Salafi armed groups and the sectarian dimensions of their armed struggle

Often different Salafi armed groups focus on a perceived sectarian identity of their enemy, however absurd the construal of this identity may be. Regardless, why would many of these armed groups identify their struggles in this sense? I believe this is partly due to an uncritical application of what is largely medieval Islamic juristic tradition to to all contexts and times. For example, medieval Muslim jurists defined ‘Jihad’ as ‘qital al-kufar’ i.e. specifically to fight the disbelievers. There are other types of combat, that include Muslims (e.g. to fight rebels or bughat that revolt against a Muslim authority) but this is strictly, according to jurists, not a form of ‘Jihad’. ISIL, for example, label Abu-Muhammed al-Jolani (head of Jabhat al-Nusra) as a sinner and ‘baghi’ or a rebel against what they view as their legitimate Islamic authority.

Jihad, by medieval jurists, was then differentiated to include defensive and offensive warfare, with any offensive war requiring the sanction of a Muslim ruler. However, the legitimacy of an offensive war has been challenged by contemporary Muslim scholars e.g. Muhammad al-Ghazali, Muhammad Sa’id Ramadhan al-Bouti, Wahbat al-Zuhayli and many more. The opinion that ‘Jihad’ is restricted to a defensive military struggle to defend the Muslim community or life and property is now the given orthodoxy (Salafi scholars still, by far, reject this opinion).

Thus to justify any military combat as a ‘Jihad’, Salafi groups will seek to ‘other’ their enemies along strictly religious categories, even if these categories are absurd and make no sense even to their enemies. Following from this, Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIL and others state their enemies as Zoroastrians, Nusayris, Rafidha and ‘secular’ apostates etc. There is also demonisation of their enemy as they are on the wrong end of a cosmic struggle and all of them are destined for eternal damnation and they, on the other hand, are the group of righteous believers foretold in scripture carrying the banner of ‘Jihad’ to the end times.

ISIL and reasons for excommunication

The ISIL are not the Khawarij documented by medieval Muslim heresiologists in their encyclopaedias of sects and religions; historically the Khawarij, as a sect, were not uniform but are now largely extinct. Nevertheless there remains the ‘Ibadia‘ that exists in Oman as a state sponsored form of Islam and also, as a lesser presence, followers of this sect can be found in Kenya and North Africa; but this sect is significantly different to the Khawarij of earlier centuries. The ISIL, on the other hand, are Salafi in doctrine and similar to other Jihadi Salafi groups, view other Salafi factions as misguided in understanding the writings of Ibn-Taymiyyah and Muhammad ibn-Abdul Wahhab. For example, there is the accusation that Muhammad Al-Albani (his writings remain a guide to the global Salafi movement and his many sittings with his students were recorded and some transcripts published), fell into errors regarding the relation between belief and works.

For Jihadi Salafis he distinguishes between belief and works, to the extent that no practice affects the status of belief and hence the plausibility of excommunication (takfir). Instead, in their position (e.g. see the writings of Abu-Muhammad Al-Maqdisi), the genus of religious practice is both fundamental and a condition for sustaining belief. Further, there is an accusation that he denied what they describe as acts that intrinsically justify excommunication and this includes, for example, mere utterance of blasphemy and importantly adopting ‘secular’ laws as state legislation or even joining the armed forces in any of the nation states that exist in ‘Muslim countries’ and so maintaining these ‘secular’ states. These acts are labelled as ‘kufr ‘amali’ or actions that intrinsically denote disbelief, as they relate to issues of belief and disbelief directly and hence become a basis for excommunication. It should be noted that excommunication does not extend to committing greater sins, as is the position of the classical Khawarij sects and hence they state their view, regarding excommunication, as the correct position of Sunni Islam (Sunni Islam means, in a very strict sense, a strand of Hanbali Islam that can be identified, predominately, in the writings of Ibn-Taymiyyah). This far groups such as the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are in agreement.

