Experts weigh in (part 9): 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.

Farid Senzai explained 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.

Kamran Bokhari continues our discussion, arguing that Salafi participation in electoral politics may be an antidote to jihadi violence in certain contexts.

Kamran Bokhari: Salafism is undergoing intense internal fragmentation and is being pulled into three different directions: quietist, jihadist, and electoral Salafism.

Quietist Salafists include scholars, activists, and followers pursuing an apolitical path towards promoting an austere version of Islam, which they believe is in keeping with the ideas and practices of the earliest generation of Muslims. The bulk of Salafis fall in this category. The world’s single largest largest concentration of quietist Salafis can be found in Saudi Arabia. The country’s monarchical political system continues to be stable in great part due to the support from quietist Salafism.

The poverty of political thought within quietist Salafism coupled with the growing gulf over time between the ideals of quietist Salafism and the behavior of the Saudi regime eventually contributed to the development of jihadi-Salafism. Jihadi-Salafism was thus a rejection of the original quietist version, which was seen by jihadis as inadequate to rectify the “un-Islamic” state of affairs of the Saudi kingdom and the wider Arab and Muslim world. To a great extent, jihadi-Salafis chose armed struggle as the approach to political change because the quietists offered no political program.

Prior to the emergence of jihadis, Salafism was, by and large, outside of the fold of Islamism. Quietists were not interested in the pursuit of an Islamic state. For many, Saudi Arabia already represented such a polity. Jihadis on the other hand are all about re-establishing the caliphate. This is a key reason why quietist Salafism cannot serve as an effective counter to jihadism, currently spearheaded by ISIS. While it is possible to get jihadis to renounce violence, it is extremely unlikely that they will shun politics and return to an apolitical form of Salafism.

Here is where electoral Salafism could prove useful, although not across the board. While there were some pre-Arab Spring cases of Salafis engaging in electoral politics (the most prominent being the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria during the late 1980s and early 1990s), electoral Salafism took off in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Egypt’s Hizb al-Nour, as Shadi Hamid noted earlier in this series, represents the most advanced case of this trend.

Encouraging Salafis to partake in the electoral process is a far better alternative to jihadism than quietist Salafism. While the Nour party’s founders were quietist Salafis, Gamaa Islamiyya, a former jihadi-Salafi group, embraced electoral Salafism when it founded the Building and Development Party after the ouster of the Mubarak government. The key point here is that if quietist Salafists have moved towards electoral Salafism then it is not reasonable to expect that quietist Salafism will be seen by jihadis — especially those from ISIS — as an alternative to their current path of violence.

Electoral Salafism has its limits, given that it cannot work in a place like Saudi Arabia where there are no elections — much less democracy. It is also unlikely to work in Libya, Syria, and Yemen where tribal warfare and/or geo-sectarianism preclude the possibility of meaningful electoral politics. Thus, in addition to electoral Salafism there is a need for a minimum level of democratization in order to combat jihadi-Salafism.