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From 1990s Algeria to Iraq today: trampling Islam underfoot in the name of Jihad

What is the ideology motivating alleged “warriors of God” to “trample Islam underfoot in the name of Jihad”?  Algerian anthropologist Mahfoud Bennoune explored this question in 1994, offering an analysis of the political beliefs motivating “throat-slitting emirs” still much-needed today.

Mahfoud Bennoune
11 September 2014

This is the third of a three part series of articles. Read part one. Read part two.

Today’s jihadists - like the adherents of Islamic State - commit widespread beheadings and mass shootings claiming to be in the name of God, and targeting religious minorities and Muslims alike. On this anniversary of the September 11 Islamist terror attacks, it is important to consider the analysis of such atrocities by those who lived on the frontlines of similar horror in the past. 

Algerian anthropologist Mahfoud Bennoune wrote the three-part essay, “How Fundamentalism Produced a Terrorism Without Precedent,” twenty years ago, as his home country faced a horrifying rise in jihadist bloodletting. It was originally published by the leading Algerian newspaper El Watan (No. 1246, 8 November 1994) whose editor-in-chief, Omar Belhouchet, had already survived a 1993 fundamentalist assassination attempt. Bennoune and his editor took the risk of publishing this essay inside 1994 Algeria so as to explain the ideology of the fundamentalist enemy that - as with those Syrians and Iraqis living in the dark shadow cast by IS today - they and their fellow Algerians absolutely had to defeat. Understanding the ideology of radical Islamism in order to adopt the best strategies to counter it remains an essential task today.

Part three: The nature of the crimes of Algerian fundamentalist terrorism

In the Arabo-Muslim world, fundamentalism represents the negation of the very idea of the post-independence nation-state. For the followers of fundamentalism, that state represents development, rationalism and secularization. This explains why they want  - at any cost - to substitute an Islamic state for it.

Indeed, for the “Islamists” there is a basic difference between a Muslim nation state and an “Islamic state.”  A Muslim state is any state governed by modernist Muslims. An Islamic state, on the other hand, is, in the words of Pakistani writer K. Ahmed “one which chooses to run its affairs in accordance with the revealed orders of Islam and accepts the sovereignty of God and the supremacy of his law.” Contradicting Sunni orthodoxy, this idea is instead derived from the theologian Ibn Taymiya.

In spite of this, the fundamentalists have continued to preach that it is insufficient for a society to be made up of Muslims. Rather, it is imperative that it is Islamic in its practices and in its socio-political structure. Such ideas, as developed by Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayed Kotb in Nasserist Egypt, were a reaction to the developments undertaken by President Gamal Abdel Nasser during the 50s and 60s.  After returning from a stay in the US, Kotb decided not only to criticize the nature of the nationalist, socialist and progressive Nasserist state, but also to develop an Islamist doctrine that would politicize Islam.

The transformation of Egyptian society initiated by the state, with the goal of integrating and developing the Egyptian economy, society and culture, seemed to him to be an even more menacing interference than that of the colonial state. Instead of adapting Egyptian society to meet the requirements of the 20th century, he proposed to Muslims a return to the age of the Prophet and the first four Caliphs. The post-independence state seemed to him a diabolical driving force, led by a taghout (tyrant) or Pharaoh. The notion of tyrant or taghout applies to those who worship idols as opposed to venerating God. The arbitrary power of the state, as represented by the Pharaoh, was invoked to suggest that the head of state of an Arabo-Muslim nation wantonly tramples on divine laws.

From this point of view, the conflict between Pharaoh and Moses (Moussa) is transposed to that which exists between the post-independence head of state who does not apply Islamic laws, and the fundamentalists who owe no allegiance or submission except to God. Thus, their mission is to seize the power which has been usurped by the tyrant and return it to its true Master: God. This implies the destruction of the Pharaoh and the established order.

The power of the State and the social order, “nidham el hokum,” demands loyalty of citizens, the loyalty they are supposed to offer exclusively to God. Moreover, for Kotb, the state and its leadership constituted a glorification of human needs and desires which were made into objects of idol-worship. His conception of a political, activist Islam led him to try, along with his disciples, to overthrow the established order.  Accused of plotting against the Egyptian state and of conspiring with Western intelligence services, notably the CIA, Kotb was condemned to death and executed in 1966. This execution created a martyr for the fundamentalists whose numbers were increasing after the humiliating defeat of the Arabs by the Israeli Army in 1967.

According to them, this defeat was largely due to secularization, which they equated with the modernization of Arab economies and societies. The solution seemed simple to them: the application of the true Islam, through a process of re-Islamizing Muslims who had gone astray. Muslim societies of the 20th century were assimilated to the society of the jahiliya (pre-Islamic era), characterized by the worship of idols and by ignorance. This situation required that “real Muslims” and the fundamentalists must declare Holy War against Muslim society.

