Jihadi Discourse in the Wake of the Arab Spring

Jihadi arguments against democracy were plausible when dictators reigned and elections were charades, but the dynamics have changed and jihadi leaders are struggling to define their ideological framework in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, according to a new report. While Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are still far from qualifying as democracies, let alone as consolidated democracies, people in these countries are at least rhetorically committed to democratic processes, analyst Nellie Lahoud writes in Jihadi Discourse in the Wake of the Arab Spring.

The report, published by The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, analyzes jihadi discourse in the wake of the “Arab Spring” in order to address: (1) why have global jihadi leaders been struggling to advance a coherent and effective response to the events of the Arab Spring, and (2) why, despite strong rhetoric of militancy, have we witnessed little action on the part of new jihadi groups that have emerged in countries that underwent regime change (i.e., Tunisia, Egypt and Libya) as a result of the Arab Spring?

The study reveals that global jihadi leaders are struggling to define clearly and consistently their ideological framework in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. More precisely, the factors that are causing the current ideological incoherence of jihadism are the same factors that had once served as the cornerstone of its plausibility in the eyes of its adherents.

Global Jihadi Leaders’ Discourse

The study identifies several weaknesses in the discourse of global jihadi leaders that highlight the nature of the challenges they face in the wake of the Arab Spring. These include the paradoxical position of the deed of spectating: the jihadis have always prided themselves on action, i.e., on the deed of jihad; and in so doing, they gained the attention of the world community. Yet, in the initial phase of the Arab Spring, the jihadis found themselves not as actors in, but as spectators of the drama of fallen dictators. Another related challenge is the once powerful grievance narrative that “jihad is the only solution” to rid Muslims of their dictators that jihadi leaders and ideologues had propagated.

This narrative, however, is shaken in the wake of the Arab Spring as non-violent protest toppled some iconic dictators like Husni Mubarak of Egypt and Zein al-‘Abidin bin ‘Ali of Tunisia. The most glaring weakness of current jihadi discourse has to do with the fact that after the fall of dictators, people have chosen a political path that is irreconcilable with the jihadi worldview and have become the object of jihadi resentment. Thus the jihadis’ once-powerful grievances articulated against dictators are now reduced to soliloquies criticizing the people.

The Arab Spring: Jihadi Discourse and New Jihadi Groups

From a jihadi perspective, the world is simple to describe and, more importantly, easy to criticize when dictators reign with no active opposition by the majority of the people they govern, and are supported by Western democracies.

That is because the jihadis’ articulate criticisms of political injustices have been difficult to refute. As a result, their narrative has resonated with many in the Arab world, including those who have not joined them or do not share their agenda. The events of the Arab Spring have shaken the simplicity of the jihadi narrative now that it has been proven that dictators can be ousted by peaceful protest. To be fair, despite being surprised along with the rest of the international community by the sudden onset of the Arab Spring, global jihadi leaders initially responded with a sense of genuine optimism. In public and private communications, Bin Ladin declared the Arab Spring to be a “great historical event,” and ‘Atiyyatullah al-Libi, or ‘Atiyya, as he is widely known, welcomed it with “enthusiasm and ardor.”

However, Bin Ladin and ‘Atiyya did not live long enough to witness the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya rush to cast their votes in their respective elections. In doing so, they clearly demonstrated their desire to pursue political reform by means of electoral change, a path irreconcilable with the jihadi worldview. Indeed, the formation of political parties, contesting elections and the establishment of democratic regimes are all rejected by jihadis; they deem such processes to be guided by positive law (i.e., man-made law) and, and in their minds, holding elections constitute a violation of God’s Law.

That is because jihadis not only wish to project a puritanical application of God’s Law, but also because they want Islamic Law to serve as an alternative governance paradigm to that of the world order of nation-states against which they rebel. This alternative religious paradigm also allows them to focus their agenda on repelling external occupiers and fighting against Muslim leaders whom they consider to be advancing a Western agenda against the interests of Muslims.

The jihadis’ arguments against positive law and democracy were plausible when dictators reigned and elections were charades. The dynamics have changed in the aftermath of the Arab Spring: while Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are still far from qualifying as democracies, let alone as consolidated democracies, people in these countries are at least rhetorically committed to democratic processes, and at most have demonstrated that commitment through participation in elections: 52 percent of Tunisians turned out to vote in the October 2011 legislative elections; a similar proportion of Egyptians voted in the legislative elections in January and February 2012; and almost 62 percent of Libyans exercised their democratic prerogative in the legislative elections in July 2012.

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