On Islamists and Salafists

11th March 2019

With religion having been largely relegated to the private sphere due in no small part to the secularising effect of the processes which culminated in the formation of the modern nation-state, this current state of affairs has given rise to concerns surrounding the assertive religious identities of many Muslim communities within the West. Chief among these concerns is the fear that gradual ‘Islamisation’ will result in a complete transmutation of the state and society. Amidst this discourse, the loose employment of terminology, specifically ‘Islamism’ and ‘Salafism’, has cultivated the negative perception in mainstream civil discourse that the two strands of thought correspond to a concerted effort by an overarching monolithic alien ideology to fundamentally reinvent society in the Islamic image. In his foundational work Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism, Sadek Hamid breaks down the three concepts that comprise the namesake of his book down to their constituent parts, revealing a rich history of conflict and debate within British Islamic activist organisations themselves with regards to their divergent aims and strategies. Utilising Sufis, Salafis and Islamists as the principal point of reference, this paper seeks to trace the contours of the intellectual landscape that Islamism and Salafism both occupy, with the aim of presenting the case that both philosophies have long been at loggerheads for supremacy in the Islamic marketplace of ideas, particularly in Britain where most of this paper’s analysis will be confined to. Furthermore, given that a clear demarcation of the relevant terms is a prerequisite for a holistic understanding of complex and contested concepts such as Islamism and Salafism, especially when it comes to the formulation of public policy, some clarification regarding definitions warrants considerable attention so that wider civil discourse is better equipped to address the issues raised by the influence of Islamism and Salafism British society.

Central to the Islamist worldview is the conviction that public life must revolve around Islamic law or Islamic principles. Consequently, Islamism is a proactive theo-political philosophy which places the re-establishment of an Islamic state as its raison d’être, and the pursuit of such a lofty goal has and continues to resonate with many Muslims both in the West and in the Muslim world. As Shadi Hamid and Rashid Dar point out, the “appeal to the past as a guide to the present is a powerful rhetorical device that forms a central strategy of Islamic groups who want to attract new members and inspire them to action”. However, harkening back and yearning for the halcyon days of the caliphate does not come without risk. Indeed, such an aspiration has aroused both suspicion and opposition from more secularised Muslim as well as non-Muslim societies that are understandably wary that such an assertive expression of religiosity carries the danger of radicalising Muslims of an Islamist persuasion. As a consequence, it has become and continues to be difficult, particularly in wider civil discourse, to disentangle the philosophy from the violent radicalisation that it has historically inspired. As Jonathan Brown succinctly puts it, the term “Islamist” “is thrown about loosely and clumsily because it is an amorphous and contested term that reflects the worldview… of whoever is using it more than any fixed reality”. This is not to say that Islamism is a pacifist philosophy; the historical record certainly suggests otherwise. However, its construction in the popular imagination as a violent societal menace, especially in the West, muddies the waters so as to obscure the reality that Islamists use wildly varying methods when attempting to promulgate their message and to pursue their agenda. To illustrate this point, Islamist political organisations such as the Ennahda Party in Tunisia work within the existing secular political framework to promote Islamic law and values. Conversely, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seeks to forge an Islamic state through terror and force of arms. In light of this, it is more accurate to view the adherents of Islamism along a broad spectrum, wherein the “extremists may garner the most attention,” but “the vast majority of Islamists are not, in fact, violent”.

The Young Muslims UK (YM) is an Islamist reformist organisation launched in 1984 whose mission statement can be described as a ‘bottom-up’ approach of Islamisation through interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims by way of da’wah. As the man who is often regarded as the spiritual father of YM, Khurram Murad stated that the supremacy of Islam in Western society “shall not be realised unless the struggle is made by the locals. For it is only they who have the power to change the society into an Islamic society”. YM sought to inculcate a British Muslim cultural identity within its members and in so doing “reconcile the demands of faith, family and British society”.

Widely credited for “(re)introducing the concept of Khilafah into popular Muslim discourse,” it can be said that Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) takes a ‘top-down’ approach of Islamisation by prioritising the establishment of a modern Islamic state above all other considerations. Hamid notes that HT’s strategy revolved around creating “a socio-psychological dissonance between the idea of being a British citizen and a Muslim” and “presented itself as being the force that would eventually usher in a modern Caliphate”. As evidenced by the group’s popularity among the Muslim university student demographic, HT successfully presented a convincing plan of a future caliphate, thereby driving home the message that political Islam was the panacea for the ills of British society and the ideal candidate to supplant it.

