'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Sunday, 23 January 2011


Lahoud, Nelly (2010) The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction (New York: Columbia University Press)

Academia Hits Back

‘Omar Rahman said: The prosecutor says that those who raise the slogan that power is for God while they themselves want to monopolise power have been described by Muslims and Islamic history as “Khawarij”’

-- Ayman al Zawahiri in Mansfield, L. ed. (2006) In His Own Word: A Translation of the Writings of Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri (TLG)

In the aftermath of 9.11, academics divided into two camps – those who saw this seminal event as a chasm separating the new millennium from the world of the past and others who were at pains to stress that the lessons of history could allow us to successfully adapt for the future.

The view of Islamic violence became similarly binary – a Kilcullen world view that saw the inexorable growth of jihad according to complexity theory (see also the longwarjournal for propagation of this thought) against the more cautious evaluation of the threat, most prominently from leftist academia. As the tenth anniversary of 9.11 looms, it appears that those who have favoured the applications of history and those who have urged a more measured reading of the jihadi threat are in the ascendancy: as such, Lahoud’s contribution is a timely and prescient addition to this ascendant view.

Building upon a seminar for Harvard’s Islam in the West programme that Lahoud gave in 2008 entitled, Will al-Qaida Self Destruct?, this book offers a comparison of the early Islamic Kharijite sect with the doctrine of today’s Jihadis: ‘Doctrinal differences among the jihadis serve as a major obstacle to their unity and this respect parallel with the Kharijites’. Lahoud, firmly in the Hegghammer camp at Harvard, demonstrates the departure of the jihadis from Islamists, an important distinction that will do much in the future to enhance the study of the phenomenon.

Discussion of the Kharijites with regard to current Islamic fanaticism is not new. Tamara Sonn utilised the Kharijis for her discussion on irregular warfare and terrorism in Islam [see Johnson, James T. ed. (1990) Cross, Crescent, and Sword: The Justification of Limitation of War in Western and Islamic Tradition (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press) esp. Chapter 6; also see for example, Kenney (2006) Muslim Rebels: Kharijites and the Politics of Extremism in Egypt (Oxford University Press)] but Lahoud’s strength is in making the comparison (whilst stressing ‘the jihadis are not the historical descendents of the Kharijites’) that much more relevant with her explicit argument that:

‘What the Kharijites show by way of comparison is that religious groups defined by scriptural rigidity are more often defeated by their own quibbles and internal disputes over doctrine than by the sword of their enemies.’

The notable difference of course, as Lahoud alludes to, is that jihadism is a global phenomenon perpetuated by the Internet. Indeed, Lahoud’s contribution is all the more welcome for her utilisation of Islamist sites, blogs and forums as sources – affording an insight into how the scholarly evaluations of jihadi doctrine may look in the future. The Kharijites, by contrast, were geographically constrained.
Ultimately for Lahoud:

‘While violence has heightened the profile of jihadism on the world stage, the individualistic basis upon which jihadism is premised has not allowed a co-ordinated use of violence to meet strategic long-term objectives; it has prevented any form of unity, or an effective political structure to emerge out of jihadism.’ (p.14)

Lahoud isn’t alone in documenting the contradictions apparent in the jihadi phenomenon. Alia Brahimi (‘Crushed in the Shadows: How Al-Qaeda is Losing the War of Ideas’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 2010, 33(2), pp.93-100); Christina Hellmich (‘Creating the Ideology of al-Qaeda: From Hypocrites to Salafi Jihadism’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 2008, 31, pp. 111-124) Patrick Porter (‘Long Wars and Long Telegrams: Containing al-Qaeda’, International Affairs, 89, pp.285-305); Jarett Brachman and William McCants (‘Stealing Al-Qa‘ida’s Playbook’, Combating Terrorism Center) have all produced recent tracts stressing containment whilst allowing the apparent rifts in the global jihad to play out (see also ‘Self-Inflicted Wounds: Debates and Divisions Within al-Qaida and its Periphery’, Combating Terrorism Center, West Point) also Harmony and Disharmony. Not just ideological, the schism between domestic Islamists allying with the influx of foreign fighters that espouse ideas of global jihad have led to infighting from Afghanistan to Somalia (for the latter, see ‘Somalia’s Divided Islamists’, International Crisis Group, Africa Briefing No. 74)

What the jihadis need is a Powell Doctine – some strategy that subsumes violence to the serving of political ends. But by its very nature, as a bipartite ideology that exists only between the individual and God, bypassing any political structures or deference to ruling parties, the jihad phenomenon is destined to amorphous fitna – an ideology characterised by internal dispute occasioned by sporadic acts of seemingly random violence.

Through examination of the writings of key ideologues and examining the historical precedent within the Islamic tradition, Lahoud has produced a work that can exist as the foundation stone for further examination based on her findings: though with the occasional repetition of point or quotation, this book frames the current world of jihad within a brilliantly dissected trajectory.

Lahoud isn’t frightened to contradict established wisdom and it is her analysis that proves the more inviting – from the apparent recent dissent of Dr. Fadl and al-Maqdisi [for the perceived wisdom see Bergen and Cruickshank (2008) The Unravelling, The New Republic, June 11 and Wright, Lawrence (2008) The Rebellion Within, The New Yorker, June 2] to the Taliban and al-Qaeda [see also, Strick A. and Kuehn, F. (2011) An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al-Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan 1970-2010 (Hurst and Co.)]. Anne Stenersen at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment is also preparing a volume on the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. For an alternative view of the motivation behind the destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan see Cornell, Svante E. (2006) ‘Taliban Afghanistan’ in Shaffer ed. The Limits of Culture: Islam and Foreign Policy (MIT Press) p.275.

Further scholarly work should examine the impact of the 1967 symmetric war between the Arab countries and Israel that seems to have had such an impact upon the early jihadi ideologues and led to the development of the idea of asymmetric warfare in combat with apostate regimes and their western backers: al Zawahiri has written of 1967 as a moment of seemingly large impact on the psyche of the Islamic world. Another area of research is the interface between Islamists and Jihadists – this promises to be the next area of focus – as Islamic militant vehicles continue terrorist activities across South East and Central Asia. Lahoud never really explains how the phenomenon she describes might ever 'self-destruct' but Islamist blogs and forums promise plenty of interest as the ten year anniversary of 9.11 approaches. As Lahoud notes, ‘Jihadism is in the eye of the beholder, it means different things to different jihadis.’

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