Experts weigh in (part 10): Is quietist Salafism the antidote to ISIS?

Will McCants: Graeme Wood’s article on ISIS in last month’s Atlantic touched off a national debate about the insurgent group’s uses and abuses of Islam. Over the next few weeks, we thought it would be interesting for scholars of ISIS and political Islam to think through some of the issues raised by Wood, giving him a chance to weigh in along the way.

First out of the gate was Jacob Olidort, who responded to Graeme’s idea that “quietist” Salafis who do not engage in politics or warfare represent an antidote to violent, activist Salafi groups like ISIS on the basis that all Salafis—jihadi or not—share similar ideologies.

Salafis are ultraconservative Sunni Muslims. Some Salafis engage in parliamentary politics and some engage in revolution (“jihadis” in their parlance). But most Salafis don’t engage in direct political action—earning them the appellation of “quietist” from Western academics.

Because quietist Salafis speak the same theological language as the jihadis but reject their violent activism, Graeme thinks they offer “an Islamic antidote to Baghdadi-style jihadism” (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi runs the Islamic State). I’ve pushed a related idea in the past so I understand the appeal of Wood’s argument even though I’ve moved away from it. Such an approach would be akin to tolerating socialists to counter communists.

“Undercover jihadi” Mubin Shaikh responded next, writing that nonviolent quietist Salafis are a legitimate antidote to ISIS. Quietist Salafis, Shaikh argued, are better positioned than so-called “moderate” Muslims to persuade at-risk youth away from jihadism and terrorism.

Joas Wagemakers argued that Western governments should be wary of engaging quietist Salafis to counter ISIS’s ideology. While quietists may provide an effective counternarrative to ISIS, they may also reinforce beliefs that are at odds with the governments’ secular values.

Brookings’ Shadi Hamid argued that Salafis are often more theologically sophisticated than Muslim Brotherhood activists, which has implications for what types of arguments they’re likely to find persuasive.

Yasir Qadhi wrote that governments should refrain from getting involved in internal theological debates and empowering one sect of Islam over another.

H.A. Hellyer wrote about the UK’s experience engaging with Salafis and other Islamist groups to stem threats posed by “homegrown” extremists.

Rashad Ali chimed in, arguing that is more effective to deploy Islamic scripture revered across Islam to challenge ISIS’s jurisprudence, rather than to engage with Salafis who may hold radical ideologies.

Farid Senzai explained that since quietist Salafis are well-positioned to provide an important counternarrative to ISIS, they can be constructively engaged in deradicalization efforts in the West.

Kamran Bokhari continued our discussion, arguing that Salafi participation in electoral politics may be an antidote to jihadi violence in certain contexts.

Next, Charlie Winter of the London think tank Quilliam argues that “post-Salafis”—or Salafis who have attempted to harmonize their ultraconservative beliefs with the modern world—can offer a legitimate alternative to ISIS.

Charlie Winter:
At the beginning of this series,
Jacob Olidort wrote
that it is “not a big conceptual leap to go from quietism to jihadism.” This, I agree with. However, it is also worth noting that quietist Salafis–even if they are apolitical at home on the basis of their belief in the classical Sunni position that stability (even under tyrannical rule) is preferable to rebellion–have often been committed to the jihadi cause abroad, be it in Afghanistan, Burma, or Kashmir.

This being the case, one could argue that quietist Salafis are often only selectively quietist. Not only does this hinder their suitability as counterweights to violent extremists, it adds fuel to Joas Wagemakers’ argument that empowering quietists to counter the Islamic State could actually end up lending the organisation a hand.

Furthermore, it is a superficial argument that Western governments should not be involved at all in the ideological sphere: is it not an obligation of governance to engage with an issue when its outcome affects all of society, Muslim and otherwise? Sitting this one out is not an option.

If quietest Salafism is not the solution, then what is? Well, first off, there is no one answer, just as there is no single counter-narrative. However, one group that has not yet been discussed but whose importance could be paramount is the post-Salafis, those who have moved on from Salafism and attempt to harmonize Islamic teachings with the modern world through the revivalist and reformist spirit of early Islam. To map out the movement, I sat down with Sheikh Dr. Usama Hasan, a radical post-Salafi.

In the nineties, Hasan was a leading member of JIMAS, a Salafi organisation that was facilitating the recruitment of many British citizens to fight in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, and even Burma. Today, the group still exists, but is much transformed. Now, instead of jihad against the Far Enemy, it advocates bridge-building with the Far Right, civic engagement, and interfaith outreach.

Hasan is now a Senior Researcher in Islamic Studies with the Quilliam Foundation, as well as a part-time imam and deradicalization practitioner. He notes a number of personal ideological shifts that occurred during his transition from jihadi-Salafism to post-Salafism.

These ideological shifts left him, unlike many quietists, irreconcilable with the jihadi ideology: his previous opposition to the Islamic schools of thought, or madhhabs, was replaced by a sense and focus on the universal principles of sharia as embodied in the maqasid, or the foundational goals of Islamic law. Hasan’s former commitment to uphold the aqida, or Islamic creed, to unify all Muslims–provided they come together as Salafis–transitioned into an ecumenical approach towards sectarianism within Islam, and religious pluralism in the interfaith sphere.

Notions like equal citizenship, freedoms of religion and expression, gender equality and universal human rights replaced Hasan’s narrow Salafi worldview. Questions surrounding the obligatory nature of jihad became answerable within an internationally recognized legal framework, an understanding of modern war ethics, and the Geneva Conventions, all of which are endorsed by leading contemporary Muslim jurists.

Crucially, though, post-Salafis like Hasan and Sheikh Manwar Ali, JIMAS’ founder, can still speak to jihadis in their own language and share their personal experiences. Their “deradicalization” was comprehensive: not just rejecting violence, but also the ideological underpinnings of the justifications for violence.

So, when looking to challenge jihadi-Salafism, perhaps a better bet is post-, not quietist, Salafism. Simply countering extremist ideas, without condemning them outright and also presenting an alternative, is not a long-term solution.