Scheuer: Salafis Are Fooling Us

by Steven R. Corman

A few weeks ago I wrote about an appearance by Michael Scheuer on a radio talk show.  The theme was the possible disintegration of al Qaeda based on recent denouncements and recantations by prominent  ideologues.  He was going against the grain, arguing that the reformed extremists were making their statements from prisons, and nobody in the Muslim world would take them seriously.

Today, Scheuer published a downright iconoclastic essay over at Jamestown.  In it he expands on his argument, more or less claiming that the illusion that we’re winning is part of an Arab PSYOP campaign:

The recantations making a splash in the Western media are part of a bigger project conducted by several Arab states—led by Saudi Arabia—to make the United States and its allies believe Islamism’s strength is ebbing. Their campaign is made easier, of course, because the West desperately wants to believe such claims.

Talking about the extremist “re-education programs” we’ve heard so much about lately, he continues

This program of what the West might call “tough love” is being hailed by Riyadh, Cairo, and Sana as a success, these claims meshing with the West’s faith in reforming flawed human beings by therapy.  There are suspicions that re-educated graduates are released on condition they go to Iraq or Afghanistan to fight infidels…

It’s an interesting essay filled with pretty good questions.  The one thing I question is whether Scheuer elides important differences within the Salafi movement.  For example, he says:

Thus the graduates of the Salafi school, who have embarked on violence have added nothing to this ideology; they simply have applied it. They have been honest in using it and faithful to their belief.

I am no Salafi ideology expert, but I have read some papers by academic cum CIA analyst Quintan Wiktorowicz, who is.  In an article in a 2006 issue of Studies in Conflict and Terrorism he notes that

 All Salafis share a puritanical approach to the religion intended to eschew religious innovation by strictly replicating the model of the Prophet Muhammad.

But, he says, the community of Salafists is split into three factions.  There are the purists who reject violence and politics and are concerned with propagation, purification, and education.  The politicos focus on social justice and the exclusive right of God to legislate.  It is only the jihadis who advocate change through violent revolution.

 All three factions share a common creed but offer different explanations of the contemporary world and its concomitant problems and thus propose different solutions. The splits are about contextual analysis, not belief.

Accordingly the problem is not Salafi beliefs per se, but how they are contextualized and used to justify particular courses of political action.  Paradoxically, he says, the best bet for U.S. strategy is to “influence these interpretations of context to empower the purists.”

On the face of it, this would seem to be what the Arab re-education programs are trying to do, yet Scheuer seems to treat all Salafists the same and view their religious ideology per se as the root of the problem.

I don’t know who is right, but there is a clear difference of perspective between the two analysts.  I would like to see Scheuer address directly the question of whether Salafism is a monolithic movement.  Better yet, it would be great to hear a discussion/debate  between these two experts.

UPDATE

Late yesterday Jeffrey Imm at the CT Blog posted an extensive argument, not too unlike Scheuer’s, that media reports of the demise of the extremists are exaggerated.  He concludes his post with the statement (in boldface) “this is our fight for America.”  Hmm.  I thought it was an analysis of the veracity of media reports that the extremists are on the ropes, but this suggests it is rhetoric to advance some political agenda.

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  1. [...] to discuss the importance of recantations by prominent ideologies like Dr. Fadl (but see here and here for controversy about that)  and doing what we can to help publicize those. This is an [...]