Salafists vs. Liberals: The Struggle for Islam

An ongoing debate over the role of political Islam and its violent ramifications is raging across the Muslim world, especially in the Arab world.

An ongoing debate over the role of political Islam and its violent ramifications is raging across the Muslim world, especially in the Arab world. Fueled partly by the daily violence in Iraq, which put in sharp relief the cultural and civilazional crisis facing the Arab world, this debate is compelling Muslims to harrow next to their very socio-cultural roots to reclaim both Islam and their heritage. The implications of this debate cannot be underestimated for the Muslim as well as the non-Muslim world.      

In fact, in a world where Muslims number approximately 1.4 billion, it is difficult, indeed hardly possible, to assert that the war on terror would be won if the logic justifying terror, as expounded by radical Islam, is either condoned or promoted in Muslim societies. So, in reality, the success or failure of the war on radical Islam, and by extension, on terrorism, lies within the hands of Muslims. The war centers on the Arab world's internal dynamics set in motion by the interaction among and between the state, the Islamists (mainly the Salafists), and the liberals.

Public space in most of the Arab-Muslim world is determined by authoritarian rulers and in the most part is non-existent. Rulers are beset not only by socio-economic problems but also by legitimacy problems. They covet their power and believe that sharing power is equivalent to a zero-sum game, which could be played out at their own expense.

Prior to September 11, with Arab nationalism pretty much bankrupt, Arab rulers, mainly the secular-nationalists, embraced Islam to legitimize their rule. The greatest irony was when Saddam Hussein in 1992 launched "al-Hamla al-I'lamiya" (the faith campaign). At the same time, political Islam re-emerged to fill the socio-political vacuum created by the bankruptcy of Arab nationalism. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government strengthened its relationship with the religious Wahhabi establishment to fend off the threat of secular Arab nationalism as reflected by the Ba'th in Syria and Iraq and the Free Officer movement in Egypt. Occasionally, the Saudi government would align itself with the liberals, who are pejoratively called ‘ulmaniyun, or secularists, by the Islamists, to counter Wahhabi pressures.

As part of the Salafi movement (salaf means ancestors), the Wahhabis share the view that the period during which the prophet Muhammad and the four-guided caliphs governed the Umma (Muslim community) serves as a paradigm (model) for Muslim governance, which has deviated from the precepts of the Koran and the Sunna (customs/traditions of the Prophet) as set forth by the Prophet.

Notwithstanding clerics at religious institutions, whose prominent center is Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the Salafists, generally speaking, can be classified as follows: 

1-     Those who believe that Islamic religion is "Shumuliya" (total), whereby politics is inseparable from religion, "Muqadasa" (sacrosanct), whereby the sacred scriptures obviate the need for Ijtihad (reason) and interpretation of the texts, "Mutlaqa" (absolute), whereby no other opinion is allowed, and "Niha'iyah" (final), whereby the prophetic succession has been sealed by Islam. Al-Qaeda falls under this category. It is an absolutist, scriptural literalist movement that does not recognize the "other," emphasizing methodological faith over reason. Al-Qaeda members regard themselves as the guardians of the Islamic prophetic message, which they have situated in a "Qaeda," literally a base, anything outside of which warrants Jihad (holy war). Al-Qaeda is supported by a network of Salafi-Jihadis scholars, mainly in the Saudi Wahhabi religious establishment such as Ali al-Khudayr.

2-    Those who may be called Wasatiyyun. The Arabic root word for Wasatiyyun is Wasat, which is mentioned in the Koran and connotes moderation. The Wasatiyyun tend to practice Ijtihad (reason) and interpret Islamic texts in a way to show that Islam is not incompatible with modernity. Significantly, they base their Ijtihad on Islamic understandings. The Wasatiyyun can be divided into three categories. First, there are those who wear the cloak of moderation both to distinguish themselves from Salafi-Jihadis and to disassociate themselves from al-Qaeda, but remain radicals at heart. Second there are those who have entered into agreements with Arab regimes, whereby they have renounced violence as a means to achieve their goals without forsaking their ideology. The Muslim Brothers in Egypt and Jordan (and to some extent the Dawa party and Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) fall under this category. Finally, there are those who espouse religious and political moderation in the interest of evolving Muslim society by combining Islam and Democracy. They are referred to as Islamo-Liberals.

3-    And those who may be called Revivalists. They pursue a movement of renewal in Muslim society. They seek to produce an Islamic cultural paradigm to replace the Western cultural paradigm. Unlike the Islamo-Liberals, Revivalists don't shy from criticizing the very foundation of traditional Islamist ideology. From its early beginning, as articulated by Muhammad Abdu in Egypt, this movement has attracted few followers and has been harshly attacked by the religious establishments in the Arab world.

Aside from the radicals, the latter two are generally known as moderate Islamists because they don't reject dialogue and, by extension, compromise. Facing these Salafists in the Arab world are the liberals who, generally speaking, may be classified as follows:

1-     The seculars, some of whom are former and current Marxists and intellectuals, who seek Mosque-State separation. They believe in a materialistic world that in theory should be fair and just.