What is Salafi jihadism?
A Q&A with Shiraz Maher, whose new book explores the intellectual underpinnings of this warrior doctrine.
Global jihadism is one of the defining movements of our age. Much has been said about the behaviour of jihadists – particularly in the aftermath of an attack - but their ideology remains poorly understood. In his new book, "Salafi Jihadism: the History of an Idea", Shiraz Maher charts the intellectual underpinnings of this pragmatic but resilient warrior doctrine. His book examines the ideas that underpin one of the most destructive political philosophies for our time. Maher is a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College, University of London, and he also teaches at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, in the US. Here, he discusses some of the insights in the book.
How is Salafi-Jihadism distinct from Salafism?
Salafism in general is a misunderstood term in the public domain, but so is its association with violence. Salafism is actually quite a broad and expansive Islamic tradition. The vast majority of its adherents are peaceful – they’re not violent extremists. I was trying to underscore that point in the book to show the nuance and gradation within that and to also clarify terms. People often use the term Wahhabi and Salafi interchangeably. I wanted to show the differences to better enlighten people about the distinctions. Salafi jihadism is this particular subset within a broader Salafi tradition.
How is Wahhabism distinct?
Not all Salafis are Wahhabis. Salafism is the philosophy of the good life: how can I be the best Muslim I can possibly be, how can I live the most authentic Islamic life I could possible live? The idea then is to emulate the practices, the means and methods of the Salaf, of the first three generations of Islam that surrounded the prophet Muhammad. The goal of the Salafi is to emulate them and to move towards the Islamic practice they had. That’s the philosophical end point. Wahhabism is a method of realizing that practice – the most popular and best known today. But it is by no means the sole mechanism to realise the Salafi vision. There are other ways to try and live the life of those other generations.
Salafism is generally only spoken about in terms of extremism. Is that unfair?
The reality is that most Salafis are quiet. They’re no harm to anyone. They don’t care about society really. If that’s the case, they wouldn’t catch your attention because they are by definition people who tend to pull away from society and public debate. What they’re really concerned about is self-purification, education, learning more about their faith, implementing and practicing it better, getting themselves and their families to heaven. They’re not going to want to have a role in the Brexit debate for example – it’s just not what they’re about. So invariably the only time Salafism comes into the press is when Salafi jihadists have done something because that demands attention.
What are the defining features of Salafi jihadism?
I identify five core ideas I think are very important: jihad, takfir – the process of ex-communication, al-wala bara, which is love and hate or loyalty and disavowal for the sake of god and religion, tawhid, which is the belief in the unitary oneness of god and finally hakimiyyah, the idea of Islamic governance.
The real point about these ideas is that they all exist within normative mainstream Islam. All Muslims believe in tawhid, all Muslims are aware of hakimiyyah, jihad, these types of things. It’s not to say these ideas are unique to the movement. What I’m trying to show is what the Salafi jihadi movement has done that is unique in the way they have interpreted these ideas. What has been the ideological trajectory and the manipulation and the shaping of those religious ideas that distinguishes and differentiates it from more normative understandings of those same ideas?
Why is Salafi jihadism so potent today?
It is a dramatic ideology that has given itself expression through force. That, in some respects, has given it the impression of being successful. When young people look today to ISIS for example, they see a movement that essentially appears to have momentum on its side – at least until the last 9-12 months. It was conquering new territory, producing these slick propaganda videos, it broke down the border between Syria and Iraq, it takes Mosul and Raqqa, and it’s leader comes out defiantly on the steps of the Mosul grand mosque to declare a Caliphate. All of that gives you confidence and motivation if you’re a young man or woman who is inclined towards these ideas.
Another aspect is of course that it’s part of a broader issue going on in our society which is not limited to Muslims. There’s been a lot of talk about post-truth politics recently: we don’t care about facts when it comes to Brexit, we don’t care that Trump is a pathological liar. That’s a broader crisis with our society, of modern liberalism. In that way, Salafi jihadism operates like any totalitarianism that came before it, any system that is enveloping, militaristic, autocratic. In that sense, Salafi jihadism in this moment is offering Muslims certainty in a time of uncertainty. It’s offering a sense of corrective analysis at a time when things seem ambiguous. It comes with hardened certainties and it offers and promises the utopia of a divinely mandated system.
The final point is that for the individual within that society, within the Salafi jihadi state of ISIS territory today, it’s a bit like being in North Korea in so far as no action is done for yourself, but to fuel the further glory of the state. Everyone is doing an action not for themselves but for the greater whole, for the broader collectivist atmosphere and spirit of the project.
