This was the oddly bold caption headlining the 2014 conference report on “Salafism in the Arab World” (sub-title: “Perceptions, Trends and Groups”), hosted by the al-Jazeera “Center for Studies” [sic]. This “finding” was reiterated in the summary, which asserted in pride of place (as the number one point), “Salafism has no single definition.” The conference report continued in this eccentric and frivolous vein, publishing a photo of a participant – a bearded man in a long white dress – almost immediately after regretfully noting that “Salafism tends to elicit images of bearded men in long white dresses.” Indeed. For those hoping to chart the shifting sands of Salafism, the Salafism Conference would not be their first port-of-call.
Despite the inauspicious start, the conferees did clarify that Salafism was definitely not Jihadism - an ideological movement based on an extremist interpretation of the religious imperative to defend the core tenets of the Islamic faith. Jihadism is “extremist” because it explicitly sanctions and indeed encourages violence to accomplish this objective.
Similarly, the key findings simply ignored the related extremist concept of Takfirism, the act of accusing another Muslim of being an apostatizing takfir (from the word “kufr” meaning “infidel”). Takfirism is “extremist” because it is a principle that justifies the execution of any Muslim who is deemed to fall out of the correct creed.
So, the conference in totum was understandably keen to disassociate Salafism from any connotations of extremism and violence (i.e. Jihadism and Takfirism), affirming its definitively religious and pacifistic ethos.
But that is a disingenuous assertion that conveniently overlooks present realities. While the non-violent strain of Salafism was indeed predominant during the 1980s – in Europe at least, when it was widely perceived as apolitical and “quietist” (and so “not scary”) – that is no longer true, and not a realistic claim to make.
ISIS – violence and extremism incarnate – clearly self-identifies as a Salafist organization, and accurately so. Salafis of every stripe believe that Islam has been corrupted by “centuries of human interpretation.” Both ISIS and the ideology therefore call for a return to the practices and beliefs of the salaf, the first few generations of Muslims directly following the Prophet.
The key distinguishing feature is the commitment to violence to achieve this objective. The “conference Salafis” represented the “quietist strain.” They consent to the status quo and are strongly opposed to rebellion and the possibility of anarchy, which is how the Saudi Salafi (Wahabbist) dynasty has managed to retain its authority for the past 80 years. Next on the spectrum are the Salafi-Jihadis. The archetype for this is al-Qaeda, the anti-Western terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and believers that violence is divinely ordained.
Finally, occupying a position even more extreme than al-Qaeda, ISIS holds fast to the same principles but supplements this “philosophy” with Takfirism. So, according to the ISIS Salafi-Takfiri worldview, the “enemies of Islam” list is a much longer catalogue that goes well beyond just the 20th-Century adversaries: America, Europe, Western Christendom and the Zionists. ISIS also believes that the almost 200 million Shia Muslims, as well as Sufis, Yazidis and Ba’hai, are all apostates and deserve to be slaughtered.
So, the Salafi conference was correct to say there is no one definition of Salafism. But that is not the front-page topic. That headline should have stated, “Salafism Used To Justify Murder On Massive Scale.” Instead of petulantly refusing to acknowledge any relationship between Salafism and Jihadism and Takfirism, the so-called “quietists” need to raise their voices and condemn – loudly – the use of violence in the name of Salafism.