Liberal Salafism: When Fundamentalism meets Western Imperialism

Marwa Osman
MA — PhD Candidate located in Beirut, Lebanon. University Lecturer. Member of the Blue Peace Media Network and political commentator on issues of the Middle East on several international and regional media outlets including RT and PressTV.

The entire MENA region have been witnessing massive political conversions. One of the most visible conversions of all has been the rise of the jihadi movements during the transitional periods in states hit by the so-called Arab Spring and then diffusing slowly across the globe. As a result, Islamic fundamentalism mutated and expanded massively.
Islamic fundamentalism which is referred to by many Middle Eastern Marxists as “political Islam”, is in essence a political movement composed of groups and organizations which, while Islamic theology is their cover, aspire to state power. Dogmatically, political Islam is said to have embraced both historically progressive and reactionary positions leading to two kinds of fundamentalism: the liberal fundamentalism and Takfiri (pertaining to excommunication) fundamentalism. Liberal fundamentalism being the position which asserts that Islamic tenets are compatible with modern values such as freedom and democracy, while Takfiri Fundamentalism which advocates a “revolt against history” in which the early phase of Islamic society is glorified and adherents aim to turn back the wheel of history to re-establish this supposedly golden age even if it means shedding blood to get there.
This has led to many liberal left analyses of political Islam falling into one of two camps. The first is to see political Islam as thoroughly reactionary, leading to the conclusion that the Islamists, like fascists, must be stopped at any cost. The second position is to see Islamism as an inherently progressive movement of those who are oppressed by colonialism and imperialism.
However, to study how this fundamentalism came to grow as such, one needs to study the history which have led to such a situation.
Origin of Islamic Fundamentalism
In the late fifteenth century, after the European Renaissance, a period of stagnation began for most of the Muslim world as the ruling elites tried to conserve their power and privileges. The autocratic regimes in the Islamic countries had become fetters on social development, and the advances in science and culture came to a halt. Meanwhile, in Europe, capitalist manufacture was laying the basis for modern industry and the eventual colonization of most of the Muslim world by the British and French ruling classes.
As a result, the Islamic revivalists argued that colonization had been possible only because the original Islamic values had been corrupted by the worldly pursuits of the great medieval empires. Regeneration was therefore possible only by reviving the founding spirit of Islam. The degree to which this revival should attempt to recreate a mythical past or incorporate modern industry and science was, and remains, a subject of debate among Islamic leaders.
Lisa Macdonald in her article about “The Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism” argues that “there were many anti-colonial movements based on Islamic revivalism in the first half of the twentieth century”, stating that “the combined and uneven development of capitalism in the context of imperialism has set the basic framework for political Islam’s development over the last 100 years. It has developed in Third World societies traumatized by the impact of capitalist development—first by their conquest by imperialism and then by the transformation of internal social relations accompanying the rise of an indigenous capitalist class and the formation of an independent capitalist state”.
Though direct colonial rule had largely banished, the imperialist powers still used their superior military and economic power to influence the economic and social policies of the formally independent Third World states so as to ensure that these countries can continue to be exploited by the transnational corporations based in the imperialist countries.
Internally, while some industrialization proceeded in these poor countries after World War II, largely in relation to the extraction and processing of the Middle East’s largest single resource, oil, large sectors of traditional industry (small workshops, family businesses) remain, and there was no corresponding development of social infrastructure (drinking water, sewerage, electricity, housing, education, health facilities). Land reform turned some peasants into modern capitalist farmers, but many more were displaced, leaving them homeless and having to eke out a living in the large informal economy of the cities.
Political Islam, as seen explained by Macdonald, while apparently offering a solution to these contradictions for predominantly Muslim Third World societies, does not find its support equally in all sections of those societies. It has tended to get its mass support mainly from the petty bourgeoisie: landowners, small manufacturers and shopkeepers who are under constantly increasing pressure from emerging local capitalists and finance capital, peasants who are being forced into urban areas and unemployment by capitalist farming—all those who fear, or are, losing out as the capitalist modernization of their society proceeds.
