On March 4, al-Jazeera satellite TV broadcast a 20-minute clip of Ayman al-Zawahiri commenting on the latest international events (al-Jazeera, March 4). In his talk, the man most often referred to as “al-Qaeda’s number two” attempts to make capital of the crisis concerning Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, contrasting the “freedom to insult religion,” or the “American insults against the Holy Quran,” with the international restrictions on anti-Semitism, “glorifying terrorism” in England, or Muslim girls wearing the hijab in France. The issue, he sums up, is “part of the Crusader campaign that the U.S. is leading against Islam,” whether as a “grudge held by the Crusader West against Islam” or “the new American game entitled the political process.”
It is this last interpretation that forms the most interesting part of al-Zawahiri’s analysis as it is directed at the issues thrown up by the conduct of the Hamas-led Palestinian government. He warns the party “that power is not an end in itself, but simply a stage on the path of implementing Sharia law.” Participating with secularists in the National Authority is therefore irrelevant, according to al-Zawahiri, particularly in that the secularists are implicated in “selling Palestine” through agreements struck with Israel: “Nobody, be he Palestinian or not,” al-Zawahiri insists, “has the right to relinquish a grain of Palestinian soil.” In brief, al-Zawahiri is warning against contamination by the secular political process.
By his insistence, the al-Qaeda ideologue indicates the point of weakness in the jihadist ideology. One of the defining features of al-Qaeda’s political program is the Umma, or “Nation,” conceived as a supra-national Islamic political entity that will restore dignity to the world’s Muslims. For all the appeal to Muslims en masse, however, this element is problematic since it comes up against the Palestinian ownership of Palestine. By portraying their struggle as a “spearhead of a Crusader campaign against Islam and the Muslims,” al-Zawahiri can promise pan-Muslim solidarity but only at the cost of political emasculation. The issue was forced home by the radical Kuwaiti cleric Sheikh Hamid al-Ali in his essay “The essence of the issue between al-Zawahiri and Hamas,” posted on March 5 on his website at https://www.h-alali.net. The sheikh, who vigorously opposed the participation by Hamas in the elections, deplored the visit by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to Russia where he was made to concede the Chechen struggle as “an internal affair.” Any land “is of value only insofar as the religious doctrine that is sovereign over it,” al-Ali argued, and therefore the rule of Sharia law, the “annulment of all agreements contracted by the [Palestinian Authority] traitors with the Zionists and their Crusader allies” and the “retention of weapons in the struggle for God’s word” were non-negotiable (https://www.h-alali.net, March 5).
Al-Zawahiri’s and Hamid al-Ali’s emphasis on Hamas to not participate in the political system by which it has been elected underlines a second al-Qaeda weakness: the fear that political progress, however limited, will set up competition to the jihadist program on the grounds of al-masalih wal-mafasid, the gauge under Islamic law of “benefits and detriments” to Islam. This was the argument that Meshaal used, in response to al-Zawahiri’s criticisms, to defend Hamas’ conduct of politics in that it “served the resistance.” The vehemence of al-Zawahiri’s criticisms succinctly delineates the main rift within the ranks of Islamism—between those, such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, who are attempting Islamization “from the ground up” by the tactical support of the democratic process, and those, such as al-Qaeda, who refuse the “Western” democratic political system altogether, enforcing a top-down transformation via the use of violence while “inflicting losses on the Crusader West, especially economic losses in strikes that will keep letting blood for years” (al-Jazeera, March 4).