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The gentrification of al-Jawlani… and others

Mashari Althaydi

Published: Updated:

There is a stereotypical image of the religious political extremist: shaggy beard, disheveled clothes, booming voice and piercing eyes. He might have a few extra accessories depending on the group he belongs to, an agate ring on his finger for Shia groups, or a prayer mark on his forehead for Egyptians.

But these are deceptive outward features, for Muslim Brotherhood members may appear in a modern or “casual” sports suit, speaking English, talking about development, the knowledge economy, and the digital industry, perhaps also dropping names of philosophers like Hegel or writers like Garcia Marquez, referencing blues music and so on.

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Forget about the casual Muslim Brotherhood member, the creator of modern content and podcasts for youth, even the leaders of outright terrorism like al-Qaeda might do this in their own way.

Recently, I saw the main leadership figure of al-Qaeda in Syria, Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani, trying to do this, sporting a short beard, neat hair, a well-groomed mustache, and a modern jacket. Al-Jawlani, the leader of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front) in Syria, appeared next to a sign that read, “In the presence of the President of the Syrian Salvation Government, the first popular government project was opened in the liberated areas: the Aleppo-Bab al-Hawa road.”

This is mere “gentrification” of one of the key symbols of destruction, murder, backwardness in Syria. People have not forgotten his crimes, and although he tried to clean up his image in his famous appearance on Al-Jazeera, most people see in him only the backward terrorist killer who served the regime of Assad by distorting the Syrian opposition and alienating the wise among them.

In a remarkable comment last February, the US Department of Justice published on social media a picture of the leader of “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani, wearing an official suit.

The Department of Justice’s publication of al-Jawlani’s photo at the time came as a reminder of a monetary reward of 10 million US dollars that it had offered to anyone providing information about him.

“You can wear a nice suit, handsome, but you’re still a terrorist,” the DOJ wrote on its “Rewards for Justice” page.

The man changed, or was ordered to do so by those behind him, the name of his militia, from Jabhat al-Nusra, to Hay’at Fath al-Sham, and finally Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham... But these are all just names for the same thing!

Away from the al-Qaeda takfiri terrorist affiliated with certain well-known countries, what about the more deceptive and dangerous appearances of faces that infiltrated the media, and perhaps spoke in the name of government programs for the people?

The story here is vastly more complex.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.