Are Salafis the most orthodox among Muslims?

The New York Times published a riveting piece about Salafism in Tunisia. From the beginning, the reader is transported to Kairouan:

On the Friday after Tunisia’s president fell, Mohamed al-Khelif mounted the pulpit of this city’s historic Grand Mosque to deliver a full-throttle attack on the country’s corrupt culture, to condemn its close ties with the West and to demand that a new constitution implement Shariah, or Islamic law.

“They’ve slaughtered Islam!” thundered Dr. Khelif, whom the ousted government had barred from preaching for 20 years. “Whoever fights Islam and implements Western plans becomes in the eyes of Western politicians a blessed leader and a reformer, even if he was the most criminal leader with the dirtiest hands.”

Mosques across Tunisia blazed with similar sermons that day and, indeed, every Friday since, in what has become the battle of the pulpit, a heated competition to define Tunisia’s religious and political identity.

The piece is packed with information. The 5,000 mosques in the country used to have every prayer leader appointed by the government. They were given sermon topics. Under that model, Islam was apolitical and moderate. We’re told that “ultraconservative Salafis” seized 500 mosques but that the government took back all but 70.

We hear from some of the players — including a prayer leader at the Grand Mosque. And then there’s this:

To this day, Salafi clerics like Dr. Khelif, who espouse the most puritanical, most orthodox interpretation of Islam, hammer on favorite themes that include putting Islamic law into effect immediately, veiling women, outlawing alcohol, shunning the West and joining the jihad in Syria. Democracy, they insist, is not compatible with Islam.

OK, so we have “ultra-conservative,” “most puritanical” and “most orthodox interpretation of Islam.” I always find it interesting the use of “ultra-conservative” (no matter the topic) as compared to “ultra-liberal.” It’s not that it’s never used, but it’s just interesting how rarely it is. And I’m a bit confused by the use of terms such as “puritanical” or “fundamentalist” to describe non-Christian religious groups. But it’s the use of the phrase “most orthodox interpretation of Islam” that surprised me.

Even if “most puritanical” and “most orthodox” didn’t strain at the tension with each other, isn’t this a value judgment that might be best avoided?

But the piece is great and quite helpful. We get examples of the conflict, quotes from people involved and some helpful “so-what?” context:

The battle for Tunisia’s mosques is one front in a broader struggle, as pockets of extremism take hold across the region. Freshly minted Islamic governments largely triumphed over their often fractious, secular rivals in postrevolutionary elections. But those new governments are locked in fierce, sometimes violent, competition with the more hard-line wing of the Islamic political movements over how much of the faith can mix with democracy, over the very building blocks of religious identity. That competition is especially significant in Tunisia, once the most secular of the Arab nations, with a large educated middle class and close ties to Europe.

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, and its ability to reconcile faith and governance may well serve as a barometer for the region.

The article gets somewhat depressing after that, with a discussion of Mali, Benghazi, the Sinai and anti-American mobs in Tunis. And while the groups aren’t all officially coordinating, they help each other out.

I did appreciate this description of Salafis that shows that while they are the major force behind violent Islam, they aren’t all supportive of that approach:

The word Salafi encompasses a broad spectrum of Sunni fundamentalists whose common goal is resurrecting Islam as practiced by the Prophet Muhammad when he founded the faith in the seventh century. Salafis range from peaceful proselytizers to those who spread Islam by force.

We hear from Salafi critics who oppose the recruitment of fighters in Syria, since they are used to kill other Muslims. For their part, Salafis have beefs with more moderate Muslims in Tunisia:

Salafis repeatedly try to chase tourists from the Grand Mosque; have threatened to level the popular shrine of Sidi Sahbi, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad buried here, although so far they have only fought with worshipers trying to pray there; and imported Saudi Arabian clerics who demanded that Tunisians confront the West. At some mosques, traditional prayer leaders were threatened with beatings or even death if they did not leave, Sheik Ghozzi said. In others, the locks were changed to bar them.

There is much, much more. A great read.

Economist offers rare insights into Salafists

I have a friend who once worked for Time (actually, several people fit under that umbrella) who once made a very interesting observation about the state of foreign news in that newsweekly, which was once famous for its excellent, sweeping coverage of world affairs.

