On Ahrar al-Sham and Elitism

A follow-on note on my War on the Rocks piece today about Ahrar al-Sham deputy leader Ali al-Omar’s recent lecture, and what it means for how Ahrar presents and understands itself:

Among my arguments, I said that “Al-Omar uses most of his lecture to resist the purism and elitism of Salafi-jihadism.” Hassan Hassan responded to the piece with several points, including this:

1. Sam argues Ahrar al-Sham rejects the “purism and elitism” of Salafi-jihadism. The official himself argues in favour of elitism in the talk itself, not sure why Sam overlooked that. The official even mentions the word “elite”, it is there in the talk — not to speak about the official’s frequent arrogant references about how Syrian society has been absent from true Islam for several decades and that none of the “pious” was ever allowed to preach inside Syria. As to “purism”, purism is a spectrum within Salafi-jihadism which is, again, fluid not static. Whether Ahrar al-Sham is purist or less purist than ISIS isn’t a valid argument in this context.

Yes, of course al-Omar uses the word “elite,” just as he mentions the Taliban. But the context is relevant, if you want to understand his intent and his broader message.

The relevant section (43:59-48:07) is translated and transcribed below. In it, al-Omar says that Ahrar is “between the elite and populism,” although he also makes clear that he regards Ahrar as the elite or vanguard that ought to lead the mass rebellion.

But if you read the entire passage – and this is what I was referring to with Salafi-jihadism’s “purism and elitism” – it’s clear that al-Omar is arguing against jihadists’ narrow exclusivity, their disdain and hostility for other factions that don’t satisfy their ideological litmus test. Al-Omar is saying that jihadists’ ultra-selectivity about who has an appropriately pure doctrine is unreasonable and impracticable. Instead, al-Omar is arguing that Ahrar has made the sound choice by allying itself with the Muslim rebel mainstream – including those who may not be perfectly devout – in the service of “اصطفاف سني شامل (rallying Sunnis in their entirety).”

This passage actually comes immediately before al-Omar’s reference to the Taliban, which, again, is not used to offer a blanket endorsement of the Taliban. Rather, al-Omar employs the example of the Taliban make a similar point, arguing in favor of setting aside pure creedal purity in favor of a more broad-based, inclusive model.

“It’s absolutely important that people realize – and particularly those bearing this project, which we’re talking about – that our battle today is the battle of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah, and I said before. Therefore, we’re looking to rally Sunnis in their entirety. We don’t pay attention to minor details – this isn’t the time. So what do we mean by that? Right now my higher goal is toppling the regime – that’s an intermediate goal, you could say. What you have is that the Rafidhah (derog., Shi’ites) and those who back them have closed ranks. The Rafidhah, from all over the world, fight us now. With them are the Nuseiriyyah (derog., Alawites) here, despite the differences in their creeds. The Russian atheists have also intervened on their behalf in the battle. So there’s a closing of ranks. It’s not possible to face this front line, this march, these parties without Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah also closing ranks. All of them. So we don’t get into minor things that are less than that. All of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah are targeted. So we all need to fight to defend Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah.

“The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘May you conquer Constantinople. And how great will be its emir, and how great that army will be.’ Muhammad al-Fatih, Muhammad II, who conquered Constantinople – and who the Prophet, peace be upon him, praised – was Maturidi in his creed. His creed was Maturidi. In terms of his school of Islam, he was Hanafi, and his creed was Maturidi. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘And how great will be its emir, and how great that army will be.’ So all the types of Muslims fought with him, Muhammad al-Fatih. Salahaddin Ayyoubi was Ash’ari. He was Ash’ari. He conquered al-Quds – we all sing his praises, we all reference Salahaddin Ayyoubi in books, sermons and lectures, and so on. And he was Ash’ari. And he conquered al-Quds, and all the scholars fought alongside him. All the scholars – the Salafis, the Soufis – under the idea of fighting as the Islamic nation, Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah. These models realized victory. Show me one model that realized victory and limited itself to one segment among the different segments of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah.

“The principle is that Ahrar is between the elite and populism, you could say. Between the elite and populism. We see that the entirety of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah need to be involved, with the elite leading the way – those with correct approaches, and with straight thinking. But I asked you before: Is it better for me to fight under someone whose religion I don’t think is complete, or who isn’t entirely devout, or is it better for him to fight under my banner? Which is better? Not to recommend myself, I mean, but for someone who views himself as having the right approach. Which is better? For him to fight under someone who isn’t that devout, or for the less devout man to fight under him?” [Audience member: The second option.] “Of course, the second option. There’s no doubt in that. When someone less devout fights under someone who’s more devout, then the scale is balanced. But now, when Ahrar al-Sham implemented that, critics pounced on it, even though – as I said before – Salah al-Din al-Ayyoubi, Muhammad al-Fateh and lots of other role models were Ash’aris, God have mercy on them. And they led these conquests, and they were from Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah.”

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