Thursday, March 27, 2008

Salafi Islam and Islamist Radicalism in Europe

European Religions Map
(Image from Wikipedia)

I've recently read an informative introductory article about the influence of Salafi Islam on radicalizing Muslims in Europe.

In fact, that's more or less the title:
"Middle East Salafism's Influence and the Radicalization of Muslim Communities in Europe"
The article, which appears in The Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA, Volume 10, No. 3, Article 1/10, September 2006), is authored by Juan José Escobar Stemmann, a Spanish diplomat stationed in Jordan and an expert on "Islamism, democratization in the Arab world, and terrorism."

Stemmann's article is useful for clarifying the way in which "Radical Salafism merged with ultra-intransigent Wahhabism" and developed today's violent "Jihadi ideology" (cf. pp. 3-4). I hadn't thought of these as three distinct movements, but the article traces them as such. Here is a sample passage that follows Stemmann's remarks on the role played by the Gulf War in radicalizing some Salafi Muslims:
The 1990s saw the emergence of a clear split between reformist or academic Salafism (Salafiyya al-ilmiyyah) and fighting or "jihadi" Salafism (Salafiyya al-Jihadiyyah). The origin of the split was the Gulf War. Saudi Arabia responded to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by inviting U.S. troops onto its soil. This decision ended the fragile internal balance in the country while also helping radicalize the most important sect of Saudi Islamism (al-Ahwa al-Islamiyya), whose most prominent representatives, Salman al-Awda and Safar al-Hawali, targeted not only liberal intellectuals or the religious establishment in their sermons, but also the State and its institutions.[9]

Some Salafi scholars, until then engrossed in apolitical pietism, turned radical. The fight against the non-believers (kafir) became a religious obligation and the main leitmotiv of this sect. The concept of takfir (declaring someone to be non-believer) became the major source of conflict among Salafis, causing a rift in the movement throughout the Arab world.

Reformist Salafis consider that all applications of takfir require a clear and proven violation. Muslim leaders, they argue, cannot be declared to be non-believers, because there is no clear evidence proving that they have ceased to be Muslims. Consequently, a jihad against Arab regimes is not permitted. The most radical Salafis base their interpretation of jihad on the writings of Ibn Taymiyya[10] and, like him, they consider that actions by governments that are contrary to Islamic law can be considered proof in order to declare them non-believers. The takfir thus became an instrument that could be used to oppose any regime whatsoever through armed struggle.

The main advocate of this new approach was 'Isam al-Barqawi, better known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a Jordanian who -- during his stay in Afghanistan in 1984 -- published a book entitled The Creed of Abraham (Millat Ibrahim) in which he outlined the doctrine of jihad based on the Wahhabi tradition. Radical Salafism merged with ultra-intransigent Wahhabism. In 1991 al-Maqdisi, who had links with the most radical circles of Saudi Islamism, published a book called Proof of the Infidelity of the Saudi State, which was distributed widely in the Arabian Peninsula. In 1992, he left Peshawar for Jordan, where he headed the Salafi organization Bay'at al-Imam until he was detained by the Jordanian authorities in 1996 and accused of plotting to kill the negotiators of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. His work influenced the principal ideologists of fighting Salafism in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s.[11]

In tandem with the evolution of Salafism, jihadi ideology gradually gained ground in Afghanistan and eventually merged with Salafism. Its chief proponent was Abdallah Azzam, who in 1984, founded the Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK), an office for recruiting Arabs to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Azzam was to have a decisive influence on Usama bin Ladin. In his work, The Main Obligation of Muslims is to Defend the Land of Islam, Azzam writes that jihad is a moral obligation for all Muslims, the sixth pillar of the faith. Using an epic and mystic language, he sets out a vision of the world based on strict Salafism and on calls to martyrdom, stressing the permanent state of humiliation suffered by the umma, as a result of the actions of "crusaders and Zionists." His work was to have a decisive influence on the jihadi radicalism of the 1990s.[12] (pp. 3-4)
Note, for the development of radical Islamism, the significance of takfir, for this radically Islamist practice of "declaring someone to be non-believer" places many Muslims in the category of non-Muslim. Stemmann traces this practice back to Ibn Taymiyya, a Sunni Muslim of the Hanbali school in the 13th and 14th centuries who argued for purification of Islam through returning to the only authentic sources, the Qur'an and the Hadith:
Ibn Taymiyya lived during the times of the Crusader and Mongol invasions, a circumstance that conditioned his theories on the jihad. When the Mongols invaded Dar al-Islam they eventually converted to Islam. The dilemma arose as to whether the war against them should be considered a jihad or a war between two Muslim entities. In his fatwa on the Mongols, Ibn Taymiyya acknowledged that they practiced the five pillars of Islam, but this did not automatically make them true Muslims. The mainstream view was that under the Shari'a they were Muslims, but Ibn Taymiyya introduced a new evaluation criterion: Whether or not they respected the five pillars, if someone did not follow one of the precepts of the Shari'a, they ceased being Muslim and could therefore be declared kafir. (p. 12)
To declare some Muslim kafir, of course, is to pronounce takfir. What these developments imply is that any Muslim arguing against violent Islamism will likely incur a deadly takfir rather than promote any peaceful moderation.

Promoting moderation is made even more difficult by the informal networks through which Salafi Islam is organized:
In order to understand the role played by Salafism in the process of radicalization of Muslim communities and how this process operates in Europe, one must first examine its characteristics as a movement in the Arab world. In contrast to other formal organizations, Salafism lacks hierarchical structures. The Salafi network structure is decentralized and segmented. The different groups are led by sheikhs or scholars with varying degrees of knowledge of the science of the hadiths, but not necessarily having ties with each other. There is also some element of competition between the sheikhs, each defending his interpretation of the Salaf, or true path, as the correct one. The most important scholars enjoy considerable support among students, who often recommend them to others on account of their vast knowledge of religious issues. There exists only an informal hierarchy based on the reputation of the different sheikhs recognized by the Salafi community. The proliferation of sheikhs means that there is no elite or clearly-defined leadership. This decentralized and cellular structure, in which anyone with religious knowledge can claim leadership of a group, explains how easy it has been in Europe to create groups or autonomous cells willing to blow themselves up without the need for direct orders from a higher authority. (pp. 4-5)
Recently, this informal network has grown even more decentralized, for even mosques are no longer central to networking:
Mosques are losing their importance in the radicalization process that leads Salafis to become terrorists, whereas religious courses in private homes, visits by itinerant radical recruiters, and Internet are all gaining importance in the radicalization and recruitment process. This situation should make us reflect on the true nature of the threat we currently face. There is no doubt that barring radical ideologists from entering Europe or arresting them is not enough to prevent the violent actions that ensue when young and not necessarily disenfranchised people come into contact with the jihadi ideology. (p. 9)
Stemmann is describing this situation from his context as a European, but we can picture a similar process going on in the United States -- and even here in Korea, albeit on a much smaller scale.

I have my own informal ways of knowing the Korean scene . . . though purely anecdotal, of course.

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