Time to Stop Fooling Ourselves about Salafis

by Mark Woodward*

In wars that are as much about ideas as they are about anything else, it is convenient to have enemies that are clearly defined, easily demonized and clearly distinguishable from real or imagined allies. When none are apparent we all too often imagine them. Referring to our opponents in the “Global War on Terror” as “Muslim” or “Islamic” terrorists is counterproductive because no matter the intent, these terms suggest that Muslims are terrorists and that Islam is a religion of violence.

This wins us no friends in the Muslim world and indeed lends support to view that the “War on Terror” is actually a war on Islam and the global Muslim community. One need spend no more than a few days in any of the world’s Muslim majority countries, or those with substantial Muslim minorities, including the United States, to realize this. For those who do not speak local Muslim languages, a conversation with a cab driver in broken English will suffice.

Now we have seemingly turned to the term Salafi, or more properly Salafiyah, to define our “enemies” and are debating distinctions between “good” ones, who should be encouraged, and “bad” ones who we must continue to oppose by any means necessary. There is an aphorism attributed to Einstein (also often cited by members of Alcoholics Anonymous) according to which “insanity is doing the same old thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  This is exactly what Scheuer, Wiktorowicz and other participants in this discourse have done.

Salafi is a highly contested term in Sunni Muslim religious discourse. Wiktorowicz’s statement that:

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

is simply wrong. It is worse than wrong. It conflates the most liberal with the most radical Muslim groups. The term Salafi refers to those who practice what they believe to be the Islam of the Prophet Muhammad and his close companions. The term “companions” can refer to either those Muslims who actually knew the Prophet or to as many as four generations of their descendants. Muslim extremists have attempted to appropriate the term Salafi in much the same way that American Evangelical extremists have appropriated the term Christian. It would seem that they have been more successful in the West than in the Muslim World.

Almost all Sunni Muslims use the term to refer to their own understandings of Islamic faith and practice. Shiah generally do not use it because their understanding of Islam is based on the assumption that, in addition to the Prophet Muhammad, a series of divinely guided Imams were religious authorities. The term has been, and currently is, used by groups including Western oriented educational reformers, Sufi mystics and Wahhabis, who actually are puritanical and exclusivist. To describe “Salafis” as puritanical is to mirror the theological views of the most radical among them. It has much the same effect as denouncing “Islam” or “The Muslims.” It plays into the hands of extremists.

By far the largest Salafi movement, with over forty million members and many more supporters, is the Indonesian Nahdlatul Ulama (Renaissance of the Muslim Scholars). Its understanding and practice of Islam includes Sufi theology and devotionalism and the veneration of saints (practices that those Scheuer and Wiktorowicz call Salafis denounce as “unbelief”). Politically this group strongly supports pluralism, freedom of religion, democracy and human rights. There are similar Salafi groups throughout the Muslim world. Lumping them with Al-Qaeda and Wahhabis is like saying that Jim Jones and the Pope are both just “Bible-believing Christians.” It is the worst possible guide for public policy.

Scheuer makes an absurd statement when 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.

There is no “Salafi school” either in the sense of an educational institution or unified, coherent body of thought (for a similar argument see here). To suggest that those who oppose violence are somehow less than “honest” and “faithful” Muslims is at once nonsense and the worst sort of Islamapohobia. It suggests that “honest” and “faithful” Islam is violent Islam. There is no basis in mainstream Islamic theology or Muslim history for this position.

Analytically the term Salafi is meaningless. Most Sunni Muslims think of themselves as Salafis, to use the term in reference to “violent puritanical radicals” is to incur the contempt, if not the wrath, of hundreds of millions of Muslims, the vast majority of whom understand and practice Islam as a religion of peace. Similarly not all “jihadis” are Wahhabi style puritans. Many fight, not for a theologically defined religious cause, but for no other reason than that they consider armed opposition to the occupation of “Muslim territory”–Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine–by non-Muslims to be a just war and a religious obligation.

There is a unique religious ideology that binds Al-Qaeda and associated groups together. It can not be reduced to one word sound bites. It includes two basic components: defining those with whom they do not agree as kafir (unbelievers) and the Kharajite notion that there is a religious obligation to fight and kill them.

