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On Salafism

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The classic conflict of spirit vs laws of religion has existed across time. The Old Testament’s focus on laws and a punitive God finds contrast with the New Testament’s focus on mercy and spirit of faith. The Islamic version is the conflict between Salafism and Sufism, which are both Sunni ideologies.

Sufism arose partly to introduce life into religion stressing knowing God and seeking internal bliss which then manifests externally. However, there also came about the relaxing of regulations and introduction of innovations such as venerating saints, erecting tombs and observing new rituals and festivals. Later, Salafism reincarnated itself to question mystical indulgences and to reinforce Islamic behavioral boundaries. 

Salafism has certain characteristics. One is the quest to return to the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace) and his companions’ time to understand Islam. It carefully studies theology and rejects fabricated Prophetic statements and innovations. It focuses on a literal interpretation of scripture more than paying attention to cultural contexts. It presents external behaviors such as growing the beard, folding pants above ankles, observing Hijab as the beginning of religion than as its outcomes. Most, if not all of Salafism’s beliefs fall within Islam; however its tone/approach is criticized. Salafism is also mostly apolitical.

Wahhabism – often interchangeably identified with Salafism – was founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century. Wahhab forged an alliance with the House of Saud agreeing to their political authority while sharing this ideology. This relationship continues until today in Saudi Arabia where extreme conservative laws remain while the political structure is still monarchy.

Salafism has gained mainstream attention and politicians on the right and left including the likes of Mrs. Hilary Clinton speak out against what they call, “Wahabi extremism”. Many blame Salafism for 9/11 and an enforced extreme Shariah present in some Muslim lands. Is the ideology responsible for these acts?

For a while, Islam was blamed for the terrorist’s perverted use of scripture. It soon became unappealing to accuse a religion that has a billion followers. So its critics now take to blaming an ideology instead. What this conveniently ignores is the real reasons that cause extremism – our unjust foreign policies, support of dictatorships and suppression of democratic uprisings in many nations. Salafi-leaning institutions have routinely opposed violence and are shocked at how their ideology has been used.

The apolitical religious stance espoused by Salafism, supported by many Muslim governments sustains dictatorships and frustrates terrorists. If Islam is seen politically, endorsing representative leadership, then citizens will turn against their oppressive governments, which is why such governments prefer an apolitical Salafism. Hence it’s the autocrats and not the terrorists that like this ideology. All extremists have multiple layers of identity which include ethnicity, religion, sect, etc. Christianity or its denominations are not blamed for the KKK nor is Judaism for Zionist atrocities in Palestine. It is not being Muslim or Salafi that gives rise to extremists. And such extremism is not limited to Salafism. For instance, the Taliban has the ‘Deobandi’ ideological base with roots in Sufism. Extremist actions are motivated politically even as they use religious inspiration. Salafism is also at odds with Ikhwanism (Muslim Brotherhood ideology) which promotes holistic, political Islam. Many Gulf states ban MB seeing it as a threat to their power. While terrorists asserting their ‘Salafi’ identity may claim inspiration from Ikhwani thinkers such as Syed Qutb, their violent, hurried attempts to free dictatorships is in stark contrast with Ikhwanism whose approach is more gradual and legal.

Is Salafism dangerous? Firstly, many Muslims do not subscribe to it. There is nothing differently human about a Muslim that makes him more restriction-tolerant than a non-Muslim. Many are averse to prohibitions on movies, music and dislike being forced to dress or act a certain way. Muslims also have other approaches to choose from. So when Egypt faced elections, post Arab Spring, Salafis had some strength while their numbers were countered by Ikhwani and secular Muslims. It is only the authoritarian regimes that enforce excessive conservatism while an organic growth of the ideology poses little threat thanks to internal diversity.

Is Salafism inevitable and helpful? Yes, to many. If the theory is that excessive mysticism leads to laxity in regulation, then efforts to correct them will inevitably occur. Salafism is appropriate for those who like a puritanical approach without dilutions. Secondly, Salafism offers a secure haven for immigrant Muslims who face the difficulties of leaving home and engaging a new culture. They prefer environments that abstain from mainstream entertainment and promote old-school discussions. Thirdly, Muslims burnt by the liberal excesses of alcohol, sex, etc. find healing in its opposite due to its strict structure. Fourthly, Muslims who dislike the ‘system’ due to its abuses, find a legal, subtly rebellious outlet here. Salafism is a niche that cares less for negotiating its values with mainstream culture and this is beloved and even healthy to the system-hating Muslim who may otherwise sometimes look for an illegal outlet through violence. Salafism is an unintended antidote to terrorism! Fifthly, Salafism is also suitable for those who like the "outside-in" approach. While some Muslim women want to absorb spirituality first and may later observe the headcovering, some prefer to start with it and then work internally. 

Can Salafis be victimized? There is no official "Salafi" group, but organizations that subscribe to these thought processes exist. Negative stereotyping of anyone can lead to victimization. Muslims can defend themselves against rigidities while maintaining brotherhood with all. Non-Muslims can realize that prejudice wears more complex faces today and pathologizing a religious approach is one of them. We need to help politicians and the media not get away with casual misinterpretations of an ideology and acknowledge the right to existence of a community’s internal diversities. As for Salafis, they can recognize how this approach is used by governments to sustain power. And as for my interaction with a Salafi, all I say is, “On any given day, half of my shawarma is yours as long as you agree to not break my guitar”!


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