Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Charismatic, Infallible Jihadi Fighter...

Max Weber
"Prophet of Charisma"
(Image from Wikipedia)

Dr. E. Alshech, of MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute), has written an intriguing article for Inquiry & Analysis (Nr. 446, June 2008): "The Emergence of the 'Infallible Jihad Fighter': The Salafi Jihadists' Quest for Religious Legitimacy" (pdf). Here's the "Abstract":
In recent years, the Salafi movement has seen the emergence of a new conception of, and basis for, religious authority. In the past, religious authority within this movement stemmed primarily from the scholarly credentials and reputation of the individual. This changed with the advent of a new group, namely the jihadi Salafi camp. Characterized by an extremist militant orientation, this group condoned the 9/11 attacks as well as acts of terrorism within Saudi Arabia itself (including the 2003 bombing in Riyadh) -- a stance which was widely condemned by the non-jihadi Salafi scholars. Though the members of this movement could not compete with the traditional Salafi scholars in erudition or devoutness, they nevertheless wished to gain religious authority. Consequently, they sought a new basis for religious authority that would include them within its scope.

To this end, the jihadists began promoting the idea that charisma -- a personal trait that endows one with extraordinary and even supernatural qualities -- was also a basis for authority on religious and social matters. Moreover, the jihadists modified the prevailing concept of religious authority by presenting the mujahideen as infallible (ma'sumin) -- a quality which, in the Sunni Islamic tradition, is generally attributed only to the prophets. By describing the mujahideen as infallible, the jihadi Salafis removed them from the earthly realm of learning and erudition -- a sphere monopolized by the traditional Salafi scholars -- and elevated them to the level of individuals blessed with supernatural spiritual powers. Characterized thus, the mujahideen not only become objects of admiration, but can claim socio-religious legitimacy despite the scholars' condemnation of their ideology and activities. Furthermore, they can advance innovative legal arguments to justify their jihad.

Ironically, however, this notion of charisma-based authority has also become a source of friction within the jihadi movement, which undermines its unity and in fact threatens to plunge it into anarchy.
Alshech is presenting a Weberian analysis of the mujahideen's authority, and since charisma outside of institutions is always disruptive, then Islam's decentralized -- some might say 'scattered' -- system of authority threatens to grow even less congenial for those who might wish to engage in interreligious dialogue. This development, should Alshech be right, is both fascinating and troubling -- for infidels and for Muslims.

I'd get into this more deeply, but I got in late this evening after long political discussions with political philosopher Dan Ernst, and tomorrow must begin early with paper-grading, so perhaps I'll return to this topic Sunday morning.

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