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The Specter of Salafism

Many people in the Muslim world are scrambling to get out from centuries (not just decades) of tyranny and build a good future for themselves and their descendants. They want to catch up to the West, build strong economies, and invent things that would make their nations proud, but they keep slipping further behind nations that were once their peers. This regression only intensifies their desire to get respect. With nothing to show for their pride, they go back to the distant nebulous past to sing the glories of long-dead warriors and savants. An imagined glorious history is a safer bet than the dysfunctions of the present or the bleak promises of the future.

It is this attachment to the past that produces the kind of extremism many of us find abhorrent. The new offenders these days are the Salafists, a loose confederation of Muslim literalists who believe that the pristine faith of the seventh century is the best remedy to what ails Muslim-majority nations today. Sporting robes and long shaggy beards, they have declared war on churches, women with skirts, bars, insufficiently pious Muslims, Koranic script in works of art or human bodies, and anything that smacks of the false West. Even Islamist parties like the Palestinian Hamas are not immune to the Salafists’ righteous indignation. In Egypt, they are inching ever closer to establishing a Sharia state.

The Salafists are portrayed in the media as a group of crazies, but, in reality, they are only living out openly what most “moderate” Muslims genuinely believe. Muslims of all stripes are in agreement that the age of the Prophet Mohammed and his companions is the undisputed paradigm for Muslim societies and most Muslims find refuge in the glories of the past. This is why any satirical portrayal of Mohammed offends and why Qatar, according to a news report, is spending the colossal sum of $450 million to produce a film about Islam’s apostle. This is also why exhibitions of Islamic art never tire of reminding us that Islam brought civilization to the West and that medieval Muslims of North Africa and the Middle East were far more advanced that the barbaric Christians to the north. The same reason explains the blockbuster Turkish film, Conquest 1453, romanticizing the Ottoman victory over the Byzantines in the fifteenth century. The Muslim flight from the present and the future is big business, one that never fails.

The Salafists are the unveiled face of the Muslim psyche today. Liberal philosophers and anthropologists have been harassed because of the secular nature of their disciplines. At a conference held at Morocco’s national library on September 15, 2012 in Rabat, the well-known Berber activist and intellectual Ahmed Assid, after examining the national curriculum, concluded that Moroccan schools produce “believers” (mu’minun), not free-thinking citizens.

Even the world’s heartland of laïcité is not immune to such pressures. In France, as the magazine Le Point reported last September, the school system is struggling with students from Muslim backgrounds. Teachers are being confronted by parents who don’t allow their children to sing in choruses, play the flute, eat non-halal food, or take swimming lessons, for one reason (swallowing water during Ramadan) or another (being female). Teachers don’t know how to deal with art students who drop their pencils when asked to draw a human face or turn out blank papers when they disagree with the topic of an assignment. The subjects of homosexuality, contraception, abortion, the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provoke strong emotions and sometimes shocking prejudice. Many teachers simply avoid these topics, while others try to get the approval of the local imam before they tackle them. A climate of fear reigns.

The Arab Spring may have produced expectations of freedom, but how could one expect liberty in a climate where theologians, armed with volumes of sacred texts, hold more than a billion people hostage to an unexamined past? What’s even more distressing is that Western progressives often find ways to play down this horrible situation. They gladly point their ire at any and all Western injustices but give a free pass to this Muslim reality, thereby leaving the door wide open to Western xenophobes—the Salafists’ counterparts—to address Muslim atrocities.

We must be consistent and principled when dealing with injustice and religious extremism. We can’t contest injustice in one place and turn a blind eye to it in other places. If we are apt to criticize Christianity, we must do the same to Islam and other faiths. I was once told that it is Western guilt that explains the attitudes of liberal Westerners, but isn’t it enough to be guilty once, not twice or more? How does enabling injustice in Islamic societies alleviate guilt? Giving a hand to Muslim reformers, those who espouse liberal and enlightened views, is surely a more effective way to vitiate guilt.

A version of this article was published in Tabsir on November 12, 2012.

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