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Sunday, 25 September 2011

‘The Real Root Cause of the Threat of Global Salafi-Jihadism is Religious Fundamentalism.’ Is this Statement True?

Salafism is an austere Islamic ideology centred on the belief that a sinful departure from Islam’s rigid roots has occurred, as the religion has been diluted and corrupted by Western ‘immorality’ and concepts including, liberalism, democracy, and nationalism. Salafis strive to live in accordance with literal interpretations of the Qur’an, sunnah and hadiths, and attempt to emulate the piety and ‘perfection’ of the Salaf al-Salih (the first three generations of devout Muslims).[1] They desire a return to the perceived purity of early Islam, and believe that only the recreation of a global umma and Islamic Caliphate, and total implementation of Shari’a law, can ‘counteract the subversion of Islamic values’.[2] Salafi-jihadis attempt to resolve the problems within the Muslim world and establish an Islamic state by implementing a volatile ideological mix of violence, faith, and fanaticism. They see the world ‘in the light of religious doctrine and armed violence’,[3] and use active jihad as their primary method of initiating change.


Offensive and violent jihad is the spearhead of Salafi-jihadist ideology, and the concept has been entrenched in religious context through scriptural (re)interpretation. Maudūdī claimed, ‘jihad is as much of a primary duty of Muslims…as are daily prayers or fasting’,[4] while Taymiyya referred to it as the ‘best of all the voluntary (good actions) which man performs, even better than the hajj’.[5] Both statements propose that violent jihad is part of the fabric of Islam, and so crucial it could represent its ‘sixth pillar’. This understanding makes violence and religion synonymous, which becomes a deeply-rooted and global threat.

The separation and hostility between Islam and its ‘enemies’ is also embedded in the religious history of the Islamic tradition, and is a cause of the threat from Salafi-jihadis, who have boldly reworked and reinterpreted the Islamic texts for ideological gain. Jihadi-Salafis see their history as a universal clash between good and evil (with Islam representing the former, and Western values and principles, the latter), and one where Islam has been, and continues to be, vilified and persecuted by the West and other actors. (It has this in common with Manichaeism, the pre-Islamic Iranian Gnostic religion which saw the world in terms of a struggle between good and evil.)  

This belief has prevailed to modern times. Osama bin Laden depicted a world divided into two – believers and infidels – and stated that Islam faces unrelenting attack from ‘the West’. He concluded that a constant state of conflict between ‘true Islam’ and the kufir must be maintained, as it is a religious obligation for all Muslims. ‘This is a matter of religion and creed…there is no way to forget the hostility between us and the infidels. It is ideological, so Muslims have to ally themselves with Muslims.’[6] This understanding provides religious roots and legitimacy for violence committed against any individual or community who does not adhere to their rigid Salafi ideology.

In essence, jihadi-Salafism is presented by its affiliates as ‘a method for the search of the religious truth…it is a religious method’,[7] and they believe they belong to a theocracy, where Allah is recognised as the  absolute ruler. The Islamic scriptures are considered literal guidelines for all aspects of life, and it is proposed that every (violent) action has a religious basis and legitimacy. In following such rigid guidelines, Salafi-jihadists believe they are representatives of the purest form of Islam, and their actions are physical embodiments of Allah’s will. Salafi-jihadism demands unquestioning loyalty to Allah, and thus any action stipulated in the religious texts (or the somewhat distorted interpretations of them), requires immediate action. 'It is to religion – however misused and abused – that the jihadists regularly appeal when talking about their beliefs or explaining their actions…they claim to have chosen every strategy, tactic, and target…based on religious principles.'[8]

For example, bin Laden’s profuse gratitude to God for the destruction caused by 9/11 clearly reveals how Salafi-jihadis ‘cast [their] struggle in incontrovertibly theological terms’.[9] Adherence to jihadi-Salafism also means the perpetrators become immune to human criticism, and it removes all sense of personal responsibility and compassion, as fundamentalist Islam defines morality in terms of itself. Jihadi-Salifism ‘suppresses a Muslim’s conscious while making him feel he is devout’,[10] which is dangerous as it creates great difficulty when considering reprogramming or moderating their ideology.

