Puritans verses pragmatists divide global jihadism

A “civil war” being fought between “global jihadis is intensifying,” writes Mohammad Hafez in the CTC Sentinel (September, 2020), the newsletter of the Combatting Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. While al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State share enemies and ideological commitments, these movements have fragmented under the stress of conflict and territorial retreat. “Rather than close ranks, these salafi-jihadis have accelerated their fratricidal wars in West Africa, Yemen, and Afghanistan. They have turned their attention away from near and far enemies and instead prioritized fighting the nearest enemy of all—each other,” Hafez writes. He contrasts the split between these two factions as being the Islamic State’s puritanical vision of jihadism versus the more pragmatic and populist al-Qa`ida. A recent Yemen-based IS documentary reported five fundamental disagreements emerging between the two movements over establishing an Islamic state, applying Islamic law, rejecting populism, embracing sectarianism, and defending puritanism.

Hafez writes that two issues have become the most divisive: that of collective takfir (the act of Muslims declaring other Muslims to be infidels) and its “byproduct of mass civilian atrocities and sectarian targeting.” The second issue involves the Islamic states and the application of strict sharia governance within those states. The Islamic State’s puritanism entails applying what it sees as Islamic law, expunging ritualistic “innovations,” and eschewing alliances with “apostate” parties or states. Such puritanism condemns al-Queda for tolerating public blasphemy and working within the confines of civil democratic states, and such “compromising” groups as the Muslim Brotherhood (for cooperating with Christians in Egypt) and the Taliban. Hafez adds that in recent years, the Islamic State has been accusing al-Qa`ida of populist Islamism “that seeks to win the hearts and minds of Muslims rather than mold them into believers through the strict application of ‘Islamic’ law.” These factional conflicts serve to weaken jihadism as members waste their resources as they fight each as well as encourage defections. At the same time, the West is now facing two jihadist movements rather than one. They span several regions and that such rivalry may lead them to outbid each other in engaging in violence “to capture a greater share of media coverage, recruits, and financing.”

(CTC Sentinel, https://ctc.usma.edu/thecrisis-within-jihadism-the-islamic-states-puritanism-vsal-qaidas-populism/)