Writing in The Weekly Standard in ‘Al Qaeda In Iraq - How to understand it. How to defeat it’, Frederick W. Kagan uses the Arabic word "takfir" (or a derivitive, e.g., takfiri, takfirism) several dozens of times, and did so in a compelling and necessary manner in pursuit of the ‘how to understand’ methodology of the article. Identifying Al Qaeda in Iraq (and the umbrella Al Qaeda organization as a whole) as takfiri, Kagan writes:
"The Koran and Muslim tradition forbid Muslims from killing one another except in narrowly specified circumstances...Takfiris, however, claim that the groups and individuals they condemn are not really Muslims but unbelievers who endanger the true faith...The word takfir designates the process of declaring a person to be an unbeliever because of the way he practices his faith."
Takfirism is the ideological underpinning of and justification for Al Qaeda’s attacks on us, including on that September 11 six years ago. We have erred for six years in not identifying that ideology plainly, in a struggle that is above all else an ideological one. It is critical that we do so not only for our own people, but for many millions of Muslims who are our potential allies in the struggle, but who are wary of our intentions and are bombarded by propaganda from at home claiming we fight for oil or from abroad claiming we seek to destroy Islam.
Kagan’s description of the takfiri and takfirism is consistent with what has been written on the subject in the Middle Eastern and Asian press for years, as a quick search of the Google News archive confirms. Farish A Noor, writng for Pakistan’s Daily Times, Saturday, January 01, 2005:
"I will not dwell here over the legal-theological technicalities of takfir (Muslims accusing others of being kafirs or murtad). Much has already been written about it...In his book, Islam, Fazlur Rehman has argued that by arrogating to themselves the authority of God, such hardliners effectively excommunicate themselves from the large body of the Muslim ummah."
Here in the West, the terminology of takfirism is still somewhat esoteric and only used by something like the "terror" cognoscenti. This is so even after publication of Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize winning ‘The Looming Tower – Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11’ in 2006, which dealt extensively and critically with the subject.
We are not in a religious war with Islam, but the takfiris are in a religious war with us and with the majority of Muslim believers worldwide. It would also be a great mistake, though tempting, for us to relegate the dispute over takfirism to something like an intramural theological issue confined to Islam, vaguely similar to the various Christian faiths of the sixteenth century hurling charges of heresy, apostasy and even idolatry at one another, often accompanied by violence and war. Takfirism targets globally and everyone is either with them or a target.
It has been common for many in the west to assume that what Al Qaeda wants for us is something like the ‘Islamic’ governed society we see in Saudi Arabia, and that country’s sharia based laws, strict religious prohibitions, banned Bibles, restrictions on women and even robed sword-wielding executioners. However, for Al Qaeda, Saudi Arabia is a state of impure Islam and one grossly corrupted by western ideas, influence and contacts! The Al Qaeda takfirist war against us is an extension of their desire for purification of the Ummah, and as such, we are will remain a target until and unless takfirist ideology loses its ability to attract and motivate significant numbers of adherents in the Muslim world.
The evidence of Al Qaeda’s takfirism is manifest in the publicly available 1990’s letters and fatwas of Bin Laden and later writings and tapes from him and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and continues in the most recent Bin Laden tape received last month, even with the Kyoto accord camouflage. Al Qaeda theology and military strategy mesh in the concept of driving all inherently corrupting influences, and critcally among those ‘western’ influences, from the lands of the Ummah, so as to usher in their version of a purified Islam. Bin Laden’s murderous ire was directed in his early letters and fatwas at Saudi Arabia, for among other things, allowing the vile ‘crusaders’ (our military) to desecrate, by their presence, the Land of the Two Holy Places (Saudi Arabia) before, during and after the First Gulf War. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s target was and probably still is Egypt, his home, and the corrupted and secularist Nasser, Sadat and then Mubarak governments. It is critical to our being able to win a war that is ideological at its core to understand the ideology of those we fight, and to identify it clearly
Some in the west may be led to conclude, as Bin Laden has held out to us, that a western ‘pull back’ from the Islamic world, including of course retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also ending of trade and cultural ties with Muslim countries, ending of any support for Israel, and so forth may bring us peace. That would be a chimera, simply because as long as the west presents any Muslims with an attractive alternative in any sense to the takfirist understanding of Islamic purity, whether by democracy, free speech, women’s rights, separation of Church and state, toleration of various creeds and none, and on and on, we are and will be a target. In his latest tape, Bin Laden specifically tells an American audience that democracy has not worked, will not work, and the only alternative for us is his version of Islam.
