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Egypt: Countering the Narrative of Violence

15/02/2011

There are many valuable efforts underway around the world that aim to counter the narrative propagated by al-Qaeda and its associates that change can only come about through violence and bloodshed and that the lives of Muslims can only be improved through violent jihad. However, the most powerful “counter-narrative” is that which has unfolded in Egypt since January 25 – eighteen days of nonviolent protest that have toppled an entrenched regime.

It would be politically naïve not to recognize that with this change also comes great uncertainty and anxiety about the future of the country, the region and, given Egypt’s prominent role in international affairs, relationships with foreign partners. The military’s mode of governance, the impact of events in Egypt and Tunisia on regional neighbors, sectarian relations and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, all these questions will loom large in the days ahead.

It is highly significant, however, that the soundtrack for change in the Middle East was not composed to the beat of the Kalashnikov, but to the strains of Egypt’s national anthem. The scenes in Tahrir Square were not those of Christians and Muslims feuding, but rather joining hands to protect each other’s rights to worship and express freely their deepest beliefs.
It was a reflection of the belief that Egypt’s youth are the custodians of their destiny, and that their prosperity and safety will not be bought at each other’s expense, but by their collective efforts to create a better future.

In stark contrast, al-Qaeda’s narrative offers a bleak picture, one in which a select group of Muslims are isolated from their fellow men in a mythic Caliphate for which no one has yet offered a functional blueprint. Will it offer its youths the better employment opportunities demanded in the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Alexandria? Will it foster trade, industry and intellectual innovation to improve the lives of Muslims in an irreversibly globalizing world?
In place of any real answers to these questions, al-Qaeda has offered up the blood of countless thousands of innocents, mostly the very Muslims it purports to protect. The brutality of their methods and objectives has begun to alienate not only populations that once sympathized with them but some of the very leaders whose writings underpinned their ideology.

The effort to counter their narrative has gained strength in recent years. Online forums exist to spread positive messages about the role of religion and respond to posts that raise questions about religious sanctions for acts of violence. Ex-combatants are coming out with their personal stories, explaining why they have disavowed their former comrades and their violent ideologies.
Religious authorities and scholars have put forward arguments to delegitimise violence against women, children and noncombatants in the name of religion. Rehabilitation programs have offered vocational training, counseling and education to detainees in order to persuade them to disengage from violent behaviors and “deradicalise.”

Indeed, one of the lessons learned from such programs has been that greater exposure to religious teachings has often led detainees to realize that their actions were not sanctioned by religious texts. One Iraqi counselor described how detainees broke down when there was no scriptural backing for their actions.

The most powerful counter-narrative to al-Qaeda has turned out to be not the result of an institutional initiative or a policy decision but what has played out in Egypt spontaneously these past three weeks.

Many see al-Qaeda as primarily anti-American, forgetting that the roots of its leadership can also be found in the struggle against the Egyptian regime. The collective actions of peaceful protesters have trumped the violence preached by the ilk of Ayman al-Zawahiri. They marched not to establish a theocracy that will curtail their freedoms and limit their opportunities but to establish a country that protects all its citizens and offers them equal opportunities to better their lives.

This counter-narrative is more enduring and more organic than that offered by al-Qaeda; it reflects a quest for progress reflected in thousands of years of art, culture and learning for which Egypt has been admired around the world.

The challenges faced by the Egyptian people and their chosen leaders are not insignificant, nor is the potential repercussion on Egypt’s neighbors and international partners. Questions regarding political stability, regional security, democratic progress and economic development will have to be answered and these responses will dictate the extent of the changes Egypt and its friends abroad will experience.

However, for now, we can all be proud (and for those of us who could not be in Tahrir Square, a little envious) of witnessing a story of collective determination to effect change through peaceful means that showed the pen (or in this case, the Internet) is mightier than the sword.