The underlying premise of Salafism is the idea that Islam in its most authentic form is to be found in the lived example of the first three generations of Muslims (Salaf) who were closest in both time and proximity to the Prophet Muhammad. It is also considered a defense against the creeping influence of Western ideas in the Muslim world as a result of European colonialism. In this regard, the strict interpretation of scripture and the close imitation of the Prophet’s habits can be seen as an effort to reassert a distinct Islamic identity in the face of modernity. One of the principal appeals of the Salafi approach to Islam was that its ultraconservative approach to tradition and scripture effectively unmoored the faith from local cultural influences and “contaminants” that it has come into contact with throughout the course of history, resulting in “a de-ethnicised supranational identity.” As the Salafi convert Abdurraheem Green stated, “Salafi thinking was powerful because it exposed the discrepancies between religion and culture.” The Salafi perspective has the effect of greatly enhancing this specific interpretation’s claim to authenticity, as it operates on its own self-sustaining logic free from what Salafists would consider the inconveniences of innovation and interpretation.

Unlike Islamists, many Salafists eschew the political process, believing that close adherence to doctrine and ritual will suffice in maintaining Muslim identity in secularised Muslim and non-Muslim societies. Moreover, many Salafists do not organise themselves into hierarchical structures; instead belonging to nebulous networks “with clusters of scholars, students and followers”. Regardless, Jamiyyah Ihya’ Minhaj as Sunnah (JIMAS), founded in 1984 and under the leadership of Abu Mutasir, was instrumental in spreading Salafism to Britain in the early 1990s. By regularly challenging established religious practices and imposing their own interpretation of ritual worship, such as wearing shoes while praying inside the Mosque believing it was a Sunnah, “Salafis thought they were teaching non-Salafi Muslims the correct understanding of Sunnah and removing bid’a”.

Not only do Islamist and Salafist organisations compete with one another in the marketplace of ideas, but even factions within the same ideological camp disagree with each other and fracture and split as a consequence of internal disputes. To illustrate this point, Hamid notes that an ideological rift began to develop between the leadership of Young Muslims UK (YM) as some favoured the work of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) whereas others preferred the work of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Moreover, for Hizb ut-Tahrir, all other concerns are subordinate to the objective of re-establishing a modern Islamic state. Because of this, the group distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, who it criticised for being far too concerned with morality and charity instead of striving to fundamentally change the socio-political order. In addition to this, YM and HT both shared the same target audience: young Muslims disillusioned with the status quo in their communities. However, thanks to the latter’s highly politicised agenda, Hamid argues that HT “seemed to hold an advantage over YM for its apparent intellectual sophistication and radical political analysis”.

By the same token, although the Salafist camp likes to project the image that it is only they who practise the pure distilled form of Islam, it is ironic then that Salafism as a school of thought is itself a house divided. According to Hamid, the “divergences stem from the different perspectives on how to respond to modernity and the socio-political challenges facing Muslims”. These differences are manifested in Quintan Wiktorowicz’s categorisation of the three main strands of Salafist thinking: ‘purists’, ‘politicos’ and ‘jihadis’. Given the level of disagreement between Islamists and Salafists that persists to this day, not to mention the disunity even among Islamists and Salafists themselves, the common perception that the two concepts represent a cohesive and coherent front to Islamise the state and society begins to lose much of its potency.

While there is plenty of evidence to show that Islamists and Salafists go to great lengths to distinguish themselves from one another, Hamid’s analysis of such organisations shows that, at least on the individual level, the two concepts share enough conceptual similarities that individuals can comfortably transition from being an Islamist to a Salafist and vice versa. The most notable example of this transition can be found in the case of Omar Bakri, who served as the leader of HT until 1996, when he was expelled from the organisation for his confrontational tactics and controversial stunts aimed at generating publicity for the group. Thereafter, he lead Al-Muhajiroun (AM) and made a concerted effort to distinguish himself and his new organisation from his previous associations by adopting a Salafi creed. Second, he argued that the re-establishment of the caliphate could take place in Britain. Third AM lent its support to the takfiri jihadism of Al-Qaeda. Finally, AM styled itself as an arbiter on the matter of ritual worship and interpretation of the sacred texts, which brought it into conflict with other Muslim groups as well as the British government. While the case of Bakri is not an explicit sign of cooperation, these individual transitions from one ideological camp to the other demonstrates the interchangeability and a semblance of similarity between the two ends of the conceptual totem pole.

Hamid’s analysis of the development of Islamist and Salafist activism in Britain paints an intellectual landscape that is in a state of constant flux. Moreover, his analysis provides ample reason to move beyond the simplistic notion pervasive within the wider discourse that the two concepts are monolithic forces. As such, a holistic understanding of Islamism and Salafism which takes into account the associated nuances demands the jettisoning of the negative connotations to terrorism and radicalism that have been deeply ingrained in the British psyche since the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks. This brief summary of the concepts of Islamism and Salafism as well as the constellation of organisations that orbit them puts forward a convincing case that they are competing against one another for supremacy in the marketplace of ideas. Nevertheless, Hamid’s analysis also makes clear that Islamism and Salafism are not hermetically sealed concepts, and in fact share enough similarities with one another to facilitate the transition of individuals from one end of the conceptual totem pole to the other, as the case of Omar Bakri shows.