Religious Fundamentalism and Violent Extremism: Salafism in Spain
by Mathilde Coutte
October 17, 2019

Media narratives and public perception commonly mis-associate Salafism with Jihadism. In some part, this is due to the overall conceptual issues and ambiguity of the term Salafism. Stripped of its pejorative usage, Salafism is a name derived from salaf, “pious ancestors” – a name given to reform movements that emphasize the restoration of Islamic doctrine to its pure form and a strict adherence to the Qur’an and Sunnah. Although some ultra-conservative, Salafi teachings have, in some cases, inspired violence and religious intolerance, jihadi Salafists only form a small portion of this fundamentalist current. The Salafi movement is mostly comprised of purist or other types of Salafists, who are typically non-violent and reject any form of engagement in the political process, especially that of Western states.

Unfortunately, media outlets have lumped these diverse groups together and tended to amplify the prominence of violent Salafists – a generalization that has further divided and polarized the Muslim community, notably in Spain. With the Salafi population in Spain being largely foreign, Spanish Muslim converts have sought to separate themselves by identifying with an “Andalusian Islam” to reconcile their religious beliefs with the secular liberal environment. Due to their Arab origin, strong cultural heritage, and fundamentalist beliefs, foreign Salafi Muslims have been easy targets to blame for the terrorist threat and are generally perceived as troublesome to Spanish society. Certain media outlets have additionally deployed ‘othering’ rhetoric that has increased anti-Muslim sentiment and, in some instances, hate crimes. Some have argued that social ostracization of this type, and the accompanying isolationism, has the potential to contribute to the vulnerability of these populations to radicalization.

Similarly, government policies have been criticized as identifying these actors as a threat to stability rather than as potential agents to countering violent extremism. Although the government has developed some institutions to promote religious freedom and pluralism, like the Fundación de Pluralismo y Conviviencia (FPC), the implementation of security measures regarding violent extremism has resulted in increased racial profiling and the targeting of Muslim communities in Spain.

In order to alleviate the marginalization and stigmatization of Spanish Salafists, efforts must be made to engage with the Salafi population and improve the inclusion of religious minorities in Spain’s social fabric. Specifically, initiatives could be organized at the community level to promote cultural awareness, religious tolerance, and interfaith dialogue. For example, the CIE, an entity that represents Islamic communities in Spain, has proposed the founding of national education centers to educate local imams on Spanish cultural norms. Imams and other religious leaders have the unique capacity to encourage their congregations to engage with other faith groups and therefore foster respect and solidarity by promoting pluralistic attitudes. Spreading tolerant speech both within Salafi communities and among other religious groups will not only enhance interfaith collaboration and social cohesion, but this would also effectively foster stronger resilience to extremist narratives.

In response to government inefficiencies, the Fundación de Pluralismo y Conviviencia (FPC), an interfaith organization, has been crucial in promoting the visibility and inclusion of religious minorities in Spain’s mainstream society, and in advancing religious tolerance in Spain. Notably, the FPC, along with the International Organization for Migration (OIC), have conducted various projects to deconstruct religious misconceptions and increase religious literacy. Examples include programs like, “Preventive Measures for Islamophobia and Religiously Motivated Discrimination” and “Seminars for Interreligious Dialogue”.

Further efforts should be made at the local level to broaden Spain’s interfaith networks, reduce religious prejudice, and alleviate the risk of radicalization resulting from religious stigmatization. In addition to these efforts, which are primordial to build cultural and religious awareness within the Spanish context, the state should invest further resources to support Islamic religious education in public schools. This has the capacity to help advance Spanish cultural norms in Islamic education and integrate young Salafi Muslims in Spanish society as a whole.

In all, the conflation of Salafism with Jihadism has alienated a large portion of the Spanish Salafi community. Positive engagement with Spanish Salafists through social and informal networks, as well as through the establishment of public religious education, is essential for advancing social cohesion and strengthening local resilience against extremist rhetoric.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).