Exclusive: Defeating Salafism and Wahhabism the Right way
by M. ZUHDI JASSER
January 20, 2009
At first glance, Tajikistan seems to have all the makings of a “moderate” Muslim nation. The vast majority of Muslims in this former Soviet bloc nation are of the Sunni Muslim Hanafi school, who seem to openly reject Salafism and Wahhabism. Their rejection of the extremist, militant, and exclusivist ideologies of Salafism and Wahhabism is refreshing. However, they have gone beyond simply rejecting the ideas of Salafism and have now gone so far as to outlaw its existence. Joseph K. Grieboski, of the Institute on Religion and Foreign Policy recently stated,
"While we sympathize with the Tajik government in its efforts to fight terrorism, banning an entire religious community is not the right answer. Banning Salafism will only send potential extremists underground and engender further hostility to the government. Banning individual religious communities sets a dangerous precedent both for Tajikistan and the region as a whole."
Banning the Salafi Movement – Does the ends justify the means?
Specifically, on January 9, 2009 the Supreme Court of Tajikistan banned Salafist mosques, adding the group to the list of extremists banned in the country. Salafism is a reactionary form of Islam which seeks to implement a strict interpretation of the way Islam was practiced during the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Wahhabism is a particularly extremist and militant version of Salafism which originated in Saudi Arabia and has spread globally with the support of petrodollars. Salafi material was rounded up by the Tajiks, and the government cited sectarian speech against the Shiite minority and against Iran in their report about the security risk posed. Court spokesman Mahmadali Yusufov told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service that
“For the security of Tajikistan and defense of its citizens’ legal rights, as well as the prevention of national, racial, and religious enmity in Tajikistan, the court has decided to ban the Salafi group.”
This was also preceded last October 2008 with a demand from the Tajikistan “Council of Islamic Ulema,” a group of prominent government sponsored Hanafi Sunni scholars, for the Salafis to give up their ideology and their extremist beliefs. This latest action by the court is a culmination of years of increasing encroachment upon religious freedom in an attempt to control the Salafist movements in the country. The government issued an “official” textbook on the history of Islam for public schools in 2005 in order to “prevent” indoctrination. They began funding the Islamic University and broadened the curriculum (ostensibly a good move, but again through government control).
The Council of Islamic Ulema demanded that “the Salafis abandon their beliefs or stay away from the local mosques.” Hizb ut-Tahrir was then outlawed and hundreds of its members were arrested as this Salafi group advocated for the return of the caliphate and the overthrow of the government. Yet part of the truce of the civil war which ended in 1997 was to allow the existence of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) which continues to operate and voiced its condemnation of the Supreme Court ban.
For many years the State Committee on Religious Affairs (SCRA) within the Ministry of Culture oversaw the Law “On Religion and Religious Organizations.” In November 2006 the SCRA was dissolved and the Department for Religious Affairs (DRA) was established in order to register all “religious organizations” which must be registered if they are to have a legal assembly of more than 10 persons. While reports are that they approved most applications, one cannot help but wonder whether some that were denied or stalled on technical grounds were essentially being denied religious freedom whether one agrees or disagrees with their beliefs. Currently there are 85 non-Muslim groups registered with the DRA including Russian Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Bahai, and Zoroastrian, to name a few. Several unregistered prayer groups, mosques, and madrassas have been known to be closed down. Further government control over religious practice includes ‘carrying out attestations of imams’ testing them on their “knowledge of Islam.” Imams who fail are dismissed.
With all of this, the Council of Islamic Ulema is also not exactly a shining beacon for the advance of modernity. Curiously, in 2004, they passed a fatwa (religious legal opinion) prohibiting women from attending and praying in mosques citing an absurd historical tradition in Tajikistan. As would be expected, some cited national security and the need to prevent women from being exposed and indoctrinated to Islamic political movements as the reason. President Emomali Rahmon and his Ministry of Education also prohibited girls from wearing the hijab in public schools.
The government has also generally prohibited groups from publishing anything in Arabic script. While the law protects “all religious” texts, the government has restricted distribution of Christian literature.
This is all certainly one way to try to counter Salafism, but is it the right way? When it comes to defeating malignant political ideologies, do the ends justify the means? If it does, will such restrictions on religious freedom even work or will they actually empower the enemies of freedom?
Freed from the oppression of the Iron Curtain in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Tajiks endured a civil war from 1992-1997. There has been significant economic recovery since 1997 with still over two-thirds of the population living in poverty. Interestingly, the United States funded a $36 million bridge which linked Afghanistan and Tajikistan to help trade. Corruption remains prevalent as Tajikistan remains on the Tier 2 Watch List due to its failure in combating human trafficking through its nation. It also remains a significant conduit for narcotic sales out of Afghanistan and into Russia. Though yet the poorest of the former Soviet bloc nations, there has been an increase in the economic and security development after the Coalition war in Afghanistan.
