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OP-ED: Radical Salafis Overrunning the Syrian Revolution

Aug 29 2012 (IPS) - The recent visit by Abd al-Halim Murad, head of the Bahraini Salafi al-Asalah movement, to Syria to meet with Syrian rebels is an attempt by him and other Gulf Salafis to hijack the Syrian revolution.

Sadly, the Saudi and Bahraini governments have looked the other way as their Sunni Salafis try to penetrate the Syrian opposition in the name of fighting Assad, Alawites, Shia, Hizballah and Iran.

The Assad regime has pursued a sectarian strategy that has resulted in promoting violent “jihadism” in order to bolster his narrative that the opposition to his regime is the work of foreign radical Salafi terrorist groups. Despite Assad’s self-serving claims, violent Salafi activists are nevertheless exploiting instability and lawlessness in some Arab countries, Syria included, to preach their doctrine and force more conservative social practises on their compatriots.

Some Salafis do not believe in peaceful, gradual, political change and are actively working to undermine nascent political systems, including by terrorising and killing minority Shia, Alawites, and Christians.

Radical Salafis have recently committed violent acts in Mali and other Sahel countries in Africa, as well as in Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya. Salafis also have committed violent acts in the name of “jihad” in Egypt, Sinai, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East.

As the Arab Spring touches more countries and as more regimes—for example, in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan and the Palestinian authority—come under pressure from their own citizens, they begin to use sectarianism and promote radical elements within these sects for their own survival and regional posturing. Salafi “jihadists” are more than happy to oblige. Unfortunately, average Muslim citizens bear the brunt of this violence.

Where did modern day Salafism come from?

Since the late 1960s, when King Faisal declared exporting Islam a cardinal principle of Saudi foreign policy, Saudi Arabia has been spreading its brand of Wahhabi-Salafi Islam among Muslim youth worldwide.

At the time, Faisal intended to use Saudi Islam to fight “secular” Arab nationalism, led by Gamal Abd al-Nassir of Egypt, Ba’thism, led by Syria and Iraq, and atheist Communism, led by the Soviet Union.

The Wahhabi-Salafi interpretation of Islam, which has been a Saudi export for half a century, is grounded in the teachings of 13th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya and 18th century Saudi scholar Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. It’s also associated with the conservative Hanbali school of Sunni jurisprudence.

In a nutshell, the Wahhabi-Salafi religious doctrine is intolerant of other religions such as Christians and Jews and of Muslim sects such as the Shia and the Ahmadiyya, which do not adhere to the teachings of Sunni Islam. It also restricts the rights of women as equal members of the family and society and uses the Wahhabi interpretation to quell any criticism of the regime in the name of fighting sedition, or “fitna”.

Even more troubling, Salafis view violence as a legitimate tool to fight the so-called enemies of Islam without the approval of nationally recognised religious authorities. Any self-proclaimed Salafi activist can issue a religious edict, or “fatwa”, to launch a jihad against a perceived enemy, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.

Usama Bin Ladin did just that in the 1990s, which, of course, started an unending cycle of violence and terrorism against Muslims and “infidels” alike, including the United States and other Western countries.

Many of the radical Salafi activists in Mali and other African countries have received their religious educations at Imam Muhammad University in Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of Salafi Islam and one of the most conservative institutions of Islamic education in the world.

The Saudi government and some wealthy Saudi financiers have been spending significant amounts of money on spreading Islam through scholarships, local projects and Islamic NGOs, as well as by building mosques and printing of Korans and other religious texts espousing Wahhabi-Salafism.

Since the early 1970s, Wahhabi-Salafi proselytisation has been carried out by Saudi-created and financed non-governmental organisations, such as the Muslim World League, the International Islamic Relief Organisation, the World Association of Muslim Youth, and al-Haramayn.

Some of these organisations became involved in terrorist activities in Muslim and non-Muslim countries and have since been disbanded by the Saudi government. Many of their leaders have been jailed or killed. Others fled their home countries and forged careers in new terrorist organisations in Yemen, Morocco, Iraq, Somalia, Indonesia, Libya, Mali and elsewhere.

For years, Saudi officials thought that as long as violent “jihad” was waged far away, the regime was safe. That view changed dramatically after May 12, 2003 when terrorists struck in the heart of the Saudi capital.

Wahhabi proselytisation has laid the foundation for today’s Salafi “jihadism” in Africa and in the Arab world. Saudi textbooks are imbued with this interpretation of Islam, which creates a narrow, intolerant, conflict-driven worldview in the minds of youth there.

Unlike the early focus of King Faisal, today’s proselytisers target fellow Muslims, who espouse a different religious interpretation, and other religious groups. The so-called jihadists have killed hundreds of Muslims, which they view as “collateral damage” in the fight against the “near and far enemies” of Islam.

While mainstream Islamic political parties are participants in governments across the Islamic world, and while Washington is beginning to engage Islamic parties as governing partners, radical Salafis are undermining democratic transition and lawful political reform. They oppose democracy as understood worldwide because they view it as man-made and not God’s rule, or “hukm”.

And what to do about it?

The raging violence in Syria and the regime’s clinging to power provide a fertile environment for Salafi groups to establish a foothold in that country. National security and strategic interests of the West and democratic Arab governments dictate that they neutralise and defeat the Salafi project.

As a first step, they must work closely with Syrian rebels to hasten the fall of the Assad regime. This requires arming the rebels with adequate weapons to fight the Assad military machine, especially his tanks, bulldozers and aircraft.

Washington and London must also have a serious conversation with the Saudis about the long-term threat of radical Salafism and the pivotal role Saudi Wahhabi proselytisation plays in nurturing radical Salafi ideology and activities. A positive outcome of this conversation should help in building a post-Arab Spring stable, democratic political order. In fact, such a conversation is long overdue.

For years my colleagues and I briefed senior policymakers about the potential and long-term danger of spreading this narrow-minded, exclusivist, intolerant religious doctrine. Unfortunately, the West’s close economic and security relations with the Saudi regime have prevented any serious dialogue with the Saudis about this nefarious export and insidious ideology.

The writer is the former director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program and author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.

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  • macaulayken

    Wow, let’s rush in overthrow the last secular government in the middle east in order to stop the salafi nutjobs we & our allies have been arming & funding for years!

    Brilliant stuff, & about what you’d expect from the same people who started the whole bloody mess in the first place – ” former director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program”

  • Indian

    U have it all Wrong for the Salafis….Salafis are 1 of the most Rightuous Sects in Islam and the most nearer…Salafis are the 1 who want to give their Women their proper right as prescribes by the Prophet(saws) as only Salafis allow their Women to Masjid and rest other Muslim Sects dont

  • SeenLaMeem

    Salafism/Wahhabism is a different religion entirely. They have hijacked the religion of Islam and all of the basic ritualistic aspects of Islam e.g praying five-times a day, fasting, hajj, charity etc. however because of their creedal beliefs about God, they have actually exited Islam. Their movement has been, and still is, serving a wider-purpose of discredting Islam as the vast majority of people (Muslims and non-Mulsims alike) will not be able to the difference between this artifical group and the true religion of Islam.

dr matthias rath