Will the Real Salafi Please Stand Up!

Will the Real Salafi Please Stand Up!


The Threat of Muslim Labels


dropcapFor well over a decade, various categories have been created to identify, describe, engage and, in some cases, control Muslims. In 2007, for example, the influential RAND Corporation issued a report titled “Building Moderate Muslim Networks.” According to RAND, “moderate” Muslims “share the key dimension of democratic culture,” which includes “support for democracy and internationally recognized human rights, respect for diversity, acceptance of nonsectarian sources of law, and opposition to terrorism and other illegitimate forms of violence.”

A similar case is that of the “Islamist.” This one has roots that precede the attacks of 9/11 but it too functions to categorize Muslims in specific ways. Islamist, in fact, is so well established that Merriam-Webster has offered its own definition: “a popular reform movement advocating the reordering of government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam.” Despite the obvious limitation of the category (by this definition, only “popular reformist movements” can be Islamists) and inherent bias against Islam (there’s no similar category for Christians or Jews), Islamist remains a central category for talking about, and dealing with, Muslim populations throughout the world.

One could go on to identify many similar categories; Wahhabbi and jihadist are just two more examples. We could also include an entire list of modifying labels that function to identify a variety of Muslim personalities in the world: “militant” Muslims, “secular” Muslims, “modern” Muslims, etc. Certainly a lot has been written about these categories and labels. Authors have rightfully critiqued how these terms function to falsely categorize Muslims in ways that not only misrepresents the realities of Muslim beliefs and actions but also informs U.S. policies toward countries in disastrous ways. The fact is that many of these terms gained their strength in a “war on terror” world in which the U.S. government intensified its “engagement” with Muslim communities throughout the Middle East and Asia. Often in the context of war, but also within the domestic realm, the U.S. government has deployed these categories to legitimize its violence against the “bad” Muslims and justify its financial support for the “good” Muslims.

Photo courtesy of Gaspard Winckler/Flickr.

Photo courtesy of Gaspard Winckler/Flickr.

The following discussion concerns one particular category that, over the last few years, has gained significant traction: Salafi. Since 9/11, and particularly following the Arab Uprisings, this term has achieved a central place within journalistic reports, scholarly analysis, editorial commentary, and even everyday discourse. For example, in 2005, PBS Frontline devoted an entire episode to Salafism linking it to Al-Qaeda. According to this investigation, Salafists were “fundamentalists who believe that Islam should be restored to its most pure origins as written in the Quran.” While Salafist ideas were not necessarily the problem, the show suggested that Salafis’ close ties with jihadists made them a serious threat. Another example comes from Robin Wright, a distinguished scholar at the USIP-Woodrow Wilson Center. Writing for the New York Times in 2012, she argued that Salafis, not “all Islamists,” were who we (Americans?) should fear. Salafis, according to her, are “ultraconservative Muslims vying to define the new order according to 7th century religious traditions rather than earthly realities.” The limitations of her definition notwithstanding, Wright too identified Salafis as a problem for “us” invoking a “new Salafi crescent, radiating from the Persian Gulf sheikdoms into the Levant and North Africa.” Like PBS, however, Wright wanted to distinguish the Salafi from the more sinister “jihadi.” Many Salafis, she suggests, disavow violence.

PBS and Wright are not alone. Salafi seems to have become the new Muslim menace. Writing for Foreign Affairs, William McCants offered his analysis of Egyptian politics explaining how the Muslim Brotherhood has conceded its vanguard role to “the ultraconservative Salafis.” According to McCants, Salafists are not just ultraconservatives; they can also be identified with terrorist organizations such as “al Qaeda.”  Even in this publication, The Islamic Monthly, author Deonna Kelli Sayed identified Salafis as a key threat to Islam in Chechnya describing them as an “alien” presence guilty of “well-funded cultural imperialism.” So common is use of Salafi that the Muslim blog, Altmuslimah, included it in its glossary page for writers. Salafi, according to the site, “is a follower of the Islamic movement Salafiyyah, which believes that the first three generations of Muslims, or the “Pious Predecessors,” are model examples and their understanding of the texts and tenets of Islam are Islamic orthodoxy.”

Beyond journalism, I’ve also noticed an increase use of the term among Muslims. Typically, the term emerges in conversations concerning the various Muslim actors in the MENA region and Central and South Asia. In this context, Salafi is used to identify groups that are guilty of violence or extremism, like those responsible for egregious attacks on Sufi pilgrims and/or Shiites, or more generally, groups that represent the antithesis of whatever the speaker’s view of Islam might be. Salafi, in this case, is an essential “other” who often represents “backward” or “oppressive views” of Islam. In one example, an acquaintance of mine stressed how the “Salafis” wanted women to stop plucking their eyebrows. This, according to the speaker, was clearly a bad thing. In another, the “Salafis” wanted women to wear the niqab (face covering) and men to have beards. Again, the implication was that whatever the Salafi wants is unquestionably wrong. This use of the term, however, is not restricted to overseas actors. I’ve heard many Muslims use the term to account for a range of individuals and ideas (Salafism) in the U.S. including a disliked khateeb or imam, individuals who want to keep women separate from men during prayer, and a host of other things that some Muslims see as antithetical to their own ideas about Islam. Salafi, in short, has come to stand for anyone that represents a disagreeable expression of Islam. It is a stigma.

