Salafism: A New Type of Islamism

In light of the media's coverage of the ongoing activities of extremist organizations like ISIL in Iraq and Syria, Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and a recent wave of attacks in Europe and the United States, there has been an overwhelming tendency for a large majority of viewers who are actively absorbing this flood of information to develop misconceptions about Islam and its basic teachings. Some have viewed Islam as an outdated religion that is antithetical to modernity and resistant to change. Others have criticized mainstream Muslims simply because of their religion and ethnicity. No where is this more overt than on online social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter where users are propagating baseless claims, and sadly their ill-informed viewpoints have only advanced a vicious cycle of bigotry that is a great cause for concern. Even our politicians at the state and federal levels have developed anti-Islamic notions that defame Islam and its followers around the world. They have taken certain tenets of the faith out of context and have failed to comprehend the true nature of the conflict against religious extremism. Moreover, such attitudes have only furthered greater insulation from sharing diverse perspectives and unfortunately created an infectious atmosphere that is bent on spreading hatred against Islam and Muslims in general. What has followed is an utter lack of tolerance in our normal day-to-day conversations about topics pertaining to Islam without being privy to the facts or knowledge of the religion.

The tragic events in San Bernandino and Paris last year were indisputably deliberate acts of terrorism in which innocent, unarmed civilians were killed. Rooted in these acts was the exploitation of a zealous religious ideology, which is crucial to understand if we are to defeat the organizations and the ideology that promotes their activities. But, even more importantly, we can develop a more-informed opinion of the exact nature of these organizations, which will subsequently help us in drawing the distinction between Islam as a belief system and the use of Islam as politically motivated ideology. This will be crucial to our success in dealing with the Muslim world both at the domestic and international levels.

The media has largely ignored the role of ISIL's ideology and its interpretation of Islam. This might partly explain the rampant confusion that has plagued a proper understanding of the religion and its adherents.

ISIL (more specifically the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is a militant, ultraconservative Islamist movement that was formed just under two years ago in the war-torn areas of northern Iraq. ISIL's leadership sought to replace the existing political system that would address injustice against the Sunni population, the largest religious minority after the Shiites. However, the group's ideology, propaganda, and confrontation with the West are not like that of Al-Qaeda, the brainchild of Osama Bin Laden in the 1990s, the organization that was implicated in the 9/11 attacks. Though the two organizations share similar goals, their mechanism of reform is actually quite different. To differentiate between the two, an analysis of the two groups' ideologies is key. ISIL subscribes to Salafism, an ultraconservative, puritanical reform movement which until recently was nonpolitical. On the other hand, the ideology of Al Qaeda is inherently political. Since its formation, Al-Qaeda has sought to seize state power and enter the political process through violent means and simultaneously engage in confrontation with any state or ideology that does not adhere to its interpretation of Islam. Through attacks on civilians throughout the world, Al-Qaeda's ultimate goal is to control the state apparatus. This is an example of militant Islamism, whereby a fundamentalist group is engaging itself within the modern context by exploiting Islam to achieve its goals.

On the other hand, Salafism by virtue of its puritanical attitudes and strict adherence to theology makes it an extremely opposed to the Islamism practiced by the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda. Salafism seeks to purify Islam of non-Islamic influences and practices. In fact, Salafism is much older than the contemporary Islamist movements like Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Salafists view other Muslim sects (Sunni, Shiite, and Sufi) all with apparent disdain because of their differing Islamic practices. Salafists trace their origins to a hadith from the Prophet Muhammad who was quoted as saying "The people of my own generation are the best, then those who come after them, and those of the next generation." These three generations are known collectively as the salaf, hence the term Salafism. Salafists regard this saying as central to their beliefs who state that anything from these generations is authentic and anything after is digressive and therefore un-Islamic.

It was only during the Arab Spring in 2011 that Salafists became participating in the political process. The Al-Nour Party, a Salafist political party, decided to participate in Egypt's elections after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. ISIL, however, views elections and the democratic process as an anathema that must be discarded in favor of a more pristine form of Islam. But why would a nonpolitical ideology be incorporated to meet ISIL's political ambitions? To answer this, we must first observe the political context in which ISIL was formed. In the wake of the US departure from Iraq in December 2011 various organizations including Al-Qaeda and other dissatisfied Sunni groups in both Iraq and in neighboring Syria sought to address their political grievances against the existing government. Expressing frustration and impatience with the ensuing chaos, these disillusioned elements began to recruit young people by disseminating an appealing brand of Salafism conducive to the sectarian environment. The anti-Shiite and anti status quo rhetoric were instrumental in ISIL's rapid rise to power, having become a successful political force through reliance on theological underpinnings that bolsters what it believes to be true Islam.

Because of this convoluted issue, it is important for us set our initial opinions aside and instead first read and educate ourselves of the rise of extremist groups like ISIL. Only through well-balanced dialogue will we will be able to better understand Islamism and Islam.