Seven years after September 11, the Muslim world is engaged in a fierce theological and ideological debate about the institution of jihad and the legitimate use of force. Many in the West, however, have overlooked the significance of recent challenges to al Qa'eda's ideology, specifically to its attempts to justify the killing of innocents as jihad.
Although this debate over the meaning and applicability of jihad raged among Muslims immediately after September 11, it has only recently reached critical mass within the Muslim world: an overwhelming majority of Muslims reject gratuitous violence and the killing of non-combatants. A cultural revolution has occurred within Islam, with pivotal Muslim scholars, clerics, civil society leaders and even former militants stressing the ethical and moral foundations of the institution of jihad.
As in the past, the overwhelming majority of Muslims define jihad, as the Pakistani intellectual Fazlur Rahman writes, as the struggle to establish a "just moral-social order". In personal terms, religious Muslims know jihad as the quest to lead an ethical, virtuous and moral life, fighting injustice and oppression and defending Islam.
Islamic tradition and doctrine require that recourse to violence fulfils certain theological conditions. First, violence must not be pre-emptive; second, violence must be sanctioned by a state or religious authority; and third, politically-orientated violence must not target civilians, except under extreme conditions.
Bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri and their lieutenants underestimated both the intelligence of Muslims and more importantly, the commitment of Muslims to fundamental Islamic precepts of morality, justice, and equality based on the Quran and the model of the Prophet Mohammed.
Al Qa'eda's gruesome attacks on civilians, Western and Muslim, coupled with the mayhem they wrought, have rightly relegated al Qa'eda to the margins of Islamic society, with few allies and insecure sanctuaries. The social and political space that may have once provided refuge for al Qa'eda or its affiliates has shrunk almost to nothing, with Muslims chasing such groups away in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere.
Mainstream and politically radicalised clerics alike have condemned al Qa'eda's violence as un-Islamic, illegitimate and ideologically driven. These include: Hassan al Turabi, the head of the People's Congress in Sudan (who harboured bin Laden in the early 1990s); Sayyid Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual founding father of Hizbollah; Yusuf al Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian-born conservative cleric now based in Qatar; Salman al Odeh, one of bin Laden"s former prominent Saudi mentors; and Sayyid Imam al Sharif, known as Dr. Fadl, the former mufti of al Qa'eda and author of its ideological constitution.
The diverse theological and ideological backgrounds of these preachers and ideologues testify to existence of a new and widespread consensus on the use and justification of violence evolving in Arab and Muslim societies, in which targeting civilians is resolutely forbidden. Even some former key figures in bin Laden's own movement have criticised him for violating a fundamental tenet of jihad: the prohibition against the killing of noncombatants.
Like most Muslim clergy, these former al Qa'eda adherents like Sayyid Imam, al Odeh, Abu al Walid al Misri and others now stress that jihad must be grounded in notions of ethics and justice that al Qa'eda and its allies have long dismissed as irrelevant. Working from within religious traditions, employing tafsir (exegetical analysis), they work to expose the hateful rhetoric and terrorist methods of their former associates as a faulty, manipulative and dangerous use of the term jihad.
Al Qa'eda has lost Muslim minds because it has failed in its attempt to radically redefine jihad and gain acceptance of indiscriminate violence in the name of Islam. A number of recent opinion surveys confirm that an overwhelming majority of Muslims are not merely unsympathetic to the ideology of bin Laden and his followers - they place direct blame at his feet for the harm he has caused to the image of Islam and the damage his movement has wrought within Muslim societies.
Gallup conducted tens of thousands of hourlong, face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 35 predominantly Muslim nations between 2001 and 2007, and found that only 7 per cent of respondents believed the September 11 attacks were "completely" justified. Contrary to the perception in the West that the actions of al Qa'eda enjoy wide support in the Muslim world, 90 per cent of respondents condemned the killings on religious and humanitarian grounds.
Despite the real and potent challenges to al Qa'eda and its ideology evident in these debates, they have not received the attention they deserve. The West has failed, by and large, to understand the critical distinctions in Muslim opinion on these matters, and to forge policies to address the legitimate grievances of many Muslims - foremost among them the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq.
One of the major failures of American policy in the region is the tendency to lump together al Qa'eda with Hamas, Hizbollah, the Turkish PKK and various insurgent groups in Iraq. This lack of differentiation not only makes analysis more difficult, but results in policies that lack nuance and are seen by the Arab and Muslim world as naive and often disingenuous. It creates cynicism about the goals and objectives of American policy, a cynicism that is exploited by the very forces the US is trying to isolate and defeat.
While al Qa'eda's "jihad" is clearly regarded by most Arabs and Muslims as terrorism, Palestinian, Lebanese, and Iraqi groups that employ violence in the service of what is seen as resistance to foreign occupation are considered legitimate. Muslims still regard the defence of besieged or occupied territories as honourable examples of jihad. It is not the violence per se that is the issue. Rather, the question is, What is the justification for taking up arms?
A clash of perceptions exists between the United States and the Muslim world. It is difficult for the US to convince Arabs and Muslims that Hamas and Hizbollah are simply terrorists, and that Israel - which most Muslims and Arabs see as an oppressive occupier - resorts to violence only to defend itself.
This divide will continue unless the US addresses the root causes of simmering regional conflicts in the Arab-Israeli theatre, Iraq and Kashmir. The US must also seen as committed to a "just moral-social order" and to peaceful and fair resolution of conflicts.
In most of the Muslim world, the US is admired for its democracy and freedoms. Now it needs to be seen as understanding the causes of conflict in the Muslim world and willing to address them. The widespread rejection of al Qa'eda and its tactics represents an opening for the US and its allies that must be seized. Recalibrating American foreign policy could go a long way toward reducing regional tensions, and could strengthen the hands of those who, on moral grounds, have discredited al Qa'eda.
Bin Laden's theology has been marginalised and largely discredited, but many Muslims retain their steadfast loyalty to the ummah, and the occupation of Muslim lands still poses a critical challenge - and often elicits a call for resistance.
What form that resistance will now take is unknown, but it can, in large measure, be determined by the policies of the West. A critical first step is to understand that the concept of jihad is not simply one of holy war and violence, but one of justice. Respect and understanding - and an approach that relies more on moral suasion than the threat of violence - will help strengthen the concept of jihad as a force for good, defined along its historical moral and ethical lines.
There is more than a glimmer of hope: the fact that al Qa'eda has been marginalised and discredited, not by military force but by exegetes using sound theological arguments is encouraging. It should make us appreciate that it is the articulation of ideas - not military force - that will defeat those who would engage in terrorism.
Fawaz A Gerges is professor of International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence University. His most recent books are Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy and The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global.