The Origins of Al Qaeda's Ideology: Implications for US Strategy

By Henzel, Christopher | Parameters, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Origins of Al Qaeda's Ideology: Implications for US Strategy


Henzel, Christopher, Parameters


"The fight against the enemy nearest to you has precedence over the fight against the enemy farther away.... In all Muslim countries the enemy has the reins of power. The enemy is the present rulers."

--Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, tried and hanged in connection with the 1981 assassination of Anwar al-Sadat (1)

"Victory for the Islamic movements ... cannot be attained unless these movements possess an Islamic base in the heart of the Arab region."

--Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden deputy, 2001 (2)

"We do not want stability in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and even Saudi Arabia.... The real issue is not whether, but how to destabilize. We have to ensure the fulfillment of the democratic revolution."

--Michael Ledeen, American Enterprise Institute, 2002 (3)

The leader of Sadat's assassins, Bin Laden's chief ideologue, and a leading American neoconservative supporter of Israel all call for a revolutionary transformation of the Middle East. However, the United States, the existing Arab regimes, and the traditional Sunni clerical establishments all share an interest in avoiding instability and revolution. This shared interest makes the establishments in the Sunni world America's natural partners in the struggle against al Qaeda and similar movements. If American strategists fail to understand and exploit the divide between the establishments and the revolutionaries within Sunni Islam, the United States will play into the radicals' hands, and turn fence-sitting Sunnis into enemies.

Outsiders of the Sunni World

Sunni Islam is a very big tent, and there always have been insiders and outsiders within Sunnism playing out their rivalries with clashing philosophies. (4) Throughout the past century, the most important of these clashes have occurred between Sunni reformers and the traditional Sunni clerical establishment. The ideology espoused today by al Qaeda and similar groups can be traced directly from the 19th-century founders of modernist reform in Sunnism. Al Qaeda's leading thinkers are steeped in these reformers' long struggle against the establishment. The teaching of the reformers has been heterodox and revolutionary from the beginning; that is, the reformers and their intellectual descendants in al Qaeda are the outsiders of today's Sunni world.

For the most part this struggle has been waged in Egypt, Sunni Islam's center of gravity. On one side of the debate, there is Cairo's Al-Azhar, a seminary and university that has been the center of Sunni orthodoxy for a thousand years. On the other side, al Qaeda's ideology has its origins in late-19th-century efforts in Egypt to reform and modernize faith and society. As the 20th century progressed, the Sunni establishment centered on Al-Azhar came to view the modernist reform movement as more and more heterodox. It became known as Salafism, for the supposedly uncorrupted early Muslim predecessors (salaf, plural aslaf) of today's Islam. The more revolutionary tendencies in this Salafist reform movement constitute the core of today's challenge to the Sunni establishment, and are the chief font of al Qaeda's ideology.

A Century of Reformation

In contemporary Western discussions of the Muslim world, it is common to hear calls for a "reformation in Islam" as an antidote to al Qaeda. (5) These calls often betray a misunderstanding of both Sunni Islam and of the early modern debate between Catholics and Protestants. In fact, a Sunni "reformation" has been under way for more than a century, and it works against Western security interests. The Catholic-Protestant struggle in Europe weakened traditional religious authorities' control over the definition of doctrine, emphasized scripture over tradition, idealized an allegedly uncorrupted primitive religious community, and simplified theology and rites. The Salafist movement in the Sunni Muslim world has been pursuing these same reforms for a century. …

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