Folk Devils: He is a Salafist!

In the last twelve months several violent attacks have shocked Europe. In July there was the terrorist attack by Anders Breivik in Norway, in Germany a series of violent attacks against, among others, migrants have been revealed and in the last weeks an attack at a Shiite mosque in Brussels and the killings of two soldiers and a pupil and two teachers of a Jewish school in France sent shock waves through Europe. In the case of Brussels and France people quickly pointed out that the perpetrators were salafists as a synonym for radical Muslims and Islam. In the case of Breivik psychological factors have been a prominent frame to explain his behaviour (and his ideology is often seen as the result of his disturbed mind) and in the German case socio-economic factors have been discussed in relation to the neo-nazi ideology of the perpetrators. In the Belgian and French case however the reference to salafism seems to work as a sort of self-explanatory frame: ‘ahh, he is a salafist? No wonder he shoots Jews / Throws a bomb into a Shiite mosque’. This shows not only a limited understanding of Salafism but also how our perception of Islam, Muslims and violence on the one hand and the ideal European society on the other hand is limited by the dichotomy between liberal and radical Islam.

What is Salafism?
What Salafism is or does, is not so easy to point out. Salafism can refer to all kinds of movements in Islam claiming to represent an ‘authentic’ Islam as practiced by the first generations of Muslims. As such it is by definition heterogeneous and sometimes the differences among them are more important than their similarities. Salafism is also often conflated, wrongly so, with reformers such as ‘Abduh and Rida in the 19th and 20th century. Often labelled as a ‘radical’ ‘extremist’ ‘fundamentalist’ branch of Islam in my research I prefer to conceptualize it as a utopian movement with a clear imbrication of Salafism and Saudi Wahabism from the 1970s onwards:
Radicalization Series IV – Salafism as a Utopian Movement – C L O S E R — C L O S E R

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.

The Salafi movement is not a monolithic bloc or a homogeneous movement. The many diffences and antagonisms within the movement come about because of two tensions in Salafi doctrine and practice. Firstly, there is the question of how to deal with non-Muslims and Muslims who follow different doctrines and practice Islam differently. The claim of the Salafi movement that they teach and follow the ‘true’ Islam that should not be ‘contaminated’ by other influences makes them trying to shy away from others in order to protect Islam and Muslims against attacks. They idea however that they should proselytize makes it necessary that they also maintain an open and inviting attitude. Secondly, Salafi doctrines are based on a scriptural, literal and strict interpretation of Islam. There certainly is room for pragmatics but that does not really resolve the tension between the uncompromising moral standards in the doctrine and everyday life of Salafi Muslims where they encounter other people, ideas and rules.

On top of these tensions there is the issue of how engage the eternal and epic battle between right and wrong that characterizes much of the Salafi thought. The style and manner in which they try to resolve both tensions mentioned above, results from the answer they give to the latter question. Some networks completely shy away from engaging in politics while others have a strongly militant or violent way of solving the tensions while again others vehemently reject every form of political opposition and certainly violence. This means that the relation between Salafism and violence is not so self-evident. Recent research in the Netherlands by Roex, Van Stiphout and Tillie also shows that the relation between religious orthodoxy and political activism is rather weak. Certainly, religion or ideology can provide people with an agenda, sense of urgency, legitimization and inspiration for (violent) activism but in most cases engaging with Salafism and/or Jihadism pertains more to developing a sense of pride and empowerment than resulting in actions.

Salafi Islam as the new folk devil
A basic tenet of the recent debates and policies in Europe with regard to Islam and Muslims is treating both as outsiders who do not belong to the European moral community. This idea of community is based upon a homogenizing and idealized version of secular and sexual freedoms that underpin the idea of citizenship. Combined with recent changes in the public debates about Islam such as going from a consensual style to a confrontational style the dominant political praxis of secularism leads to stimulating and integrating a so-called ‘liberal’ Islam while excluding a more assertive version of Islam that is labelled as ‘radical. As such, while European secularism does not advocate the complete removal of religion in the public sphere, particular strands of visible Islam are categorized as ‘radical’ and therefore to be excluded from the public domain. One of the main functions of the distinction between ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’ Islam is to create unity among the political elites who are divided over the management of religion but agree that ‘radical’ Islam does not belong to Dutch society. In this context it is not difficult to understand why Salafism is controversial: face-veiling, inciting speeches, violent attacks justified by perpetrators who had affiliations with Salafi circles by referring to Islam and a transnational Muslim community are problematic for many people, including other Muslims. Also their views on for example homosexuality, the position of women, Shia Islam and sharia are at least controversial in the current context.

