Western commentators on things Islamic have a tendency to proceed by analogy, relating almost everything to supposedly comparable events or ideas from European or American praxis and theory. The conceit seems to be that the Islamic world resembles Seventeenth century Europe and that in due course Muslim Voltaire’s or Rousseau’s will emerge to lead their co-religionists into the world of Enlightenment liberalism so that we can all live happily ever after. This is nonsense. The only thing the Islamic world of 2017 closely resembles is the Islamic world of 2016. A further error, in respect of those violent extremists who march under the banner of Islam, is to report on their actions but not upon their words or their thoughts. This reactive response is understandable but cannot but be unproductive in terms of finding solutions to the problems which are raised by murderous jihadism.
Shiraz Maher, in his book Salafi-Jihadism, elegantly avoids both of these heffalump traps. He studies the ideas of the protagonists, their theoreticians and the milieu from which they draw their ideas. To this the West is mostly noises off and the Salafists (those who aim to return to the supposedly ‘pure’ Islam of the first three generations of Muslims) base their arguments on texts which originate from the Middle East or South Asia. As might be expected from a ‘Religion of the Book’ they produce lots and lots of such texts and Maher analyses the key ones, the debates which they have generated and the conclusions to which the main actors, such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State, have come.
A significant feature of the book is Maher’s use of Arabic words for all of the key concepts involved. This is not authorial affectation, many of these words have no direct equivalent in English. Since we can only think thoughts in words then Arabic speakers using Arabic words with no precise English cognates will think thoughts which English speakers will be unable to think. The differences admittedly will be subtle but they will become cumulative when untranslatable thought is piled upon untranslatable thought into the complex structures which form Salafist, or indeed any Islamic, philosophy or ideology. Therefore by sticking to the original words Maher forces his Anglophone readers into undertaking the exercise of thinking outside their usual and normative categories because otherwise it will be impossible for them to understand the phenomenon under discussion.
Rather aptly the author identifies five pillars which taken together uphold the distinctive structure of Salafi-Jihadist thought. For the sake of brevity I will look at only two beginning with al-wala’ wa-l-bara. The book’s (very useful) glossary defines this as ‘to love and hate for the sake of Allah; loyalty and disavowal.’
This is rather an elusive concept but to a practical minded jihadi at the level of foot soldier (let us call him Umar) it might mean something like-
- Love that which Allah loves and demonstrate this love through actions; and
- Hate that which Allah hates and demonstrate this hatred through actions
One of the things which Allah obviously loves is pure Muslim doctrine, ‘aqida, which is precisely what the group Umar supports teaches so he demonstrates his love for the things Allah loves by following the ‘aqida in exact detail. Since this ‘aqida identifies those things Allah hates Umar can demonstrate his hatred for the things which Allah hates by killing the persons and destroying the objects so identified if he has the power to do so and demonstrating vigorously against them if he does not. Given the extraordinary range of things which Salafists identify as hated by Allah Umar and his brothers are never short of things to do.
A further implication of this has to do with the question of conscience. Western opinion formed by Christianity tends to think that in conflict people will do evil reluctantly, that good may come of it, or without reluctance but with a bad conscience knowing it to be morally wrong. By contrast Umar can act with a conscience not only clear but joyful since he is killing or destroying only that which Allah hates. He is thus acting as a benefactor to mankind by purifying the world and making it easier for true Islam to flourish. That is, al-wala’ wa-l-bara acts as a powerful disinhibiting agent enabling jihadis to do some unspeakably awful things without flinching.
Another pillar is tawḥīd defined as ‘the unitary oneness of God.‘ This sounds fairly innocuous but it has the corollary meaning that the One God from whom all come and to whom all return should be the one focus of all that we do. He has created us for the purpose of worshipping him so all of our acts, sharing a meal, going to the toilet, running a country, are forms of worship. Again this is innocuous enough, the Amish might say as much, but if every act is worship then where it is not directed to Allah it must be directed to some other deity. That is, where, for example, democracy is seen as an end in itself then it is a form of polytheism to be a democrat. Any individual or collective action not taken for the sake of giving honour to Allah gives dishonour to Him and is therefore a thing which Allah hates. Which of course brings us back to al-wala’ wa-l-bara, not to mention jihad and takfir (which I won’t but Maher does.)
Of course each of these Salafi interpretations of Islamic concepts are hotly contested within the Muslim world, and indeed Salafism itself is not monolithic. Moreover none of these particular readings of them can be called ancient, they have emerged only in recent centuries or in some cases decades. It cannot then credibly be argued that the phenomenon of terrorism which AQ and ISIS have unleashed on the world is something which is intrinsic to or innate in Islam qua Islam. Nonetheless these concepts which the Salafi-Jihadists have reworked are ancient and are innate to the religion so, as historian Tom Holland said in another context, have been unexploded bombs waiting to be set off by someone malevolent enough to do so. It is the task of Muslim scholars and teachers above all to so to defuse them that no future generation need endure the terrible suffering inflicted on people as diverse as Yazidis and Ariana Grande fans.
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