I argue that "terrorism does radical Islam more harm than good" in the West, and that working within the system will prove more useful to Islamists than illegal and violent means; "without education by murder, the lawful Islamist movement would make greater gains."
It bears noting that this same argument applies to Muslim-majority countries as well. Repeatedly, a pattern has emerged of a failed Islamist insurrection turning into a political movement, for example in Egypt (al-Gama'a al-Islamiya) and in Syria (the Muslim Brethren). Algeria also provides a dramatic case of this, as explained by Reuters' William Maclean in "Algeria's Islamists make quiet comeback."
Algeria's Islamists are making a modest political comeback after failing to win with the bullet what they once sought with the ballot. With an armed insurrection long in decline, most Islamists these days want to work in the political mainstream, using peaceful means to build Islamic rule in the oil exporting nation. It is an approach that is winning them powerful friends.
"The Islamist movement tried to challenge the state head on and it failed miserably," said Azzedine Layachi, an Algerian political scientist at St. John's University in New York. "But Islamist sentiment has not been defeated. On the contrary, Islamists are now part and parcel of the political and cultural scene. This is the new reality of Algeria."
This topic is in the news because of the expiry of an amnesty for the remaining mujahidin still at war with the armed forces. Some 300 turned themselves in, leaving an estimated 400-500 still on the loose.
Back in the early 1990s, Islamists mounted a violent insurgency that killed an estimated 150,000 Algerians. The day of what Maclean calls "isolated groups of die-hards" has long passed. Rather, momentum belongs to
those who have explicitly given up confrontation with the government who are making inroads into the political and cultural mainstream of Africa's second largest country. One such is Madani Mezrag, who negotiated the surrender of his Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the FIS armed wing, in the late 1990s. "We will do whatever possible through democratic means to set up an Islamic state here," Mezrag said. "The positive aspect of this war [of the 1990s] is that it allowed the Islamists to understand their limits ... and to talk to others even if they disagree with them." …
"We have observed a rallying of Islamists behind his [a reference to Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a nationalist politician who spearheaded efforts at national reconciliation] agenda," Layachi said, adding secular Algerians had in effect "been crushed" by perceived Islamist gains. So high has morale been in Islamist ranks that the more radical have drawn criticism for arrogance. Many former fighters have refused to apologise for the violence, and at least one has hinted that bloodshed will not end until there is Islamic rule.
Comment: Worldwide, Islamists eventually will realize that lawful Islamism provides a much better route to power than violence. However, the ideological infatuation with violence will take years and decades to shed. (August 28, 2006)
Dec. 22, 2006 update: A MEMRI team made up of Y. Carmon, Y. Feldner, and D. Lav today produced "The Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya Cessation of Violence: An Ideological Reversal," a 16,000-word analysis of what made GI change its tactics from violent to political, and how it did so.
Dec. 1, 2007 update: Nigeria presents a more subtle version of the same tendency, Lydia Polgreen documents in "Nigeria Turns From Harsher Side of Islamic Law," writing from the northern city of Kano.
Just last year, the morality police roamed these streets in dusky blue uniforms and black berets, brandishing cudgels at prayer shirkers and dragging fornicators into Islamic courts to face sentences like death by public stoning. But these days, the fearsome police officers, known as the Hisbah, are little more than glorified crossing guards. They have largely been confined to their barracks and assigned anodyne tasks like directing traffic and helping fans to their seats at soccer games. The Islamic revolution that seemed so destined to transform northern Nigeria in recent years appears to have come and gone or at least gone in a direction few here would have expected.
Why the change? The national authorities got involved.
The federal government cracked down on the Hisbah last year, enforcing a national ban on religious and ethnic militias, and the secular, federally controlled police force has little interest in enforcing the harshest strictures of Shariah. Violence between Muslims and Christians has also begun to subside in the north. But even before then, the feared mutilations and death sentences almost never materialized. Public floggings are quite common, and in Zamfara, the first state to adopt Shariah as the basis of its criminal code, at least one man had his hand amputated in 2000 for stealing a cow, but other sentences of mutilation have rarely been carried out.
And despite several internationally known adultery sentences of death by stoning in a public square including that of Amina Lawal, a woman from Katsina State who gave birth to a child out of wedlock that a Shariah court in 2002 took as evidence of the crime not one stoning sentence has been carried out. Ms. Lawal's conviction was overturned the following year, and she is now active in local politics, living freely with her daughter Wasila in her hometown.
Polgreen then notes the role of corruption:
The shift reflects the fact that religious law did not transform society. Indeed, some of the most ardent Shariah-promoting politicians now find themselves under investigation for embezzling millions of dollars. Many early proponents of Shariah feel duped by politicians who rode its popular wave but failed to live by its tenets, enriching themselves and neglecting to improve the lives of ordinary people. "Politicians started seeing Shariah as a gateway to political power," said Abba Adam Koki, a conservative cleric here who has criticized the local government's application of Shariah. "But they were insincere. We have been disappointed and never got what we had hoped."
