By Fawaz Gerges
Sunday, December 4, 2005
Amid the continuing bloodshed in Iraq, there is evidence of fresh thinking. The change is, ironically, brought about by Abu Musab Zarqawi himself, whose indiscriminate terrorism appears to have succeeded in uniting people there against his global jihad ideology. Since the hotel bombings in Zarqawi's native Jordan, more and more Sunni Iraqis and Arabs have condemned the terrorist leader's nightmarish vision for their societies -- one that promises further "catastrophic" suicide attacks. Their reaction represents an important turning point, both for the militants for whom this change of outlook represents a new predicament and for the U.S. government, which must recognize that securing Iraq's future stability is not up to foreign military forces but depends on local public opinion.
Now that the holy warriors are waging their struggle in the heart of the Muslim community, or ummah -- in shopping centers, residential compounds, hotels and restaurants -- Muslims are getting a closer look at the terrorists' lack of respect for life, and most don't like what they see. Some of the protesters in Amman carried placards asking simply "Why?" Why would Zarqawi target their country, where so many people had supported his jihad in Iraq? In a survey of more than 1,000 Jordanians conducted for the newspaper al-Ghad, more than 87 percent of the respondents said they now considered al Qaeda a terrorist organization. (In previous surveys in Jordan, al Qaeda had enjoyed approval ratings of upwards of 60 percent.) Other polls in Arab countries confirm this change of opinion.
Particularly promising in the public opinion war is a new willingness among Sunnis in Iraq to defy Zarqawi and participate in the political process. Reassured by a promise from the Shiite-led government that it will establish a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops, and with less than two weeks to go before parliamentary elections, Sunni leaders are urging their community to go to the polls on Dec. 15. That's because a consensus has emerged among the minority Sunnis -- the backbone of the resistance -- that the most effective means of influencing the nascent political order in Baghdad is not following Zarqawi but having adequate political representation. They can now see that their boycott of last January's elections, leaving them with just 17 seats in the 275-member National Assembly, was a disaster, depriving them of representation in the areas that govern the country's petroleum resources.
In addition, Sunni preachers who had previously advised citizens against voting are urging them to participate in the upcoming elections because it is a "sacred duty," as Imam Ehsan of Fallujah said last week. All over Anbar province in Western Iraq, the heart of Sunni resistance, clerics are warning the community against being further marginalized. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq says that registration is up in Sunni Arab areas, as was evident in October's constitutional referendum, when Sunnis, who represent one-fifth of the population, voted in large numbers.
What's more, Zarqawi's al Qaeda received a rebuke last week when the third annual gathering of Iraq's religious scholars (a predominantly Sunni umbrella) called on all resistance fighters to respect Islam's rules of war, which forbid targeting civilians, including foreigners.
Zarqawi is in real trouble because his reckless killing has alienated the very constituency that he claims to be defending against foreign occupiers and local collaborators. Sheik Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the grand imam of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, widely regarded as the most hallowed religious institution in the Islamic world, has called on the international community to put an end to terrorism in Iraq and to punish Zarqawi and his men for killing civilians. In two separate statements, the imprisoned leaders of the Egyptian Islamic Group and Islamic al-Jihad, the two largest jihadist organizations, have also denounced Zarqawi and accused his organization of trying to "annihilate" Iraq's majority Shiites rather than "liberate" Iraq.
Even the senior leadership of the jihadist movement has publicly voiced its anger. Abu Mohammed Maqdisi, Zarqawi's spiritual and ideological mentor who spent three years in prison with him from 1995 to 1999, has said on al-Jazeera TV, "The kidnapping and murder of relief workers and neutral journalists has distorted the image of jihad."
But the most telling rebuke lies in a communication intercepted by U.S. authorities. In July, al Qaeda's ideologue and second-in-command to Osama bin Laden himself, Ayman Zawahiri, dispatched a 6,000-word letter to Zarqawi, chiding him that he risked alienating Arabs. "In the absence of this popular support," Zawahiri wrote, "the jihadist movement would be crushed in the shadows." Anyone who doubts the authenticity of Zawahiri's letter must read his memoir, "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner," smuggled out of Afghanistan and published after Sept. 11, 2001, in which he calls on militants to fully integrate into society and lead the ummah.