There are several problems with the Salafi category and one could devote a considerable amount of ink to deconstructing the ways it has been used and abused. Here, I want to restrict my concern to two particular issues that have more to do with the way some Muslims are using the word. There are certain risks involved in applying Salafi to Muslims in ways that lack precision. These risks are significant and should compel us to rethink how we, and others, are categorically carving up the Muslim world.

The first problem I see with the use of Salafi concerns the risk of essentialization. By essentialization I mean the process of representing people in ways that reduces them to an salafi“essential” being or “essence.” Thus we find the common idea that whoever a Salafi is, he or she is essentially backward (anti-modern), irrational (driven by passion and emotion, not secular logic), and violent (if not inherently so at least very capable). These three characteristics are constant throughout journalistic accounts. They are also common to political analysts and pundits. The Salafi is constantly represented as a being expressive of core qualities that are always a problem, a concern, and a threat to the “natural order of things.”

One of the issues with essentalizing the Salafi, or anyone for that matter, is that it locates the individual or group’s motives and actions not in a contemporary setting with real material conditions but within a basic nature. The Salafi, in other words, is an encoded organism capable of very little beyond the program she/he’s been assigned by Islam. More fundamentally, the Salafi isn’t a modern entity; she/he is an aberration of the times explicable in terms of some basic religious blueprint. Like the jihadist, like the Islamist, like the terrorist, the Salafi is represented as an ahistorical figure defined by the problems she/he presents to “us,” the modern rational people of the world. In this way, whatever problems the Salafi might confront—the social, political, and economic problems that are productive of his/her very Salafism—are irrelevant to “us” because the world he threatens is hegemonic—it is the taken for granted world of “civilization” and “barbarism.”

In this way, the essentialization of the Salafi functions as a form of stigmatization. That is, the Salafi is a stigmatized individual who bears the unfortunate qualities of what Erving Goffman described as an “undesirable difference” that’s defined by what is considered normal. Consider, for example, the way the Salafi’s relationship to 7th century religious traditions is somehow obviously bad and irrational. Many Muslims use 7th century traditions and knowledge to make sense of the present. The entire sunna of our Prophet (PBUH) is a practice grounded in a century far removed from today. Does that make us all Salafis? Does that mean we’re all “backward?” If the matter is how the Salafi interprets the relevance of that tradition, then that should be the focus, although I doubt all the Muslims identified as Salafis follow the same interpretation. Moreover, looking backward is not exclusive to Salafis or Muslims. In that sense, they’re a lot like the rest of the world. Even within the U.S., communities struggle over the meaning of the past—the often distant past—to determine the course of the future. Consider how often the “founding fathers” are invoked in debates over the course of the American future. The issue here is substantive and should be treated as such. Simply because the Salafi references the 7th century doesn’t make her/him irrational or backwards. Indeed, whether I agree with the Salafi or not, as Muslims also interested in the past, we should be willing to engage the Salafi as an individual worthy of dignity, not stigma.


Photo courtesy of Jason Jones/Flickr.

The stigmatization of the Salafi is, I believe, evident in the fact that some Muslims use the term almost exclusively to say something like “disagreeable” or “bad” Muslim. To be a Salafi is to be identified as a Muslim at odds with what seems to be an unquestionable ideal of Islam that itself needs examination. This is not to say that people who identify as Salafis don’t exist in our communities. Nor is it to say that these people shouldn’t be challenged by competing ideas and methodologies in Islam. It is to say, however, that the term shouldn’t be taken as a label for all things we disagree with. To do so risks generalizing in ways that don’t actually solve the issues that real Salafis might present to other Muslims. It risks ignoring the fact that not all expressions of Islam considered conservative are examples of Salafism and, more importantly, it risks denying Salafis a legitimate place within our communities.

The essentialization and stigmatization of the Salafi leads me to the second risk of using this term in uncritical ways. This risk is intimately connected to the first but deals with its possible consequences. I’m speaking about the risk of power and violence. Specifically, I fear that the way Salafi has come to stand for an essentially problematic person/group for the so-called modern world allows us to care little about what happens to the actual people marked by that category. It risks reinforcing a worldview in which states can wage their “war on terror” against Salafis in violent ways and without question. It also risks maintaining the illusion of an “Islam” that is outside of history, of modernity, of the world; an Islam that has to be molded in particular ways to make it fit in. The world in which Islam is being asked to adjust is, again, taken for granted—dominant. It is Islam that is in question and the Salafi allows us to continue thinking that this is so. If Salafis are the new menace, then states like the U.S. and even Syria can prosecute their wars with little regard for the lives they’re destroying. And, if the Salafi is not just “over there” but is also “here,” then we can expect policies that continue to treat Muslims like suspects, potential criminals, threats.

The existence of some Salafi groups or particular forms of Salafism may be a real problem. There are individuals who identify as Salafis and they may be involved in activities worthy of scrutiny or even alarm. The problem of the Salafi, however, if there is a problem at all, is also a problem with “us;” it is a problem of a public too willing to accept categories that have dangerous implications for those marked by those categories. In some cases, it seems to me that the question of the Salafi may not be a question of the Salafi at all; rather, what we’re really faced with is a much larger issue about the kinds of ideas, practices, and power shaping people’s lives throughout the Muslim world. A ban on plucking eyebrows, for example, might say something more about resistance to the commodification of feminine beauty than with the 7th century. Understood this way, the Salafi can be seen as a contextual category that requires local, situated understandings, not essentializing stigmatization. More importantly, the Salafi category might be an important point of critical reflection that underscores the necessity of being far more vigilant in a world shaped by violent realities.

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