Despite surge, jihadism has poor long-term outlook

People have started seeing jihadist groups as repressive movements that cannot rule adequately.

al-monitor Supporters of the Islamist party "Hizb Ut-Tahrir" movement hold a flag during a rally in Tunis, Jan. 24, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Anis Mili.

Topics covered

terrorism, sharia, jihadist, jihad, islam, arab world

Mar 28, 2014

Several factors are fueling the belief that the Arab Spring has given a strong impetus to jihadist groups after years of decline.

The first factor is the complicity of tyrannical regimes in reviving these groups in order to distort the Arab revolutions and to scare the world about an Islamist terrorist surge. The regimes released jihadist leaders and elements from prison, facilitated their activities and sometimes secretly provided them with the necessary financial and media support.

Worse still are the leaks about ambiguous relations between some leading jihadists and regimes that used terrorism to encircle the regimes’ opponents and strengthen their regional influence. Making matters worse is when some regimes used excessive violence against the popular movement, thus causing counter-reactions of the same nature. In Syria, such a strategy led to a growth in sectarian extremism and attracted radical elements from around the world under the banner of supporting Islam in the Levant.

The second factor is the striking collapse of the Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt after they came to power through free elections. The Islamists there had consistently condemned terrorism and called for political solutions and for the civil and peaceful option. Their collapse revived violence as a means to fight injustice and defend “Muslim rights.”

The third factor is related to faulty calculations by the forces of democratic change. Those forces were at a loss on how to deal with the phenomenon of Islamist extremism with, for example, the Syrian opposition. They sometimes called the phenomenon marginal and said it has no chance in a pluralistic and diverse society. At other times, they defended it as an urgent action that includes immigrants in order to support the Syrian revolution, and that those immigrants will leave Syria once the revolution wins. They even accommodated and paid tribute to the Islamists’ courage and considered them part of the forces of change on the basis that confronting the Syrian regime is the top priority, even if that meant keeping quiet about Islamist excesses, especially when it comes to attacking some civil groups that are objectively considered to be on the regime’s side or that have remained neutral.

More importantly is the fact that the opposition resorted to weapons and failed to manage the areas they took away from the regime or that are neutral or vacillating.

On the other hand, some are convinced that the awakening of the jihadist groups is the final awakening before death because although those groups were granted an opportunity by the Arab revolutions, they have a bitter past laden with failure, destruction, and futility. Some say that the Islamist phenomenon is in a chronic crisis and at a dead end because of the failure of their project in Afghanistan and its inability to be a desirable example or model for a state that can apply the true Islam and save Muslims from their current situation. The outcome of years of jihadist rule have been frustrating and disappointing, during which they showed a negative image of Islam, where Islam is not a religion of tolerance but a religion of oppression and coercion that transforms man into a mere tool that is blindly subservient to rites and rituals.

Of course, it didn’t take too long for the jihadists to lose what they had gained because they lacked a development program to meet the needs of the people and because of the atrocities that accompanied their application of their extreme vision of Islamic law. So much so that a Muslim who knows the essence of Islam has started to openly reject that the smallest details of his life be controlled by very ugly means of coercion and violence, whatever the pretext or argument.

Today, there appeared new elements that deepened the jihadists’ crisis: Arab revolutions carrying the slogans of freedom and dignity, and calling for the people’s right to enter politics. That sharply contradicts with the approach of jihadist groups, which want people to only blindly obey. The jihadists consider democracy and freedom to be forms of apostasy. That position in effect places the jihadists opposite the interests and aspirations of the popular movements.

So the jihadists reacted by acting harshly in the areas they control, prompting people to resist and defend their right to make their own choices. Moreover, the conflict being fought by jihadist groups, a conflict that they consider fateful, has led to an unprecedented exposure to their organizational structure. The conflict made it easy to penetrate them, thus costing them a key strength: being considered secret organizations that are impenetrable. Now, everyone knows how these groups and their leaders operate. Making matters worse for the jihadist groups is the growing differences among their ranks and their growing differences over religious interpretations.

More importantly, the organizational chaos of such extremist groups, which cannot normally grow and thrive without political cover and support by some regime, has led to exposing their funding sources, their encirclement and a reduction of the margin of maneuver for regimes that used terrorism and jihadists as tools to manage crises and gain influence in the region’s conflicts. Making the encirclement worse is the global policy that acted passively toward the Arab revolutions, especially in Syria, in order to revive dormant jihadist cells and attract them to the arena of conflict so that they get detected and eliminated.

Despite the above, one should not underestimate the jihadist movements, which now have enough strength and motives to truly harm the Arab revolutions, especially as they feed on the general hospitable climate that is characterized by aggravating the sectarian conflict in the region and by a tangible decline in politics in favor of violence, amid a chronic inability of the forces of change to win the people’s confidence and lead the path to democratic transformation.

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