Experts weigh in (part 4): Is quietist Salafism the antidote to ISIS?

Will McCants: Graeme Wood’s article on ISIS in this 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 Wood’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.

Next up is Brookings’ Shadi Hamid, who argues 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. Beyond quietist and jihadi-Salafis there is also a third option of Salafis opting for the parliamentary process. Egypt, in this respect, could have been an interesting test case.

Shadi Hamid: As Jacob Olidort writes, quietists, jihadists, and other Salafis “are all composed of the same theological DNA… It is therefore not a big conceptual leap to go from quietism to jihadism.” That there isn’t much of a conceptual leap is precisely the point, but it’s hard to know when this is a good or bad thing. It can cut both ways.

Contrary to what many think, Salafis are at least in some ways more theologically sophisticated than mainstream Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. For reasons that are inherent to their particular brand of Islamism, theology simply isn’t as important for Brotherhood-inspired organizations. This is why Salafis tend to look at the Brotherhood with suspicion: they’re too flexible, too pragmatic, and too willing to use sweeping maslaha (public interest) arguments to justify or rationalize what are ultimately political imperatives. This is to say nothing of the more explicitly maqasidi approaches of Tunisian and Moroccan Islamists, with their emphasis on the purpose and objectives (maqasid) of sharia rather than the letter of the law.

The gap, then, between Brotherhood and Salafi organizations can be quite large. For this reason, once someone commits to a distinctly Salafi brand of Islam, they become more resistant to Brotherhood-type arguments. Theologically, they no longer speak the same language. Yet, quietist Salafis and jihadi-Salafis do speak if not the same language, then at least a similar one. This means that jihadi-Salafis are more likely to be persuaded by the arguments of other Salafis, including quietists, on questions of violence. Yet, similarly, quietists, because they share many of the same starting assumptions, may be susceptible to jihadi-Salafi arguments, particularly in contexts of religiously charged civil conflict where quietism becomes increasingly untenable.

It is difficult to be more precise, because claims of the efficacy of quietist outreach are largely anecdotal. And, there is the question of  “religious” versus “political” motivations. Jihadi-Salafism may become appealing in places like Syria and Libya for reasons that have less to do with theology and more to do with power vacuums, the “normalization” of violence, and the fact that Jihadi-Salafi militias tend to be better equipped and more effective on the battlefield.

In short, because it can cut both ways, it would probably be unwise for governments to promote quietist Salafism as an “alternative.” To the extent that quietists want to promote themselves as alternatives, then governments should not block such activities, so as long as the quietists in question are acting through legal channels.

In between quietists who eschew politics and jihadi-Salafis who embrace violence, there is a third group: Salafis who opt to participate in the parliamentary process, something that we’ve seen perhaps most strikingly with the Nour party in Egypt, which won 28 percent of the popular vote in the 2011 elections. If Egypt had remained at least somewhat democratic, it would have been an interesting test case. If the Nour party had remained a powerful political actor with real influence, one can imagine the arguments of would-be jihadis  attracting less sympathy (although how much less is hard to say). The key consideration here isn’t just the level of democracy, but also the perception among Salafis that they can, in fact, influence policy and legislation through the democratic process. In Egypt, this is something Salafis had, although that came with its own cost of dragging the country’s politics further to the right and deepening already high levels of polarization.