The imperial powers of the West forged new forms of semi-colonial and semi-feudal state structures in these countries that diminished the position of many clerics and other traditional feudal power relations. These forces took a major leap in the last couple decades, as many were consciously built up and promoted by the U.S. in opposition to the Soviet Union’s influence in the region. In her article “U.S. Imperialism, Islamic Fundamentalism…and the Need for Another Way”, Sunsara Taylor states that this leap was also greatly accelerated by the effects of a post-Mao coup in China which ended China as an inspiring force for revolutionary change in the world, along with the end of the national liberation struggle in Vietnam. Islamic fundamentalism, in effect, stepped into a kind of secular nationalist, revolutionary, and communist “leadership vacuum” on a world level.
These Western imperial powers, and namely U.S., Taylor argues has had a contradictory relationship with the Islamic Fundamentalist movements. Backing them when it has served their interests and attempting to crush them when these same forces have turned on U.S. interests or come into conflict with it.
The decline of British colonialism and the rise of neo-colonialism in this strategic region has often come wrapped in the garb of “modernity” imposed from above, with the free market driving millions of peasants off the land, hurling them into the urban shantytowns and refugee camps. The penetration of U.S. investment and neo-colonial control also disrupted and undermined the traditional semi-feudal power centers and the position of the clerics in these societies. The ripping up of the old social fabric and the chaos, impoverishment, and wrenching apart and refashioning of dependent economies pliable to more thorough and vicious exploitation and plunder of these countries also led to the development of ideological (and not just economic) responses to the imposition of imperialism from the “West”.
All this, according to Taylor, has fed the rise of Islamic parties and movements that have challenged the forms of rule and alliances that U.S. imperialism has struck in particular countries and most often these political religious movements have reflected the interests of this outmoded divisions of clerics and feudal forces whose position has been disrupted. Their reactionary ideology and political agendas do not represent the interests of the desperate and displaced peasantry and the impoverished and rebellious urban masses they have recruited as foot-soldiers.
While Lisa Macdonald also found that many of the Islamist groups, despite their anti-imperialist rhetoric, fell into the lap of imperialism for their survival. This brought them into alliance with most of the regimes in the region, which were heavily dependent on help from the US to crush the mass revolts they faced. The Islamic fundamentalists’ vigilante groups became a major tool of reaction and counter-revolution for the right-wing states in participation with imperialism as seen in the below timeline.
In Indonesia, Sarekat-e-Islam provided many of the foot soldiers in the coup against the left nationalist President Sukarno, wiping out the Communist Party and murdering as many as two million leftists.
In Egypt and Syria, Islamist organizations like Akhwan-ul-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) were used to destabilize left-wing regimes. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat protected the radical Islamists in the 1970s to neutralize the left-leaning Nasserites and the Communists, and later to recruit to the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan.
Jordan’s King Hussein, backed by the US, often relied on Islamists’ support in combating left opponents, and Yemen’s President Abdallah Saleh was supported by Islamists in clashes with Marxists in South Yemen.
In Bangladesh (then East Bengal), during the 1971 independence war, the Jama’at-e-Islam, Al-Shams and Al-Badar groups played a similar role in league with the Pakistani army, murdering hundreds of thousands of leftists leading the mass upsurge there.
In Pakistan, during the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq, Jama’at-e-Islami was the main tool of imperialism and the Pakistani state to curb anti-dictatorship leftists.
The process reached its peak during the 1980s, when thousands of Islamists were trained and sent to Afghanistan to try to overthrow the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government, which took power after the 1978 revolution there. Afghanistan is estimated to be the largest covert CIA operation involving Islamic fundamentalists (in 1987, US military assistance to the mujahidin reached $700 million—more than Pakistan received—much of it sent via Saudi Arabia to keep the extent of US support hidden).
In the mid-1990s, the US cozied up to the anti-left Sudanese regime of General Omar Bashir, the product of a coup in 1989 by Bashir and Sheikh Hassan Turabi against the democratically elected government. Shortly afterwards, Bashir allowed the CIA to open offices in Sudan.
