Are Terrorism, Islamism and Salafism in Europe Connected?

Does the literal interpretation of the Quran empower a doctrine of terrorism? Two experts explore the link at a Nixon Center event.

Recent arrests of alleged terrorists in Germany and Denmark have sparked interest in the relationship between practicing salafism and carrying out jihad against the West. Two of the men arrested for plotting attacks in Germany were native German converts to salafism. The third was a Turk. Meanwhile, the chief Danish counter terrorism officer confirmed an Al-Qaeda connection.

What is the culture of salafism in Europe? Can it facilitate or enable a doctrine of terrorism? To explore this potential link the Nixon Center sponsored a discussion on September 19 featuring Jytte Klausen and Jocelyn Cesari. Klausen is a Danish professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University and author of The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe. Cesari is a French visiting associate professor of Islamic studies and director of Harvard University's "Islam in the West" program and is also the author of When Islam and Democracy Meet.

In trying to uncover the jihadist interpretation of Islam, Jytte Klausen asked a Danish-Algerian jihadist who had been imprisoned at Guantanomo Bay: "Is it like natural law, such as gravity?"

The man enthusiastically responded, "Yes, now you understand it-that is exactly how it is. Islam is a science and the sharia is basic law. It's like biology and physics, once you learn the basics, then you can begin playing with new ideas-about those things that are not decided. Basic law cannot be ignored and you have to stay inside the rules when you make your deductions for how you interpret Allah's rules." Klausen related the conversation she had with the man, as an example of how the peaceful religion of Islam can be manipulated to vindicate a terrorist.

Klausen explained that salafism is a literal interpretation of the Quran-often described as "fundamentalist Islam." Salafist groups and movements include the Wahhabis, the Deobandis and the missionary group Jamaat al Tabligh. Although Klausen referred to salafism as a theology, she clarified that many Salafists would not be comfortable with that classification, as they do not believe theology is allowed in Islam. Klausen noted that Salafists do not recognize a separation of state and religion. "It's public law; it's religious law; it's private law."

"Salafism is a problem", Klausen stated, "In the sense that it is an interpretation of religious obligation that is conducive to societal segmentation. It creates pockets of believers who often find it difficult to be members of general society." However, she noted that this was not universally true.

Klausen elaborated that understanding how the sharia imposes certain public obligations on believers, allows us to understand other political streams that have evolved. Islamism, for example, is defined as a political philosophy, a political movement and a nationalist movement that comprises a diverse number of Islamist groups, ranging from moderate to more radical. Examples of Islamist groups include the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, the ruling party in Turkey and related groups in various Middle Eastern and North African states, Hamas and the "general Muslim Brotherhood phenomenon." Klausen also pointed out that all of those groups, to some degree, have accepted democracy: "[They] have accepted the electoral mechanism, they accept that in order to advocate the political principles and the political ethics that are derived from Islam, [one] must participate in politics." Although Islamists generally believe that Islam is a religion and a political system, they are usually willing to work with the current system.

On the other hand, the more radical stream, jihadism, does not accept democracy. Klausen cited a statement from a Palestinian imam: "Participation in representative institutions and in elections implies a commitment to replacing Allah's law with man-made law. That is not acceptable." Understanding the basis of jihadism is essential to understanding "Al-Qaeda's ideological leadership of the somewhat-fragmented jihadist movement and networks in Western Europe and [how jihadism] is an important recruitment tool for bringing in young radicals", Klausen explained. On issues the sharia does not cover, the Danish-Algerian jihadist explained, "we, jihadists, the righteous, must discuss amongst ourselves and we must consult trusted authorities." Klausen reflected on the exchange: "You see how the literalism actually inherently sustains the ideological authority of Al-Qaeda."

Whether salafism is an enabling philosophy remains an open question. On the one hand, there is a great deal of evidence that "there are people who started out getting converted to Islam in the context of various Salafist mosques and then moved on [to jihadism]." However, Klausen noted that the number of European salafist mosques that cause problems are few. She also remarked that there is a large number of Salafists who work with the British police or counter-terrorism agencies. Additionally, there are programs in Britain, pioneered by Salafists, that attempt to convert imprisoned terrorists to "peaceful Islam" rather than "violent jihad."

In beginning her remarks, Jocelyn Cesari observed that "salafism" is derived from the word salaf, which means "companion of the prophet" and is a positive term for any Muslim. Cesari emphasized, "Not all forms of Islam, even if they are very conservative and puritan lead to jihadism."

Cesari explained that salafism was not, in its original late-19th century form and as believed by the Muslim Brotherhood today, a rejection of modernity; instead, it asks the key question of how to reconcile modernity with one's beliefs. This is a dominant question for Muslims in Western societies.