‘Quietist’ Salafism draws attention in Washington

Friday 08/05/2015
William McCants

WASHINGTON - A mid the usually heated rhetoric on the “war on terror”, a new conver­sation is bringing fresh ideas to Washington’s policymakers and intellectual elite.
It is focused on how to neutralise jihadist ideology and the answers vary from what is called ‘Quietist’ Salafism, Post-Salafism, or shying away from engaging Salafists all to­gether. Despite the troubling rami­fications of these strategies, the US government has taken notice.
“I think what (policymakers) like is that we’ve asked the contribu­tors to dispense with the polemic and deal with the issue in a dispas­sionate way.
People in government appreci­ate that format,” William McCants, director of the Project on US Re­lations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution told The Arab Weekly. He is facilitating the discussion about “Quietist” Salafism.
“Quietist” Salafism is a newly minted term by Western academ­ics to describe ultraconservative Sunni Muslims who do not engage in direct political action, as op­posed to those who engage in par­liamentary politics or “revolution­ary action” and violent jihad. The “Quietists” are presumed to be the majority of Salafists.
The idea is for governments to engage with “Quietist” Salafists, recruit them in the fight on ter­rorism and encourage them to “convert” fellow Salafists into “Quietists” rather than be violent “revolutionaries” or jihadists.
The idea was hatched in a con­troversial article by Graeme Wood, What ISIS Really Wants, published in March in the Atlantic Magazine.
“Quietist Salafism offers an Is­lamic antidote to (ISIS)-style jihad­ism,” wrote Wood, who lectures in political science at Yale University. He uses as an example of “Quiet­ism” a 28-year-old Salafi imam and convert to Islam who runs a Phila­delphia mosque. His name is Bre­ton Pocius but he goes by the name Abdullah.
Wood’s article ignited heated de­bate on social media, not just for its conclusion but for its tired premise of “good Muslim versus bad Mus­lim”, an idea that has plagued the Western psyche since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Indeed, variations on enlist­ing the help of “quietists” to flush out violent jihadists in their midst have gone on for the past decade.
Among the best known cases is that of Richard Reid, known as the “shoe-bomber”. It was members of his own community of Salafists in Brixton in south London who in­formed on him.
The US Federal Bureau of Inves­tigation (FBI) fuelled controversy after being accused of pressuring individuals within conservative Muslim communities to spy on their fellow worshipers, a policy the FBI refuses to comment on.
One ongoing lawsuit in New York alleges that Muslims whose names are on the “no-fly” list have been approached by the FBI and pres­sured to spy on their community in return for travel privileges.
Muslim leaders throughout the country have voiced concern over similar FBI tactics that target their flock, compelling the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to issue guidelines for legal protec­tion for Muslims.
But for the dozen scholars that McCants is engaging, the focus is mainly on the intellectual merits of “Quietist” Salafism and whether it is an effective way to neutralise violent extremism.
Mubin Shaikh is among the most compelling Islam experts to argue in favour of the “Quietist” theory. Shaikh is a self-professed former jihadist-Salafi who abandoned this ideology shortly after the attacks of 9/11. A Canadian citizen, Shaikh joined the Canadian Security Intel­ligence Service as an undercover operative and continues to advise Western agencies on countering terrorism.
While acknowledging the com­plexity of factors that contribute to the rise of violent jihad, he says the “Quietists” are indeed the best antidote to counter its spread.
“Those deemed to be ‘moder­ate’ Muslims have little to no influ­ence with people who have come under the spell of the deviant and un-Islamic teachings of ‘jihadi- Salafism’,” Shaikh says in a com­ment on the Brookings website. “So it takes those who speak the language and dress the part to en­gage them in the way they need to be engaged; ‘Quietist’ Salafists can fill this role.”
Besides the problematic issue of a Western government trying to manipulate one segment of a re­ligious population, critics of this policy say it is not even realistic.
“‘Quietism’… is merely a place­holder rather than a principle for most Salafi groups today,” says Ja­cob Olidort, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University who re­cently wrote a paper on “Quietist” Salafism.
“It is therefore not a big concep­tual leap to go from ‘quietism’ to ‘jihadism’,” he said, citing Egypt’s Nour Party as a recent example.
But as the debate continues within a scholarly realm, a more fundamental question emerges: Should the West, with its values of secularism and individual equal­ity, engage with Salafists at all?
McCants says not, based on the West’s clear separation between church and state. There are grave legal ramifications for the United States to support one group of faith over the other, even if this is done covertly.
“That stuff never stays covert for long and you’d have to deal with the fallout,” says McCants.
Besides, supporting Salafist thought can be problematic for any society that preaches universal values, he adds.
“The Salafist world view is pret­ty black and white… it’s really hard on women, on religious minorities, individual rights and freedoms,” he said. “I’m not saying the gov­ernment needs to crack down on it. But the government doesn’t need to promote it.”