Whilst religious fundamentalism appears to be the root cause of the threat from Salafi-jihadism, there is debate as to whether politics should also be considered.
Although jihadi-Salafis are highly critical of both the method and content of Islamist political activism, and forbid participation in temporal politics, they do indirectly address politics in the form of the resurrection of the Islamic Caliphate (albeit under the umbrella term of religion). Founding an Islamic state is one of the key elements in Salafi ideology, which lead Hamid to state: ‘Salafi Islam is political in its very essence.’[11] It is also ‘considered a bold reworking of the Islamic legacy, enabling it to serve a distinct political purpose’.[12]

Religious study and prayer get somewhat eclipsed by an active political agenda of social and religious reform, as jihadi-Salafis align the notion of a global Islamic state with religious duty, to create a political and ultraconservative version of Islamic fundamentalism. Hussein states that ‘working towards establishing an Islamic state is an Islamic obligation, on a par with five daily prayers and the Hajj,’[13] while Hizb ut-Tahrir’s creed identifies the creation of an Islamic state as wajib (obligatory pious act). This blinkered desire for an Islamic Caliphate creates hostile conflict between Islamists and the governing bodies of the regions which they inhabit or operate within. These ‘kufir governments’ become ‘legitimate’ targets for violent acts perpetrated in the name of religious jihad.

This implies ‘there can be no separation between religion and politics’[14] within Islam as it addresses every aspect of life,[15] unlike most other major faiths. As the line between them is so blurred it would be wrong to cite (temporal) politics as the sole cause of global threat, as all political action is a component of religion, according to jihadi-Salafist ideology. Qutb labelled ‘the West’s’ disassociation of religion and society as a ‘hideous schizophrenia’[16] in comparison. Any action taken by Salafi-jihadis, whether overtly political in nature or not, is rooted in religion and can be supported by scriptural ‘evidence’. Therefore, politics in the democratic Western sense does not account for the origin of global threat, as ‘the very notion of a secular jurisdiction and authority…is seen as an impiety, indeed as the ultimate betrayal of Islam’.[17] Instead,  jihadi-Salafis operate under the banner of religiosity, although often presenting the hallmarks of a political front.

It is difficult to draw conclusions relating to questions of religion per se, due to its very nature and the bold interpretation and reworking of texts and tradition that often occurs. Global Salafi-jihadist ideology cites religious fundamentalism at the root of its every decision and action, but although they promote a literal interpretation of sacred texts, and total religious purity, their principles appear to be ‘a blend of amendments to, and a convenient exegesis of, the Islamic sacred texts’.[18] Salafi-jihadis exercise great creativity in order to justify the utilization of concepts including jihad and Al-Takfir Wa Al-Istihlal. However, if the Islamic texts and tradition undergo critical exegesis, they become void as sources of undefiled spiritual authority and legitimacy, whilst any claim to religious purity is minimised. This also indicates that Islam has been instrumentally utilized in order to advance another agenda – namely one of political reform – within the context of religious regeneration. Spencer agrees, claiming that, ‘the clash of cultures [and] the war of Islam against the West, are politically motivated slogans.’[19]

Does this imply that Salafi-jihadi ideology was developed deliberately to entice individuals to jihad for political means, or do followers believe beyond doubt that their school of Islam is the only legitimate and pure version of Allah’s will? Again, it is hard to give a definite answer, but either way, Salafi-jihadism displays very strong religious tendencies, which support the theory that religious fundamentalism (or a reworked version of faith), is the basis for global threat. Violence in the name of religious fundamentalism is a particular threat as  it has the tendency to be far more wide-reaching and brutal in characteristic, and generally leads to greater destruction, that that of secular violence. Although jihadi-Salafis often appear to place greater emphasis on destructive jihad than salat, zakat or sawm (for example); as long as they continue see their actions as representations of religious fundamentalism, it should be viewed as the major cause of threat to global security.







[1] Wiktorowicz (2001), p.112
[2] Townsend (2002), p. 108.
[3] Kepel (2008), p.219
[4] Maudūdī (1960), p.94
[5] Taimiyya (2000), p.138
[6] Hoffman (2006), p.93
[7] Stemmann (2006), p.8
[8] Habeck (2006), p.18
[9] Hoffman (2006), p.82
[10] Hamid (2007), p.85
[11] Ibid (2007), p.46
[12] Rosnes (2008), p.49
[13] Husain (2007), p.82
[14] Habeck (2006), p.68
[15] Talmudic Judaism does too, but in a very different way.
[17] Lewis (1988), pp. 117-118
[18] Rosnes (2008), p.12
[19] Spencer (1995), p.23

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