Experts weigh in (part 6): 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 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.

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

Next we turn to H.A. Hellyer, who writes about the UK’s experience engaging with Salafis and other Islamist groups.

H.A. Hellyer: In 2015, some Western governments are considering engaging different Salafi and Islamist movements in  “counternarratives” and “preventative narratives” agendas. ”Counternarratives” aim  to disrupt and “turn” violent extremists, while “preventative narratives” aim to stop recruitment in the first place. 

But this  is not the first time Westerners have had this discussion. Ten years ago the United Kingdom faced one of the first homegrown terrorist attacks in the West from radical Islamists, with the bombings on the London transport system on July 7. The lead-up to and the aftermath of the attack still provide pertinent lessons on engagement with Western Muslim communities.

The security establishment in 2005 was divided on tactical and strategic grounds on how best to deal with the violent threat posed by radical Islamists in the UK. Two specific incidents of engagement between law enforcement and Muslim communities are relevant to consider:  the Finsbury Park Mosque affair in north London and the “Brixton Salafis,” a community of purist, Saudi-linked Salafis in south London.

In the first case, Abu Hamza al-Masri, an extremist preacher who was later extradited to the United States on terrorism-related charges, had managed to take over a mosque in the north London area of Finsbury Park. Activists sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and the group’s own members were instrumental in removing al-Masri  and his followers from the mosque, in coordination with the London Metropolitan Police. In the “Brixton Salafi” affair, conservative Salafis who had studied in Saudi Arabia informed on radical individuals,including Richard Reid, the now infamous “shoe-bomber.”

On a tactical level, the security argument was clear. Regardless of the concerns around social cohesion within the United Kingdom from less mainstream Muslim groups, such as Brotherhood-linked Islamists of north London, or the quietist Salafis of Brixton, there was an immediate “win” in terms of identifying the greater threats coming from individuals like Abu Hamza and Reid.

Ten years later, the U.K. government has now instituted an Extremism Analysis Unit, a cross-government, inter-agency entity within the Home Office, tasked with investigating and understanding non-violent extremists. The U.K.’s review of the Muslim Brotherhood both internationally and in the UK cuts across that agenda; although the review  was independently initiated,  it is unclear if even a summary will see the light of day any time soon.

Nevertheless, the Whitehall discussion – and broader afield on the European level – has certainly shifted in definitive ways since 2005. Indeed, there is a rejection of the paradigm that all Islamists are the same, akin to al-Qaeda or ISIS. At the same time, there is also a feeling that various groups, whether the Brotherhood or quietist Salafis, cannot be engaged with uncritically. Those groups are not mainstream – and shouldn’t be mistaken as such, representationally or historically. But they ‎should be understood carefully, for particular purposes, and without naivete.