Salafism and Wahhabism are the roots of terror and anarchy

Dr. Taj Hashmi is a professor of security studies at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, US. He has taught at various other universities in Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Singapore and the US. He has authored several books and scores of academic papers, book chapters and popular articles. His major publications include Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia (Westview Press, 1992); Women and Islam in Bangladesh (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2000); Islam, Muslims and the Modern State (Palgrave-Macmillan, 1994) and Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year-War beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014). Following is the full text of Habilian Association’s interview with the Indian professor: 

Habilian: In your opinion, regarding the recent terrorist attacks in Europe, do the westerners have been awakened of Wahhabism?
Hashmi: While the world has almost taken it for granted that countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Mali, and Nigeria (among a few others) are already “lost to terrorists”, hence nothing much could be done to reverse the process in these countries, the recent Islamist terror attacks in America, Belgium, France, Germany, Turkey, and the latest ones in Bangladesh seem to have alarmed leaders, analysts, and laymen across the world that something has to be done to address the Salafi/Wahhabi menace for the sake of saving the crumbling New World Order. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has rightly singled out the Salafi/Wahhabi terrorists as the biggest security threats to the world. He has also distinguished the ordinary Muslims from Islamist terrorists, and has thus re-drawn the important line of demarcation between Islam and Islamist terrorism, which Western leaders and analysts frequently erase at their convenience.
Now, the answers to the questions are quite difficult a) if the Westerners have really awakened to the menace of Salafism and Wahhabism; and b) if they are going to address the problem in the most effective manner, with honesty and integrity. The problem is Western ambivalence. On the one hand, the short-term Western geopolitical and economic exigencies – opportunism seems to be the right word – demand the continuation of the status quo; long-drawn warfare is good for arms manufacturers, or the proverbial Military-Industrial Lobby in the West. On the other, countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE who directly or indirectly espouse Salafism/Wahhabism are important Western allies against Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Hence the Western ambivalence! They know about the problem, but are not ready yet to address it to resolve it forever.

