Did you know that not all Salafis are jihadis?
Often in popular understanding they of the long beard are the chief perpetrators of religious violence and terrorism.
Many are, but it does not have to be so. Another popular version of Salafism adopts political quietism, believing Islam commands them to obey the ruler — almost no matter what.
The ‘almost’ is because the ruler is required to allow the practice of prayer, and in some fashion implement sharia. If he willingly flaunts this, he forfeits his rule.
But they also believe that Islam teaches that the chaos of rebellion far outweighs the chance that a revolution against defects might possibly be successful.
But where is the sharia line to be drawn, and what calculation of chance might animate a Salafi toward jihad?
Meet Muhammad Surur, a Syrian recently deceased and commemorated in the National as the one who normalized extremism.
Surur was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria until the 1960s. He broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood and moved to Saudi Arabia, where he was influenced by Salafism there.
A decade later, he left Saudi Arabia for Kuwait. In the 1970s, he was part of a leaderless and unorganised religious movement that combined traditional and revolutionary ideas, dubbed the Islamic awakening.
The Sahwa, as the movement was known in Arabic, led to the transmutation of Salafism from a traditional school of thought (dawa) to an activist one (haraki), through the foreign influence of political revolutionaries such as Surur.
In short, political quietism met political Islam.
Still, this doesn’t mean his movement was bloodthirsty. The author notes jihadis and anti-jihadis both hurl insults against one another in Surur’s name.
Even so, Surur believed the Shia were not true Muslims, says the author, and praised himself for anticipating the intra-Muslim divides characterizing the post-Iranian revolution Middle East.
Surur also embraced the Syrian uprising, and was eulogized by the Syrian National Coalition, the political arm of the Syrian Islamic Council.
“He focused in his work on activism and traditionalism, rejecting apathy and passivity, and established a current that combines intellectual work with political activism, in addition to religious knowledge.”
The coalition’s statement is an example of the dangerous tendency to misconceive of the man’s legacy. The political body ignores the impact Surur had on the kind of extremism that sweeps his country five decades after he left it.
Praise for his movement shows the rampant normalisation of extremist ideas prevalent not only by the opposition’s bodies but also by watchers of the conflict.
The article is noteworthy for highlighting an individual who nuances our understandings.
But I find it lacking in one way: Why did the Salafism side of the equation produce such wanton violence?
Traditional political Islamic groups have a more nebulous approach, sometimes embracing non-violence or defined, forceful actions for revolutionary goals. Perhaps I’m being too generous.
Salafi-jihadis have been shaken into political activism, certainly, but where then does the violence come from?
Salafis esteem the earliest Muslim ages and seek to replicate as much as possible. Does the new revolutionary fervor spark imitation of early Islamic wars?
Or does the Salafi tendency to reject the other and the modern world simply explode when driven to an activist cause?
Political Islamists might utilize violence, or pursue insurrection, but there is something very different about Salafi-Jihadis. Why?
Surur himself is not enough to explain this, however much he may have set it in motion. The author does well to bring us his example, but the article is too short to articulate everything.
But everything is what we need to know, to properly understand and appreciate the other.
Inasmuch as that is impossible, let us try within the space we have. For now, just realize that not all Salafis are violent, even if many have long beards.