In 1978, the US National Security Council set up, in collaboration with the CIA and the Saudi and Turkish intelligence services, Islamist propaganda networks intended to infiltrate the nationalist Muslim organizations in the Soviet republics of central Asia. Large quantities of weapons and Qurans printed in the Gulf States were introduced into Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Likewise, the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, under successive Israeli governments, discreetly supported the Muslim Brotherhood in the Occupied Territories in the 1960s and 1970s, while the Brotherhood was exclusively attacking Yassar Arafat’s left nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). However, this support ended during the first intifada, begun in 1987, when the Brotherhood gave birth to Hamas, which merged the jihad with the struggle for the liberation of Palestine from Israel.
Effect of Fundamentalism on Intellectuals and Public Opinion
Within the past decade or so, there has been a strong resurgence and revival of Islam. Muslim societies are being built centered on Islamic values. Today’s Islam seems to be battling modernism. While Muslims have constantly struggled to join the breach between faith and practice, some are now integrating Western ideas with the foundation of Islam.
The modernist attempt to reform Islamic values has led to a split of those preferring the adoption of Western values and “those gravitating toward pre-modernist revivalism”. As the threat of Western infiltration into Muslim societies continued, some reacted with a purification program, using the slogan “back to Islam.” Thus, creating the “Muslim Brotherhood.” There have been numerous acts of terrorism performed in the name of Islamic Fundamentalism. These individuals have claimed “Holy Wars” on western civilization, in an attempt to abolish its growing influence and return Islam to its natural state.
Hugh Scott argues in his piece” War & Peace: The Middle East in Transition” that it is through similar actions of the “Holy Wars” that cast a negative shadow on all that is good with Islamic fundamentalism. While many Muslims feel ashamed and disgraced by the violent behavior of Islamic fundamentalists, they believe that Westerners intentionally deem all Muslims evil.
Central to the stereotype accompanying Islamic fundamentalism, is the press which creates a biased viewpoint and influences the public. Like most aspects of media portraying current events, there is a particular focus on unfavorable aspects of society. Rarely is there an article in a newspaper describing the good of various communities, nations, ethnicities, or creeds. Rather, the attention surrounds violent happenings such as arson, murder, and war.
Scott continues that “the public is so interested in confrontation that it fails to recognize the beauty of the world and those who inhabit it”. There are countless magazines dedicated to portraying the latest scandals and conflicts around the world. The press’ obsession with controversy constantly demonizes Muslims as a whole through depicting terrorism and failing to illustrate their many admirable characteristics. The western intellectuals and public then reads of the violence from a select group “representing” Islam and forms their own opinions based on the given information. Moreover, society expresses its disapproval of Islam which not only affects the actions of representatives in the government, but proves detrimental to the relations between various ethnicities in the community.
Fundamentalism and Democracy
Islamic fundamentalism grew as an anti-democratic regional force three decades ago with the primary aim of being a revivalist or fundamentalist tradition that aimed to restore Islam to its original state unpolluted by western cultural influences.
However, according to some scholars, there are three factors that contributed to the rise of the compatibility between Islamic fundamentalism and democracy.
Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr in his book “The Islamic Leviathan: Islam and the Making of State Power” described three factors that lead Islamic fundamentalism to become more open to democracy. First, the military dynamics in which countries that have been led by authoritarian rulers or military regimes suppressed expression of both Islamic fundamentalism and Muslims. The ability of Islamic fundamentalism to survive depended on its ability to adapt under authoritarian regimes. Conversely, under a democratic regime, Islamic fundamentalism needs to promote rather than impose its views.
Under a democratic regime, Islamic fundamentalism movement is challenged to offer good ideas to win the hearts and minds of the society rather than to force their views. Second is the economic dynamic. Evidence shows there is a positive correlation between democracy and economic prosperity.
Nasr argues that higher economic development is associated with a higher democracy index. In democratic countries like Turkey or Indonesia, Islamic fundamentalism as an ideology needs to provide similar economic benefit to the society.