This correspondent noted that for several years, as Time coverage of foreign news declined, it was rather easy to chart a corresponding rise in the subscription totals over at The Economist. In other words, if you subtract this form of serious news in THIS publication, then it is highly likely that you add people who are seeking that form of news to the subscription rolls over HERE.

This equation, alas, doesn’t work very well for religion news because, well, nobody in the news-magazine world is blazing a bright religion-news trail, at the moment.

Still I wanted to note a recent Economist article (yes, after several decades I recently cancelled Time and subscribed to you know what) that offered a few paragraphs of real, life, informative material about the doctrinal and lifestyle implications of one of the major conflicts that is shaping modern Islam. As frequent GetReligion readers know, this is something that this blog has been pleading for journalists to do for the eight-plus years we have been in business.

The goal, in this typically crisp and newsy Economist piece, was to describe some of the conflicts between the old Islamist guard (think the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) and the rising tide of fervent believers who are being called the new “Salafists.” As is often the case, the Economist team opens with an essay-form, summary lede that sets the scene:

TO SELL an idea it helps to keep it simple. This explains the appeal of Salafism, an increasingly wide, bold-coloured stripe on the very broad spectrum of modern Islamism. Its most garish manifestation has been painted in blood by the jihadist brand of Salafists, most notoriously by the holy terrorists of al-Qaeda. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan have deep Salafist roots, as do the rowdy gangs in Tunisia that have lately trashed bars, cinemas and the American embassy. Yet while Saudi Arabia’s dour Salafist version of Islam, Wahhabism, shuns political life and abhors democracy, the Salafists’ Nour Party in Egypt has played politics eagerly and effectively, capturing a quarter of the votes in last year’s general elections.

What links these groups is a belief that Islam has been weakened by centuries of accumulated intellectual baggage. Muslims should dump most of it, the Salafists say, and revert to the ways of their salaf, or forebears.

So here we are: What are “the ways” of the past?

God is in the details. Thus, what do the old ways look like in practical terms? This one-page article offers an short, clear, summary of how the 5,000 or so sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad are being interpreted by these strict believers:

In some matters this makes life easy. One should obviously eat with the right hand only, as Muhammad reportedly did. Men should grow beards. Women should cover up. And one should abhor such “innovations” in Islam as Shiism and also Sufism, with—in Salafist eyes — its silly rituals and unhealthy adulation of sainted leaders. Yet choosing which 1,400-year-old saying to apply, or which venerable act to follow, is not always easy. This is particularly so when it comes to the ever-changing intricacies of politics.

For instance, whereas one of al-Qaeda’s better-known tactics has been suicide-attacks, plenty of Salafist scholars condemn the act of suicide itself as an abomination. Some rejected the uprisings that overthrew the “infidel” rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, just because they were sparked by the suicide of Muhammad Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor. Other Salafist preachers agreed with Saudi Wahhabists that it is a sin to go against the wishes of any ruler. But more pragmatic Salafists embraced the Arab spring as a God-given opportunity.

The experience of Egypt’s Nour Party is telling. Though educated, city-dwelling Egyptians were shocked by the success of a party founded only last year, Nour has built on a tradition of Salafist sermonising and mosque-building that goes back a century. Long popular among the poor for their uncompromising views, Salafist preachers had lately been boosted by a surge in private cash from the Gulf. This financed not only fancy websites and some two dozen satellite TV channels, but also a network of charities rivalling that of the milder-mannered Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, Economist readers will not be surprised at this tide of information — backed with few if any specific attributions from sources. That’s a problem, from my point of view, but the publication speaks with this kind of authoritative voice and its readers accept that.

Clearly, if would be easy for other newsrooms to back up this kind of reporting with a wide, balanced array of sources linked to names and titles. The American model of the press is a plus, when doing that kind of work.

The article goes on to show, in practical terms, what Salafist faith looks like today. There are glimpses of Salafist hypocrisy as well.

It’s very basic, informative material. It’s also the kind of reporting that one rarely sees about the divisions and complexities that exist inside the Muslim world. Non-Muslims need to know more about this complex reality, in order to make sense of some of the world’s conflicts. This is what journalism is supposed to do.