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.

Significantly, on November 6, 2004, a group of Saudi religious scholars, among whom were Salman al-‘Awdha and Safar al-Hawali, asserted that Jihad generally does not come under the terrorism rubric. They called on Iraqis to support militants waging holy war against the U.S.-led coalition, saying fighting occupation was a duty and a right. Excerpts of the fatwa (religious edict) read: "Fighting the occupiers is a duty for all those who are able. It is a Jihad to push back the assailants." "…Resistance is a legitimate right. A Muslim must not inflict harm on any resistance man or inform about them. Instead, they should be supported and protected."    

Meanwhile, aside from the rabid litany of Iranian mullahs and religious scholars such as al-Qaradwi, Shiite cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, a spiritual leader of the Dawa party and Hizbollah, considered moderate because of his condemnation of the September 11 attacks, stated in early November that "US President Bush's crusade against Islam had only stopped in theory but not in practice." He added that the "US-led war on terror was, in reality, a war against Islam and Muslims around the world." Fadlallah's statement is very much echoed by prominent clerics and religious institutions, which feel that Islam is under assault by the West. 

All of this did not only blur the lines between terrorism and resistance but also between moderate and radical Islam. It goes without saying that Arab regimes should strengthen the liberal strands in their society to counter and check the rise of radical Islam. However, although they had taken some half-hearted reform measures, the Arab regimes have so far paid lip service to the liberals. Whether in Syria, Tunisia, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, the pattern is similar by the fact that the core demands of the liberals (ranging from calling for full participation and representation in the political systems, to ending the state of emergency, to putting term limits on holding office) are largely ignored by the regimes, which are really interested in controlling the process of political and economic reform so that they can secure their survival. In other words, the Arab regimes have not institutionalized the agenda of the liberals, thereby keeping them weak vis-à-vis the state and the radicals. Obviously, the regimes are trying to co-opt the agenda of the liberals so that they can control its scope and breadth at their own pace and silence the most extreme of Salafists who pose immediate threat to their survival. Consequently, the non-moderate Salafists have remained unfazed about attacking the US and the liberals, encouraged, indeed, by religious institutions, which feel threatened not only by Western civilization but also by Islamo-liberals and revivalists. Herein lies the danger, in that the ideology justifying terror has remained intact; indeed permeating the Muslim society without a check on its causality of legitimizing terrorism.

It is not enough for the Arab regimes to silence the extremists of the Salafists. The Arab regimes must provide an agenda of reform that can satisfy some of the demands of the moderate Islamists and the liberals, while at the same time de-legitimizing radical Islam and outlawing encouragement of violence. With the Arab regimes sitting under the radicals' Sword of Damocles, it is imperative that they realize that their survival depends more on their alliance with the Islamo-liberals and liberals. They must prevent the radicals from continuing to dominate and setting the tone of Arab national discourse by harnessing a genuine reform movement entailing religious reform. This may well decide the outcome of the debate in favor of the liberals. So far this remains to be seen.                               


Robert G. Rabil is a visiting professor of Middle East studies at Florida Atlantic University.


Updated 1/27/05