Reconsidering jehad: the view from within

By Pakinam Amer, DPA

Cairo : Inside Egyptian prisons, a profound change has been taking place around the Islamic ideology of jehad. Top militant leaders serving long sentences have been given the chance to gain their freedom by reneging on their previous ideas of establishing Islamist societies by violent means.

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Kamal Habib is an example of one such man who made the transition.

A former member of Egyptian Jihad (also known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad), Habib served a 10-year prison sentence in connection with the assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat by that group.

Fawaz Gergis, a university professor and an authority on Islamic militancy and Jihadist groups, speaks of Habib in his book "Journey of the Jihadist".

"Habib was a key figure in the first generation of Muslim militants, who in the 1970s had planted the seeds of jihad throughout Muslim lands," Gergis said.

"He graduated from Cairo University in 1979 at the top of his class, with a degree in political science. Charismatic and ambitious, he could have trained to become an academic. But neither money nor the allure of ascending the ladder in jahili (non-Islamic or "pagan") institutions appealed to him," Gergis added.

Of his reasons for joining the Egyptian Jihad group, Habib told DPA that "most Egyptians wanted to get rid of Sadat".

Sadat, who was the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel, was also known for his government's oppressive domestic policies.

"At the beginning, Islamists didn't advocate violence against individuals, that happened much later, in the 1990s, when retaliation by killing police officers and other violent acts took place," Habib said.

Many experts, including Islamists, have argued explicitly and implicitly that torture was behind much of the so-called prison revisions of the extremists in the al-Jamaa al-Islamiya (The Islamic Group) and Egyptian Jehad groups.

During a 2001 interview with the US broadcaster CNN, Habib had claimed severe torture in Egyptian prisons was something everyone knew about. "I prefer not to talk about it. But back then, it was on a very large scale," he said.

One of the victims of torture after the Sadat assassination was Ayman al-Zawahiri, now second-in-command of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Addressing the press in 1983 al-Zawahiri said about his three-year jail term as one of the 300 people tried for involvement in the Sadat case: "They whipped us with electric cables, they shocked us with electricity, and they used their wild dogs."

Habib denied that the torture of the early days in prison had anything to do with this revision. Revisionism, he said, "was something that was growing inside me, as a result of thinking, reading and talking to other people".

Habib eventually used his term in jail to write a doctoral thesis in political science and revise much of his previous ideas.

When asked about the evidence used to advocate then reject violence, Habib said his sources – Sharia (Islamic law) and the Quran – did not change, only the interpretation did.

"This has to do with one's vision and mental state at a given time. I read differently into Islam and the Quran while reviewing the experience. The understanding was different," said Habib.

The result was a book he published in the early 2000's titled The Islamist Movement from Confrontation to Revision.

But despite revising many of his earlier beliefs, Habib continues to blame the West, saying the conditioning of the country by Western imperialism ultimately produced the violence of the 1990s.

"The prevailing social and political context directed us to seek change in that way, so that we could drive out the occupiers of our homeland," he said, explaining how militant Islamists like himself and his fellow prisoners felt.

Habib unapologetically justifies the position of the top two Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, arguing that it was the environment they lived under that guided their steps toward fundamentalism.

"If Western policies change," Habib said, "then perhaps these forms of violence and confrontation will take a different turn – the concept of the clash of civilizations, of demonizing Islam. All this has created supporters for Bin Laden's and al-Zawahiri's project across the Muslim World."

For Habib, the terrorists are driven by feelings shared by many Muslims: the lack of hope of a better future, be it for Muslims as a "nation" or as individuals.

"They see the injustice done to them, and perceive their religion and identity as being threatened. This is the main source of their fear and anger. These people were not born violent."