The Magazine

Al Qaeda In Iraq

How to understand it. How to defeat it.

Sep 10, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 48 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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Today's takfiris carry Qutb's basic principles further. Some pious Muslims believe that human governments should support or enforce sharia law. This is why Saudi Arabia has no law but sharia. But to Osama bin Laden and his senior lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri, it is not enough for a state to rule according to sharia. To be legitimate in the eyes of these revolutionaries, a state must also work actively to spread "righteous rule" across the earth. This demand means that only states aligned with the takfiris and supporting the spread of takfirism--such as the Taliban when it was in power--are legitimate, whereas states aligned with unbelievers, like Saudi Arabia, are illegitimate even if they strictly enforce sharia law. Some takfiris, particularly in Iraq as we shall see, argue in addition that all Shia are polytheists, and therefore apostates, because they "worship" Ali and Hussein and their successor imams. This distorted view of Shiism reflects the continual movement of takfiri thought toward extremes.

These distinctions are no mere theoretical niceties. The Koran and Muslim tradition forbid Muslims from killing one another except in narrowly specified circumstances. They also restrict the conditions under which Muslims can kill non-Muslims. Takfiris, however, claim that the groups and individuals they condemn are not really Muslims but unbelievers who endanger the true faith. They therefore claim to be exercising the right to defend the faith, granted by the Koran and Muslim tradition, when they endorse the killing of these false Muslims and the Westerners who either seduce them into apostasy or support them in it. This is the primary theological justification for al Qaeda's terrorism.

Takfirism is a radical reinterpretation of Islam that discards over a thousand years of Islamic scholarship and cautious tradition in favor of a literal reading of the Koran and Hadith that allows any layman--such as Osama bin Laden, who has no clerical standing--to usurp the role of Islam's scholars and issue fatwas and exercise other such clerical prerogatives. Interestingly, "takfirism" is what the Muslim enemies of this movement call it. Iraqis, for example, commonly refer to the members of AQI as "takfiris." This term has a strong negative connotation, implying as it does the right of a small group to determine who is a Muslim and to kill those who do not practice their religion in a particular manner. (Iraqis also sometimes call the terrorists "khawaraj," a reference to the Kharajites of early Muslim history that is extremely derogatory, implying as it does that al Qaeda members are schismatics, well outside of the mainstream of Islam.)

While takfirism is the primary theological justification for the actions of al Qaeda, it is not the only important component of the terrorists' ideology. Western concepts are deeply embedded in the movement as well, primarily Leninism. Qutb was familiar with the concept of the Bolshevik party as the "vanguard of the proletariat"--the small group that understood the interests of the proletariat better than the workers themselves, that would seize power in their name, then would help them to achieve their own "class consciousness" while creating a society that was just and suitable for them. Qutb thought of his ideology in the same terms: He explicitly referred to his movement as a vanguard that would seize power in the name of the true faith and then reeducate Muslims who had gone astray.

Bin Laden underscored this aspect of the ideology in naming his organization "al Qaeda," which means "the base." Qutb and bin Laden envisaged a small revolutionary movement that would seize power in a Muslim state and then gradually work to expand its control to the entire Muslim world, while reeducating lapsed Muslims under its power. Al Qaeda's frequent references to reestablishing the caliphate are tied to this concept. The goal is to recapture the purity of the "Rashidun," the period when Muhammad and his immediate successors ruled. This was the last time the Muslim world was united and governed, as bin Laden sees it, according to the true precepts of Islam.