Radicalization Series IV – Salafism as a Utopian Movement

There are many different approaches for research on Salafism and they all make clear that, although Salafism has some distinguishing features, the movement is quite diverse with many doctrinary contradictions and clashes and different politico-theological tendencies. Almost all definitions emphasize that the term Salafism is derived from ‘al-salaf al-salih, (the pious predecessors); the first three generations of Muslims who are, according to tradition, the best generations of Muslims ever lived. They also emphasize that Salafists treat Quran and Sunna (the life of the prophet Muhammad) as the only legitimate sources for reason and behaviour of Muslims. It is therefore difficult to define Salafism in a clear, consistent way. One of the main frames for research on Salafism is Quintan Wiktorowicz’ work on Islamic activism; based upon social movement theory. He makes a distinction between Purists, Politicos and Jihadis. The purists, according to Wiktorowicz are not interested in politics, while Politicos (often influenced by Muslim Brotherhood networks) do engage in politics while the Jihadis see the world in such a deplorable state that only a violent Jihad can bring peace and (Islamic) justice to Muslims. Several authors in the book Global Salafism (in particular Thomas Hegghammer) have criticized his model among other things for being internal inconsistent (because jihadis should be a subsubdivision of politicos based upon him seeing political strategy as the defining issue), the definition is still too much based upon theology that does not tell us very much about people’s actual behaviour and claiming to be a-political (as purists do) is a political claim because it indirectly supports the status quo. Hegghammer propes a different typology based upon the structural presence of resources, strategies and rationales for action. Although helpful this model does not solve the problem that it cannot take into account identity, gender or the idea that security and radicalization (two angles in which both approaches fit) are themselves cultural constructions with specific local, national and transnational dimensions. Both models are also top down: they take up the official doctrines, methods and identities of spokespersons and religious authorities but ignore the perspectives, ideas and practices of participants in the movements.

In my research I choose for a more anthropological account of Salafism as a religious movement, taking seriously the political and religious subjectivities of participants. Based upon an article on Grounded Utopian Movements by Price, Nonini and Fox Tree in Anthropological Quarterly, I regard Salafism as a movement trying to revitalize Islam based upon a homogenuous ideal of Islam of the days of the first generation Muslims. The Salafi movement aims to cleanse Islam from so-called non-Islamic accretions, such as Sufism, Shi‘a Islam, or local practices and doctrines, which have sullied a “pure” Islam (Meijer, in Global Salafism). The only way to lead a pure and authentic life and to inherit paradise is to return to the period of the prophet Muhammad and his companions and to emulate their lives. The sources of the Islam, the Qur??n and the ?ad?th are seen as the written version of the authentic and pure Islam. All human action has to be covered by the sources of Islam to be legitimate, otherwise they are condemned as bid’a or worse: in some cases such illegitimate acts may lead to takfir. Moreover since the prophet Muhammad is considered to be an exemplary, perfect Muslim, the Sunna, a close reading of the Qurann and hadth are essential sources with guidelines for leading the correct life and staying on the righteous path. This applies to thought, behaviour as well as appearance. Based upon this ideal the movement tries to develop a lifestyle participants find more just and satisfying than at present. The transnational Salafi movement consists of local and global branches and is characterized by a loosely coupled network structure that is non-hierarchical and characterized by a segmentary-like mobilization and fission and fusion of several sub-networks. The different Salafi networks share the same doctrine of tawhid (the unity and uniqueness of God) as Wiktorowicz explains, but (contray to Wiktorowicz’ claim) do not agree on all aspects of this principle such as what constitutes belief and unbelief and how to interpret particular attributes of Allah. Furthermore, Salafi networks share the method of reading and interpreting the sources of Islam but they differ on the methods of worship and the manner of achieving their goals.