Habilian: Would you please tell us a little about Salafism and Wahhabism and their similarities and differences?    
Hasmi: Importantly, violent Salafism/Wahhabism (which is beyond the control of Saudi Arabia and its allies) is also part of the ongoing “global jihad” or global insurgency against the West, and its local surrogates in the Muslim World. What most governments and analysts do not tell us is Salafist/Wahhabi terrorism is not an end in itself, but a means toward establishing an alternative Islamic political order to replace the existing ones for the sake of peace and progress under an elusive “Kingdom of God”.
Wahhabis and Salafists are predominant not only in the Arabian Peninsula, their number is also growing up in post-Mubarak/post-Morsi Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Turkey, North Africa, Nigeria, Somalia, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and elsewhere in the Muslim World, North America, Europe, and even China. Around five to six million of the 82 million Egyptians are believed to be Salafists. Salafism is proliferating in British universities. One study reveals strong presence of Saudi-influenced Salafism among Uyghur Muslims in China. Thanks to their exposure to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries as menial workers, thousands of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims are being indoctrinated in Wahhabi/Salafi ideologies. Civil/military governments in Pakistan and Bangladesh – over the years – have also been Arabizing and Islamizing the popular culture and state ideologies of the countries for the sake of legitimizing corrupt and autocratic practices.
Although Salafism and Wahhabism are not synonymous, yet scholars, politicians, and laymen often draw a parallel between the two ideologies. “Salafism” per se is not a problem or threat to peace and order, as the expression literally means going back to the “good old days” of the salaf or pious and incorruptible ancestors. This is not that different from ancestor-worship, which is quite common among tribesmen, peasants, and pre-modern communities. Sudden catastrophic changes in the ways of living – political, economic, and social – precipitated by foreign invasions, rule by alien or indigenous oppressive rulers throughout Islamic history gave birth to Salafism, albeit in different names and forms.
Salafism is an ultra- conservative reformist movement of Sunni Islam that emerged in the second half of the 19th-century. Like Sufism, Salafism is a grassroots-based reformist protest against religious accretions, social injustice, lack of political freedom, and economic justice. However, unlike Sufism, it’s not escapist, non-violent, passive, apolitical, and next worldly.   Salafists, on the one hand, reject religious innovation, or bi’dah; and on the other they strive for the implementation of tawheed or strict monotheism, and Sharia law in every sphere of life, private and public, for the sake of socio-political and economic justice.
Salafism and Wahhabism are Sunni revivalist movements. Both of them are transnational protest movements against bad governance and tyranny, by local or foreign despots. One must not lose sight of the anti-imperialist, elementary aspects of popular resistance-cum-nationalist movements among Sunni Muslims. Their agendas are very similar to those of Ibn Taymiyyah’s (1263-1328) jihad against Mongols, Shiites, and Christians in Syria and Iraq. His ideas have profoundly influenced modern Salafists, Wahhabis, and various other Sunni jihadist groups, within and beyond the Muslim World. However, Shiite Muslims and non-Muslim communities are not immune to similar movements for restoring their “lost glory”, and quest for their “imagined communities”, in the language of Benedict Anderson. It is an alternative to secular protest, reformist, or nationalist movements by pre-modern people. Sometimes the adherents of the ideology understand the reasons of their misery, and sometimes they are confused and ignorant about what has gone wrong with the previous order. Salafists often raise the question: Is Allah punishing them due to (what they consider) the deviation from true Islamic way of life?
Salfists are divided into three categories: a) the most numerous purists or quietists who are apolitical; b) the second largest group of the activists, who are overtly political; and c) the smallest group of Salafists are die-hard jihadists, who believe in the violent way of transforming global Muslims into followers of the earliest pious ancestors or “As-Salaf as-Saliheen”, or the first three generations of Muslims. Salafis believe in the following hadis of the Prophet: “The people of my own generation are the best, then those who come after them, and then those of the next generation”. The first three generations are: As-Salaf as-Saliheen or the Earliest Pious Ancestors (that include Muhammad himself and his close companions); the Tabi’un or the Followers of the Earliest Pious Ancestors; and the Tabi’ al-Tabi’in or the Followers of the Followers of the Earliest Pious Ancestors.
Salafists are again divided into two groups. One rejects the strict adherence or taqlid to the four Sunni schools of law or mazhabs, and stresses the importance of hadis and ijtihad or independent legal judgment; the other one adheres to taqlid and follows one of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence. Then again, there are two other types of Salafists as well, the “good ones” and the “bad ones”. The former are akin to the followers of the famous Egyptian Islamic reformer Sheikh Muhammad Abduh (1849-1906), who glorified the Earliest Pious Ancestors as the role models of all Muslims. Unlike the violent Salafists, Abduh believed in peaceful co-existence of Muslims and non-Muslims. The “bad ones” are extremely intolerant to Shiites, non-Muslims, “deviant” Muslims who support liberal democracy, nationalism, and secularism.
Interestingly, although militant Wahhabism and Salafism are synonymous today, many Salafists consider “Wahhabi” a derogatory expression. Then again, many Salafists consider Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792) – the founder of the Wahhabi Movement – a Salafist as well. They frequently cite his writings, especially Kitab at-Tawhid (The Book of Monotheism). Since many Salafists also espouse jihad against the West and “deviant” secular Muslims and Shiites, the differences between literalist, strict, and puritanical Salafism and Wahhabism have practically disappeared. Interestingly, many Salafists Both the Salafi and Wahhabi movements are puritanical Islamic revivalist movements, aiming at purging “idolatrous” and “polytheist” rituals and beliefs from Muslim societies for the sake of strict monotheism or tawheed, which is the by-word for establishing the supremacy of God or a God’s Kingdom against man-made corruption and tyranny. Nevertheless, both the religious revivalist movements to a large extent are political movements against tyrannical regimes (foreign or indigenous) and aim at establishing a “pure” Islamic order, which they believe existed under the three generations of Salaf in Arabia in the 7th century.
Salafism and Wahhabism, in short, represent medieval pre-modernism that still prevails in the Arab heartland of Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf kingdoms, since the Sack of Baghdad in 1258. Having very little or no exposure to modern secular ideas, and philosophies of governance – as developed in the Post-Renaissance, Post-Reformation, Post-Enlightenment, and Post-Revolutionary Europe and America – Muslims in general, particularly Arab Muslims are readily available for pre-modern ideas and institutions, including the supremacy of Islam, clerics, Arabs and their tribal norms and values, including patriarchy. The upshot being subjugation and persecution of women, non-Muslim minorities, Shiite and liberal/secular Muslims, the Arab heartland has become the fertile breeding ground of Salafist and Wahhabi extremism, in the absolute sense of the expression.
Salafism and Wahhabism are at the roots of Islamist terror and anarchy. They are not religious but political movements to establish their respective political orders by supplanting local autocrats (monarchs and dictators), and American, Western, Russian, Chinese, Indian and other hegemonic powers. In view of this, one is not sure if the people and governments in terror-infested countries alone can do something to address the problem of growing surge of Salafism/Wahhabism without the whole-hearted support of countries like the US, UK, France, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, China, and India, who somehow by default or by design are responsible for the growth of Islamist terrorism across the world, including Bangladesh.