In democracy, partial integration of Islamic values has occurred, marked by, among other things, sharia banking. Third, the Islamic fundamentalism is open to democracy as part of efforts to lure voters. Islamic fundamentalism proponents such as the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the Aceh Party in Aceh coexist in the political system as a form of political legitimacy.
In Palestine, Hamas as an Islamic fundamentalist advocate entered the political race and embraced the political movement provided by democracy. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood embodied their ideological values by entering the political contest as the Justice and Freedom Party (Hizb Alurriya wa Al-’Adala).
All of the above Islamic fundamentalism parties have partially won electoral contests. As a political force, the next challenge for the parties is to prove to their constituents whether they can provide better policies. Nasr continues that “they have to show that the purity of Islam as an ideology can bring improvement in the society. The emergence of Islamic fundamentalism is an accumulation of bad policies and bad governance. Modernization and globalization through military dynamic, economic dynamic as well as competition for voters, have contributed enormously to the Islamic fundamentalism’s alignment with democracy”.
Nevertheless, religious tolerance, women’s rights and respect for the minorities remain the biggest challenges for the Islamic fundamentalism movement to succeed in a democratic system. At the end of the day, Muslims have to adapt themselves to the democratization process. For Muslims, Islam is an absolute truth, yet democracy as a relative truth can be compatible with Islam.
Some Western researchers also support the Islamist claim that parliamentary democracy and representative elections are not only compatible with Islamic law, but that Islam actually encourages democracy. They do this in one of two ways: either they twist definitions to make them fit the apparatuses of Islamic government—terms such as democracy become relative—or they bend the reality of life in Muslim countries to fit their theories.
Among the best known advocates of the idea that Islam both is compatible and encourages democracy is John L. Esposito, founding director of the Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and the author or editor of more than thirty books about Islam and Islamist movements. Esposito and his various co-authors build their arguments upon tendentious assumptions and platitudes such as “democracy has many and varied meanings;” “every culture will mold an independent model of democratic government;” and “there can develop a religious democracy.”
He argues that “Islamic movements have internalized the democratic discourse through the concepts of shura [consultation], ijma’ [consensus], and ijtihad [independent interpretive judgment]” and concludes that democracy already exists in the Muslim world, “whether the word democracy is used or not.”
If Esposito’s arguments are true, then why is democracy not readily apparent in the Middle East? Freedom House regularly ranks Arab countries as among the least democratic anywhere. Esposito adopts Said’s belief that Western scholarship and standards are inherently biased and lambastes both scholars who pass such judgments without experience with Islamic movements and those who have a “secular bias” toward Islam.
Liberal Salafism
Focusing on Islamic Fundamentalism, one major dogma which originates from such a radicalism is the Salafi Movement. The doctrine can be summed up as taking “a fundamentalist approach to Islam, emulating the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers—al-salaf al-salih, the ‘pious forefathers’…They reject religious innovation, or bida, and support the implementation of sharia (Islamic law).”
As opposed to the traditionalist Salafism, academics and historians have used the term “Salafism” to also denote modernists, “a school of thought which surfaced in the second half of the 19th century as a reaction to the spread of European ideas” and “sought to expose the roots of modernity within Muslim civilization.” They are also known as Modernist Salafism which Liberal Salafis is one of its schools. However contemporary Salafis follow “literal, traditional […] injunctions of the sacred texts”, looking to Ibn Taymiyyah rather than the “somewhat freewheeling interpretation” of 19th century figures Muhammad Abduh, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and Rashid Rida.
The origins of contemporary Salafism in the modernist “Salafi Movement” of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh is noted by some, while others say Islamic Modernism only influenced contemporary Salafism. However, the former notion has been rejected by majority. According to Quintan Wiktorowicz:
“There has been some confusion in recent years because both the Islamic modernists (Liberals) and the contemporary Salafis referred to themselves as al-salafiyya, leading some observers to erroneously conclude a common ideological lineage. The earlier salafiyya (modernists), however, were predominantly rationalist Asharis.”
