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Salafists: New obsession of the West?

Thursday October 11, 2012 12:25:41 PM, Sabria S. Jawhar

REPRESENTATIVES of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an American nonprofit organization specializing in US foreign policy and international affairs, were in Tunisia this week on a search for Salafists. And it appears they found just the kind of Salafists they were looking for: Anti-democratic and hell-bent on bringing Shariah to the masses.

I think highly of the Council on Foreign Relations, but the organization has fallen into the Western trap of creating new boogeymen when the old ones no longer inspire condemnation. Representing the CFR on the Tunisian trip was Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the CFR and co-founder of the United Kingdom-based McQuilliam Foundation.

I have little use for the McQuilliam Foundation, which purports to be a think tank focusing on counterterrorism, but is really nothing more than government-paid informants who shill for the UK government’s view of what constitutes a good Muslim. The foundation also studies “Islamism,” which, I suppose, is a bad thing for the West and must be monitored. If one is not a mild-mannered, moderate Muslim, then one must be an Islamist with the attendant baggage that goes with it in the West. Unsurprisingly, the McQuilliam Foundation has little credibility in the Muslim community.

So, it was with this in mind I read Husain’s blog post recently on the CFR website about how he plunged into the lion’s den in search of Salafists. He didn’t disappoint. Right off the bat, Husain tells us that Salafism and Wahabism are the most “dangerous, destructive strain of thought.” So he wasn’t looking for my father’s Salafist neighbors in Madinah, but something more sinister.

The reason for their hunt was to investigate the swift rise of Salafism among Tunisia’s youth. The increase has been so great since the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that it has alarmed the more moderate Islamic leaders.

Husain drove around Tunis looking for guys with the longest beards and shortest thobes, hoping that one will identify himself as a Salafist. And sure enough, like ducks in a pond, they found a few young men who met Husain’s stereotyped expectations: misogynist, anti-democratic and uninterested in moderate Islamic leaders.

These self-described Salafists believed in “real and true” leaders like Bin Baz and Sheikh Uthaymeen, both of whom are deceased and who Husain described as “socially regressive” but are considered by Saudis to be true Salafists of their time and since replaced by other conservative sheikhs. An apt comparison would be US Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan replaced by extreme right-wing Republicans Rick Santorum, Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann.

Yet the Tunisian Salafists have little use for the popular Saudi Sheikh Salman Al-Audah who endorsed the Ennahda party in the Tunisian elections. Sheikh Salman is also one of the few contemporary Salafists who visited the Shiites in the Eastern Province to promote dialogue and to develop tolerance. However, another bearded man told the CFR that Tunisian Salafists actually prefer two Jordanian jihadis as their spiritual leaders.

The Salafists on the Tunis street corner, or maybe just a bunch of guys having fun with the Brit, established their bona fides as narrow-minded miscreants. They went on to say that Tunisian Salafists do not have political parties because they divide Muslims and that democracy is kufr. “As Muslims, we cannot believe in democracy. It is not our Sunnah, but a Sunnah of the West,” according to Husain.

I guess Husain’s street corner experts had forgotten — and Husain apparently didn’t bring it up — that Shoura is the very essence of democracy in which community members reach a consensus to make decisions. And they also failed to understand The Camel War, the first fitna in which Muslims fought Muslims in 656 while the Prophet’s wife, Ayesha, (may Allah be pleased with her) rode a camel into battle. Divisions exist. It's human nature. By calling the work of Muslims who want to implement democracy as kufr, well, there’s your division.

When one looks hard enough, they will undoubtedly end up confirming their worst fears and justify their own prejudices. It’s troubling that Husain, under the aegis of the CFR, went to Tunisia with a preconceived idea of what makes a Salafist and then shoehorns that perception into validating his prejudices.

I grew up in Madinah and never knew of Salafism carrying a negative connotation or viewed as a political entity. But since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, Salafism has replaced Wahhabism as the new obsession of the West.

Salafism to me was, and remains today, a term to demonstrate a commitment to the regulations of Islam. It is following the path of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his companions (may Allah be pleased with them). It is following our ancestors’ path.

Salafists — not the manufactured interpretation dreamed up by Muslims eager to politicize Islam to gain power or Westerners who think Wahabists have lost their luster as the bad guy — may disagree with people about aspects of Islam and consider them lost people. But true Salafists don’t call them out on it. Salafists exercise wide tolerance of different ideas alien to their own.

The new Salafists toss false accusations against Muslims they disagree with on whatever topic. The new generation has adopted the tactics of American politicians who knowingly lie but if they say it long and loud enough people begin to believe it.

Husain’s interview with these “Salafists” puts on display the Council on Foreign Relations’ investigative techniques in determining the facts on the ground. If this interview is any indication of the methods of how so-called non-partisan organizations go about their business, then Muslims can expect the another cycle of Western demagoguery.


The writer Sabria S. Jawhar is widely published and read worldwide.

She can be reached at:

The above article first appeared on Arab News website on October 11, 2012.




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