CONTEMPORARY SALAFISM emerged as a form of radical religious reform, aiming to displace the heritage of traditional Muslim scholarship. But while religious reform has long been a feature of the Islamic world in the modern period, the Salafist formula for this reform is retrograde. It sets itself against all other religious currents within and outside of Islam, against the competing political and intellectual currents of liberalism and secularism, even the epistemological foundations underpinning modernity. It is important to make the association of Salafism with the current rise in religious extremism. Salafist doctrine is isolationist and damages social cohesion. Its educational and cultural orientations prime the mentality of its followers to uncompromising, radical interpretations that deliberately override the interests and rights of the ‘other.’ The exportation of Salafist culture, in the form of Wahhabism, has been condemned by Muslims scholars at Cairo’s al-Azhar university as the cause of terrorism, the rejection of diversity, the oppression of women and religious minorities, as well as the destabilization of Muslim States.
For although the Salafist method is primarily focused on doctrine and religious practice, it exhibits at least the language of what one might term ‘proto-politics’. It assumes that its programme for reform must apply to behaviour in the public sphere as the pietistic requirements of the community are seen to be ill-served by the political and social structures of the state. To insulate itself meanwhile from contamination, Salafism advocates non-participation in political life and effectively promotes a parallel society, all of which has political implications.
The Salafist discourse is the arena from which militant forms of Islam develop. Jihadists (who refer to themselves as ‘Jihadi-Salafists’) capitalize on its narrowed cultural and doctrinal spectrum and on the groundwork Salafism lays towards rejectionism and social exclusivity, by extending the culture of alienation beyond the social, doctrinal and intellectual levels, to the political level in the elaboration of the new identity of the Islamic Umma.
Salafist doctrines, and Islamist political ideas based on these doctrines, are increasing their grip to the point where they are de facto becoming the norm. The more Salafism gets to define the ‘centre-ground’ of Islamic belief the more damage it will wreak to social cohesion, to political stability and the progress of human rights. The articles in this section challenge Salafism’s claim to authenticity and moral authority.
Gamal Abd al-Rahim Arabi
Part Two: An unavoidable War of Ideas
In the first part of this essay we presented the main roots that led to the emergence of extremism and terrorism now being attributed to the Islamic religion. We demonstrated how the terms of reference for the Salafist interpretation of religious texts underpinning the official and popular institutions such as the Council of Higher ‘Scholars’ and al-Azhar and the like are the same terms of reference underpinning the takfīrī jihadist movements. As long as terrorists draw from the same sources, the difference between the thinking maintained by those bearing weapons and others who do not believe in violence, is purely formal.