Suddenly, Al-Qaida feels upstaged. After months of waging a war of words with the Shiite Hezbollah, and after years of fighting a real war in Iraq against the very sect that Hezbollah represents, Al-Qaida has found itself a bit player in a drama that is capturing imaginations in the Middle East.
As the bruised Israeli army grudgingly admits that Hezbollah is putting up a much tougher fight than it expected in Lebanon, the group is becoming a regional icon. It is so popular right now that even as some Sunnis and Shiites kill each other daily in Iraq and even as Arab leaders express fears of growing Shiite power in the region, much of the Arab public — Sunni, Shiite and secular — and some Sunni leaders have announced support for Hezbollah.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, one of the strongest Sunni organizations in the Arab world, last week rejected a fatwa by a Saudi religious authority that prohibited helping Hezbollah. And the Sunni head of the Arab Lawyers Union said: “If Hezbollah is Shiite, if the struggle is Shiite, then we are all Shiite.”
It is, therefore, no surprise that Al-Qaida’s powerful second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, tried Thursday to get in on the act. In a video, Zawahiri called for Muslims to join in a holy war against Israel. He is not likely to get much attention.
What was especially telling in Zawahiri’s speech was that religious puritanism and sectarianism were no longer topics; instead he called on “all the weak” on earth to unite against “injustice.” Certainly, one reason for this shift was the apparent success of Hezbollah, which Sunni Al-Qaida had previously disdained for practicing a form of Islam it considers heretical. But there is another reason the group is sounding more inclusive: Although it is rarely talked about, in the nearly five years since Sept. 11, Al-Qaida’s agenda has failed to capture many hearts and minds in the Arab world, even as anti-Americanism has grown.
In fact, last week’s images were striking: At large demonstrations in the Arab world, many people were carrying pictures of Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, celebrating him as a hero in ways that Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden never has been.
To be sure, Al-Qaida’s threat remains significant, and the war in Iraq has proven a great recruiting tool. It’s also clear that many Muslims opposed to the U.S. war in Iraq support the insurgency there, led in part by Al-Qaida. Still, the terrorist group has failed in its attempts to convince the region to embrace its worldview, which envisions a Taliban-like fanatical regime that transcends state boundaries and rules over Muslims worldwide.
The group hasn’t given up on its original goal; Zawahiri asked Muslims to fight in Lebanon and Gaza until Islam reigns from Spain to Iraq. But this time he appeared to welcome Shiites into the fight, despite the fact that Al-Qaida operatives in Iraq continue to kill Shiites.
Al-Qaida’s failure thus far to win many converts to its vision may seem to be paradoxical given recent trends. Polls done a year after the Iraq war started indicated that a plurality of Arabs in several states identified themselves as Muslims first rather than as citizens of a particular country. Over the past two years, meanwhile, Islamist parties in the Arab world scored big successes: the electoral victory of the Palestinian Hamas, the strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian elections, the victory of Islamist parties in Iraq, Hezbollah’s success in winning seats in the legislature and Cabinet in Lebanon, and the recent rise in the power of Islamists in Somalia.
But a closer look at the strained relations between Al-Qaida and those newly empowered Islamist groups and a review of more recent polls provide evidence that neither Muslims’ anger at the United States nor their support for more-religious governments equals approval for a super-Muslim state ready to do battle with the West or for a puritanical Taliban-like political order.
First the polls. Many Arabs probably identified themselves as Muslims first after the fall of Baghdad in part because the war on terrorism and the Iraq war were seen to be aimed at weakening the Muslim world, not because they wanted to join together under one government with other Muslims or because they embraced Al-Qaida.
A poll I conducted last year with Zogby International in six Arab countries supported that notion. Although many said they wanted religion to play a larger role in politics and wanted their governments replaced, they appeared to be thinking more locally than globally. The majority of people in those countries — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates — said they want their government to do what’s good for its citizens, not what’s good for Muslims broadly.
In addition, last year’s survey also showed a decline in the number of people who identify themselves as Muslims first and a rise in the number of those identifying with their state. In a poll Zogby and I conducted in 2004, a plurality of people identified themselves as Muslims first in four of six countries where we polled; in 2005, a plurality of people in four of the six countries identified themselves as citizens of their countries first.