Inspired by Islamic liberals, groups like Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat-e-Islami etc. are called Salafis in this context. Muslim Brotherhood include the term salafi in the “About Us” section of its website.
Liberal Salafism has however been recently criticized by Khaled Abou El Fadl of the UCLA School of Law. El Fadl argues that the Salafi methodology “drifted into stifling apologetics” by the mid-20th century, a reaction against “anxiety” to “render Islam compatible with modernity,” by its leaders earlier in the century. He attacks those who state “any meritorious or worthwhile modern institutions were first invented and realized by Muslims”. He argues the result was that “an artificial sense of confidence and an intellectual lethargy” developed, according to Abou El Fadl, “that took neither the Islamic tradition nor” the challenges of the modern world “very seriously.”
Based on Abu’l-Faraj ibn al-Jawzi’s criticism of Athari-Hanbalis, Egyptian Muslim scholar Muhammad Abu Zahra, a Professor of Islamic law at Cairo University deduced that the basis of Salafi aqidah is located somewhere between ta’tili and tashbih. According to the As-Sunnah Foundation of America, the Salafi and Wahhabi movements are strongly opposed by a long list of Sunni scholars. The Saudi government has been criticized for damaging Islamic heritage of thousands of years in Saudi Arabia. For example, there has been some controversy that the expansion projects of the mosque and Mecca itself are causing harm to early Islamic heritage. Many ancient buildings, some more than a thousand years old, have been demolished to make room not only for the expansion of the Masjid al-Haram, but for new malls and hotels. Though Salafis, when told about this, were as opposed to it as other Muslims. However, he Salafi movement has been linked by Marc Sageman to some terrorist groups around the world, like Al-Qaeda.
Some liberal Salafis see themselves as returning to the principles of the early Ummah and to the ethical and pluralistic intent of their scripture, the Quran. They distance themselves from some traditional and less liberal interpretations of Islamic law which they regard as culturally based and without universal applicability. The reform movement uses monotheism (tawhid) “as an organizing principle for human society and the basis of religious knowledge, history, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics, as well as social, economic and world order”.
Imperial basis of Liberal Salafism
In the last few years, Salafis have been receiving an unusual amount of press due to their growing involvement in politics. Usually opponents of the regimes they live under but for different reasons than those of the protesters who call for social justice, they were for a short period of time beginning to use the Arab Spring to their advantage, yet ultimately failed to continue doing so.
Salafi groups for once became increasingly active in the run-up to elections in Egypt, following the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak. On a darker note, a Salafi group called Tawheed and Jihad claimed responsibility for the brutal kidnapping and murder of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza on April 15, 2011, claiming he had spread “corruption”.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has also blamed the recent escalating unrest in his country on Salafi groups, claiming that their “objective is to spread terror across Syria”.
To understanding how extreme Salafism works, we should research the takfiri ideology of this doctrine which is also known as “Shirk”. Shirk requires a little theological background. There are two types of shirk: Shirk-e-Akbar, and Shirk-e-Asghar. Shirk-e-Akbar is major and refers to open polytheism. It usually comprises associating anyone with Allah (awj) and/or divine attributes. This is in violation of tawheed, the Islamic principle that Allah (awj) has oneness and unity. Shirk-e-Asghar, in contrast, is comparatively minor and is concerned with hidden polytheism. This form of shirk occurs when the violator acknowledges tawheed, but engages in thoughts and behaviors that do not reflect this belief. Both are at play among many Salafi movements.
Bilal Ahmad wrote in “Salafism and Politics” that “it is important to remember that Salafism is not a uniform Islamic phenomenon. While some Salafists are intent on opposing capitalist globalization, others fully embrace its most recent incarnation in economic neoliberalism.”Which opened the door widely for Wahhabism to pick what fits it from Salafism and transform it into a Takfiri ideology against all who oppose its views.
