Language often serves two primary functions: critical instruction or uncritical indoctrination. All too often, political figures set aside the former and weaponize the latter for their own demagogical ends.
The term “terrorism” is a good example of this. Since September 11, 2001, “terrorism” has been used by political leaders around the world to fear monger and justify draconian measures, particularly against Arabs and Muslims. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald has argued that use of the word “terrorism” often serves to end rational debate. At the very least, it has uncritically lent credence to Samuel Huntington’s notorious thesis about a “clash of civilizations.”
The term “jihad” is also bereft of any real meaning. Though its use in the Islamic tradition is nuanced, modern usages of “jihad” have inappropriately equated it with “holy war.” Jihadism, we have been told, is a militant externalization of a literalist reading of the Quran, responsible for terrorism around the world.
These words, “terrorism” and “jihad,” have arguably become two of the most misunderstood and misused today. “Terrorism” is treated as an abstract, omnipresent threat, and “jihadism” as its creating force. Used in these ways, these terms tell you what to fear without necessarily explaining why.
The terms “Wahhabism” and “Salafism” (often clumsily clumped together as “Wahhabi-Salafism”) have undergone similar transformations. As Muslims and non-Muslims alike began to criticize skewed, Islamophobic understandings of “jihadism,” some attempted to subtly preserve its unruly connotations by shifting the blame to a so-called “Wahhabi-Salafist” form of the practice.
Jihad continued to be treated as the product of an allegedly literalist reading of the Quran, except that now “Wahhabi-Salafism” is its intellectual foundation. This has become the basis of a self-fulfilling, unholy trinity, where Wahhabism (God) births jihadism (Son), and terrorism (the Holy Spirit) is their inevitable extension.
Like “terrorism” and “jihad,” no one really seems to understand what “Wahhabi-Salafism” is—only that it must be opposed at all costs.
Take, for example, a recent New York Times opinion piece by Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in which he argues that we must “rid the world of Wahhabism.” He claims that “much of the violence committed in the name of Islam can be traced to Wahhabism,” and argues that while “Wahhabism has undergone a series of face-lifts…the ideology remains the same.”
The suggestion that people worldwide have a moral obligation to exterminate Wahhabism—whatever that actually means—should horrify us. Is it really possible to hate an ideology without also despising those who purportedly live according to its tenets?
In his article, Zarif does exactly what Western leaders have done for at least the last decade and a half: fear-mongering against (a particular group of) Muslims and (a particular approach toward) Islam. By scapegoating Wahhabism (without properly explaining what it is), Zarif fortifies a discredited narrative on the so-called “War on Terror” that has been a source of great suffering for Arabs and Muslims around the world. Like the Islamophobes who link terrorism to Muslims, Zarif dangerously implies that the source of “jihadism” is ideological. In this way, Wahhabism is merely a euphemism for a “bad” or “wrong” version of Islam.
Astonishingly, Zarif’s piece has been shared and praised widely, even by Arabs and Muslims who have themselves suffered at the hands of such narratives.
Journalist Rania Khalek claimed on Twitter that Zarif’s article is “all true,” but that “sectarians are going to dismiss [it because] of the author.” While Khalek has been an outspoken opponent of the “War on Terror,” her position on Zarif’s article essentially endorses an inverted form of that very narrative. Writing for Al-Madina Institute, neuroscientist and Islamic scholar, Mohamed Ghilan, explains the bizarre logic behind this position:
Muslims moved from asserting that “ISIS has nothing to do with Islam” to “this is a deviant interpretation that must be refuted”. It is worthy to note here that for one to interpret they must first be versed in the texts they are interpreting. But we know from a number of reports that 70% of recruits feeding the ISIS machine barely know the texts they claim to be following. Before we “refute deviant interpretations”, we should recognize that the majority of those we say need refutations are ignorant of what is being negated in the first place. Nevertheless, unable to change the dominant discourse, we changed tactics and accepted we have a problem, but we needed a scapegoat. That is where Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia came in.
In a way, this can be seen as a blessing in disguise for many Muslims. The enormous financial resources at the disposal of a minority, coupled with the symbolism of being the caretakers of the two holiest sites in Islam, allowed Saudi Arabia the means to propagate a particular version of the religion that for better or for worse at times contrasts with what most Muslims have practiced, and often with judgmental hostility that seems to easily declare its opponents as innovators and heretics. It was only a matter of time before the ill-resourced majority took a swipe back. Showing ISIS using Islamic references that mostly come from a Saudi-bred or -supported background gave that perfect opportunity to hit two birds with one stone: dissociate mainstream Muslims from ISIS, and direct Islamophobic attention to Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism, which by extension also implicated Salafism given how it is often mentioned in the same breath with them.
Regardless of what one’s opinion is of Wahhabism, its history, and Saudi’s influence on Islam and mosques in the West, or what Ibn Taymiyyah has to do with all of this, it is interesting to note that in the public discourse these were never linked to radicalization and violent extremism in the not too distant past in the way that they are today. There is a simple reason for that: as we are exposed to it, radicalization is a term used in a political context but under a veneer of it being a religious one.
Khalek is, of course, not alone in this regard, and Zarif’s opinion piece is hardly the only example of how “Wahhabi-Salafism” is scapegoated today.
In fact, about two months ago, Muftah staff writer, Harald Viersen, did the same in an article titled “Is Trump a Salafist?” The title of the article alone draws false parity between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, a bigoted individual, and Salafism, a revivalist Islamic movement. Viersen equates Trump’s desire to “make America great again” with Salafism’s alleged desire to “make Islam great again.” Without adequately detailing Salafism’s intellectual roots, Viersen argues that, like Salafism, Trump is dangerously millenarian.
To his credit, Viersen does acknowledge that “Salafism has developed many strands. Some of these variants are peaceful and focused on ritual purity, prayer, and dress codes.” But, he then goes on to claim that some forms of Salafism “espouse aggressive, millenarian views that fuel terrorism.” Like Zarif (and Khalek), Viersen seems to believe that terrorism is, at least on some level, ideological in origin.
Today, many Muslims identify as either Salafi or Wahhabi—particularly in counties like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. By any measure, they are not extremists, even though they are conservative. In fact, self-identified Salafis and Wahhabis are often far more diverse than contemporary perceptions are willing to acknowledge. In Egypt, for example, a group known as Salafyo Costa (“the Costa Salafis”) was founded by a group of young, self-identified Salafi Muslims in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, in order to challenge stereotypes about Salafism’s so-called “dangerous” and “intolerant” nature.
In an attempt to combat stereotypes, Arabs, Muslims, and their allies have rejected the notion that terrorism and violence are ideologically fueled. They have rightly argued that the root source of these phenomena are political in nature. Sadly, however, figures like Zarif betray these efforts, and ultimately fulfill stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims by implying that the greatest threat to human peace is Wahhabism.
While the truth about Wahhabism and Salafism lies far from Zarif’s hysteric conclusions, such arguments are likely to thrive for some time to come.