But there is more to it. At Connected in Cairo, Mark Allen Peterson points to Stanley Cohen’s work on ‘moral panics’ in a post on Mubarak, Salafis and Other Folk-Devils in Egypt’s Sectarian Violence « CONNECTED in CAIRO

Stanley Cohen discusses the ways in which complex social phenomena are converted into fairly straightforward narratives about the breakdown of some set of cultural values. What makes the narrative powerful is its ability to offload the breakdown onto some real or imagined group of people, who serve as “visible reminders of what we should not be” (Cohen 2002:2).

Why are so many issues with regard to Islam and Muslims perceived as problems coming from radical Islam instead of problems of inequality, injustice or psychologies? Why is the remedy that is sought liberal Islam instead of policies aiming to combat social and economic deprivation and to implement a sincere and true recognition of Islam as a European tradition of more than 1000 years? The reason for that is that the above mentioned culturalization naturalizes differences and problems into cultural differences and problems that to a certain extent can be tolerated but if they go to far they should be banned because they threaten the social cohesion and security of society. In this case Salafism has become the folk devil, the poster boy for radical Islam that threatens the cultural values; they are, in Cohen’s words, the visible reminders of what we should not be.

Doesn’t matter that Mohammed Merah exhibited some features that doesn’t really fit a Salafi lifestyle, or that he apparently decided to go to the Jewish school after being to late to carry out another attack on soldiers, the fact that he had some ties to a radical organization that somehow has some Salafi tendencies (among many other things), that many jihadi circles are against carrying out attacks against people in Europe (let alone children), that some Salafi circles clearly denounce any form of violence, the guy is a representative of radical Islam with practices from the Middle Ages. This media en political narrative of the Salafi folk devil allows the political elite ánd the violent militants to do several things.

  1. It excuses them from critically investigating their own policies and institutions. As Sarkozy has said, against the background of the upcoming elections, these are the crimes of a monster and a fanatic deserving no explanation and no excuses and certainly not a reflection about France, politics and institutions.
  2. It takes the ideology and claims of militants as self-explanatory and self-evident. They do it because of their fanatical ideology that creates a sense of belonging with Palestinian children. No matter what these children think about that or how plausible that claim is.
  3. It allows the political elite to appear as rational, realistic and tolerant at the same time, contrary to extreme nativists such as Le Pen and Wilders. They do not attack Islam in general or all Muslims, no they only attack radicals. Nevermind that stating that these radicals are fanatics, means that they only take Islam as it is to the extreme, but logical consequence. Again, a claim made by the radical themselves as well.
  4. It allows them to reduce the pluralistic nature of Islam and of the religiosity of Muslims into a simple opposition between liberal and radical and impose that opposition on Muslims. Research by Wendy Ann Pojmann shows a similar mechanism with regard to Muslim women’s associations in France and Italy. While the French organization has a strong platform as they accommodate to the existing discourse on liberty and equality, the Italian counterpart has the freedom to resist the idea of assimilation but has no platform. Both organizations and their performance are therefore the product of specific historical and contemporary political circumstances.
  5. It serves to treat Muslims and Islam still as outsiders: partly to be reformed and when they are politically submissive to be integrated, partly to be excluded. An easy framework that gives a sense of control in an age wherein because of individualization and globalization social cohesion is not that strong and wherein nation-states try to regain control by strict laws and security measures. It neglects that for example Muslims who serve in the army were victims in France as well; most of the attention is given to the victims at the Jewish school.
  6. It allows politicians to frame policies with regard to Islam as security issues and matters of tolerance; an attempt to de-politicize citizenship and power.

Note that the responses after the murders in Germany and in Norway produce similar results. Pointing to the psychological factors in Breivik’s case and to neo-nazi’s in the German care makes any reflection on whether our society systematically creates conditions for such horrific acts redundant or (given Sarkozy’s point of view) even immoral. Something similar pertains to Muslims. Commentators who argue that for example socio-economic conditions, exclusion and so on are not sufficient to explain these acts and that such explanations reduce Muslims to people without agency are correct. The imposition however of the good vs. bad Muslim dichtomy on Muslims makes internal debates very difficult. People who point to the risk of inciting speech, the need of reform, or other factors among Muslims that may or may not contribute to these acts, are quickly categorized as giving in to the racists. While the ones who counter such explorations and explanations are quickly seen as radicals or at least sympathizing with them. If people take up a middle way position or one that transcends the dichotomy their loyalties are questioned, both by insiders and outsiders. The dichotomy between liberal Islam and radical Islam therefore emphasizes the need for reform in Islam, but in practice actually prevents that. The dichotomy therefore says more about current society and politics in Europe than about Islam and Muslims.

One thought on “Folk Devils: He is a Salafist!

Leave a Reply to Kafir Harby Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *