of forgery – one assumes the original letter was written in Arabic.
To a considerable extent whether this letter is real or otherwise is not really of any great consequence.
What is important is that it contains details of a strategy that I’ve been expected to hear about for quite some time, in fact I’m only surprised that its taken quite so long for it emerge at all.
Is Al Qaeda really plotting to take over Iraq? Who knows, but based on its stated objectives – the creation of a new Islamic Caliphate – even if it isn’t, it should be. In fact, taking history as a guide, Iraq or rather Baghdad should have been a central, if unspoken, feature in its future plans all along.
I’ve mentioned this before and certainly upset a few people in doing so but to understand why Baghdad is so important you need to understand the finer points of Jihad, as its defined within Islamic jurisprudence.
Jihad is not a single, linear and all-encompassing concept but a concept with important subtleties and limitations; limitations which serve for the time being to inhibit the capacity of Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups to full pursue their goals. Not only can Jihad be put into practice is several different ways; the sword [violence] being only one method, but within the concept of Jihad there is both a defensive and and offensive form of Jihad, the jurisprudential rules for which are very different from each other.
Defensive Jihad, as the name suggests, has the purpose of defending Muslim lands; expelling invaders, etc such that any attack or occupation of Muslim territory can trigger a Jihad which can be called by any Muslim leader who has been properly educated in the eight schools of Islamic Jurisprudence. One of the key reasons why Al Qaeda find its difficult to attract mainstream support within Islam is that its characterisation of attacks on non-Muslim soil; on New York, Madrid and London, stretches this idea of defensive Jihad pretty much to breaking point. Al Qaeda might claim these attacks are justified as a form of defensive Jihad but in doing so they are pushing the definition of the term down lines which the majority of Muslim scholars would not and could not support, raising real question marks as to the legitimacy of their actions.
By know you may be thinking ‘well if there’s defensive Jihad, then there surely must be offensive Jihad as well’ – and you’d be right – ‘so why don’t Al Qaeda simply call an offensive Jihad’.
This is where Islamic jurisprudence intervenes to complicate matters – while a defensive Jihad can be called by any suitably qualified Muslim scholar, the right to call and authorise an offensive Jihad is one reserved exclusively to the Caliph, which rather puts Al Qaeda et al in a bit of a bind as no Caliph means no offensive Jihad – this also explains references to ’80 years’ in Al Qaeda statements, it being around 80 years since the last recognised Islamic Caliphate, or rather Sultanate as we’re talking about the Ottoman Empire, came to a end at the hands of Attaturk.
Radical Islam needs a Caliph and they need one badly, as only through the restoration of a Caliphate can their aim of an offensive Jihad against the west gain legitimacy and mainstream support. Unfortunately, in Islamic tradition one cannot simply set up a Caliphate whenever and wherever you like, it a bit more complicated than that because unless a new Caliphate is set up is one of a very small number of key locations, the traditional ‘seats’ of past Caliphates, then the majority of Muslims simply won’t recognise the radical’s new Caliph as a Caliph.
There are, perhaps, no more than three or four cities in the world which would provide a putative Caliph with the legitimacy necessary to gain widespead acceptance in the Islamic world. Istanbul and Cairo, certainly. Agra, in India, possibly although I’m unsure how mainstream Islam regards the Mughal empire and whether it really is considered in the same way as the Ottomans.
The most important of all these cities, historically, is Baghdad. Istanbul, Cairo and Agra may have been seats of Muslim Caliphates, then Baghdad was the seat of THE Caliphate, the term Caliph originated there and refered specifically to the ruler of Baghdad. A new Caliphate centred on Baghdad would be one that mainstream Islam could not ignore; radicals would flock from all over the Islamic world to join the cause secure in the knowledge that with a Caliph at the helm the questions of the legitimacy of a new campaign of conquest would be at an end while the rest of Islam would face the starkest of choices – do they heed the call to arms of the new Caliph or walk away from centuries of tradition and Islamic law.
Al-Zahwiri’s letter, real or not, demostrates that the invasion of Iraq has been Bush & Blair unwitting gift to the radical Islamic cause. With Arab ‘hard men’ [Saddam and Mubarak] at the helm in Baghdad and Cairo and Istanbul no longer even the capital of a secular Turkish republic; dreams of new Caliphate could remain only that, dreams. A fantasy radical utopia so distant that it might as well have been the Moon.
By invading Iraq the west has, however inadvertantly, given hope to Al Qaeda and to Islamic radicalism – if only they can drive out the forces of the west and raise a new Caliph to the throne in Baghdad then their dreams of conquest come alive once again. Of all the Islamic countries we could have invaded and destabilised, we picked the one most likely to stir up and revive the long dormant dreams of Islam and empire.
For once I’m not particularly going to take sides on this issue other than to note that, unlike Bush and Blair [and Galloway too] it seems, I do possess a clear sense of history and from that I find the contents of this letter to be all too predictable – I, and anyone else with a decent layman’s understanding of Islamic history and jurisprudence could have told you this would happen before ever the 2003 invasion was mounted. For me, therefore, this was just one more good reason not to go to war – others might see it otherwise.
What should be clear from this, however, is that whatever we might think of the invasion itself and its rights and wrongs, Iraq is not a country, unlike Vietnam before it, where we can simply walk away when it all gets too difficult. Having invading the country, not only do we have a moral duty to the Iraqi people to put things right but the stakes are now so high we simply cannot leave the job half done.
We should also, however, be clear that this situation, this strategy, was all too predictable right from the outset – reason enough that we should finish what we’ve started but all the more reason why we should hold those responsible for starting this war [and I don’t mean Saddam] to account.
Update: The full text of the ‘letter’ can be found here – Lenin’s right, it’s bullshit.
I especially like this bit:
“(4) The Bitter Harvest – The Muslim Brotherhood in 60 Years – Second Edition 1426h – 2005m.
In this edition, I wanted to delete all the extreme phrases for which there’s no proof, and I referred to the book a number of times, then I wrote a new preface. In it I pointed out a dangerous trend of the Brotherhood, especially in the circumstances of the New Crusader War which was launched on the Islamic Umma. In my opinion, this edition is better than the first with respect to the calmness of the presentation instead of being emotional. The Brotherhood’s danger is demonstrated by the weakening of the Islamic Resistance to the campaign of the Crusaders and their supporters. God is the only one who is perfect.”
Which is missing only the bit about ‘available from all good Islamic bookstores, only $14.94 – and don’t forget that Amazon does free delivery on orders over $35’
What a crock of shit!
Update: Now even Al Qaeda reckon its bullshit