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Salafists vs. Liberals: The Struggle for Islam

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.

2-    The minorities of the Arab-Muslim world, mainly the Christians who are referred to as al-Taba'iyyun (those who follow) by the Islamists. They seek political and economic independence, though they are culturally Western oriented. In other words, they follow the West; hence the pejorative word "Taba'iyyun."

3-    The nationalists who in theory still believe in Arab nationalism, but in practice they focus on the national interests of their own countries.                              

4-    The secular reformers who seek political and economic reform without endangering the security of their own regimes. Generally speaking, they contextualize their reform agenda, in contrast to Islamo-liberals, in nationalist terms.

The resolution of this debate, which will largely affect the course of the war on terror, depends largely on how the Arab regimes deal and interact with the moderate Islamists and liberals to de-legitimize the Islamic radicals. The challenge is over how to create a common ground in which the state, the moderate Islamists and the liberals can compromise with each other. The dynamics created by the war on terror and in Iraq have prompted all parties to intensify their efforts. Marginalized for three decades in Saudi Arabia, the Islamo-liberals sought to discredit the ultra-conservative Wahhabis who have shared al-Qaeda's ideology and supported its mission. Crown Prince Abd Allah helped the Islamo-liberals indirectly by allowing public dialogue as a key policy item in his agenda of reform. In January 2003, 104 Saudis mailed the crown prince a document entitled "Strategic Vision for the Present and the Future." Richard Dekmejian observed that in writing the document the Islamo-liberals resorted to religio-legal justification for their vision by citing the Prophet's tradition concerning giving Nasiha (advice) to those in power and by relying on the Koran and the Sunna as the constitution of the state. They also centered their demand for comprehensive national dialogue and reform on the process of building a "state of constitutional institutions" whereby the quality of governance is subject to popular approval or rejection. The underlying assumption was an attempt to create a process by which to check the power of the Saudi government.  

Significantly, a group of Arab intellectuals (3000 Arabs and Muslims) signed a petition in early November 2004 calling for prosecuting Muslim clerics by an international court for issuing inflammatory views encouraging terrorism. They cited, among others, the Qatar-based Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, who has condoned attacks on American civilians in Iraq and sanctioned kidnapping in wartime, and the Saudi cleric Safar al-Hawali who, among others, disingenuously wore the cloak of moderation.    

In addition, 40 leading Middle Eastern and North African civil society groups, who met in Beirut in September 2004, issued a statement proposing "three imperatives" for the Middle East-Freedom, Democracy and Justice- and seven programs: equality, rule of law, free expression and organization, inquisitive education, economic inclusion, transparency, creative artistic and literary expressions. This statement may be regarded as both a continuation to the UN Arab Development Report and as a response to the Forum for the Future, which was set up by the G-8 summit in Sea Island, Georgia, last June, as part of the Bush administration policy to bring democracy to the Greater Middle East.

Concerned about the prospects that these different currents may coalesce into an organized anti-Islamist, pro-reform movement, the Islamists along with prominent conservative clerics launched a movement of their own to combat any attempt to curtail their traditional position in Muslim society. The non-moderate Salafists, including Salman al-‘Awdha and Safar al-Hawali, were quick to counter the Saudi Islamo-liberals. In addition to signing a declaration disassociating themselves from the terrorists, they, according to Dekmejian, "called for dialogue and working against using the bombings [since May 2003 in Saudi Arabia] to target the Islamist constituency and sow divisions among Muslims." However, by attacking Ibn Taymiyya, a towering religious scholar for the Islamists who sanctified violence against the Mongols because they were not practicing Muslims, and by questioning the moral legitimacy of Islamist ideology, the Islamo-liberals undermined the link they had with the pro-reform faction of the Saudi government. In fact, the Saudi regime dismissed some of them from their positions, including Jamal Kahshoqji as editor-in-chief of al-Watan, the mouthpiece of the Islamo-liberals in the kingdom.