A Palestinian Salafist at a rally in Rafa in southern Gaza on August 22, 2013. Behind him is a poster showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and Egypt's army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, now president of Egypt, with the Arabic words reading "criminals and murderers." Several experts on the Middle East have suggested that "Quietist" Salafists, who shun involvement in politics, could mount an effective ideological and religious opposition to jihadists. File Photo by Ismael Mohamad/UPI | License Photo
Quietist Salafism is an ultra-conservative brand of Sunni Islam considered by some a viable intellectual antidote to the militant Salafism employed by the Islamic State and other extremists. Its practitioners adhere to the same Salafi principles, but shun political involvement.
Moderate Muslims, being short of the scriptural knowledge to mount a successful theological challenge to the aggressive jihadist narrative, are perceived by many experts as lacking the authority to convince potential offenders to remain peaceful in their pursuit of a purist version of Islam.
Quietist Salafis, on the other hand, are supposed to speak in language that ultra-conservative Muslims understand. Armed with a technical and thorough understanding of the ideas that drive people to commit violent crimes in the name of Islam, they claim to possess a counter-narrative to these ideas rooted in scripture.
Graeme Wood in "What ISIS Really Wants," published March 2015 in the Atlantic magazine, puts forth the idea that support for a passive version of Salafism could be a powerful tool against the violent tendencies of groups such as the Islamic State.
"(Q)uietist Salafis, as they are known, agree with the Islamic State that God's law is the only law and they eschew practices like voting and the creation of political parties," Wood wrote. "But they interpret the Koran's hatred of dischord and chaos as requiring them to fall into line with just about any leader, including some manifestly sinful ones."
Jacob Olidort, author of The Politics of 'Quietist' Salafism, disagrees. Asked about the prospect of backing Quietists, Olidort told the Brookings Institution: "This proposal, while tempting, can lead down a dangerously slippery slope. "Quietism," or abstaining from political involvement or activism, is merely a placeholder rather than a principle for most Salafi groups.
Salafis are Sunnis who mold their beliefs and actions to a particular interpretation of the life of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate companions in an attempt to emulate the religion's earliest days.
The sect is not homogeneous but its reputation suffered in recent years because of groups such as IS and al-Qaida. The majority of Salafis are nonviolent and those who understand and adhere to the texts but refuse to carry it into a realm of violence are those who could be of persuasive importance.
"Their arguments are very close to each other [Quietists and jihadis]," said Joas Wagemakers, an expert on Salafi ideology and assistant professor at Utrecht University. "They use fthe same concepts, the same scholars, the same books, the same reasoning but there are limits to this."
Yasir Qadhi, American Sunni Muslim scholar and dean of Academic Affairs at Al-Maghrib Institute, said the argument from authority is one way of engaging the jihadist narrative. "Salafis very much admire scholarship," he said. "One way is quoting fatwas from Salafi authorities that denounce terrorist tactics and to claim that the modern jihadi Salafis don't have reputable Islamic scholars in their ranks."
Wagemakers called for caution in this approach. "While you might succeed in preventing jihadi Salafis from using violence, for example, you are at the same time enabling a group [Quietists] to spread a message. This message is a deeply social conservative one," he said.
Qadhi countered: "Being conservative in one's religious or moral values does not equate to being radical or to being militant. One of the mistakes that many have done is to stigmatize conservatism and calling it one step away from jihadism."
They did agree that it is not just interpretation of scripture that accounts for the fissure between the strands. "It is also to do with pragmatism," Qadhi said. "One of the most effective arguments is: 'Look around you, what has radical Islam ever done for the umma?'"
Wagemakers agreed, adding that perhaps a strictly theological debate would be best avoided. "If one were to adopt the argument and sources these people have, the jihadis actually have better arguments than the Quietist Salafis. So if you are to use them, you must tread lightly or you might end up confirming the views of jihadist Salafis, giving them even more ammunition," he said.
The risk in backing Quietists is that the conceptual leap to jihadism is small. Recently, hundreds of thousands of Quietists have become politically active, epitomized by the Nour Party in Egypt. This may not be a direct shift to terrorism but it certainly calls into question the consistency of their peaceful appeal.
In Algeria, the state promoted peaceful Sufism (mystical Islam) to tackle radicalism and reports have shown limits. A 2011 poll indicated that, although many people saw the Sufis as peaceful and tolerant, they viewed some teachings as straying too far from Islamic jurisprudence to take them seriously.
Saudi Arabia has employed a different method, with more positive results. Wagemakers described the Saudis' de-radicalization schemes as similar to abstinence-based drug recovery programs. "They offer solutions that Western countries and other Arab countries cannot possibly offer," he said. "For example, they supply them with a wife, a car, a job, a house; bringing stability to their lives."
The Saudi approach treats potential offenders as victims rather than criminals. Qadhi said he considers this a more accurate representation of the root problem.
"The primary cause for this strand of radicalism is not simply an interpretation of the Koran," Qadhi said. "Rather, these strands are clearly a counter reaction to political circumstances, to social and military invasions and to the propping up and disposal of dictators."
Some experts say the Saudi de-radicalization programs have shown limits, with a percentage of "program graduates" returning to jihadism.
Even then, backing one conservative group to counter another does not offer any guarantees, considering the groups' inconsistencies both intellectually and in practice.
This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.