How to understand Salafism in America: The Economist

Expect similar differences in Canada:

THE word “Salafism” is often used loosely, especially in continental Europe. When the relationship between Islam and jihadist violence is discussed in, say, France or Germany, the assumption is often made that the problem begins and ends with the Salafis—who put overwhelming emphasis on the first three generations of Muslims and who are thought to have professed the faith at its purest. This Franco-German sloppiness can be bewildering to Islam-watchers in Britain where Salafis have at times been encouraged to play a part in countering terrorism.

In fact, as anyone who studies the Salafi phenomenon quickly realises, things are far from simple. Scholars generally distinguish three strands of Salafism. First, there is the apolitical, quietist sort which favours intense conservatism in dress and personal life and eschews most kinds of involvement with the modern world. Then there are more activist Salafis who share the impatience of the Muslim Brotherhood to see the replacement of relatively secular governments in Islam’s heartland by religiously inspired regimes. They are not quite as energetic, or as pragmatic, as the Brotherhood’s members but they are influenced by Brotherhood thinking. And thirdly, there are jihadist Salafis who think the only appropriate response to the decadence of the modern era, and to a lack of zeal in the historically Muslim world, is violence. All three strains share a suspicion of democratic institutions that confer on fallible human beings an authority that, as they see things, should belong only to God.

In a new report, published under the Programme on Extremism at America’s George Washington University, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens shows that all three forms of Salafism have flourished, albeit with considerable ebbs and flows in their fortunes, on American soil in recent decades. He agrees that the distinction between the three forms of Salafism should be maintained, but also stresses they are not hermetically sealed categories, and that important individuals have moved between them.

Confusingly, the author notes, Salafist thinking (whose hallmarks include deep suspicion of the modern, secular world) has been disseminated by some people who do not themselves accept the label of Salafi. One such person is Muhammad Syed Adly, an influential imam based in South Carolina who urges Muslims to focus on Islamic education and avoid secular education and worldly politics. He has encouraged American Muslims to consider alternatives to regular public schools where their children might pick up liberal ideas about gender and sexuality.

As an example of quietist Salafism, Mr Meleagrou-Hitchens cites the Quran and Sunnah Society (QSS) which flourished across the United States both before and immediately after its formal incorporation in Ohio in 1995. Its back-to-basics message, driven home with tapes from Saudi clerics, appealed both to Arab students in America and to African-Americans who had embraced Islam in a spirit of black power and wanted to hew close to the faith’s fundamentals. As the author points out, Salafism’s utter rejection of secular institutions appealed to some African-Americans who felt the American system had nothing to offer them. Although the QSS eventually went into terminal decline, its legacies apparently include a contingent of American Muslims who are fiercely protective of Saudi Arabia and its clerics.

To show how jihadist Salafism can be generated on American soil, the report looks at some notorious individuals such as Ali al-Timimi (pictured), who was born in Washington, DC, spent part of his teens in Saudi Arabia and later returned to the United States where he gained a doctorate in computational biology. In 2005 he was jailed on ten charges including enlisting people to wage war against America and helping the Taliban. His case, according to the new report, “is a fascinating case study due to his steady progression across the wider American Salafi milieu: from student of the traditional quietist Saudi sheikhs…to an open promoter of Salafi jihadism.”

But of course, quietist Salafism doesn’t always lead in an extremist direction, as the author also stresses. As an example of that point, he cites a school of “post-Salafis” who “have contributed to the development of Americanised version of Salafism” that combines conservative theology with a constructive engagement with national and international issues.

In other words, American Salafism (for all its professed emphasis on simplicity) is irreducibly prolix. Given how many lives could depend on getting things right, it is worthwhile engaging with that complexity.

Source: How to understand Salafism in America

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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