Initiative to Stop the Violence
by al-gamāʿah al-islāmīyah
translated by sherman jackson
yale, 184 pages, $85
In the 1970s, the radical Islamist organization al-Gamāʿah al-Islāmiyah (Islamic Group) stormed onto the scene in Egypt, calling for Egyptians to return to the correct form of Islam by waging jihad and applying Shari’a. The Gamāʿah quickly resorted to violence, confronting the Egyptian state and terrifying Egyptian society. In 1981 it orchestrated the assassination of Egypt’s president Anwar al-Sadat, not only because they viewed him as the apostate leader of an apostate state, but also because he dared to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
Fifteen years later, on April 18, 1996, Gamāʿah murdered eighteen tourists in an attack on a hotel near the pyramids of Giza. The attacks were deliberately aimed at Egypt’s main source of national income, tourism, in order to destabilize the Egyptian economy and government. Gamāʿah also targeted Egypt’s Coptic Christians, especially in the southern parts of Egypt, where it had its strong radical roots—kidnapping them, looting their businesses, and destroying their churches.
However, on July 5, 1997, the Gamāʿah did something extraordinary in the history of radical Islam. It issued “Initiative to Stop the Violence,” a formal statement declaring its renunciation of all violence. The statement was signed by six influential imprisoned leaders of the Gamāʿah, and announced by one of its members during his trial in a military court. The Gamāʿah’s spiritual leader and renowned amīr, ʿUmar ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (currently serving a life sentence in the United States for his role in the World Trade Center attack in 1993), called on his Muslim brethren to endorse and follow it.
Four months later, a faction of the group that viewed the initiative as an unacceptable compromise orchestrated the murder of fifty-eight tourists who were visiting the Temple of Hatshepsut at Luxor, but the Gamāʿah’s main leaders continued to affirm nonviolence, issuing manifestos, tracts, and statements.
As Sherman Jackson notes in an introductory essay to his translation of the statement into English, Gamāʿah’s conviction was that “things had degenerated to the point that it was the exception rather than the rule that Gamāʿah violence was animated or executed on the basis of sharī’ah—or even Gamāʿah—principles themselves.” As a political tool, terrorism is difficult to keep within any bounds—including religious ones. In the end, the Gamāʿah agreed that “Jihad against the Egyptian state is not Islamically sanctioned.”
This new consensus hardly constituted a full acceptance of liberal ideals. When it came to the troubled question of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, the initiative did not reject the principle of forcing them to pay the religious tax of the jizya but simply declared all decisions about it “the exclusive preserve of the state.” As Jackson notes, “this inadequate handling will almost certainly detract more from than it adds to any confidence the Gamāʿah might hope to inspire among Coptic Christians.”
In fact, the Gamāʿah’s change was never as thorough as one might have hoped. After the toppling of Mubarak, key Gamāʿah members such as Ṭāriq al-Zumar and ʿĀṣim ʿAbd al-Mājid (who signed the initiative) supported the Muslim Brotherhood regime under President Morsi. Islamist preachers warned Egyptians against revolting “against Allah and his sharīʿa,”—represented, of course, by Morsi—and began labeling the Copts as “crusaders,” threatening repercussions if they joined demonstrations against Morsi. In April 2013, the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo was brutally attacked. Morsi’s government failed to defend the Copts, or even to condemn this unprecedented violence. In August 2013, the world witnessed the complete burning and destruction of various Bible Society bookshops in Upper Egypt, Assiut, and Minia, and of fifty-two churches, all in apparent reprisal for the Copts’ role in toppling Morsi. In November 2014, ʿĀṣim ʿAbd al-Mājid, a Gamāʿah Council member who signed the initiative, continued to threaten Egyptians, particularly Christians, in response to what he called an illegitimate coup.
Can Islamists reject violence? Can they accept coexisting with non-Muslims in a contemporary multireligious context? The answers to these questions are entirely in the hands of Muslims. As Jackson argues, Muslims who seek nonviolence, mutual respect, and multireligious coexistence can ground their arguments “in the sources and tradition of Islam in a manner suggestive of genuine ideological change.”
Political pressure on Islamist groups can achieve very little in the long run if the change of Muslim ideology is not genuine. Non-Muslims can do nothing to change the so-called Muslim “jurisprudence of violence.” If the Muslim community itself fails to counter the violent argument of Islamists, there can be no hope of extinguishing those ideologies altogether, and the cycle of violence will continue.
Ayman S. Ibrahim, a post-doctoral fellow of Middle Eastern History, holds a Ph.D. from Fuller Graduate Schools, California.