Is quietist Salafism the antidote to ISIS?

Editor’s note: This is the first post in an ongoing series in which authors debate the philosophical and policy challenges posed by the confluence of Islam and politics.

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. We envision a conversation with plenty of room for waffling and mind-changing (or, at least my own waffling and mind-changing). If others would like to comment elsewhere in thoughtful, dispassionate manner, I’ll be sure to link to their posts (just tweet them @usislam).

First out of the gate is Jacob Olidort, who has just written a paper about quietist Salafism. 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. 

In light of Olidort’s article on quietest Salafis, I asked him what he thought of the idea of promoting quietist Salafism as an antidote to ISIS. Here’s his response:

Jacob Olidort: This proposal, while tempting, can lead down a dangerously slippery slope. “Quietism,” or abstaining from political involvement or activism, is merely a placeholder rather than a principle for most Salafi groups today.

“Quietists,” activists, jihadists, and other Salafis are all composed of the same theological DNA. They base themselves on texts and concepts developed over centuries by communities of established Muslim scholars. Indeed, this is a crucial component of the Salafi claim to authenticity. It is therefore not a big conceptual leap to go from quietism to jihadism.

The turbulent politics of the Middle East have encouraged Salafis to shift their approaches to political engagement; where Salafis stand today is not necessarily where they will stand tomorrow. 

There have been many cases of so-called “quietist” Salafis throughout the twentieth century who became activist. Most recently, hundreds of thousands of quietists became politically active in parliamentary elections after the Arab Spring revolutions, perhaps the most famous example being the Nour party in Egypt. 

The civil war in Syria is also shifting the terms of the debate among Salafis about whether to engage in political activism. Before the war, the intra-Salafi debate was focused solely on the merits of engaging in parliamentary politics and on whether it was appropriate to excommunicate Muslims who disagreed with them. The discussion has now shifted to focus on how best to address the growing humanitarian problem, which often puts quietists and jihadists on the same page.

The human toll of the crisis in Syria (which activist and quietist Salafis depict as a result of the Asad government’s Shiite faith) has led some non-violent Salafis—such as the Lebanese Salafi Ahmed al-Assir—to take up arms and lead battalions in Syria.  The humanitarian crisis also continues to inform the quietists’ deliberations over how best to protect the welfare and survival of their Muslim brethren. For example, in Kuwait, Salafi fundraisers debate whether money should be channeled towards arming fighters or providing bread and blankets to orphans.

This is an intra-Salafi and intra-Muslim conversation that needs to be worked out at the level of religious doctrines. It is not clear what kind of contribution the U.S. government—or any world government for that matter— could make to this debate.