Apparently deaf to these warnings, Zarqawi expanded his jihad activities into neighboring states, particularly Jordan. After the suicide bombings in Amman on Nov. 9, which killed 60 people and wounded at least 100, thousands of Jordanians rallied in the streets, shouting that Zarqawi should "burn in hell."
The most telling reactions come from residents of Zarqawi's rundown industrial hometown, Zarqa, who openly expressed anger to journalists that one of their own could massacre civilians -- Arabs and Muslims whose only sin was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The wife of Zarqawi's brother told a reporter for the Arabic daily Al Hayat that she was dismayed by the carnage she had seen on television. A neighbor named Raouf Ahmad Omar, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years, "cursed" his old acquaintance: "From now on, the mosque preacher must speak out and condemn terrorism," he told a reporter. Other residents regarded the suicide bombings as un-Islamic. "Any person who would do such an act must be considered a heretic," said Abu Ibrahim, a 56-year-old merchant standing outside his shop, several hundred yards from Zarqawi's high-walled house, where his relatives still live.
Zarqawi has even been disowned by members of his family, part of the influential Bani Hassan tribe: "We sever links with him until doomsday," one wrote in a Jordanian newspaper. According to tribal traditions, some family members may now seek to kill him.
In Arab and Muslim eyes, the Amman bombings shattered the myth of the holy warriors battling on behalf of the ummah. Contributors to al Qaeda Web forums -- who have been lionizing Zarqawi for months -- expressed the militants' new predicament. One contributor who goes by the title Prime Negotiator lamented the public opinion fallout. "Go to Amman and hear, unfortunately, a lot of people cursing Zarqawi everywhere," wrote Prime Negotiator. "The confidence of the Jordanian people in al Qaeda is zero." In a commentary for al-Jazeera, a leading Islamic activist, Yasir al-Za'atira, said that the very existence of al Qaeda is at stake; the organization's survival depends on whether bin Laden and Zarqawi are prepared to reassess their deeds to be in line with the consensus of the ummah, he added.
Feeling the heat of public opinion throughout the Arab world, Zarqawi's group has taken the rare step of issuing several Internet statements to justify the hotel attacks in Amman: "Let all know that we have struck only after becoming confident that they are centers for launching war on Islam and supporting Crusaders' presence in Iraq and the Arab peninsula and the presence of the Jews on the land of Palestine." In a subsequent statement, Zarqawi underlined that his organization is not targeting fellow Muslims: "We did not and will not think for one moment to target them," he said.
But the statement showed how tone-deaf to public opinion Zarqawi is, as it promised more "catastrophic" attacks. This inability to live outside his own bubble may well prove to be Zarqawi's undoing. The killing of civilians in Jordan, on top of those in Saudi Arabia, Britain, Indonesia and Egypt has triggered an unprecedented torrent of angry and emotional responses in the Arab world. In a moving article titled "I Am Also Zarqawi" published in the pan-Arab nationalist newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, Amjad Nasser, an artist who was born and raised in Zarqa, paints a nostalgic portrait of the town. "I am also Zarqawi like many other ordinary people in Jordan, but we are made of a different fiber than the one which hijacked the name of the city and turned it into a banner of blood and death," he wrote.
The dramatic shift in public opinion does not bode well for Zarqawi's al Qaeda branch in Iraq or bin Laden's parent organization. The social environment that supplied them with recruits and refuge is becoming inhospitable.
The implications for Iraq are clear: Integrating the Sunni Arab community into the political process will quicken Zarqawi's end. That requires a critical reassessment of U.S. strategy in Iraq. Social harmony, not the American military presence, is the most effective weapon against the Zarqawi network. As a radical Islamist told me, the longer the war continues, the longer Zarqawi will be around: "But when the conflict is over, Zarqawi cannot survive. He serves no other value to the movement," said this former jihadist leader.
The Bush administration must convince Iraqis and Muslims that U.S. troops will come home sooner, not later, and set a realistic timetable for military withdrawal. Zarqawi's declining popularity does not mean that Muslims are more accepting of the U.S. military presence. Iraq continues to be a recruiting ground for militant jihadist causes. But once Sunni Iraqis are fully brought into the new political order in Baghdad, they will find it in their own interests, as they have already promised, to defeat the terrorists in their midst. It remains up to President Bush to recognize the significance of Islamic and Arabic shifting hearts and extract his forces from Iraq's shifting sands.
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Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, is the author most recently of "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global" (Cambridge), which includes research on the insurgents in Iraq.