In ‘The Looming Tower’ (page 124), Wright wrote:
"The new takfiris…extended the death warrant to encompass...anyone who registered to vote. Democracy, in their view, was against Islam because it placed in the hands of people authority that properly belonged to God...anyone who voted was an apostate, and his life was forfeit…"
To defeat the takfiris, we must understand them as many and maybe most Muslims do, and as Kagan indicates, there is evidence that Iraqis understand:
"Interestingly, 'takfirism' is what the Muslim enemies of this movement call it. Iraqis, for example, commonly refer to the members of AQI as 'takfiris.'"
It is not an accident or simply a result of circumstance that the great majority of victims of Al Qaeda-Taliban-Al Qaeda in Iraq and affiliated takfirists have been Muslims. When in November 2005, Congressman Murtha claimed, without contradiction by the media or the White House, that American forces in Iraq had become the primary target of the Iraqi insurgency, the figures were readily available that showed Iraq army and police (mostly recruits at that time) were being killed at a rate two to three times higher than coalition forces for months, as is still the case, and that excludes the Muslim civilians, Shia and Sunni alike, also being killed by AQI.
On page 365, Wright details an FBI interrogation of an emir, Abu Jandal, who had been in Yemeni custody. Jandal owned a guest house in which 9/11 hijacker-pilot Marwan al-Shehhi had been allowed to recuperate from an illness. Al-Shehhi had flown United Airlines flight 175 into the WTC south tower. The FBI agent doing the interrogation was an American Muslim, Ali Soufan.
The interrogation grew heated when Soufan asked Jandal about the bombings of the East African embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. Initially, when Soufan pointed out that most of the people killed were Muslim, Jandal explained that they would receive their reward, whatever it may be, from Allah. Pressed by Soufan, Jandal finally exploded with the takfir ideology, saying that since the bombings were on a Friday, those people should have been in the Mosques praying. Since they were not, they were takfir, apostates, and could be killed. As Kagan points out, Al Qaeda members do not speak openly of their takfirism, but they practice it.
Kagan also writes that U.S. commanders in al-Anbar "acknowledge that they probably missed overtures from [Sunni] tribal leaders" well before the more clear signals the sheikhs sent in late 2006 and early 2007 that our military responded to.
Hindsight is everyone’s best sight, but I can imagine there was an unrecognized signal nearly two years ago, from well before the Anbar Awakening. It was routinely described in the media as the Sunni’s fearing they would be left out of the political process if they bypassed the December 2005 elections in Iraq as they had the previous ones. That may have missed what the Sunni’s were even then saying about the takfiris and takfirism. From The Scotsman, December 2005:
"More than 1,000 Sunni clerics in Iraq issued a fatwa yesterday, telling members of their minority Muslim community to vote in tomorrow's elections."
How many in the West, especially those on the left, who have belittled the meaning of millions of Iraqis and Afghans voting in democratic elections, failed to understand how very much those millions of Muslims were repudiating the ideological basis for Al Qaeda and takfirism? President Bush repeatedly spoke of the courage of the Iraqis and Afghans who went out to vote in spite of danger, but I would think that most in the West believed the danger to be simply random bombings or attacks on polling places and voters, and did not realize that those people were risking being declared apostate and polytheists by the takfiris of AQI and therefore subject to killing at any time!
"Takfir violates the religious understanding of most of the world's Muslims...The chief reason al Qaeda has limited support in the Muslim world is that the global Muslim community overwhelmingly rejects the premise that anyone obeying a temporal ruler is ipso facto an unbeliever."
In six years, the west, including sadly the Bush administration, has failed to clarify the ideological struggle we are in. The various ways we have tried to do so all fall short of the mark, and even serve as hindrances to a successful counter-takfirist strategy. Worse, our various attempts at identifying the ideology we fight do not make our objectives plain to those in the Islamic world who need to be assured of what it is we fight and why.
We have had the GWOT, the global war on terror, which does not clarify the struggle: terror is a means, a tool, not an ideology.