Utopian Movement
Just like in the case of Salafism, Price et al make clear that movements such as Global Justice, Rastafari, Maya Movement and Pentecostalism can be seen as Grounded Utopion Movements whereby grounded refers to the idea that identities, values and imaginaries are grounded in local histories and are embodied and experienced by concrete persons with their own histories. They use the term grounded to refute that we are not talking about irrational, obsolete and romantic ideas; instead they rooted, constructed and nurtured by interactions and practices binding people to the idea of being and becoming part of a community. They admit that all movements have utopian dimensions; this dimensions directs actions in terms of goals and the correct trajectory towards achieving those goals. Grounded Utopian Movements however are distinct from other movements because their utopian imaginaries pertain to the protection of the moral integrity of one’s own community and of one’s own identity against different modalities of oppression and injustice. It is in particular their capacity to create new, alternative realities that make state institutions and elites wary of them and perceive these movements as a threat for social cohesion, security and existing arrangements in society.

Establishing Utopia: politics of lifestyles, distinction and resistance
The Salafi movement is a modern social movement aimed at guarding the identity and integrity of Muslims in a world perceived to be full of seduction, oppression and injustice. Convincing and teaching Muslims to be part of common life, a common heritage and common practices determining a good and correct life is crucial for establishing a ‘true’ moral community emulating the model of the prophet Muhammad. Many activities of the Salafi movement therefore are aimed at constructing the moral community and teaching people the proper ways of being part of that community. The most important strategy of the Salafi movement for de-corrupting Islam and the Muslim community is da’wa: inviting people to Islam (mission). With their da’wa activities the movement spreads its ideas of a virtuous life based upon the idea of commanding good and forbidding evil (al-amr bi-l-ma’ruf wa nahy ‘an almunkar). We can distinguish between three different types of activities sustaining that principle: politics of lifestyles, politics of distinction and politics of resistance (de Koning, 2009b).

All Salafi networks in the Netherlands and other European countries are engaged in one way or another in these type activities. Politics of lifestyles are activities aimed at shaping and nurturing the correct Islamic identity and lifestyle of participants. Preachers of the Salafi movement give lessons, lectures, organize conferences about the correct islamic lifestyle (dress, marriage, ways to interact, being Muslim in a Western society, and so on). The different networks publish books and leaflets about these topics and every networks has its own (sometimes overlapping) circles of lectures and courses by which they aim at a moral rehabilitation of Muslim youth. This does not mean that people are passive consumers of Salafi ideas; in daily life they have to make compromises which most of them do with regard to for example dress and interaction between men and women. Also the courses and conferences are not only about transferring knowledge; they are also meant to establish a sense of belong, brotherhood/sisterhood. It is the combination of knowledge and being together that accounts for many people using the knowledge circles to boost their imaan (faith).

The politics of distinction are aimed at protecting a minority position of Muslims in a society where the majority tries assimilate them. Particular lifestyle practices such as wearing the niqab can become part of the politics of distinction when they are part of public debate or even forbidden. As a result the Salafi movement tries to engage with the public debate and at the same time such plans offer them a platform to disseminate their ideas to a larger (Muslim and non-Muslim) audience. Also self-identification is part of the politics of distinction for example pertaining to the internal quarrels over using the label Salafi method, Salafi (in Dutch also selefie) and criticizing other groups. The boundaries between different branches of the Salafi movement may appear very strong and impermeable when looking at the daily life of participants a more nuances picture emergers because for example economic motivations can lead to people of one network working in the institutes of another (antagonistic) network. And indeed, building their own institutions such as Islamic schools and home care are also part of this type of politics as well as criticizing other Muslim organisations for their allegedly complacent attitude in the Islam debate.

The third type, resistance politics, involves activities aimed against what the Salafi movement perceives as oppressive structures in Europe and Muslim countries. This can pertain to preaches about ‘zionist’ aggression against Palestinians, the necessity of fighting against injustice and severe attacks at Muslim representatives outside the Salafi movement. Travels of some youths to Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan (Kashmir), Iraq and Somalia to participate in the fighting against the US, is also part of this, as well as publishing jihad texts and videos on the internet. Most networks of the Salafi movement do not differ with regard to life style politics but are in fierce disagreement over the other two types.