Habilian: Let us speak about Bangladesh. Do you believe that international Salafist Wahhabi groups such as the ISIS and Al-Qaeda had a role in July's terrorist attacks in Dhaka?
Hashmi: There is no reason to believe that Islamist terrorist attacks in Bangladesh are just handiworks of some marginalized, angry youths. Terrorists here are well motivated and well connected to international terrorist outfits, including ISIS and al Qaeda. Although almost all the terrorists who took part in the recent terror attacks in Bangladesh were secular-educated, young men in their early twenties from well-to-do classes, there is no reason to believe that Salafi/Wahhabi ideologies played no role in motivating the killers, who were willing to die to kill total strangers in the name of establishing ultra-conservative Sharia law a` la Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Habilian: How do you evaluate the role of Madrassas in promoting militancy and terrorism in Bangladesh?
Hashmi: Madrasas in Bangladesh and across South Asia (and in certain other countries in the Sunni World) have been the breeding ground of Salafi/Wahhabi ideologies, which promote Islam supremacy, hatred of non-Muslims, atheists, Shias, and adherents of all non-Sunni Sects. Madrasa teachers demonize democracy, secularism, nationalism, women’s rights, and whatever is modern, unorthodox, or beyond their understanding.
Last but not least, many madrasa teachers (under Saudi influence) refuse to believe the earth is round, and moves around the sun. Last but not least, tens of thousands of madrasa graduates – who are mostly under-employed and in poverty – are employed as madrasa teachers, imams at mosques, and a few of them have emerged as freelance Islamic preachers and demagogues. They preach hate against non-Muslims, atheists, women, Shiite and all non-Sunni Muslims, democracy and secularism in their writings, fatwas, and speeches and khutbas (Friday Prayer sermons). Of late, these clerics have started using electronic media outlets, including TV channels, YouTube, and Twitter. They have profoundly influenced sections of secular educated people, along with semi-literate and illiterate people in Bangladesh and beyond. In sum, under-employed and self-employed madrasa-graduates have been the primary promoters of hate and violence against secularism, democracy, women’s rights, non-Muslims, and followers of all non-Sunni sects among Muslims in Bangladesh. One may argue that without these scurrilous preachers’ writings and speeches, there would not have been any al Qaeda, ISIS, Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harkatul Jihad and their offshoots anywhere in the world, including Bangladesh.

Habilian: As you said above, Many of madrassas in East and South East Asia who are the main promoters of violence and hatred against minorities are run under the influence of Saudi Arabia. In your opinion, Why the West does not put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop contributing this institutes?  
Hashmi: The US considers Saudi Arabia and other autocratic Gulf regimes allies against Iran, Syria, and in the long run, against Russia and China. They are also covertly anti-Palestinian, and pro-Israel.

