Experts weigh in (part 7): 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, a counterterrorism expert who works with the UK’s deradicalization Channel Programme, argues it 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.

Rashad Ali: It is true that Salafi theology has had some effect on groups like ISIS, which has used Salafi texts to justify the destruction of idols. A specific reading of fiqh (religious law on warfare and governance) provides the justification for ISIS’s violent tactics for establishing its vision of an Islamic state. It has been argued that quietist Salafis may provide a sophisticated critique of this jurisprudence because they share the same DNA. However, the premise that quietist Salafism is an antidote needs to be questioned.

First, Salafi scholars referenced by ISIS declare any ruler that doesn’t govern by Islamic jurisprudence a kafir (unbeliever). Ibn Uthaymeen, one of the major references for quietist Salafis, urges rebellion against modern, unbelieving Muslim rulers, and recommends building an army to overthrow them. Ibn Uthaymeen also gave edicts stating that killing Jewish women and children was permitted in retaliation for Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories. He was cited by Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader and “cleric” of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, to justify acts of terrorism. So far from being an alternative, quietist Salafis are at times used to justify violent jihadi positions.

Secondly, we do need to define what is meant by “deradicalization” in this context. While mainstream and Salafi jurisprudence has been impactful in moving various jihadist groups to nonviolent or quietist activism—for example, in the case of several Libyan and Egyptian jihadi groups—it is not necessarily the case that these groups are not radical or extreme.  Such individuals may even notionally support the execution of homosexuals, adulterers, secularists, or democrats, rather than simply believing that these “apostates” will go to hell.

Thirdly, quietist Salafis have been subject to disapproval and pejorative labels from other Muslims, even though they take inspiration and guidance from classical Islamic sources. It is arguably more effective to utilize these same putative references and sources—which are shared by mainstream Islam—in order to challenge ISIS’s jurisprudence. Scripture can be deployed in a manner that does not buy into any specific religious or sectarian agenda. This approach has been utilized in interventions with foreign fighters and aspiring jihadis, as part of the United Kingdom’s Channel Programme.

While engaging quietist Salafis may yield some immediate gains as a strategy, the pros do not outweigh the cons.

Rashad Ali is a Fellow with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and a counterterrorism practitioner.