From mass executions to ISIS and the San Bernardino attack, the manifestations of Saudi Arabia’s Salafi extremism are everywhere—and it’s time for Muslims to fight back.
I had to see just one detail on the night of the San Bernardino killings to get a clue about the shooters’ ultraconservative leaning.
On the Facebook page for Syed Farook’s mother, the 62-year-old Rafia, I studied her “likes.” My eyes widened at one of them: she’d “liked” Farhat Hashmi, the founder of the nonprofit school Al-Huda International, based in Islamabad, Pakistan. The school is popular among middle-class and upper-class women in Pakistan, including many of my aunties. It has branches in the U.S. and Canada, and boasts a strong online teaching network. When I had studied among Al-Huda students in Islamabad in the days after the 9/11 attacks, I described them one way: “the Taliban Ladies Auxiliary.”
It has taken the almost 15 years since the attacks—as governments, political leaders and special-interest groups have obfuscated our discussion of Islamic extremism—for me to fully understand the underlying ideology that we must dissect if we hope to dismantle the threat of terrorism in the name of Islam.
While the school says it doesn’t support extremism or terrorism, as one observer noted, the group is “#Salafi-lite.” It’s a word anyone interested in Islamic extremism needs to learn: “Salafi,” a puritanical, literal interpretation of Islam that becomes “political Islam,” or “Islamism,” in its radicalized form. This weekend, invoking its Salafi doctrine, known as Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia executed a cleric from the minority Shia sect and 46 others in “Saudi Arabia’s ISIS-like justice,” appropriately earning worldwide condemnation. Years ago, a Muslim writer pondered if Al-Huda was in fact “cultivating al Qaeda in Muslim women.”
Meanwhile, the government of Qatar, with an official state religion of Salafism, too, is known for its “official sympathies" with “the Salafi movement.”
Before long, it emerged that the female shooter—Farook’s Pakistani-born wife, Tafsheen Malik—had studied under “Dr. Farhat,” as she is known, an “Islamic feminist.” It was then that I understood very clearly the family culture of puritanical hyper-religiosity in which the killers had lived. It doesn't necessarily equate to violence. I have many extended family members who are ultraconservative, and guided by their faith to compassion and kindness. However, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking Salafis are like the Amish.
In the conveyor belt of radicalization, conservative Salafi doctrine is too often a gateway drug to violence—or what French political scientist Gilles Kepel coined as “Salafi jihadism.” Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden was considered the most famous of the “Salafi jihadists,” and the title now goes to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. It is the doctrine being taught by the more inflammatory preachers in Britain and France. The perpetrators of mass terror acts in the past 15 years—9/11, London and Madrid, Paris, Bali nightclubs, Lebanon, Mali, San Bernardino and countless others—were carried out by practicing Salafi-jihadists. At the Rand Corporation, terrorism expert Seth G. Jones released a report early last year, “The Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qa’ida and Other Salafi Jihadists,” which documents an increase in “Salafi-jihadist” groups from three in 1988 to 49 in 2013. The number of fighters has increased from just a few in 1988 to as many as 40,000 to 100,000 in 2013.
A few months ago, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation published a report, “Inside the Jihadi Mind,” dissecting the propaganda and ideology of “Salafi-jihadism,” with themes of “the nobility of jihad,” the “end of humiliation” and the “disgrace of enemies.” Researchers, including terrorism expert Emman El-Badawy, said they found Islamic teachings in 87 percent of the propaganda of “Salafi-jihadism” that they studied.
Over four decades, I—and dozens of other Muslims with whom I have spoken—have seen the spirit of religious dogmatism overtake the lives of loved ones, as the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have exported their state religion of Salafism to the world. They are buttressed by the teachings of Islamist ideologues like Syed Qutb, the godfather of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; Maulana Mawdudi, a godfather of Islamist movements in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, like Tablighi Jamaat and Jaamat Islami; and Abdullah Azzam, teacher to a generation of Afghan and Pakistani fighters, including Al Qaeda leaders Osama Bin Ladin and Ayman al Zawahiri..
Key to their most extreme teachings is the romanticization of “jihad and martyrdom.”
We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking Salafis are like the Amish.
When I first arrived in Pakistan in the summer of 1983, I saw the first inklings of this ideology through a female cousin, a dear pen pal of mine. She was starting to get influenced by the Saudi Islamization of Pakistan, which started with the rise to power of General Zia ul Haq in 1977 and the radicalizing of U.S.-sponsored Afghan warriors into “mujahideen” fighting the Soviets with the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. During that time, Salafi ideology cross-fertilized with a traditionally conservative ideology of South Asia called Deobandism. The Deobandi ideology is named for a village in my native state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India where the school is based, at the university, Darul Uloom Deoband, or “House of Knowledge Deoband.” I have family members who studied there, and its ultraconservative dogmatism influenced my paternal and maternal lineage, with my mother, as a rising teen, having to wear the black face veil and burka, or gown. Militant Deobandism has become the ideology of the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani militant groups.
My pen pal retreated away from playing late-night games of gin rummy with our male first cousins, because, by conservative interpretations of Islam, where one can marry first cousins, they were suddenly haram (forbidden or illegal) to her; they were potential marital partners.
Back in the U.S., in the early 1990s, I got disturbing news one day from my mother that a cousin in Gaithersburg, Maryland—indoctrinated to extremist Islam through the Tablighi Jamaat, a missionary group founded outside Delhi as an offshoot of Deobandism—had taken his wife and children to India on a ruse and seized their passports, refusing to let them return to America. The story was he had seen a note from his daughter, indicating she had a crush on a white boy at school, and he didn’t want his children “corrupted.” They remained in India. Not long ago, one son returned to the United States. The daughter, a star college graduate in India, got married and lives in Saudi Arabia, wearing a full-face veil by “choice.”