Though we may wish it were otherwise, Islamist extremism is today the world’s most potent revolutionary political force. It has transmuted in recent decades, but is a tenacious ideology and shows no sign of going away.
Most books on jihadism focus on what militant groups do, as well as the history of jihadism and the political context in which it evolved. By contrast “Salafi-Jihadism”, by Shiraz Maher of King’s College London, stands out as an excellent and original account of what jihadists actually think. Mr Maher goes well beyond previous works, such as “Jihad” by Gilles Kepel or “The ISIS Apocalypse” by William McCants, in setting out a taxonomy of jihadists’ system of beliefs. It will be a must-read work in the study of radicalism.
Maher, a former member of Hizb ut‑Tahrir, is a specialist in radicalisation at King’s College London who has researched the motivation of foreigners who have gone to war in Syria and Iraq. Here he looks at the intellectual development of Islamism, and what it seeks to achieve. His subtitle is “The History of an Idea”, but he is more concerned with the contemporary evolution of the ideology than with the history. Salafism is a “philosophical outlook which seeks to revive the practices of the first three generations of Islam, who are collectively known as the as‑salaf as-saliheen, or ‘pious predecessors’”. The violent rejectionists he calls Salafi-jihadists hope to regain antique perfection by military means: “This millenarian project believes in progress through regression.” Although in statistical terms such a way of thinking represents a fraction of the world’s Muslims, it has a disproportionately huge impact.
During the 1990s, fighters and revolutionaries from diverse theatres – the Algerian civil war, Bosnia, Chechnya, Tunisia, the Afghan victory over the Soviets, the crushed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – were looking for a new ideological direction. “The violence of groups like al-Qaida and associated movements is neither irrational nor whimsical,” Maher states. “For every act of violence they will offer some form of reference to scriptural sources.” In Islamic jurisprudence, a decision requires a justification from within the corpus of traditions of the prophet Muhammad. Theorists could turn for example to the 14th century theologian Ibn Taymiyyah, who thought the threat posed by the invading Mongols was so great that warlike jihad had become a duty and the enemy could reasonably be anathematised as apostates. In the aftermath of the 9/11 wars, a sanction that historically had been used in extreme circumstances became an everyday tool, and the principle of takfir or excommunication was extended within Islam to a previously unimaginable degree. After 2003, “al‑Qaida in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al‑Zarqawi, employed it liberally to license a fratricidal civil war against the Iraqi Shia community”. For good measure, Zarqawi drew on an ancient conspiracy and said the Shia tradition was founded by a Jew.
In every sphere of life, the Islamist worldview was transmuting and the quietists were eclipsed. As the French academic Olivier Roy has written, this was as much about the Islamisation of radicalism as it was about the radicalisation of Islam. Militant Sunni groups reinterpreted rules on warfare to develop what Maher calls a “novel doctrine of vicarious liability,” enabling them to target individual citizens of democracies, since these citizens had chosen their governments and were therefore responsible for their decisions. Muslims were told they must, in an existentialist way, take action if they were not to break their covenant with God. Democracy was presented not as a system to safeguard the rights of individuals, but as a damaging creed that separated religion from public life: divine sovereignty must be secured within an earthly political system. The idea of Muslim exclusivity expanded in new ways, and militants were instructed not to accept the support of unbelievers. Since the US was “the central base of corruption and moral decay”, those who excused its actions were apostates.
No Salafi-jihadist group has been more successful than Isis in asserting political and territorial power, yet Maher points out that “its jurisprudential opinions are regarded as esoteric and eccentric” by most ideologues. Even the much publicised London “hate preacher” Abu Qatada has said they are renegades because of their indiscriminate use of intra-Muslim slaughter and slavery. When Isis militants burned the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh to death in a cage, for instance, they knew that mainstream scholarly opinion within Islam prohibited the use of fire as a punishment, but produced an abstruse doctrinal rationale along with a typically graphic video. In Maher’s words, this was “one way in which the group is trying to bring more obscure and nihilistic theology into the foreground of Salafi thinking”. Rather than being medieval, this behaviour is historically tenuous. Maher details the 20th century development of Islamism by the theorists Abul A’la Maududi and Sayyid Qutb, but does not fully explain whether Salafi thinking as we now understand it would have made sense, say, 100 or 300 years ago, or how far its theological lineage is a modern construction. To put it another way: would the 18th century revivalist of Muslim purity, Muhammad Ibn Abd al‑Wahhab, have shared the logic of those who today claim to act under his influence?
Islamism is evolving. We do not yet know whether its latest face, the caliphate of Isis, represents a limit or is another step on a road to a new theocratic extremism. One vital message of Salafi-Jihadism is that the fragmentation of war drives change and makes people behave differently. Maher quotes the military historian Michael Howard saying the origins of Europe were hammered out on the anvil of war, and adds: “Salafi-jihadism is even more sensitive to this stimulus given that it is principally a militaristic ideology.” Since it is an idea rather than an organisation, and one that puts a stress upon martyrdom and millenarian dreaming, it is unlikely to be defeated by the decapitation of its leadership. After Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces, al-Qaida put out a statement: “Are the Americans able to kill what Sheikh Osama lived and fought for, even with all their soldiers, intelligence, and agencies? Never! Never!” Although Islamist organisations contain their share of thrill seekers and psychopaths, it is apparent that most fighters believe in an absolute idea.
Shiraz Maher (PhD) is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at Kings College, University of London, and teaches at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.