 Holy War against the impious state and misguided Muslims

Consequently, the true Islam - as conceived by the successive disciples of Kotb - demands of believers more than just ritual acts. They must undertake jihad (fi sabil Allah - in the path of God), under order from God. Muslims who do not obey God in this specific domain are, according to them, giving their allegiance to idols, and through them to the tyrant (taghout).  As for those who follow the orders of the taghout (tyrant), they are to be considered unbelievers against whom one must wage jihad. While in the beginning jihad referred to defensive actions taken under certain conditions against non-Muslims, it was henceforth re-oriented and aimed against Muslims themselves.

It must be recalled that no Muslim can assume for himself the right to declare another Muslim an apostate or unbeliever, however serious his sins may be, as this would exclude him from the Muslim community or Umma. Moreover, because Islam recognizes monotheistic religions, it allows for the peaceful coexistence within the Umma of different Muslim sects, as well as the Ahl El Kitab (people of the book - Christians and Jews), etc.

Fundamentalist bidaâ (innovation) and doctrine led Kotb’s successors to consider that only the Prophet and his companions were able to build a real community of believers, and all those who came afterwards were perceived as having departed from the right road. Thus, the duty of true Muslims (meaning the fundamentalists) is to destroy the post-independence nation-states in Arabo-Muslim countries, and institute Islamic states in their place. The realization of this goal requires the indoctrination, training and organization of mujahidine (holy warriors) so as to wage Holy War against the Muslims who have gone astray.

Algerian fundamentalist terrorism is the result of brainwashing

Feeling themselves at war against Muslim societies, fundamentalist movements - deeming that only their followers practice the true Islam - have actually resorted to organizational, political and religious innovations in order to mobilize their supporters. This merciless will to achieve their objectives has pushed them to engage in true brainwashing after which their disciples have lost their basic loyalties - to the State, to their friends and to the family. The fundamentalist groups subject them to a quasi-surgical operation aiming to change their behaviour and their values, to re-educate them by inculcating their own (fundamentalist) values.  This process of re-training allows the disciples to break with their pasts so as to focus on the ultimate goal: the instauration of a new order.

Thus, at the end of this process, we have a new "homo islamicus fundamentalensis", devoted - body and soul - to the extermination and/or re-islamization of his deviant co-religionists. This implies blind faith and unshakeable certainties, a complete submission and an absolute obedience to the new heretical sect, whose major preoccupation is to prepare us for the hereafter.

The making of this "homo islamicus fundamentalensis" has led Algerian Islamist gurus to take control of sports clubs, especially those involved in martial arts, to organize seminars in mosques and outdoors, as well as camping trips on beaches and in the countryside for young boys. The fundamentalist gurus gave them a theoretical and practical (military) training. They also sent countless disciples to Pakistan and Afghanistan to complete their initiation into fundamentalist doctrine and military arts.

Official laxity was a great help to them in preparing and organizing themselves to seize power - either by the ballot or by the sword - whenever an opportune moment comes. This indoctrination and this military training enabled the emirs of Algerian terrorist groups to justify throat-cutting, decapitation, rapes, “temporary marriages” (zaouedj el moutâa), destruction of public and private property such as factories, transportation, schools, and the premises of public services,etc. 

When a Lebanese journalist asked one of them why they attacked the basic infrastructure of Algerian society - which should be preserved regardless of the ideological character of the political regime because it meets the fundamental needs of the population - the emir who was asked this question replied to the journalist as follows: “You are a victim of Euro-centrism and capitalism which privilege the material aspects of human existence. For us, what matters is spiritual life and the belief in God, the all-powerful.”  Such words are in complete contradiction with the spirit and the letter of Islam as it was revealed by God to the Prophet, and understood and practiced by Muslims for centuries.

We are in the presence of a radical break with the true Islam as it was lived by our ancestors, even during the seven centuries of decline. This study shows that the fundamentalist terrorism that ravages and brings grief to the country on a daily basis is driven by new and foreign values that have been manufactured by fundamentalist gurus and have nothing to do with the claimed cultural continuity. 

Instead of Islamizing the Algerian Muslims whom they considered apostates, the fundamentalist network has replaced the taghout (tyrant) with throat-slitting emirs and violators of the most sacred laws of Islam. Thus, the re-Islamization brought about by Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) founder and president Abassi Madani, FIS second-in-command Ali Benhadj, and their followers, has resulted instead in the de-Islamization of the terrorists who trampled Islam itself underfoot, in the name of jihad. They resemble Frankenstein. Their greed for power has pushed them to create a bloodthirsty monster that ended up trying not only to destroy the nation-state established by the Revolution of November - Algeria’s war of Independence -  which they deem impious, and to dethrone its predatory leaders, but also to devour all of Algerian society.

The question before us today is the following one: Can we dialogue, debate, argue, discuss, persuade, co-exist, pray and work with this homo islamicus fundamentalensis that is determined to either exterminate us or “re-Islamize” us?

This article has been abridged and annotated for English-language readers by the translator, Karima Bennoune. A compilation of the full text of  'How Fundamentalism produced a terrorism without precedent ' is available in English and in French.

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