Counter Narrative Against al-Qā'idah

Last night, friend of the blog, DP, who writes at the al Sahwa Blog, wrote a post (which I urge you to read) about establishing a counter narrative strategy to hinder al-Qā’idah’s (AQ) message. DP asked me to respond to his post. It should be noted that I am in no way a counterterrorism or strategic communications expert, therefore what is written below should be taken as a few quick thoughts from one who has a more academic background. Further, some of the topics discussed in the below post are only briefly touched upon and not fully fleshed out or given an in-depth or nuanced treatment due to the brevity of this type of intellectual correspondance. If you would like more information about a particular issue discussed below in more detail feel free to email me. That said, comments are welcomed.

The main thrust of DP’s post expounds upon the following question:

“Is AQ Muslim?” Can we not agree to define AQ as not Muslim?

DP responds by stating:

The US and its allies can not benefit (socially or economically) from considering AQ’s and AQAM’s thought and action as Muslim in nature. Indeed, AQ’s stance rests on a dis-illusionary system of motivation and justification that is insane and self-centered. If the AQ definition and practice of Islam is now and/or were to continue to be acceptable, their philosophy would remain on the spectrum as a religious choice. A CNS must (re)affirm that violence and oppression are not adequate and/or viable avenues of fulfillment, freedom, and happiness; that AQ is not a choice.

Indeed, there are valid points above, but I see one glaring problem, which is that it is not the role of the government to decide what is or is not a legitimate religious practice even if one disagrees with it. Obviously, the United States and other nations combating AQ and its associated movements (AQAM) should identify who the enemy is as mentioned in the post and as is correctly pointed out the United States should not include Islam as a descriptor when describing them. Doing so gives AQAM religious credence. This might seem counter to what was previously stated above, but it is not. In other words, one should not describe the activities of AQAM as “Islamic extremism,” “Jihadism,” and other similar descriptors since it provides a level of Islamic legitimacy to their actions and it might feed in to AQAM’s message that the United States is at war with Islam. This is due to the simple fact that most Muslims would argue that they perform jihād too, but in a non-violent matter. Rather the “Greater jihād” (جهاد الاكبر) of ones soul to be a better Muslim. Therefore, are they “Jihadists” too? It is also problematic due to other reasons, but due to the scope of this post it is not necessary to delve into the matter. At the same time, the government should not be the arbiter of what is a particular religion especially in the case of (Sunni) Islam because there is no centralized leader similar to Catholicism. Furthermore, one then gets in to the problem of narrowing in on only the violent aspects of AQAM and not the non-violent groups, which essentially have the same ideology, though, with different strategic aims and goals.
There is another angle one can take, though, without fully expunging AQAM of its links to Islam. First, one can describe AQAM as “Kharijites” or “Neo-Kharijites.” The Kharijites or in Arabic Khawārij (خوارج; those who go out or seceders) were a group of Muslims that were born out of the First Islamic Civil War or The First Fitnah (disturbance, upheaval, or anarchy; 656-661 C.E.). This group is universally viewed negatively by Muslims due to their fundamentalist and violent approach to Islam as well as the fact that they assassinated the fourth and the last of the rightly-guided Caliphs ʿAlī Ibn Abī Ṭālib. The actions of the Kharijites, though, not linked in any manner bear some resemblance to AQAM due to their egalitarian take on the interpretation of Islam.
Second, one can highlight the fact that members of AQAM are not experts in the Islamic sciences nor were they classically trained to perform any type of ijtihād (اجتهاد; a method of legal reasoning for Islamic scholars (علماء, ‘ulamā’); there are four levels of ijtihād). Obviously individuals in AQAM do not really care about classical Islam and the rules that govern who should be interpreting the Qur’ān (قرآن) and ḥadīth (حديث; pl. aḥādīth, احاديث). To make better sense of this, my Arabic professor from this past year (who is currently preparing his doctoral dissertation on Taqī ad-Dīn Ibn Taymīyyah’s thought) used an excellent metaphor to portray the problem of individuals in AQAM who interpret Islam’s holy sources. Paraphrasing what he said:

If someone read a few books or magazines about medicine would you allow them to operate and do surgery on you? Or would you prefer someone who was trained in medicine and received their M.D. to perform such a duty. Likewise, one should not take the word of someone who lacks classical training in the sciences of the Qur’ān and ḥadīth because they truly cannot begin to scratch the surface of the essence of its message.

As a result, a strategy that portrays AQAM as renegades of their own religion as well as coupling it with identifying how their religious credentials are in fact poor could be a jumping off point for a counter narrative strategy. In addition, one can also point to all of the failures AQAM has had by losing populations in various countries due to their vile and sadistic tactics including Egypt (1990s insurgency), Algeria (1990s Civil War), Iraq (the Ṣaḥwah movement), and others. By doing this it highlights that they have been marginalized or defeated and are not some special vanguard (as they describe themselves) that is about to conquer vast swaths of land similar to the original Islamic conquests following the death of Muhammad. Instead, they are a bunch of secularly educated misfits who do not understand their own religion and harness perceived grievances as slights by the West as an a front on Islam.

Again the above thoughts are meant not as definites, but rather as possible ideas to be thrown out for discussion. Moreover, this discussion does not include other types of groups, such HAMAS or Hezbollah and non-violent or non-political Salafists that also have problematic ideologies that could potentially or have already grow(n) into problematic ideologies that are harmful towards the practice of Western liberalism.