Is that scriptural justification continually important to jihadist groups?
Al Qaeda really placed much greater emphasis on trying to posit itself within religious tradition, within religious scholarship, to try to build continuity between where it found itself in the post 9/11 climate and scholarship from antiquity. They would go back to famous Islamic scholars and theorists from the past, and say, we are simply operating in the modern era where some of the footnotes may need to be updated but the essence remains. Al Qaeda spent a lot of time trying to justify their positions.
For ISIS, interestingly, we don’t see so much of this. There are these big documents of ISIS positions explaining its rationale for why it does X or Y. It doesn’t really tell us in quite the same way. For example, in one of the chapters in the book I talk how Al Qaeda was rationalizing its killing of human shields. That was a lengthy book – something like 50 pages long, because there was a sense in their minds that they needed to validate what they were doing. When ISIS burned alive the Jordanian pilot, that was an incredibly controversial moment even within jihadi circles. And ISIS made no attempt to explain it other than to issue a one paragraph statement. ISIS strikes me as a very different beast to Al Qaeda in terms of their approach towards this.
Is that traditional theology still important to Al Qaeda?
War and conflict is essentially the most significant driver of ideological ideational change in Salafi jihadist ideology at any moment. So the first Gulf War was important, post-9/11 was an important time, the war in Algeria, and so on. So right now the Syrian civil war does seem to me to be having an influence and an impact on the way Al Qaeda is treating Islamic theology. Essentially what you’re seeing is that Al Qaeda appears to be slightly more pragmatic. Though it’s very early – when it comes to ideological shifts, these things take many years to manifest themselves.
The argument is often made that acts of terrorism are nothing to do with Islam. What do you make of that kind of response?
This gets divided into two camps. Some people say all Muslims are like this, this is what Islamic scripture teaches, Islam is completely incompatible with the west. Then you get people who say, it’s nothing to do with Islam and so on and so forth. Both these highly polarised and often politicised opinions are nonsensical. Really when you look at what these groups project and what they are saying, they do base it on things to do with Islam: it is an interpretation of Islam. Now we can say this is a weak opinion and it’s not the normative viewpoint. Nonetheless, it’s clearly based on something. They haven’t just made it up out of the blue.
Islamic scripture exists in the space between the scripture themselves and interpretation. In that bridge between those two things you have variances. I often think of it as being like an ocean: there are different parts of the ocean, strong currents, weak currents, different levels of toxicity. There’s a huge ecosystem here. Of course the vast majority of Muslims operate in different parts of that ocean, but this is the rapidly moving part, the rough part of the water.
It’s a construction of Islam. If I’m a young Muslim today I have choice over what kind of Islam I want to practice. Do I want to practice a more anodyne version or this militarized thing? It’s like anything else, a young man starting at uni says, do I want to join Labour/Conservaties, or get involved with the BNP? What makes someone choose a totalitarian, fascistic movement? What makes someone look at ISIS or Al Qaeda and find find its narrative appealing?
How important is theology to that?
What we know for a fact is that young people who have joined ISIS have negligible Islamic knowledge. We know that by their own admission and the ISIS registration docs that were leaked from Turkey recently, showing people going into join. We’ve gone through those and certainly all the Europeans – we’re talking more than 95 per cent - who went to join, self-identified as having a weak understanding of their faith. People at that level make a political decision to join something that is totalitarian, as they would have been maybe 50 years ago joining the Nazis or Mussolini’s forces.
There’s a lot of debate about non-violent extremism and whether governments should be policing it. What is your view?
I think they’ve probably gone too far in the latest iteration of Prevent. It has certainly made a lot of people feel under siege. This is the reality of it. When I speak to Prevent practitioners or police, they say it’s not operating in the way people perceive. I’m sympathetic towards that. The problem is that the perception matters in this case. Prevent has become so toxic that there’s really very little you can do to salvage it at this point.
The second thing is that we should allow people to experiment with these ideas, have their ideas challenged and discussed. University is a very important environment in which people should be allowed to have their views challenged. If you try to criminalise those ideas even before someone can really embrace them, you never have the opportunity to challenge them or to expose good ideas to bad ones.
So Prevent is in need of some recalibration. We had a lot of information about the way Prevent ran under the Labour government. It hasn’t been as transparent in recent years under the Conservatives. As a result of that, a lot of myth has built up around it and as I say, the facts really don’t matter at this point. The reality is that Prevent is perceived to be a toxic, unworkable brand and it makes a lot of people feel very uneasy, both within and outside the Muslim community.