The issue of difference is the view, by Jabhat al-Nusra, that ISIL have gone into extremes in their expansion and application of this category (actions that intrinsically denote disbelief) to include dissociation from any faction receiving funding from these states; this includes even explicitly Islamist coalitions such as the Islamic Front. This is further exasperated, according to the ISIL, as these groups receive funding on the condition they collaborate to uproot the ISIL from their territories (they are likened, in ISIL literature, to the Iraqi ‘sahwat’). To not dissociate and even worse abet these groups is to make allegiance with the enemy at times of war and this alone is a basis for excommunication (Quran 5: 51, for example, is cited to justify this as ‘kufr ‘amali’). The FSA, on the other hand, are viewed as a ‘secular’ coalition invested in a democratic state and aligned to the National Coalition that is directly supported by the US and the Saudi monarchy and that alone is sufficient to make outright excommunication of those under this coalition. Jabhat al-Nusra only agree regarding the excommunication of the leaders of the FSA and the National Coalition but hold the Islamic Front as believers and are willing to cooperate with them in military operations. The ISIL also accuse the Islamic Front and the FSA, with others, in attacking their positions and this, to them, is a broader conspiracy to exterminate the organisation from Syria.

In future posts I will attempt to note different Salafi discourses pertaining to collective guilt, de-humanising through identifying individuals to opposing religious collectives and the necessity to dissociate and despise all those considered outside the pale of Islam (the doctrine of ‘Al-Wala’ Wal Bara”). These different discourses figure, to different degrees, in all Salafi groups and play a part in how they perceive and treat the ‘other’.

An opposition that can be vouched for

The idea behind a new coalition led by Riyad al-Seif, bypassing the Syrian National Council, has been something proposed by Western diplomats for some time. Muhammad al-Abdallah bitterly describes ongoing attempts by Robert Ford and other diplomats to implement a plan that sidelines the SNC, with both Basma al-Qadmani and Riyad al-Seif being key figures in this initiative. He also makes the claim that the US were agitating for a body willing to dialogue with the regime. Muhammad al-Abdullah was not the only disgruntled member of the SNC, others in the SNC voiced their anger that Hillary Clinton should so strongly condemn the SNC and select its own leaders to bypass the organisation. Muhammad al-Balout, writing in Al-Safir, reaffirms some aspects of Muhammad al-Abdullah’s claims. He too spoke to different opposition figures that similarly confirm that it was indeed Basma al-Qadmani that initially prepared and developed the initiative.  The selection of Basma al-Qadmani and Riyad al-Seif is no coincidence. The former is a pro-US Syrian liberal (believing in the civilizing role of US power) and the latter, a leading figure in the Damascus Declaration, was a confidante of the US embassy in Damascus advising on the Syrian opposition for many years (this according to classified Wiki-leaks documents).

The US views this as a matter of urgency, fearful of Al-Qaeda groups establishing a foothold and any possible threat to its regional hegemony, leading it to lose  patience with the SNC and what it can actually deliver. I don’t believe the Obama regime is averse to a negotiated solution but for the moment it is more concerned with a manageable, and less chaotic, landscape. One of the main ideas adopted by the ‘National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces’ was the importance of a centralised command for military operations in Syria. While both Qatar and Saudi wish to push things through article seven, at the security council, there is no signals that such a proposal is of immediate urgency for Western backers of the coalition.  For now the issue is to have a more effective opposition coalition and centralised military command.

Already Jordan is allowing its territory to be used as a transit for Qatari and Saudi funded weapons to be delivered to what is perceived as “trustworthy elements of the Syrian opposition”. It doesn’t matter that those receiving the weapons are actually able to overturn the regime, what does matter is that Salafi groups are marginalised and more trustworthy groups are able to better organise themselves to be channelled with weapons, even if this may lead to an armed confrontation between Salafi groups and other factions aligned to the coalition. A brokered deal, via negotiations, or a future military interventions are not discounted by Western powers but there needs to be institutional arrangements that can be vouched for, whatever policy is adopted.