The fundamentalist Islamic movement Salafism is spreading rapidly around the world via Internet. With its simple message, it exerts a strong attraction on identity seeking Muslim youths both in the Islamic world and in the west. An international conference on Salafism took place in the Dutch city of Nijmegen last week.
You see them increasingly on the streets of European cities: women in concealing niqaabs, men with long black beards and half-mast trousers. Salafism, which is based on puritanical Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia, is the sect of Islam that Osama bin Laden and its Dutch-Moroccan affiliates of the Hofstad Group adhere to. However, violent “jihadi” Salafists form only a small minority within a much larger movement which enjoys growing popularity among Islamic youths.
The Salafists manifest themselves in so many parts of the world that some researchers wonder whether it should still be referred to as a single movement. Bernard Haykel of Princeton University certainly thinks so:
“Salafism represents a clear theological vision. Salafists want a return to the lifestyle of the first few generations of Muslims. They believe in a univocal, literal reading of the Koran. It is a very powerful discourse rooted in an old tradition which has proved highly attractive to young Muslims around the world.”Norwegian researcher Thomas Hegghammer agrees:
“In a time of great changes and a lack of ideological alternatives, the clear and simple message of Salafism has much to offer to identity seeking Muslim youths.”
Roel Meijer of Radboud University in Nijmegen says Salafism is one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world:
“Salafists communicate mainly through the Internet. In parallel with the rise of that medium the movement has spread rapidly around the world.”
Since 9/11 Salafism has been studied assiduously by various secret services. Academic study of the subject, however, has developed rather slowly. Roel Meijer regards this as surprising, particularly since so much material about the movement can be accessed so easily on the Internet. Together with the Leiden Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM), he organised a conference at which the leading international researchers into Salafism could exchange views.
Various researchers emphasize that Salafism is a vital and dynamic religious movement which will probably loom ever-larger in the coming decades. But Salafism also has its weaknesses. Its very insistence on a literal and univocal reading of the religious texts leaves little room for tolerating alternative interpretations.
Salafists, Bernard Haykel explains, believe in the doctrine of takfir. This doctrine enables them to routinely brand Muslims with other views than Salafism as heretics or unbelievers.
Salafists reject the beliefs of the majority of the Muslim community. They regard Shíites as dangerous heretics posing as Muslims and they particularly despise Sufis, the mystics of Islam. They often refer to a tradition according to which the Prophet had said that towards the end of time, there would be 73 groups of Muslims of which only one would be “saved” and enter Paradise.
As a result of their doctrinal rigidity, the Salafists are divided among themselves. Their differences of opinion, which resound all over the Internet, focus on the exact interpretation of takfir, who they can and can’t work together with, and the legitimacy of violence as a means to achieve their goals.
Even within al-Qaeda some people have their reservations about Salafism. The Norwegian researcher Brynjar Lia relates how, in Afghanistan in the 1990s, al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Mus’ab al-Suri was very upset about the rise of Salafism within the international jihad movement.
As a consequence of their dogmatic rigidity, the Salafists argued with everyone and were unable to cooperate with others. Hardline Salafists, for instance, refused to fight alongside the Taliban because they regarded them as doctrinally unsound. Al-Suri viewed the Salafists as a threat to the unity of the jihad movement, at the very moment that Muslims were besieged by the Americans and the Jews.
According to critics of Islam such as Somali-born former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Dutch scholar Hans Jansen, Salafism represents the only ‘pure’ Islam.
The Salafists themselves will of course readily agree with this. Their opponents in the Islamic world, however, point out that Salafism is based on a doctrine rejected by the majority of Muslims.
The doctrine of takfir – which plays such an important role in Salafism – has its origin in the Kharijite movement, an extreme sect that was rejected by the orthodox majority in the first centuries of Islam.
Bernard Haykal thinks that, even from a scientific point of view, Salafism can in some respects be viewed as a revival of Kharijism:
“The Salafists distance themselves from the Kharijites, who are known as a heterodox movement. But what the Salafists claim does indeed come extremely close to Kharijism.”
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