Habilian: In recent years, we have seen the efforts by Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi clergymen to improve relations with Deobandi religious leaders of the subcontinent and proximity to Darul Uloom Deoband. Even, it seems that moderate Deobandis have changed in recent years. (something that is visible in their publications and media.) How do you assess this issue? Is the extreme Wahhabism Saudi looking for influencing the Traditional ideas of the subcontinent? What’s the Deobandyah strategy in the region?
Hashmi: Thousands of Deobandi ulama (clerics) ever since 9/11 have been publicly condemning terrorism in general, al Qaeda and ISIS in particular. They issued fatwas against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. The ongoing Saudi-Deobandi nexus may be attributed to Saudi charity, which Deobandi clerics possibly can’t decline.  I don’t think there is any ideological convergence between Deoband and Saudi Wahhabi clerics.

Habilian: Do you have any estimation about the number and diversity of radical (Extremist religious) groups and movements in Bangladesh? Could you please tell us about the agendas that these groups peruse and the social classes that they belong to?
Hashmi: There are several legal Islamist organizations, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), United Islamic Front, Khilafat Majlis, Hifazat-e-Islam, Islamic Constitution Movement, etc. While the JI is the largest among them, it has the stigma of collaborating with the Pakistani military junta who killed tens of thousands of Bangladeshis during the Liberation War for Bangladesh in 1971. All its top leaders have been executed in the recent past for its alleged commission of war crimes in 1971. The JI officially does not condone terrorism, but it is widely believed that some of its younger activists/supporters have resorted to violent means of protests, if not terrorism per se. Other groups have very limited support and most of them do not get much electoral support to capture seats in the National Parliament. Among the illicit/terrorist Islamist groups, the Jamaat-ul Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkat-ul Jihad-e-Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B), and Hizbut Tahrir (HT) are the most prominent ones. While the HUJI-B and  HT are said to have joined hands with the ISIS – are widely believed to be involved in the latest terror attacks in Bangladesh – the HUJI-B is said to have sponsored certain splinter terrorist groups in the country, and is said to be linked with al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). While the JI and other legal Islamist groups believe in constitutional politics (at least officially), others believe in violent overthrow of so-called democratic and secular system of governance in Bangladesh, with a view to establishing Sharia law as the guiding principles of governance. Some JMB, HT and HUJI-B activists are secular educated belonging to upper middle classes, many Islamist radicals come from lower classes, and a few are madrasa-educated as well.

Habilian: Why the Bangladeshi government not take decisive action against the growth of madrasas (religious schools) mainly funded by Saudi Wahhabis? How do you assess the Bangladeshi government’s efforts to restrain extremism?
Hashmi: No government in Bangladesh can “take any decisive action” against madrasas. Saudi and other Salafi-Wahhabi people in the Arab World and their local surrogates promote some madrasas, but most of them are run locally as religious endowments (waqf) by Bangladeshi donors. Contrary to the popular perception, madrasas in Bangladesh do not provide Islamist terrorists, unlike the Taliban belt in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, as I have discussed above, under-employed and self-employed madrasa-graduates (generally known as maulanas, maulvis, and mullahs) have been the main agents provocateur in Bangladesh. They have profound influence on sections of educated and uneducated Bangladeshis. They have led them to believe in the doctrine of “Global Jihad”.
Last but not least, Bangladesh Government has been using the bogey of Islamist terrorism for legitimizing its corrupt and undemocratic practices. It is widely believed that police and special law enforcing agents called the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) have been killing people and so-called terrorists through made-up encounters (known as “crossfire”) across Bangladesh.

Habilian: How do you predict the future geopolitics of the Global Jihad? What are the major factors affecting this phenomenon?
Hashmi: The so-called Global Jihad is actually a not-so-well-defined or organized Global Insurgency against Western hegemons (America and West Europe) and their local surrogates in the Muslim World. It is not going to dissipate or fizzle out in a few years. The Global Jihad has virtually become another Hundred-Year War of the 20th and 21st century. I have discussed this in some details in my book, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage Publications, 2014). The “Hundred-Year War” started with the establishment of Israel in 1948. It is not going to end in 2048, unless America and its European and Muslim surrogates start behaving in a civilized manner.