When Category Eclipses Community: The Limits of ‘Salafism’ as a Discursive Term
By Victoria Edgar
February 11, 2019

Salafism is frequently described in Western discourse as a fundamentalist strain of Islam that is, by varying accounts, scripturally literalist, puritanical, extremist, or somehow synonymous with Wahhabism. But, at the same time, practitioners and policymakers need to recognize how the use of the word Salafism, as an identity marker and category, potentially limits our ability to engage effectively with these communities.

Salafism is a term that holds certain signals for Western scholars and is often used as a catchall for conservative religious belief. But Salafism is also a lived, communal identity that manifests in a variety of ways, making the indiscriminate or careless use of the term unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst. For instance, a group identifying as Salafi might be perceived as extremist and be subject to heavy-handed anti-terrorism laws. Salafism as theology, Salafism as ideology, and Salafism as identity are often overlapping but rarely synonymous; as practitioner scholars who take the realities of violent extremism seriously, we need to be capable of carefully distinguishing between them.

Among its core tenets, Salafism entails a reverence for the behavior of Islam’s pious ancestors (salafs), the primacy of the Quran and the hadith, and the rejection of modern religious innovation. There are two generally accepted strains of Salafism that emerged since the 20th century: modernist and purist. The modernist Salafis, of whom some the most famous are Mohammad Abduh and al-Afghani, understood Salafism as a way of strengthening contemporary Muslim identity in the wake of European colonization–rooting Arab identity in its cultural origins and leaning away from European influence. Embodied most strongly by Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, Purist Salafism prescribes strict, exclusionary practices in terms of Islamic monotheism – in addition to those aforementioned core tenets.

While Salafi political action is often thought of in narrow terms, religious groups utilize multiple avenues for political engagement, including advocacy, political party formation, or simply urging members of their community to vote a certain way. Instead of evaluating religious ideologies, groups, and communities as conservative or liberal, or violent or non-violent, it would be more constructive to ask: In what ways do Salafis engage with the public sphere? What does their political engagement look like?

Salafi Islam is not a homogenous identity; practice and belief vary across the spectrum of political and apolitical, as well as regionally and across generations. For instance, some Salafis in Sweden take a strict interpretation of purity, prescribing self-segregation from the surrounding immoral, non-Salafi population, while a Salafi organization in Norway practices civic engagement and discourse with their host community. In Tunisia, a generational split has emerged: the older Salafi generation has largely rejected modern party politics and government in favor of sharia law, while younger Tunisian Salafis have begun to organize political parties and support democratic participation in politics. In Egypt, many non-Salafis see Salafism as an import from Saudi Arabia and as being in opposition to traditional Egyptian values and religious norms, while the Salafis see themselves as defending these traditional values.

Coming up with a comprehensive definition of Salafism is a daunting task. But recognizing the diversity and heterogeneity within the label of “Salafism” is a critical first step for policymakers and researchers to engage meaningfully with communities who identify as Salafi or espouse Salafi beliefs. Furthermore, using the term “Salafist” as a synonym for extremist, puritanical, or violent runs the risk of alienating communities that should be carefully engaged. “Salafism” may be a helpful shorthand for a vastly intricate Islamic theological and social movement. However, it cannot be used as a substitute for understanding the lived experiences of Salafi Muslims in various contexts and societies.

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).