Facing backlash from citizens and criticism from human rights groups at home and abroad, state governments that had swiftly enacted Shariah and embraced its harshest tenets are now shifting the emphasis from the punishments and prohibitions to a softer approach that emphasizes other tenets of Muslim law, like charity, women's rights and the duty of Muslims to keep their environment clean. "Shariah is not only about the cutting off of wrists," said Muzammil Sani Hanga, a member of Kano State's Shariah Commission and a legal expert who helped draft the state's Islamic code. "It is a complete way of life."
Comment: The Nigerian example suggests that even the non-violent imposition of a Shar'i order has to be done with care, or the population will rebel.
June 2, 2008 update: For an analysis of a major challenge to violent jihad by one of its formerly most important theorists, see Lawrence Wright's article on Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (a.k.a. Dr. Fadl), "The Rebellion Within: An Al Qaeda mastermind questions terrorism." One quote from Sharif: "We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that."
Feb. 20, 2009 update: I review today the theoretical base for this shift at "Al-Qaeda Strategist Decries Terrorism."
July 24, 2009 update: According to Ethan Bronner, Hamas is also following this pattern. Reporting from Gaza, he notes in "Hamas Shifts From Rockets to Culture War" that,
Seven months after Israel started a fierce three-week military campaign here to stop rockets from being fired on its southern communities, Hamas has suspended its use of rockets and shifted focus to winning support at home and abroad through cultural initiatives and public relations.
The aim is to build what leaders here call a "culture of resistance," the topic of a recent two-day conference. In recent days, a play has been staged, a movie premiered, an art exhibit mounted, a book of poems published and a television series begun, most of it state-sponsored and all focused on the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. There are plans for a documentary competition.
"Armed resistance is still important and legitimate, but we have a new emphasis on cultural resistance," noted Ayman Taha, a Hamas leader and former fighter. "The current situation required a stoppage of rockets. After the war, the fighters needed a break and the people needed a break."
Aug. 8, 2009 update: Back to Algeria: Alfred de Montesquiou reports from Algiers for the Associated Press that "As Algeria grows more Islamic, nightlife suffers":
All through the 1990s, when Islamic militants waged a ferocious war on the Algerian state and nightlife died in the city that once called itself "The Paris of Africa," the Hanani bar and restaurant stayed open. It was "an act of resistance," says owner Achour Ait Oussaid. Yet today, at a time when the bloodshed has ebbed, local authorities have shuttered the hole-in-the-wall bar. "This same state has done what the Islamists never managed to do," Ait Oussaid said, standing amid abandoned tables and empty shelves gathering dust.
At least 40 bars, restaurants and nightclubs have been closed in the past year around Algiers alone, according to local media. The government insists that the closures are strictly a matter of safety and hygiene, but suspicion is widespread that Muslim conservative pressure is to blame. Ait Oussaid, a Muslim like almost all of Algeria's 32 million people, contends that officials caved in to a petition circulated in his seaside neighborhood of La Perouse demanding that the Muslim prohibition of alcohol be enforced.
Many see this as one of a series of measures the government is taking in Algiers and other cities to soothe Muslim sensitivities and isolate the militants who still carry out bombings and assassinations. …
other signs point to increasing enforcement of a stricter, more visible version of Islam. Several workers were prosecuted last fall for smoking in public during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Groups of Algerian Muslims have recently been put on trial for converting to Christianity. Censorship of sexual content on national TV has become stricter, and although women aren't officially obligated to cover their heads, students at provincial universities complain of being pressured to wear head scarves. …
The program of "national reconciliation" put forward by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2005 is widely credited with ending the worst of the civil strife. But Rachid Tlemcani, a political science professor at Algiers University says: "We're witnessing the slow growth and triumph of Islamism through society." Conservatives, he charged, "are nibbling at Algerian values, and authorities are following suit."
Sep. 8, 2011 update: In a survey of several countries, Michael Slackman and Mona El-Naggar argue that the 2011 upheavals "showed hard-line Islamists who had embraced violence a peaceful path to change." They find that Islamists
who once embraced an ideology that rejected participating in societies they deemed un-Islamic, including their own, were now engaged with their fellow citizenry. Peacefully engaged.
"We believed that the use of violence was the only path to change because every other door was shut to us," said Gamal El Helali, 49, a member of a once-militant organization, the Islamic Group, who had been jailed for 10 years in Egypt. "The [February 2011 Egyptian] revolution opened the door to peaceful change."
The authors discern that
Arab majorities, still harboring resentment toward Western policies, are first looking inward to promote change, blaming their own leaders for decades of political, economic and cultural decline. There is a degree of societal introspection taking place. … "There is a newfound conviction that protests, strikes and civil action are more effective than fighting and force," said Marwan Shehadeh, an expert on radical Islamist groups and ideology based in Amman, Jordan.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which long ago disavowed violence, has participated in the political process for years in Jordan and Egypt. But now, Mr. Shehadeh said, those who identify as jihadis, so-called Salafis, are also participating. The result, he said, will force a contest of ideas between the moderates and the radicals who for decades were able to sell their line of thinking to an audience made receptive by repression and the failure of the political process to produce change. …
Paradoxically, Slackman and El-Naggar point out, "attacks by Al Qaeda helped to reinforce the status quo they were aimed at overturning, giving breathing room to Arab strongmen who relied on fear and repression to preserve their authority. The West continued to subjugate concerns for human rights and democracy to the fear of terrorism."