The Constitution of the Republic of provides a legal framework for religious freedom, but the reality of Tajikistan’s laws has been different. As noted, the laws were established in December 1994 (amended in 1997 and 2006), “On Religion and Religious Organizations.” The law protects the rights of individuals to choose and change their faith while also protecting the right to proselytize and publicly discuss matters of religion. However, this law has also apparently become the instrument by which the government mandates registration and observation of all religious groups.
The Growing threat of Salafism
The Interior Minister of the Soghd Province Abdurahim Kakhharov said on June 30, 2008 that Salafis must be controlled “because they are associates of Wahhabis.” Hayrullo Saidov, the prosecutor in the northern Soghd Province, announced on June 30th government plans to increase controls over the activities of Salafiyyah members. Saidov stated that the Salafiyyah movement is "dangerous because it shows itself from its good side first and then gradually becomes dangerous." There have been cases where the government has confiscated Salafi litereature as being a threat to national security.
In a turn of the tables, some in the government tried to blame the West for the increase of Salafism in Tajikistan to the point where the American Ambassador, Tracy Jacobson, issued an unprecedented denial,
"This idea that we at the [U.S.] embassy give money to religious groups is a crazy idea…It's not true, I can assure you. But we do work with the [Tajik] government to support freedom of conscience for all peaceful religious groups. But no, we don't give money to the Salafi or other groups. I also read the article in which someone said we support Hizb-ut Tahrir and Salafi in order to create divisions within the Islamic world. It's nothing but propaganda."
There is finally a growing, albeit late, consensus toward the obvious that Wahhabism, and moreover Salafism, are profound threats to the security of Western-style governments. Conversely, successful nation states founded in the essence of religious freedom for all and the separation of organized religion and governance are the greatest ideological threats to the Salafists and the transnational movement of political Islam. We cannot forget this. The messaging of autocrats are not threats to the message of Islamists. But the messaging of free thinkers is. We must always maintain laws, practice, and messaging which epitomizes our values of freedom. To compromise that is to surrender what it is to be American and what threatens the Islamists the most.
In the West, we have seen the face of this threat as al Qaeda and the other militant offshoots of political Islam. It was no coincidence that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Wahhabi-trained. Our Homeland Security has prevented over 30 attacks by militant Salafists against our citizenry since 9/11. The threat of the ideology of Wahhabism, Salafism, and political Islam cannot be denied.
Tajikistan admittedly sits in a neighborhood of what can only be described as the belly of the beast of radical Islamism with Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to its south and west. Does that fact when added to its own societal challenges of poverty, endemic corruption, and illiteracy justify a more draconian approach to Wahhabism? At the core of this discussion and the Tajik example is not necessarily the impact of this one nation of 7 million but rather what lessons lie within for the global struggle against Wahhabism.
The Tajik history and background certainly pose unique challenges for its government, but as this struggle against political Islam evolves we cannot sacrifice our principles and give in to the temptation of the idea that in certain circumstances the “end justifies the means.” This challenge is certainly greater for emerging anti-Salafist Muslim nations like Tajikistan where losses in the war of ideas could lead to changes which bring Islamists into control as we saw in the Taliban of Afghanistan or the mullahs of Iran or even the Islamists of Turkey.
It is also easy to cite the WWII example in the United States of the shuttering of Shinto shrines and the arrest of their priests by the FBI thought to be affiliated with the Japanese government. We were obviously at war against the state of Japan and Shintoism was the official state religion of Japan. Shinto priests in Japan were official appointees of the government and their shrines were forces of nationalism and militarism. There was certainly a valid concern in the United States that Shinto shrines which worshipped the Japanese Emporer were threats to our security. This is not intended to review that action set in the context of WWII, the 1940s, and the realities of global Shintoism, but rather to point out that the U.S. has acted similarly to the Tajiks during wartime in our own history. But was that truly similar to this conflict? Was the threat of Shintoism similar to threat from within Islam?
Balancing liberty and security
The overarching question is whether these parallels are valid and to what extent the Tajik situation this month bears lessons for our own domestic policy against Wahhabism. There is a delicate balance between the ideas of genuine religious liberty and the need to maintain the security of free peoples. But the compromise in religious liberty is never done without a cost.
There is little argument that radical groups which use “religious” facilities and the freedom of faith group assembly given to them by our Constitution to advocate for the violent overthrow of our nation should be prohibited and the shuttering of such places of worship is certainly warranted in a free society. As Justice Robert Jackson stated in his dissention against the ruling in Terminello v. Chicago,
The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.
However, when it comes to the war against Wahhabism, Salafism, and political Islam, the shades of gray are many between Muslim followers of these ideologies on the one side and those who are truly anti-Islamist, anti-Wahhabi, or anti-Salafist on the other. There is a continuum of radicalism there. When it comes to the formulation of a coherent national or Western strategy in this transnational conflict against Islamism, we need to step back and look at the big picture and analyze some of the pitfalls of trying to legislate Salafism, Islamism or political Islam out of existence. All it will take is one more attack on American soil for many Americans to start calling for such action by government. But our government must never forget the enduring principles of liberty upon which its powers are guaranteed.
