The jihadists, like most observers of the Middle East, had not anticipated that “people power” could topple Tunisia’s Zein al-`Abidin bin `Ali, let alone Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. If, in addition, the Middle East “is being battered by a perfect storm of powerful trends,” and if “leaders in the region may be able to hold back the tide for a little while, but not for long,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked, then the jihadists may have to reconsider whether their narrative remains relevant or indeed whether their raison d’être is justified. In the words of Brynjar Lia, jihadism may lose “one of its main ideological selling points: that only armed struggle can bring down the regimes in the region.”[1]

This article explores the extent to which jihadists can stay relevant in view of the gale-force winds of change blowing through the region.

The Jihadists’ Case in Perspective
The corrupt politics of the Middle East during the past 30 years has done more to advance the focal argument of jihadism than the jihadists could ever have accomplished on their own. Thus, notwithstanding the impossibility of ever achieving their idealistic goals, jihadist ideologues and leaders relied on stating the obvious to make their case: neither would the dictators who rule the Arab world ever embrace genuine reform, nor would the democratic regimes in the West led by the United States and its allies want such reforms because their interests are best served by dictators in power. Jihad, the jihadists repeatedly argue, is the only way out of this cul de sac.

In many respects, the jihadists’ modern articulation of individualized jihad (the belief that jihad is the individual duty, fard `ayn, of each Muslim) is designed to achieve nothing short of a revolution on a global scale. This principle of individualized jihad undermines all forms of political, religious and even parental authorities.[2] This revolutionary understanding of jihad gained momentum through the various wars in which the United States and its allies have fought and are still fighting on the territories of Muslim-majority states. Such wars have unwittingly advanced the narrative of the jihadists and led some Muslims to embrace the path of jihad, thus giving jihadism an international profile much bigger than the sum of its parts. Even Usama bin Ladin acknowledged that the jihadists could not take full credit for their successes and that the policies of the United States are equally instrumental in the jihadists’ influence. As stated by Bin Ladin, “those who say that al-Qa`ida has won against the administration in the White House or that the administration has lost in this war have not been precise, because when one scrutinizes the results, one cannot say that al-Qa`ida is the sole factor in achieving those spectacular gains. Rather, the policy of the White House that demands the opening of war fronts to keep busy their various corporations—whether they be working in the field of arms or oil or reconstruction—has helped al-Qa`ida to achieve these enormous results.”[3]

The Jihadists’ Dilemma
What if non-violence were perceived to be the solution? What if the United States were increasingly perceived to be on the side of the Muslim people, not their dictators? Would defensive jihad (jihad al-daf`) against the United States (far enemy) and its “apostate agents” (near enemy) still carry a sense of legitimacy? It is to be remembered that Ayman al-Zawahiri’s jihadist career began by arguing that “the road to Jerusalem passes through Cairo,” by which he meant that defeating the Egyptian regime through jihad should take precedence against fighting Israel and the United States.[4]

Before elaborating on the consequences of such developments, it is important to recognize that the flame of jihad has plenty of fuel before it burns itself out. Not only must Tunisia and Egypt succeed in translating their respective revolutions into meaningful political change, but the entire Middle East must follow suit, including a permanent and fair resolution to the Palestinian problem. It should also not be forgotten that the jihadists’ narrative is not limited to highlighting the political grievances endemic to the Middle East, but it also draws on grievances resulting from conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, Mindanao, Somalia and beyond.

Despite these enormous obstacles that must be overcome before the jihadists’ narrative ceases to be purposeful, recent events in Tunisia and Egypt must give pause to jihadist leaders on at least two fronts. The first has a bearing not necessarily on jihadists in the fold, but on aspiring jihadists who, until two months ago, were contemplating joining the caravan of jihad. It is highly probable that these aspiring jihadists are reviewing their choices and considering whether their energy is more fruitfully directed to the “Tahrir” in their home countries rather than risking the uncertainties of joining jihad in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Perhaps a more critical blow for the jihadists concerns the limitations their ideology imposes on any involvement they might wish to have in this seemingly new era of political and leaderless actors who are weary of the burdens of ideologies. Central to jihadist ideology is the negation of the political process because it is compromised by positive law (qawanin wad`iyya). Jihadist ideologues and leaders are all in agreement that man-made laws represent an assault on God’s Law and compromise the profession of divine unity (tawhid), the cornerstone on which it is incumbent upon jihadists to unite. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, for example, holds that constitutions and positive law are the vilest forms of tawaghit.[5] The term taghut literally means “idol”; in Islamic parlance it also means “tyranny,” as in the case of the pharaoh in ancient Egypt who is described in the Qur’an as having governed with excessive hardship because his source of governance was not God’s Law. Similarly, Ayman al-Zawahiri repeatedly argued in unequivocal terms that rulers in Muslim countries whose source of governance relies on positive law are to be declared apostates, and “it is the duty of Muslims to rebel against them, fight against them and oust them.”[6]

The jihadists’ exclusively religious paradigm does not recognize the legitimacy of the political establishment that monopolizes the legitimate use of physical force and thus denies them their individualized jihad. It stands to reason that the jihadization of politics that once carried an aura of plausibility when all other political forms of struggle seemed either stalled or futile is going to be subjected to sharp scrutiny. The events in Tunisia and Egypt are more than perplexing for the jihadists: on the one hand, it is a dream come true, the very dream that set them on the path of jihad in the first place; on the other hand, they are not active players in the realization of this dream, nor can they be, so long as they stick to their jihadist principles. While the jihadists cannot but reject the legitimacy of positive law and the democratic process, the Egyptians and Tunisians are demanding nothing less. This irony manifests itself in the statements recently released on jihadist forums in support of the Tunisian and Egyptian protestors, where it is obvious to observers of jihadism that these statements are implicitly lamenting the role of the jihadists as mere spectators.[7]

The Jihadists’ Future Relevance
The emerging political momentum demonstrates that the jihadists’ jihad represents an attempt at revolution by  a few while the peaceful revolt of the Tunisian and Egyptian people represents the revolution by the many. In view of the stifling political environment that reigned in the Middle East during the past 30 years, the jihadists are entitled to claim that their actions were shaping history, but they failed to convince the majority of Muslims to share their vision. The Tunisians and Egyptians, on the other hand, took the course of history into their own hands without availing themselves of the services of the jihadists. There is a lot riding on the success of the transition of these revolutions into functioning democracies. Failing that, jihadism will be given a longer lease on life if the jihadists are able to say: “we told you so, plus ça change plus c’est la même chose!”

Nelly Lahoud is Associate Professor at the Combating Terrorism Center in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point.

[1] Brynjar Lia, “Jihadis Debate Egypt (1),”, February 4, 2011.

[2] Nelly Lahoud, “The Strengths and Weaknesses of Jihadist Ideology,” CTC Sentinel 3:10 (2010).

[3] A transcript of Usama bin Ladin’s speech in English is available at

[4] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Al-Tariq ila al-Quds yamurru ‘abra al-Qahira,” available at

[5] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Kashf al-Niqab ‘an Shari’at al-Ghab, p. 18.

[6] Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Hisad al-Murr, p. 26.

[7] and Brynjar Lia’s postings on conveniently assembled many of these statements.

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