Experts weigh in (part 8): 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.

Next up is University of Santa Clara professor Farid Senzai. Farid explains 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.

Farid Senzai: No single magic bullet or “antidote” exists in fighting ISIS since there is no consensus on what motivates individuals to join terrorist organizations. Is it ideology, politics, poverty, or something else? Motives are differentiated and complex, not uniform and simplistic. Thus identifying an overarching pattern on how individuals become susceptible to terrorist recruiters and what intervention strategies can be employed becomes a difficult task.

Experts have tried to discern the dynamic processes that lead to violence; these include the relationship between individuals and groups, the role of identity, the link between religion and politics, and the ideological motivations that support extremism. These motivations may be sociological, psychological, political, or ideological. Salafis are most likely to have an impact when individuals are ideologically driven towards violence. The reason is that many of these same individuals use theological justification for their acts of violence, and Salafis are in the best position to discredit this effort.

Individuals joining jihadi groups often have little knowledge about Islam or the Quran. Many have little formal training; in fact, most have a rudimentary understanding gleaned from online sources or extremist websites. This perversion of Islam into an ideology that allows the wanton killing of innocents in pursuit of a Utopian society must be confronted directly. This is where Salafis can help.

What is needed is more Islam, not less. However, it must be the normative, traditional Islam— the Islam that exemplifies centuries of scholarly and theological consensus that has the ability to neutralize such perversions. Whether one agrees with Salafi interpretations, the reality is that “modern” interpretations of Islam are not likely to have credibility among extremists. There is a consensus among Salafi scholars that the murder of innocent people is strictly prohibited. This message must be forcefully conveyed and instilled into the minds of susceptible recruits. Yet this approach cannot succeed if society attempts to “modernize,” “secularize,” or “stigmatize” Salafis. Such reactions often do more harm than good and usually play right into the jihadi narrative that “outsiders” are attempting to malign and misguide Muslims from “true” Islam.

Violent groups such as ISIS have justified the killing of innocents by misappropriating religious scripture to fit their grotesque justifications. Salafis are often the most credible sources to discredit this very notion. For instance, in the past year, Salafi scholars have provided some of the most forceful arguments against ISIS— whom they label as are nothing more than “deviant Kharijites” (extremists similar to those that withdrew from the Muslim community after the time of the Prophet). Thus their goal is primarily aimed at discrediting ISIS and exposing their corrupt ideas and misguided intentions.

Saudi Arabia has several programs in place where Salafi scholars de-program radicals away from violence. The programs feature well-established, authentic Salafi scholars who engage with suspected ISIS members and sympathizers to discuss basic Islamic concepts. Participating religious figures pay special attention to the concept of jihad in order to address the misconceptions held by radicalized individuals. This particular program and others like it, which have shown success elsewhere, emphasize three points: (1) Islam views acts of violence as unacceptable and the Quran condemns the killing of civilians; (2) the individual’s interpretation of Islam is erroneous; and (3) only legitimate Salafi scholars have the necessary knowledge and qualifications to interpret the Quran. These Saudi programs are more holistic in their approach compared to others that focus on ideology alone. For instance, family members and psychologists are often included in the rehabilitation process. While these programs have at times been criticized for recidivism, the success rate has been relatively high.

Western governments serious about mitigating radicalization must encourage this kind of work indirectly while also avoiding active involvement. Any direct engagement of Western governments would discredit the program and be seen as an extension of outside influence. Many “modern,” “liberal” commentators might cringe at the ultra conservative views held by Salafis, but the reality is that they provide an important counternarrative to ISIS that should be welcomed rather than shunned.