Experts weigh in (part 5): Is quietist Salafism the alternative 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.

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.

Next, we’ve asked Yasir Qadhi to share his thoughts. Yasir has studied Islam in traditional and academic settings, and is a popular scholar among American Muslim youth. Yasir used to be a self-described Salafi, but he’s since forged his own way.

Yasir Qadhi: Pacifist Salafism might indeed be one of the most powerful and effective tools against Islamic radicalization, but it comes with its own set of repercussions. It is also not, in my estimation, the most powerful antidote to radicalism. Additionally, government agencies should be cognizant not only of their own laws and role when it comes to “supporting” one religious understanding over another (especially in the context of the American situation), they must also be conscious of the reality that any government help given to a group will automatically delegitimize the efforts of that group to curb radicalism.

Salafism is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and demonized trends in Sunni Islam. Most analysts attempt to characterize Salafism by highlighting certain aspects of its juristic understanding of Islam, or concentrate on opinions that demonstrate the aversion of Salafis to external religious and cultural practices. Yet, it is not in its shunning of music, or conservative view of women, or prohibition of Valentine’s Day (as just some examples), that makes Salafism unique. These exact same legal rulings are found in strands of Deobandism, Sufism, and even Shi’ism; they are more representative of ultra-conservative trends in all strands of Islam than of Salafism per se.

What makes Salafis unique from all other groups is their understanding of the Islamic concept of monotheism (or tawhid). Salafis believe that all of God’s Attributes found in the Sacred Texts should be understood in a literal manner, as befitting God and without symbolically interpreting them away. Additionally, they believe veneration and worship to be the exclusive right of God, and hence are opposed to the saint-culture of Sufism, and the exaltation of the Imams among the Shia, at times viewing certain manifestations of these beliefs as being akin to idolatry itself. (This also explains why, for example, ISIS is so keen on destroying historical artifacts and demolishing graves).

ISIS (along with al-Qaida, from within which it originated) does indeed take much of its theology from Salafism. But Salafi Islam is as wide and varied as, say, Sufi Islam is, and there are numerous sub-trends within it, each one of which is at odds with the other sub-trends. There are (as only a partial list of the political sub-trends) apolitical pacifist Salafis; politically engaged yet non-militant Salafis who eschew democracy; Salafis who wish to engage with the democratic system to change it; Salafis who believe jihad is an obligation but not at the current time and in the current circumstances; and, of course jihadi-Salafis who are actively engaged in military conflict.

It is true that switching from one sub-trend of Salafism (in our case, from jihadi-Salafism) to another (say, politically active) is much easier than, say, a Salafi becoming a Sufi. Certain scholars are revered across all Salafi trends, and the shared theological beliefs and heritage of all Salafi groups makes it easier to engage with and respect scholars from other sub-trends. Therefore, one of the most effective means of ensuring young Muslims who are flirting with radical terrorism don’t cross that red line of militancy is to reach out to them via worldviews that share some of the more benign theological and methodological principles of jihadi-Salafism, without the radicalism. But let’s also realize that Salafism, like many other strands of ultra-conservative Islam (and Christianity and Judaism) is not exactly calling for liberal values either. There will be views that will be deemed misogynistic, homophobic, and intolerant.

Some would argue that not only is this inevitable, it is a part of the diversity of human beings. After all, why must all religious interpretations conform to one particular set of values? In any case, empowering one strand of Salafism over another will have its pros and cons. I would argue that the pros in this case far outweigh any potential cons (I would much rather live next to somebody who thinks I will go to Hell but still be polite with me, than someone who actively seeks to kill me), but others might disagree.

There is also the rather thorny question of how “religious” government agencies should become? Is it really the job of the American government to decide what is “true” Islam (much less what is true Salafism), and become involved in theological and methodological internal religious hermeneutics? Many people would find that aspect terrifying, if not illegal.

Worse, if there is any actual support of scholars or institutions by the very entity that is deemed to be the root cause of all problems, that would automatically discredit the effectiveness and neutrality of those scholars/institutions. Imagine how much credibility a politician who is bankrolled by China would get if he wanted to give some Chinese businesses tax-breaks? Quite frankly, the best help that America can give to such clerics is by not giving them any help whatsoever, and simply letting them do their job.

Lastly, while it is important to discuss solutions to radicalism and militancy, all such solutions are temporary. The ultimate problem–the root cause of such anger and militancy–is the fact that large swathes of humanity are deprived from some of the rights and freedoms that others take for granted. The freedom to live in drone-free environments, under governments that reflect their own people’s needs rather than despotic regimes supported by foreign superpowers, while your country is not illegally invaded multiple times and bombed to smithereens, is a freedom that all humans would cherish and love.

At some point, our conversation needs to change from “What is wrong with jihadis and their interpretation of Islam?” to “What have we done to cause such ideas to become popular and even mainstream in some circles?” Both questions are important, but the first question is the primary domain of Muslim clerics and theologians, and the second question should be the primary concern of analysts, politicians, and, frankly, all concerned citizens of the democratic world. Until both questions are answered effectively, there’s only so much that can be done when people fight back against what they perceive as oppression and injustice, even in manners that are clearly oppressive and unjust as well.