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Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement

I just finished reading a really powerful new book (more like a collection of extremely well written articles) called “Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement” (http://www.amazon.com/Global-Salafism-Religious-Movement-Columbia/dp/0231154208/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1278300055&sr=8-1). Rather than give a traditional review, I wanted to share some thoughts and provide a few excerpts from the introduction to encourage some of you to research further into the topic. From the outset, let me say that for someone who has researched extensively in the field and who has made it his business to read most major studies about the rising tide of Salafism and political Islam, “Global Salafism” stands apart as a monumental achievement, extremely well-researched, powerfully-argued, and beautifully written. Everyone should try and find a copy of it as soon as they can and read it, as it would be useful for beginners and specialists alike.

In the introduction to the articles Roel Meijer (the editor) explains that much of the scholarship on Salafism has been shrouded in confusion or overshadowed by studies of political violence often linking the rising tide of Salafism (which is almost always conflated with “Wahhabism”) with terrorism. In order to challenge this view and to provide a more academic definition of Salafism by reframing the debate, Meijer and his colleagues in “Global Salafism” seek to address several salient questions: what are the basic tenets of Salafist doctrine, why does it have such an appeal, and what is its relationship with politics and violence? Meijer asserts that Salafism is so difficult to define due to its ambiguity and fragmentation. Hence, contrary to previous analyst’s view of Salafism as a rigid or monolithic movement, Meijer asserts that although Salafism possesses clearly defined characteristics, it is a heterogeneous movement with mixed, and even contradictory, tendencies which have sprung up in different regions at different times.

Following a useful elucidation of the doctrinal aspects and internal divisions within Salafism (far too complicated and elaborate for me to summarize), Meijer goes on to discuss Salafism within the context of (Muslim) identity and empowerment. He explains why Salafism is so appealing and how it should be understood. Here, rather than attempt to summarize, I think some excerpts would be more effective:

“In a contentious age, Salafism transforms the humiliated, the downtrodden, disgruntled young people, the discriminated migrant, or the politically repressed into the ‘chosen sect’ (al-firqa al-najiya) that immediately gains privileged access to the Truth. Salafis are therefore able to contest the hegemonic power of their opponents: parents, the elite, the state, or dominant cultural and economic values of the global capitalist system as well as the total identification with an alien nation which nation-states in Europe impose. Because its emphasis is on doctrinal purity and not politics, Salafism–more than the Muslim Brotherhood or Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr–has been able to empower individuals by providing a universal alternative model of truth and social action. Due to its universal quality and its de-territorialized, de-culturalized character it has become a highly powerful model of identification and is eminently suitable for the creation of new virtual communities. But the real power of Salafism lies in its ability to morally upstage the opponent [instilling a sense of superiority among its followers].” (p. 13)

“This sense of superiority has six dimensions. First it is not explicitly revolutionary, i.e. it does not directly challenge the status quo by claiming to overthrow it by foreign ideology. Rather it claims to a build a superior moral order by purifying existing structures on the level of the individual, the family, or the community…Second, its empowerment derives from its claim to intellectual superiority of religious knowledge (‘ilm). Few competitors are as thorough, or so demanding in the knowledge of the sources of Islam as Salafism, and joining the “Saved Sect” means not only obtaining the moral high ground but also acquiring a superior knowledge of Islam that every Muslim should have. Moreover, direct access to the text enables one to challenge the religious establishment, which is mostly based on the fiqh of the four jurisprudential schools as well as on “folk Islam,” both of which are associated with the dominant power structure or prevalent culture. Third, Salafism provides its followers with a strong identity. Fourth, it allows its followers to identify much more easily with the larger ummah, which enhances its universal pretensions. Fifth, it is activist while being (mostly) quietist…Sixth, as all religious movements, and in contrast to political ideologies, it has a tremendous advantage of ambiguity and flexibility. Although it claims to be clear and rigid in its doctrine and its striving for purity, in practice it is malleable. Its ambiguity allows its followers to be politically supportive of regimes as well as reject them.” (p. 13-14)

He then moves on to discuss a specific manifestation of Salafism, that of Jihadi-Salafism:

“Like any modern identity, Jihadi-Salafism can be adopted and shed and people have reinvented themselves from pietistic Salafis to Jihadis and vice versa. They are transnational like modern capitalistic markets, and promote a Western idea of changing the world by action, and like the West they promote a subjective experience of the world and the privatization of pleasure and pain, gain and loss, and wealth and poverty, to improve life, spread prosperity, and dominate as a world system. Jihadis, however, plunder the Salafi terminological toolkit of intolerance, xenophobia, sectarianism, and violence, turning them into a terminology supporting total war against apostate governments and unbelieving forces of global oppression with which Islam is locked in an apocalyptic clash of civilizations.” (p. 26)

There follows a discussion of how Salafism is able to succeed/fail in certain circumstances:

“It appears that where either the population is strongly embedded in local practices and individualization has not evolved strongly enough, or where an ethno-nationalistic struggle is prominent, transnational Salafism is unable to take root. It can only succeed in making inroads when its quietest current can find a niche or the nationalist movement has failed and the national struggle can be linked with a larger global struggle, or it fits into the politics of identity in Western Europe.” (p. 29)

Obviously this is just a small preview of a far more detailed and complicated study (18 articles by the top scholars in the field), but I wanted to give many of you an idea of where academia on this subject was headed and perhaps encourage some of you (sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, historians) to delve more into the field.

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