Islamist terror: Is this the beginning of its end?



Al-Qaeda’s number two Ayman Al-Zawahiri had been violently plotting to overthrow Egypt’s regime for three decades but peaceful young men and women managed to pull it off in just 18 days in the end.

A political tsunami sweeping Arab lands appears to be gradually turning Islam on its head, mutating some dominant strands of Islamism’s DNA. Theologically, Islam remains ever so pristine; sociologically restive and churning.

This Islam is about being connected, not cut off; about Facebook, not face-off; and above all democracy, not despotism.

Toppling authoritarian regimes that aligned themselves with the West was until recently an al-Qaeda obsession. Now, it has been pushed to the sidelines in this, having ceded ground to millions of middle-class Muslims beginning to take things in their own hands.

So, what do these popular uprisings — in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and beyond – tell us where Islam is headed? I feel a substitute for violent jihad has been found; a new Islamic idiom has gained currency and a new method to confront challenges has been discovered.

The protestors in Tahrir Square could have aligned with al-Qaeda for a common cause. They didn’t.

Yet, the movements in the Middle-east aren’t completely secular. Many Islamists have pitched their tents in these civil movements. As a Nato military commander put it recently: “flickers of al-Qaeda in Libya“.

But even so, that is more good news, than bad. For one, it suggests that Islamists have been forced to hitch a ride on civilian-backed movements. Their numbers and influence appear small. Two, this could well make it apparent to the Islamists that jihadi terror isn’t the only way out.

The Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – the most organised opposition in much of the Arab landscape — has been on a de-radicalisation spree, publicly renouncing violence, talking of installing women’s rights and not imposing blanket sharia.

Last week, Egypt’s transitional constitutional referendum went quite how the Brothers wanted.

As the Muslim Brotherhood prepares to play its political innings, it has reached out to Egypt’s minorities, particularly the Coptic Christian minority that has long suffered at the hands of Islamists. This week, its website carried pictures of Brothers visiting churches. Last month, the Brotherhood called for dialogue with Christians, who make up 10% of Egypt’s population.

But the Copts still don’t feel confident. With good reasons. Throughout 2010, they faced many attacks, including in southern Egypt, where seven people were shot after a Coptic New-Year’s-eve midnight mass on 7 January. It is believed that the attack was to avenge the rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian. In December 2010, gunmen killed 25 and injured 100 Coptic Christians in Alexandria. The Islamists in Egypt, then, must send strong reassuring signals on the ground.

Western reports suggest Turkey is fast replacing Iran as a model Muslim state. Functional Muslim democracies, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, are being eyed.

Theocracy-based regimes are becoming passé and with it, the fad for jihad could diminish. Religion will continue to play a role in Arab Muslims’ lives. Most Europeans are a devout bunch too. But the choice this time will increasingly be about being Islamic, rather being Islamist.

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