Islamic Salafism is not merely the result of Saudi exports, nor is it necessarily a cause of political radicalization. Those are some of the observations which emerged during a three-day, semi-public conference organized by the Leiden-based Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) near Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. The conference, held on Sept. 28-30 and attended by RW, drew scholars from three continents and was under Chatham House rules, which means that statements made during the conference cannot be attributed in reports – hence the absence of references to specific scholars in this article.
Especially in Europe, Salafis are today suspected of preparing a fertile ground for political radicalism, and the fact that there are some groups belonging to the Jihadi Salafi category, for whom violent insurrection becomes a religious imperative, reinforces such impressions. However, Islamic movements appear much more varied than many outsiders think; doctrinal disagreements are frequent. For instance, one of the influential Al Qaeda strategists deeply disliked Salafis and saw their emphasis on doctrinal purity as a weakening factor.
It remains, true, however that borders are porous, and that the religious foundations of Al Qaeda are derived from Salafism to a large extent. But Salafis have been around for a long time, often as purely pietistic, apolitical movements; it is primarily a theological term, not a political category. Many Salafis actually preach submission to the state authority or have cooperated with states in different countries. The diversity of approaches by groups all labeled Salafi actually makes some researchers inclined to avoid a broad use of the word Salafi.
The appeal of Salafism is unlikely to disappear: it is egalitarian, it sounds authentic with its call for returning to the essentials of Islam, it has shallow or simply organized structures of authority, and it is book-oriented (including heavy use of CDs and the Internet). It is true that Saudi funding has significantly contributed to spread Salafi ideas around the world (and continues to do so), but Salafism would continue to develop even without Saudi support. In addition, the Saudi scene itself is complex, and the State is far from controlling everything which takes places in that field.
Regarding the jihadi trends in Salafism, the Internet now seems to contribute mightily to its diffusion. Being active online has become an accepted part of jihad, and one can observe the emergence of jihadi “Internet scholars.” The Web also opens prospects of self-radicalization, without direct contact with organized jihadi groups.–By Jean-Francois Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the newly established Religioscope Institute at http://www.religioscope.com)