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A False Sense of Security?

20/01/2012

The tone of recent newspaper and journal articles can scarcely be more triumphant. Al Qaeda on the Ropes; The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda and The End of the Road for Jihad are just some of the headlines at the newspaper stands in recent weeks. What accounts for this triumphalism? We are told that the Arab Spring has seen the politics of non-violent protest and the ballot box triumphing over the politics of the bullet and the suicide bomber.

We are told that the Arab Spring has severely undermined the Al Qaeda narrative. In his Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri argued that, ‘The international Jewish-Crusader alliance, led by America, will not allow any Muslim force to obtain power in any of the Muslim lands … It will impose sanctions on whomever helps it, even if it does not declare war against them altogether. Therefore, to adjust to this new reality, we must prepare ourselves for a battle that is not defined to a single region but rather includes the apostate domestic enemy and the Jewish-Crusader external enemy.’ Yet rulers are being toppled generally non-violently and Western nations have either stood on the sidelines or actively supported the Arab street against repressive rulers. More importantly, Islamists have come to power via the ballot box in both Tunisia and, in more spectacular fashion, in Egypt. Whilst Zawahiri masterminded the attempted assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia in 1995 and failed, young people in Tahrir Square managed to topple the “Pharaoh” through non-violent means.

Whilst the undermining of al-Qaeda’s narrative together with the death or incarceration of its senior leadership certainly raises questions as to the organisation’s future, it is far from certain that its goal towards the creation of several Islamist states on the way to a caliphate has been abandoned. After all, the victors of both the Tunisian and Egyptian polls were not exactly the young Facebook and Twitter activists desirous of a liberal democratic state. In both countries despite assurances to the contrary from the Islamists, Coptic Christians and their churches are being attacked in Egypt whilst in Tunisia female university students are being physically assaulted when not dressed “appropriately”. Is this Islamism by stealth? One of the Muslim Brotherhood’s early and most prominent ideologues, Sayyid Qutb, did not only influence generations of Muslim Brothers but also the very founders of al-Qaeda itself, especially Ayman al Zawahiri. If two organizations differ on tactics but agree on the same end-goal, does it really make the two organisations that different from each other?

The most recent edition of Newsweek has an interesting piece on how al-Qaeda’s traditional funders from the Persian Gulf are now supporting the Muslim Brothers and the Salafists at the polls. What do they know that we do not? Is this a case of al-Qaeda is Dead, Long Live al-Qaeda?