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Radical Salafism

By Bernard Haykel

Military victory in Afghanistan will not end the problem of radical Salafism... moderate Muslims are the only forces that can ultimately defeat the extremists.

RADICAL SALAFISM is the ideology of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda organisation. Its particular world view can be understood by looking at the roots of this ideology in Islamic intellectual history and by realising that its teachings have been marginal to and opposed by mainstream Islamic thought. Muslims in the modern period are either Sunnis (90 per cent) or Shias (10 per cent). The distinction pertains to a dispute over the spiritual and political leadership of the Muslim community after the death of Prophet Muhammad. In matters of politics, two principles are strongly identified with the Sunnis: 1) they are loath to declare fellow Muslims infidels, a practice called takfir; 2) they prohibit war against Muslim rulers, however tyrannical these may be, so long as Islam remains the religion of state and Islamic law is enforced. Sunnis argue that adherence to these two principles is crucial to maintaining social order and to avoid warfare amongst Muslims which might lead to the demise of Islam itself.

Osama and his followers are Sunnis of the Salafi branch. Salafism is a minoritarian tendency within Islam that dates back to the 9th century - under the name of Ahl al-Hadith - and whose central features were crystallised in the teachings of a 14th century scholar, Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Ibn Taymiyya's importance lies in that he was willing to hereticise fellow Muslims who did not share his views and, more importantly, he declared a permissible war against Muslim rulers who did not apply the Shari'a (he advocated war against the Mongols who had declared themselves Muslims but did not apply Islamic law).

Salafism's hallmark is a call to modern Muslims to revert back to the pure Islam of Prophet Muhammad's generation and the two generations that followed his. Muslims of this early period are referred to as al-salaf al-salih (the pious forefathers) whence the name Salafi. Salafism's message is utopian, its adherents seeking to transform completely the Muslim community and to ensure that Islam, as a system of belief and governance, eventually dominates the globe (Osama bin Laden quote?). Salafis are not against technological progress nor its fruits; they do, however, abhor all innovations in belief and practice that are not anchored in their conception of the pristine Islamic age. They refer to such reprehensible innovations as bida, a term of deligitimation in Islamic law or the Shari'a.

Another salient feature of Salafism is an obsession with God's oneness while condemning all forms of polytheism (shirk) and unbelief (kufr). Certain Sufi practices (Sufis are mystics of Islam), such as visiting the graves of great Sufi masters, are condemned by the Salafis as diminishing true belief in Allah. The world according to the Salafis is unequivocally divided between the domains of belief (iman) and unbelief, and it is incumbent on Muslims to be certain they remain in the domain of belief. This they can do only if they are Salafis. In its radical form Salafism leads to the practice of takfir. This is exactly what Osama did in his November 4 statement: Muslims who are not with him are, by definition, infidels.

The mantle of Ibn Taymiyya's teachings was most famously taken up by a movement in central Arabia in the 18th century. Known to its enemies as the Wahhabi movement, its adherents called themselves the Muwahhidun (believers in the oneness of God). The Wahhabis had a powerful reformist message and were able to galvanise the tribes of central Arabia into a powerful military force that allowed them to conquer much of the territory of present-day Saudi Arabia for a short period. So great was their zeal to focus all the beliefs and religious practices of fellow Muslims on God alone, that the Wahhabis destroyed in 1805 tombs in Medina. Such excesses, including the declaring of fellow Muslims as infidels whose blood could be shed, horrified the wider Muslim world leading the Ottoman Sultan to send an Egyptian military force and destroy the fledgling Wahhabi state in 1818. The example the Wahhabis set, however, left an indelible mark on Islamic world and like-minded Muslims would look to their experience as a model to be emulated.

King Abd al-Aziz ibn Sa'ud, commonly known as Ibn Sa'ud, founder of the present Saudi kingdom, based his rule and conquests on Salafi doctrine, and this remains the ideology of Saudi Arabia today. However, it is important to know two features that distinguish the official Salafism of the Saudi kingdom from the teachings of these radical Salafis. The Saudis believe that: 1) war against an Islamic ruler is not permitted, and 2) declaring fellow Muslims to be infidels is also not permitted. For this reason, the Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs stated on October 19, in the aftermath of the WTC attacks, that ``obedience to Islamic rulers is obligatory for Muslims''.

A principal reason radical Salafis like Osama advocate violence against the Saudi state is in relation to the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil. By permitting this, says Osama, the Saudis are no longer adhering to Islamic law and consequently war against them is permissible.

Such differences in abstruse legal opinions, however, do not explain Osama's massive appeal among Muslims. It is his genius at manipulating images and symbols, as well as his ability to tap into a wellspring of legitimate Muslim and Arab resentment at U.S. foreign policies, that explains his success. Muslims live under the yoke of authoritarian regimes. Regimes that have succeeded in destroying the fabric of traditional Muslim education and networks of knowledge and socialisation.

What Muslims react to enthusiastically is Osama's role as a leader and symbol of Muslim resistance to domestic and Western oppression. This reaction is fuelled by a century of arguments promoted by the Arab regimes that all the problems of the Arab and Muslim worlds are due to foreign intrigue, and are not due to any policies taken by the Arab and Muslim leaders themselves. This reasoning explains, for example, the eagerness with which so many Arabs and Muslims have accepted the theories that the September 11 attacks were the work of Jews and Zionists.

So far, moderate Sunni Muslims have been reluctant to condemn Osama in the light of the September 11 events. This is a consequence of the quiescent political culture Sunnis subscribe to: pointing fingers at fellow believers might lead to the state of chaotic disorder they fear most. Moreover, the present conflict involves unbelievers (Christians and Jews) and Muslims prefer not to air their differences in public.

Another reason for this conspicuous silence is that moderates feel the evidence incriminating Osama in the attacks has not been provided by the U.S. Finally, fear of violent retaliation by the radical Salafis has kept many silent. Moderate Muslims, many of whom have been and continue to be oppressed by Arab and Muslim Governments, do exist and must be encouraged to take centre stage.

In short, the battle being waged today is at heart an internal Islamic one and may take a very long time to end. It is part of a larger battle about the very nature of Islamic society and politics, and one in which there are many sides (moderate Muslims, state-sponsored Muslims, radical and moderate Salafis, secular nationalists, and Shias). The U.S. is not, and cannot be, the primary actor in this ongoing drama.

Military victory in Afghanistan will not end the problem of radical Salafism and more Osamas are available to continue the misguided struggle begun by him. The U.S., however, can participate as a catalyst for those moderate Muslims who are the only forces that can ultimately defeat the radical Salafis and promote a version of Islam that is neither extremist nor intrinsically antagonistic to the West.

(The writer is Assistant Professor of Islamic Law, New York University.)

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