Why we need to defeat Salafism the right way
It is better that we have a national conversation on this issue sooner rather than later. Europe, home to a far larger number of Muslims per capita, is already having this discussion as the United Kingdom grapples with what to do with large Salafist groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and the threat they pose. The West is struggling to maintain its identity against encroaching Islamism and is finally beginning to develop a winning strategy to defeat the ideology of Salafism and its militant arm of Wahhabism. As we move forward, we should not ignore the following concerns:
1. With over 1.5 billion Muslims globally, this contest of ideas cannot be won militarily.
2. Our greatest asset in the United States in this conflict of ideas is the fact that our success as a nation is testimony to the power of freedom, liberty, and religious pluralism. If we compromise the very nature of the ideas of religious liberty with the intention of defeating Wahhabis, we will have changed who we are and we will have provided Islamist media with ammunition to use against us in their own advocacy and propaganda against the west.
3. The best way to prove that secular society is preferable to an Islamist one is to prove that all human beings including Muslims prefer to live in these types of societies, over those ruled by Sharia and clerics, out of their own free will and not by coercion.
4. We need to find a way to defeat Salafism and Wahhabism openly and courageously in the public sphere and create public movements founded in universal freedom against the Salafists from within the Muslim community. It will be impossible to enlist the help of reformist Muslims if they see some of their moderate anti-Islamist coreligionists outlawed or imprisoned as collateral damage in a government sweep against Wahhabis. Once the government gets in the business of shutting down non-violent religious facilities and groups it is inevitable that the wrong people will be rounded up.
5. Just like the Islamists use our freedom to spread their theocratic message and supremacism, we too need to use our resources to spread the ideas of liberty into the Muslim world. The ideas of liberty will be hypocrisy if we use autocratic means to “shut down” Salafists and push them underground.
6. Identifying and outlawing Salafism or Wahhabism is not as straightforward as it may seem. Salafist movements have survived some of the most oppressive and despotic regimes of the 20th century. Do we actually believe that outlawing these groups in free societies will prevent their existence?
7. As long as they are not advocating violence, giving them freedom to assemble and worship allows for a much better ability to legally and publicly monitor these organizations using media, government, and public opinion. It is virtually impossible to have a “war of ideas” against an enemy who is underground.
8. Salafists derive their energy against modernity from trying to recreate what they believe to be the only legitimate “example of the Prophet Mohammed.” Wahhabis similarly are militant Salafists who are far more open in their abhorrence of non-Muslims and non-Salafist Muslims (all described as kuffar – non-believers). Their ideas must be publicly discredited in open debate to point out the falacies of their assumptions and the outdated dogma of their beliefs.
9. The Tajiks may have known who the card carrying members of the Tajik specific “Salafiya” movement and mosques were in Tajikistan since they were a political party. But truly shutting down Salafists and Wahhabis would be almost impossible without shutting down most Muslim mosques and Islamist organizations. In fact in Tajikistan most Muslims are of the Hanafi extraction and it is deceptive for the government to portray that they can easily tell the difference between Salafists and Hanafi Muslims. The reality is that there is a great deal of overlap in these lines of thought not least of which is driven by the pervasive ignorance of many Muslims to the legal implications of the ‘religious’ ideas they follow. If a government takes the step of outlawing a group which poses a security threat, it has a duty to ensure that its dragnet only include those who are truly members of the radical violent sect. Alternatively, knowing accurately who is and who is not a Salafist or which mosques in the United States are or are not Muslim Brotherhood (MB) mosques is difficult if not impossible. This could be measured academically and relatively scaled through public debate, but it certainly cannot be measured or proven in the binary fashion necessary to meet the standards required to shutter mosques and organizations.
10. The Hanafi Muslims in Tajikistan invoking these draconian methods against Salafists are not themselves shining beacons of freedom and have often demonstrated a disregard for principles of liberty with regards to non-Muslims, women, and use of Arabic script, to name a few.
These issues cannot be ignored as we embark upon a generational conflict against political Islam. We will not be able to defeat this enemy on the battlefield. Political Islam is so penetrated into theological Islam of the 21st century, that to defeat it we must engage it openly, publicly, and repeatedly in order to discredit it from within the faith. Acts of terror against our citizenry will pull on our heart strings to act in sweeping ways against Islamists and against Muslims. We need to fight the ideas of Islamism on every front we can internally, economically, socially, culturally, and governmentally. But we should not give in to the temptation to short cut the essential debate and just try to outlaw our enemies. Strategically, such actions will ostensibly be a declaration of the defeat of liberty and will only serve to fuel the advocates of political Islam and alienate peaceful spiritual Muslims who oppose extremism. We also should not forget that Islamists have also proven that they thrive underground and in fact they thrive even more the more autocratic the environment. We should not create such an environment for them here in America.
Yes, they are also thriving in the free environs of the West. But that is more due to a lack of competition from reformist Islam rather than any particularly attractive or dominant idea for Muslim coreligionists. If we are going to defeat Salafism, the Tajik example teaches us that we need to do it the right way such that we do not trump liberty but rather empower reason and our ability to win the war.