A Primer on Salafism III

Salafis Studying
(Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.)

Salafism is often wrongly criticized. But it can be rightly criticized also. The first post in this series emphasized how it is often a popular (meaning of the people) expression of Islam. The first essay here shows how this happens, though I think it errs in conclusion.

The second doesn’t even err, because it doesn’t even say anything. It just is hell-bent on Salafism winning in one particular corner of the world.

Salafism and the Politics of Free Market Religion’ takes an economic approach to the question.

Like economic forces, some ideologies may be best explained as different approaches to the marketplace of religion. In applying this idea to Salafism, we see that it promotes a free market “faith economy.” Salafism seeks to break the monopoly of state religion over Muslim identity, analysis of texts, and daily religious life.

Ok… benefit of the doubt so far. It is an interesting premise.

Salafism, until very recently, was not formally invested in politics. It was, as such, largely distinct from larger Islamist organizations, like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbul Tahrir, and others. Salafism is not, however, agnostic to the societies in which it operates; many Salafis engage in social education and proselytization programs.

Yes, largely true. He goes on to make the point that most governments in the Middle East have a particular brand of sponsored religion – often not Salafi.

Because the state enjoys a monopoly, it does not need to ensure that its product, state religion, is adequate or appealing to this audience. This usually means the quality of that product suffers, which is why most monopolized religious economies have low levels of popular participation.

While the people yearn for more direct religious participation, the ulema [religious scholars]—at the behest of governments—often support the status quo. This has caused popular resentment toward the scholarly class, which is viewed as backward and obscurant.

‘Yearning’ seems a word too close in sympathy with its analysis. But ok. I’ve often heard this criticism.

Salafism focuses more on an individual’s principles and ethics. It is not enough for the state and scholars to protect the faith. The individual must also “establish the state of Islam in his heart,” which will result in “the state of Islam being established in the land.”

According to Salafism, the individual is elevated above more imperial notions of allegiance and dedication to state. The focus is on individual dedication to a broader set of values, including duty to self, family, and neighbors. In short, Salafism is about a kind of personal transformation.

Much like the Protestant Reformation, Salafism has been able to personalize religion for the masses.

A bit too harsh on state-sponsored religion, perhaps, sometimes. But it is an interesting window into how Salafis see themselves.

But here is the author’s conclusion and recommendation:

In a “faith economy” free from state regulation, greater levels of religious participation, and possibly even civic duty, become possible. By heeding Salafism’s call to deregulate religious identity, authority, and interpretation, greater religious freedoms can be enjoyed by all.

This seems an idea to celebrate – but do you dare? Does Salafism really believe in the deregulation of religion and the state? Does Islam? People should be free to choose what religion to follow? This is the heritage of Ibn Taymiyya and Abdel Wahhab?

Salafis believe in religious freedom? What if they win? It’s a horrible question, but one so many Muslims are afraid of. That’s one reason why there is state-sponsored religion in the first place. And for 1400 years, it’s almost always been that way.

Perhaps in conversation some Salafis might surprise me. In many other ways, several have. But this is not the discourse I’m used to.

The following, though, is rampant in some sections of the Muslim word. It just doesn’t belong as academic analysis.

Syria, the War on Terror, and the Left’s Salafiphobia’ is an impassioned plea to get rid of Assad and call out the hypocrisy of the American left. I get it, Assad’s a bad guy. And I get that that there is likely a whole lot of misinformation about ‘moderate rebels’, ‘extremists’, ‘secular government’, and the like.

I don’t understand Syria, but if you want to pick a side, go for it.

But why here? It’s not really worth excerpting anything except the opening and concluding paragraphs:

The spontaneous, massive protests against President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban were an inspiring display of solidarity between non-Muslim and Muslim Americans. As encouraging as public backlash against this draconian policy has been, however, it strongly contrasts with the lack of public support Muslims have received during the past fifteen years of the so-called “War on Terror.”

We cannot truly defeat destructive far right policies and structural Islamophobia if we tolerate these same positions among individuals and groups that label themselves as progressive. Now is the time to make clear that the left will not tolerate anti-Muslim bigotry even within its own ranks.

I’m quite sympathetic to parts of what the author is arguing. Does the war on terror mean perpetual militarism? And there is a great danger. Given that much of this war is being fought against Muslims, it risks ramping up the rhetoric against Muslims in general.

As we have seen in part one, that can be directed against Salafis in particular, even by other Muslims.

But why is this essay even here? The last of six in a series on Salafism, it teaches nothing about its subject. Has Muftah inserted an endorsing editorial?

It was a disappointing ending to a very helpful series. I hope you have benefited from their scholarship, and my piddling comments here and there.

Salafis are human beings. Tear apart or adopt their ideas as you will. But treat them with the honor given them by their Creator, and recognize the fidelity they wish to give back. Just remember, as Paul wrote, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.”

Please click here to review part one and part two of this primer on Salafism.

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