Welcoming utopia
The call for unity, purity and religionization coming from the Salafi movement can be seen as an attempt to establish itself as the only true representatives of ‘true’ Islam in the Netherlands protecting the Muslim communities from attacks from inside and outside. Moreover, given the practice of Salafi preachers to base their statements upon ‘evidence’ from Islamic sources and explaining them at the same time, the Salafi movement does not only provide Muslim youth a way to engage with a vision of ‘true’ Islam and create a sharp distinction between them and their parents and them and Dutch society, but also a method and path to immerse oneself into a ‘new’ tradition. As I have shown in my contribution to Global Salafism by analyzing the life-stories of two female Salafists, the process by Moroccan-Dutch youth turn to Islam after a period of ‘being not so religious’ or ‘sleeping Muslims’ and affiliate themselves with the Salafi movement can be described as a type of conversion; a re-affiliation within the same religious tradition. These women seek a strong identity, self-realisation and a symbolic transformation of a personal crisis. The Salafi doctrines enable them to rewrite their own life stories and to construct their sense of self as strong people who find their purpose of life in Islam. They have rebuild their own life-stories in the process of seeking wholeness and connected their own individual trajectories, predicaments, ideals and ideas to the Salafi interpretation of Islam.

The rigorous and sometimes rigid Salafi creed and piety creates a stark contrast with the often conflicting and troublesome experiences of daily life. This, as is the same as with the other Muslim youth searching for a ‘true’ Islam, does not mean people actually follow every aspect of the Salafi way. Many of them see it as an attempt to follow a life as a ‘true’ Muslim, as a personal project that has to be fulfilled and as a means to revive ones personal faith (imaan) without fully living up to it. The utopian Islam and the dark, messy, chaotic daily life coexist and, this contradiction is exactly what both is the strength and weakness of the Salafi movement. The utopia with its high moral standards can become an obstacle for functioning in daily life with family, work and education where other rules and loyalties exist. At the same time it gives the Salafi movement its power for it means that people can hold on to the ideal without diluting it and it makes people striving for more all the time: the utopia lies somewhere at the horizon (it is concrete) although impossible to reach. By framing the ideas about the correct lifestyle, building up a position as a minority in Europe and its fight against oppression and justice, in terms of commanding good and forbidding evil the actions of the Salafi movement become moral issues by which the Salafi movement tries to construct a moral community and emphasizes its integrity and tries to safeguard it.

9 thoughts on “Radicalization Series IV – Salafism as a Utopian Movement

  1. I really enjoyed this post.

    I have two questions:

    – How far can we isolate Salafism as a utopian movement within Islam? It cannot possibly be the only such islamist utopian doctrine…

    – Also absent from your article is how western political philosophy influences expat salafis.
    Don’t you think that transnational political ideology is very much a western concept and that the jihadi political militancy has also influenced the Salafi social culture and ideals?

  2. M.N.Silva said:

    I really enjoyed this post.

    I have two questions:

    – How far can we isolate Salafism as a utopian movement within Islam? It cannot possibly be the only such islamist utopian doctrine…

    – Also absent from your article is how western political philosophy influences expat salafis.
    Don’t you think that transnational political ideology is very much a western concept and that the jihadi political militancy has also influenced the Salafi social culture and ideals?

    Thanks. With regard to the first question. You are right of course, there are probably many and how to isolate Salafism from the rest is actually an ongoing topic of debate within our research group. Self-identification as Salafi or by referring to a Salafi manhaj is an important one, but not enough (since for example Hizb ut Tahrir branches also self identify themselves as salafi on occasion).

    Furthermore in my work it refers to those Muslims who try to emulate (not just refer) the ‘pious predeccors’ as closely as possible and in all domains of life. Central is the doctrine of tawhid and a very strict understanding of it. Also they reject following the four different schools of Islamic law. Of course other groups may have this in common with the Salafis but with regard to the Salafis I think it is their strictness and devotion with regard to shaping their lives according to (their idea of) the norms and practices of the Salaf that stands out.

    Of course the situation gets complicated because outsiders (such as me but also security services, policy makers and so on) also use the label Salafism.

    I think you are right with regard to your second question; I did not include it here because I thought it would become too complicated for a blogpost. Maybe I should do that in the near future. I love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

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