A Historic Opportunity to Expand
The attacks of September 11, 2001, were not only directed against the USA; they were also a clear message to Islamist movements that did not believe in the use of violence but instead adhered to a moderate reform policy.
In other words, the year 2001 represents the division of two fundamentally different strategies within the Islamist movement, even though their supporters share some goals and religious principles.
Seen in this light, it was neither a coincidence nor pure tactics that several leaders of the Islamic political movement hastened to condemn the attacks of September 2001, which al Qaeda had acknowledged, and to distance themselves clearly from them.
The fact that the attacks were associated with Islam and Islamists could have provoked a global conflict between the West and Muslims, which, in turn, could have shattered the successes of these movements in various countries.
Beneficiaries of the attacks
After September 11, the Islamic groups deemed as moderate feared being dragged into a conflict which they had not chosen and were not prepared for. They were able to benefit from the attacks, however, in a manner that had not been anticipated by many experts who had already proclaimed the end of the "political Islam" project – among them many western experts as well.
They confronted the West with the demand that a differentiation be made between the various Islamist groups and that al Qaeda's attack not be seen as an excuse to settle a historical score with Islam.
This demand also met with a response in the West; western intellectuals, experts, and politicians warned against the dangers of generalization.
Concurrent with the "Greater Middle East Initiative," which the American government presented on the pretext of "the spread of democracy in the region and a new political order," detailed studies and recommendations were developed on how the gulf between al Qaeda and the moderate groups could be widened.
Moderate Islamists as legitimate opposition?
Although these groups criticized American policy toward Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan, they nevertheless attempted to capitalize on the new American and European policy by exploiting the international pressure on Arab regimes, in order to gain influence and force the world community to recognize them as leading political players.
They presented all those involved, but particularly the American government, with two alternatives: either the USA would accept them and integrate them into the democratization process, or they would follow the path of al Qaeda, namely, violence.
In other words, these movements transformed the strategy of al Qaeda, which involved setting the moderate groups against all the governments in the world, into an effective means of confirming their own legitimacy.
Islamists versus Arab Regimes
In this way, they were able to achieve unexpected political successes, which can be summarized as follows:
First: In the course of defining its own interests, the West was forced to differentiate between "moderate" and "radical" Islamists, instead of assuming a confrontation scenario with all Islamists.
Second: The Arab regimes which believed that the attacks on September 11 would give them the opportunity to eliminate local Islamist movements in their countries for good missed their chance.
They had attempted to convince the West that every Islamist is a terrorist and that the moderation exhibited by some of them is merely a ploy. Nevertheless, they could not persuade the West to take measures to wipe out the Islamists completely.
Third: The Islamist movements took advantage of the hesitation of the regimes and the latitude they were given to achieve political gains through participation in elections. Thus, instead of finding themselves in political decline, as western and Arab experts had expected, the most recent political developments give political Islam a historic opportunity to expand on an unprecedented scale.
That is precisely what happened in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Bahrain, and Jordan, among other countries.
Moderates versus radicals
The al Qaeda leadership has thus far refused to acknowledge this new reality, however; it is adhering to its original strategy.
In his videotape messages on political events, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy, tries to interfere in the affairs of the Islamic movements, in order to "correct their wrong positions and their wrong policies." Otherwise, he threatens, he will destroy everything that runs counter to his views and plans.
This becomes very clear in Iraq, where the group around Abu Musab al-Zarqawi already attempted previously to thwart all efforts to support the political process. Al Qaeda is also endeavoring to influence events in Palestine.
This was preceded by the almost successful torpedoing of the political reform process in Morocco as a result of the attacks in Casablanca, for which the two wings of the Islamist movement in Morocco would nearly pay a heavy price.
The "Fighting Salafist Group" in Algeria tried to prevent the disarming of all militants in the country, in order to bring about the failure of the "civil concord" policy.
The storming of houses in Kuwait and the arrest of extremists who had killed many security officers fall into the same category.
The "Islamic Action Front" in Jordan also found itself in a catch-22 situation, when groups belonging to al Qaeda carried out a suicide attack in the center of Amman and, by the same token, when several members of the group appeared at al-Zarqawi's funeral and one of them described him as a martyr.
No open confrontation thus far
The division between moderate and radical Islamists is therefore clear; that has become apparent on numerous occasions, particularly after the terrorist attacks in European capitals.
These attacks, which caused serious harm to Islamic minorities and Islam in general, also created problems for Islamists who have been living in Europe for many years or enjoy political asylum there.
Yet, despite this differentiation in discourse and despite criticism by groups from the "middle course" of the radicals, they still avoid a decisive confrontation with the Salafist jihadist groups.
Can this be attributed to religious and legal reasons, or is it due to the fear that these groups will be accused of achieving the very thing that American foreign policy has not accomplished yet?
The answer to this question calls for a great deal of reflection, but the confrontation between the two groups may be dependent on what influence the radical Salafists will have in the Arab world.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson
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