We don’t know for sure why the shift occurred, but it seems likely that people were terrified by both the anarchy that followed the dissolution of the Iraqi state and by the brutal tactics of Al-Qaida in Iraq under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has since been killed by U.S. forces. Fellow Muslims may have rooted for Zarqawi to defeat the United States, but they probably could not envision his ruling over their children.
Even Al-Qaida’s top leadership may have decided that Zarqawi was hurting the public’s perception of the group. In a letter last summer that was never authenticated, Zawahiri advised Zarqawi and his devout Sunni supporters that the public beheadings and large-scale killings of Shiites would amount to “action that the masses do not understand or approve.”
Last year’s poll also directly shows little support for Al-Qaida’s global goals. When asked what aspects of Al-Qaida they sympathized with most, if any, only 6 percent of Arabs polled identified its advocacy of a puritanical Islamic state, while 7 percent identified its methods. (A plurality identified Al-Qaida’s fight with the United States as the strongest aspect.) This trend was confirmed in a recent Pew Global Attitudes Project poll, which showed that confidence in bin Laden has eroded in several Muslim countries in recent years — in some cases dramatically.
Moreover, if Al-Qaida’s imagined world is Taliban-like and virulently anti-Western, the vision is not shared by most in the Arab world. A majority of Arabs surveyed believe that women should have the right to work outside the home, either always or when economically needed, according to my 2005 poll. The vast majority identify Western European countries and even the United States, not Muslim Pakistan, as places where they want to live or have a family member study.
There is also increasing evidence that the recent political successes of Islamists in the Arab world have been primarily local phenomena — not an embrace of Al-Qaida’s agenda. In fact, Al-Qaida has gotten a chilly reception from several of the groups.
When Somalia’s Islamists captured Mogadishu in June, bin Laden issued an audiotape that gave advice, including urging them to resist the deployment of foreign troops there. But the Somalis didn’t appear to want his counsel. The former leader of the Islamists there, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, said, “Osama bin Laden is expressing his views like any other international figure. We are not concerned about it.”
When Sunni Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in January, Arab headlines highlighted criticism by Zawahiri. The powerful Al-Qaida leader accused Hamas of adopting “secularist” rules by participating in an election that was an indirect offshoot of the Oslo Accords, which Al-Qaida deems illegitimate. Hamas’ reaction was fast and strong. Representatives advised Al-Qaida to stay out, saying that Hamas was focused on local issues and that its vision of Islam is different.
Al-Qaida’s relations with Hezbollah also have been troubled. Even before the current crisis, Hezbollah was popular in the Sunni Arab world, despite being Shiite, because of the widely held perception that its attacks drove Israel out of Lebanon several years ago. Despite that background, or maybe partly because of it, Zarqawi — who led a bloody war against Iraq’s Shiites — criticized the organization and claimed that it was shielding Israel from attacks by preventing his organization from establishing bases there. In the past week, some Arab commentators have pointedly noted that Hezbollah has been far more effective, with a broader grass-roots base, than Al-Qaida has been.
All of this, of course, does not diminish the grave danger that Al-Qaida continues to pose to the United States and its allies, nor does it suggest that the terrorist group won’t continue to attract many recruits who embrace its agenda. In fact, a new report by the British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee finds that the threat of terrorism has increased as a consequence of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Americans should also be troubled that most Arabs surveyed now see the United States as one of the greatest threats to them (second only to Israel), in large part because of the Iraq war and the deep mistrust of U.S. intentions there, according to my poll with Zogby. In that sense, some have wanted to see the United States fail even more than they have wanted to see Iraq succeed; they worry about Iran, but they will root for it against Washington; and they fear Al-Qaida’s world, but hope the group gives America a black eye.
This suggests that the current American challenge in the region is how to help shape outcomes, without making them seem part of an American imperial design. Yet the statements by the Bush administration in the first two weeks of the current crisis have played directly into regional fears. The reluctance to call for a quick cease-fire despite the massive damage and civilian casualties and statements about the suffering as being “the birth pangs of a new Middle East” have made many in the region conclude that the Lebanon war is America’s war.
Seen from this perspective, Al-Qaida’s failure does not translate into an American success.
On March 17, Vanda Felbab-Brown joins the Asia Scotland Institute for a discussion on “Blood, Metal and Dust: How Victory Turned into Defeat in Afghanistan & Iraq.”