Dating back to the works of Adam Smith, much of laissez-faire capitalism has been predicated on a belief that an unrestrained market will either solve, or greatly alleviate, social ills. This rhetoric is often taken to be an absolute, with market liberalism focusing on a philosophy that unconscious economic forces will organically direct human societies towards prosperity. Smith’s idea of the invisible hand turns the marketplace into a poorly-understood supernatural force that must be given primacy for the betterment of civilization. Smith continues to be read widely because, despite new, and conflicting historical circumstances, neoliberal discussions of market primacy still rely heavily on an idea of liberating Smith’s market forces
Shirk comes into play because there is a thin line between Smith’s hand, and the hand of Allah. Neoliberalism amounts to a quasi-religious elevation of market primacy. Trusting the market to organically address social problems is not very different from believing that the will of Allah can be relied upon to confront these same grievances. The market is assigned supernatural aspects that give it an almost divine superiority over material reality, which are then bowed towards in a system of global capitalism.
The same capitalism that harbored, supported and armed the Wahhabi movements founded in the Arabian Peninsula while also allowing it to spread its radicalized Salafi movement.
Often considered “quasi namesakes” and although both within the Hanbali school, it is believed that the common sense analysis of Wahhabism and Salafism, which reduces the phenomenon to a fundamentalist and literalist Sunni Islam, is too simplistic. The policy department at the European Parliament found that this interpretation “cannot account for the specificity of Wahhabism which merges, within the meaning of the first term, with the private interests and policies of the dynasty and the apparatus of the Saudi state not able to restore the complexity of the various currents which make up the Salafist galaxy”. This includes quietist movements and detached from classical political issues and others which were organized in political parties and took advantage of opportunities offered, for example, by the recent upheavals in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. Not to mention terrorist organizations that are actively involved in the bloodiest episodes of armed conflict that reverberates the Muslim world.
Only after gutting the meaning of democracy as the concept developed and derived from Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece through Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in eighteenth century America, can Esposito and his fellow travelers advance theories of the compatibility of Islamism and democracy.
Subsiding the Salafi Violence
It is of use to consider the networks of influence of the Salafists and Wahhabis by highlighting their fundamentalism and their inability and/or refusal to adapt to modernity. If this perception is undoubtedly accurate when one attempts to study their religious and philosophical messages, it is much less or absolutely wrong for it when one uses an approach focused on the effectiveness of their strategies and tactics of penetrations into the political sphere. It is necessary to distinguish between the means implemented by the Salafis, Wahhabis and their western imperialist supporters of the objective pursued by the puritanical tendencies deliberately distorting Sunni Islam.
As the policy department at the European Parliament puts it “the charitable and educational initiatives, be they private or public, are ultimately only tools for the penetration of populations likely to embrace their religious doctrine in the short or medium term and more or less heavily. The remarkable flexibility of the Salafis and Wahhabis, their ability to adapt is demonstrated once one observes their successful attempts to penetrate societies that ultimately shared only the majority presence of populations adhering to Sunni Islam. The weakness of the state apparatus or the precariousness of the economies are of course elements that can play favorably but are certainly not sufficient to account for the Salafi and Wahhabi influence.”
According to Helena Norberg-Hodge in her “Globalization and Terror piece”: “the best long-term strategy to stop the spread of ethnic and religious violence is to reverse the policies that now promote growth-at-any-cost development. Today, free trade treaties—one of the prime engines of globalization—are pressuring governments to invest in ever larger-scale infrastructures and to subsidize giant, mobile corporations to the detriment of millions of smaller local and national enterprises”.
Helena goes on about how the creation of a global monoculture in the image of the West has proven disastrous on many counts, “none more important than the violence it does to cultures that must be pulled apart to accommodate the process”.
When that violence spins out of control, it should remind us of the heavy cost of leveling the world’s diverse multitude of social and economic systems, many of which are better at sustainably meeting people’s needs than is the system that aims to replace them.
The broad “caliphate” ISIS advertises may appeal to a historic sense of pan-Arab solidarity and to Islam’s Golden Age. But at bottom its aim is to carve out a capitalist state for itself, enriched by local oil revenues, to rule over the populace with a fanatical anti-worker, anti-woman sectarian ideology. Thus there is certainly nothing progressive in the ISIS Salafi dogma and politics.

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