We have used terms like Islamo-Fascism or derivitives of that, and these also do not work. While the Fascists of WWII Nazi Germany and present day Al Qaeda and its offshoots have commonalities of practice and belief, the match-up does not work. It is too great a leap for too many to equate National Socialism, the black leather uniformed Gestapo agent, the Blitzkrieg, the Nuremberg rallies or the horrific efficiency of an Auschwitz’s killing processes with men issuing religious fatwas and wearing robes in caves, planning the deaths of thousands of far-away civilians, making beheading videos or blowing themselves up to kill crowds at markets. The imagery of Islamo-Fascism might be meant to invoke the west’s last ‘good war’, when we were unified, but to too many, including millions in the Muslim world, that history is ancient or virtually unknown.
We have identified ‘jihad’ and ‘jihadis’ as the enemy, which admittedly has been my own choice. Like the GWOT and Islamo-Fascism, there are grounds for that, but it also fails. Far too many Muslims have pointed out that while ‘jihad’ is indeed a Koranic concept, they understand it to be a personal spiritual struggle or even evangelization, but without force. We know full well that those who promote and engage in a violent and murderous ‘jihad’ do not see it that way, but we must also admit that if there are a billion or so Muslims with the same Koran speaking of jihad, if even a substantial minority held to the violent jihad of Al Qaeda as a Muslim tenet of faith, there would be far more violence worldwide than there is now, and we would not have so many tens of thousands of Afghani and Iraqi Muslims putting their lives on the line in opposition to the takfirists.
We have had ‘militant Islam’, and again that does not serve well, because it obscures and even alienates potential and real allies. While most analogies fail at some point if pressed too far, they can still be useful to make a point. The Ku Klux Klan, since its founding after the Civil War, the Atlantic Olymics and abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolf, racist and segregationist groups like Christian Identity have all sought to cloak themsleves in the mantle of Christianity. Imagine for example how many Americans would react if these were referred to time and again as ‘militant Christianity’.
But identifying the ideology we fight in Iraq and Afghanistan (and elsewhere) as ‘takfirism’ and the adherents of that ideology as ‘takfiris’ clarifies, and defines our enemies as well as our purpose.
It would be a most worthwhile thing if President Bush and top level members of his administration identified our fight as with takfirism and the takfiris, coupled that with an explanation. Point out that the takfiris grant to themselves the right to kill any man, woman or child they deem to be an infidel, be they Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic – or any Muslim they deem apostate, by their own standards. If that is done, it just may be that those Sufi Muslims who danced in the streets of Kabul when the Taliban was evicted, those Iraqi Shia who’ve lost thousands to al-Zarqawi’s anti-Shia attacks, those Jordanians who demonstrated in the tens of thousands after the killing of the members of a wedding party in Amman by AQI, those Sunni sheiks in Anbar whose tribes are now fighting AQI, and the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have joined the Iraqi army, many of whom have been fighting side by side with our sons and daughters might say to themselves – the West gets it!
In its recent report on ‘Radicalization in the West: the Homegrown Threat’, the NYPD Intelligence Division reported:
"The image of the heroic, holy warrior or "mujahedeen" has been widely marketed on the Internet as well as in jihadi tapes and videos. This image continues to resonate among young, especially Muslim, men 15-35 years old — men who are most vulnerable to visions of honor, bravery and sacrifice for what is perceived as a noble cause."
By identifying the enemy as takfiri, in recognition that even its Muslim enemies do so, we may change that "heroic" image to one of the killer who may at any time decide that the erstwhile young Muslim recruit’s father, mother, brother or sister is apostate, takfir, and deserving of death.
I would like to see a spokesman for C.A.I.R., the Council on American-Islamic Relations, asked if his organization’s repeated statements about the Muslim American ‘voting’ demographic, presented as an appeal to be given consideration by our political parties, is a conclusive statement that C.A.I.R. and those they claim to represent reject the takfirist notion that democratic voting is polytheism and apostasy.
It is well past time to clarify the ideological struggle so that it is understood in both the West and in the Muslim world, and in that way, better establish who is on which side of the struggle, and why. Our soldiers have understood for years that we are in a hearts and mind struggle, yet too often here at home and in our leadership we do not make the necessary and clear distinctions that might enable and even empower and embolden those who are or should and could be our allies in this fight. We already have the evidence, though it gets short-shrift in our dialogue, of tens of thousands of Muslim Iraqis and Afghans willing to take on the takfiri. We must build on that.