Like Wahhabis, Al-Qaeda and associates denounce most aspects of Muslim popular piety as “unbelief.” The practice of denouncing one’s religious opponents as unbelievers is takfir, and those who employ this rhetorical tactic are known as Takfiris. One example will suffice to illustrate this point. Many, perhaps most, Muslims believe that the veneration of the tombs of saints is a pious act and in keeping with the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. The Saudi elite and other Wahhabis think of it as polytheism and unbelief. For them words are not enough. They have destroyed — or desecrated as other Muslims would have it — the holy tombs of Arabia, including those of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. This is one of the many reasons why most Sunni and Shiah Muslims detest Wahhabis.  This is Al-Qaeda’s greatest ideological weakness. The Saudis and other Wahhabis do not wish to exploit it because they share this religious orientation and actively promote it throughout the Muslim world.

Most Takfiris do not resort to violence. Some seek to isolate themselves from a “sinful world,” others propagate their understanding of Islam through peaceful means. Non Muslims have no reason to either oppose or promote these efforts. For the U.S. or other governments to do either would be bad public policy because it would leave them open to charges of arrogance for daring to make Muslim theological judgments and meddling in the internal affairs of Muslim communities. It would be rank hypocrisy for governments that pride themselves for promoting religious tolerance and for maintaining walls of separation between church/mosque and state to make overtly theological pronouncements.

Kharajites are Takfiris who believe that they alone are capable of distinguishing Islam from unbelief and that they have an obligation to kill unbelievers. Their view is that anyone who has committed a serious sin is a kafir and deserves death. This orientation is almost as old as Islam and is generally understood as heresy. Historically Kharajites have condemned as unbelievers almost all Muslim leaders, including the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, who is beloved by all other Muslims. The Kharajites killed him, a crime for which the Muslim community has never forgiven them. They are a tiny, but dangerous, minority of the world’s Muslims.

The Saudi royal family and other Muslim elites fear Kharajites, and with good reason. Many Muslim scholars, Wahhabi and non-Wahhabi alike, have used this term to describe Usama bin-Laden and his supporters. This judgment is entirely reasonable because Al-Qaeda and associates denounce Muslim rulers as kafir and kill them whenever possible. The Saudis would like to believe, and would like others to believe, that Kharajite thinking is on the decline. This is wishful thinking. Public recantations by a handful of jailed and most likely tortured terrorists count for very little. Torture works. When it is severe and prolonged enough victims will say almost anything that perpetrators want them to. It makes for bad intelligence but good propaganda.  On this point I agree with Scheuer.

There is little that Western governments can do the influence the war of ideas that rages in the Muslim World. It would be the height of absurdity to think that Muslim governments could influence the war of ideas raging within the Anglican Communion concerning homosexual bishops. It is equally absurd to entertain the notion that US public diplomacy can shape the direction of Muslim discourse.

Muslim scholars are well equipped to fight this war of ideas and are doing so in their own ways and in their own languages.  In a recent (2007) Indonesian book titled Al-Quran Ktab Toleransi, Inklusivisme dan Multikulturalisme, (The Qur’an: A Holy Book of Tolerance, Inclusivism and Multi-Culturalism) Zuhairi Misrawi describes his work as an attempt to:

safeguard the Qur’an from the type politicization that was carried out by the Kharajites in the past. Today religion and politics are intertwined in exceptional ways. Safeguarding the Qur’an from extremist ideologies is an essential effort so that it can convey its message of tolerance, harmony and peace.

Misrawi’s scholarship is simultaneously meticulous and accessible (for those who read Indonesian). He draws on a vast array of classical Muslim sources to develop theological arguments counter to those of contemporary Takfiris and Kharajites. He writes regularly for daily papers and popular magazines and appears of radio and television talk shows. His efforts, and those of many other Muslim scholars like him, are not merely academic exercises. They are dakwah (missionary outreach efforts) that seek to counter those of extremists.

Misrawi and other Muslim scholars committed to this view do not need, or necessarily want, our “help.”  Indeed we have little, if any, help to offer. What we can do is to stop taking the quasi-theological pronouncements of self appointed pundits so seriously.  A little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. That is exactly what these pundits would seem to have.  Acting on their advice would be self defeating because it could lead us to condemn our friends as potentially threatening “Salafis.”

It has been almost seven years since the wake up call of 9/11. Knowing your enemy is essential for the successful conclusion of almost any conflict, but so it knowing your friends. As far as Salafis are concerned, it is time that we stop fooling ourselves and to pay closer attention to friendly voices speaking from within the Muslim world.

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*Mark Woodward is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University and Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta Indonesia. He has been studying political Islam for more than thirty years.

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  1. [...] PKS and other Muslim “reformists” sects, including Wahhabis, who are commonly referred to as Salafi. It rejects most, if not all, aspects of Sufism, particularly the veneration of graves. It [...]

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