More on WoPo piece on Salafism

More on WoPo piece on Salafism September 15, 2006

I had composed a long, detailed magnum opus the other night responding to the Washington Post piece mentioned previously, when the fate that bloggers fear worse than death befell me.  My PC rebooted suddenly, completely unbidden, just as I was reaching a crescendo.   I think I triggered an unknown keyboard shortcut for shutting down.  It was enough to make me howl into the inky sky.

Perhaps it was a sign from on High that I wasn’t supposed to be watching my all-time favorite musical, "Jesus Christ Superstar"?  (How can anything be haram that features Judas funkily belting out anguished disco numbers like Marvin Gay?)  But I digress.

Some have objected to the way the article (which I’ve now read) characterizes Wahhabism/Salafism and more generally to the use of these labels.

I too have mixed feelings about the piece.  On the one hand, I think it pretty effectively conveyes some important general facts about trends in the Muslim community in the US today.  On the other hand, I think it in several instances takes Wahhabis to task for unenlightened practices and attitudes that are in no way unique to them (e.g., the obsession with purdah–which can be found in every Muslim community under the sun–or negative views of non-Muslims) or which are not actually inherently objectionable (e.g., believing that Muslims need to create an insular and closeknit community to successfully pass on their religious tradition to the next generation, an attitude increasingly common among religious conservatives of all stripes in America). 

In a way, there’s a bigger problem with the article.  It neglects, perhaps due to space constraints, the two characteristics of Wahhabi/Salafi thought that, in my opinion, are both its most singular and recogizable traits and its most problematic and ultimately historically important ones:  scriptural literalism and doctrinal exclusivism.  Besides these two traits, all the others (to the extent that they even apply especially to Wahhabism/Salafism) pale into insignificance, I think.

However, I think those offended by this piece need to keep in mind how mild its criticism actually is, especially compared to the pseudo-scholarly vitriol that often passes for substantive analysis of Salafism in the mainstream press.  One can quibble about various points, but the author clearly was not trying to demonize Salafis or paint them as the root of all evil.  Implicitly critical though it is of Salafism, it is not a screed against the Wahhabi Bogey Man.  In fact, I think the author is clearly trying to add some nuances to the discussion that are sorely lacking from most mainstream American coverage (e.g., discussing the spread of Wahhabism in sociological terms rather than as a shadowy worldwide conspiracy against all that is good).

Also, I don’t think that its central point–that a significant portion of American Muslims have left the Salafi camp and that Salafis after long being dominant now find themselves on the defensive within the community–can be debated.  Muslim attitudes are changing.  Even the  popular AlMaghrib, upon further examination turns out to be an exception that makes the rule, as its success today is clearly at least partly based on its presentation of itself as being un-"Salafi" in key respects.   Things that used to be acceptable in wide swaths of the community (takfir against Shiahs, Sufi-bashing, etc.) are now much less so, and those wont to engage in such practices have had to retool their message to avoid turning off their audience.

There are two issues that I think we need to address before we can complain all that loudly about pieces in the mainstream media like this.

1) Given how difficult and confusing this topic is even for Muslims, how
can we be outraged when non-Muslims get things wrong? 

How many educated Muslims know the differences, whether
historical or philosophical, between the original movement of Salafism
(e.g., Abdu, Rida and the gang) and 20th century Wahhabism?  How many Muslims could
give a reasonably balanced and historically informed account of
Wahhabism’s role in the Muslim world after the discovery of oil in the Gulf?   How many Muslims could explain the difference between the
theological outlook of Ikhwanis (to the extent they even share
one) and various other contemporary Islamist movements and the beliefs of Wahhabis?  It ain’t easy.

2) Then there’s the curious fact that many Muslims across the ideological spectrum spent the last two decades politely pretending Wahhabism didn’t exist! 

How many books were written in English by Muslims during the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s that even acknowledged the existence of–much less analyzed–the role of Wahhabism among Western Muslims in our era?  (Even Hamid Algar’s oft-cited Wahhabism: A Critical Essay is slim, primarily focused on the origins of Wahhabism, and was only published in 2002.  Also, for all its erudition–and despite the fact that I agree with its basic message–it’s unabashedly polemical.)  During the 1980s and 1990s, did the words "Salafism" or "Wahhabism" ever appear in ISNA’s influential magazine Islamic Horizons or other major community publications?  Was the existence of–much less the concrete influence of–Wahhabism ever noted before 9/11 put it on the front page?

There’s a lot of responsability to go around.  Mainstream non-Wahhabi Muslim leaders who are now chagrined to find themselves labeled "Wahhabis" by Islamophobes might want to ponder how they left the discussion entirely in the hands of outsiders by remaining silent on this self-evidently important topic until it was far too late. And Wahhabis really can’t complain, either, as even if non-Muslims had read their books cover to cover they’d never have found an explanation of what Wahhabism is (since they’re "just Muslim", of course), much less the a discussion of its role in the Muslim world since the advent of petrodollars that allows one to understand what’s wrong with the anti-Wahhabi hysteria.   

In a way, this is the chickens of unprofessionalism and partisanship coming home to roost.  Objectivity, after all, is haram.  For many years, the major North American Muslim media were frankly more committed to promoting their pet sectarian or ideological preferences than to providing fair and rigorously reporting on Islam and the world.  The absurd result of this longstanding dereliction of duty is that now observers are turning to ill-informed non-Muslim idelogues to learn about important issues within the Muslim community.

Still, it shouldn’t really be a shock that the terms of the debate in the mainstream media have been dictated by Islamophobic conspiracy
theorists.    Until recently, anyone looking to learn about this topic in English had little choice but to pinch their noses and turn to tenditious screeds like Stephen
Schwartz’sThe Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’ud from Tradition to Terror or Dore Gold’s Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism, as those with firsthand knowledge of the issues, Muslims, had by and large yet to contribute anything of substance to the discussion.

No wonder the debate on Wahhabism in Washington is so utterly disconnected from reality and drenched in political agendas.

Some Muslims passionately object on principle to the use of "labels".  With all due respect to them, I think this is a serious mistake.  We’re all Muslim, yes, but there are important and meaningful differences that to which these labels refer.  Discarding accurate, descriptive labels won’t help us get to the bottom of our problems.

I realize that these terms have become very politicized–and I have even been known to defend Wahhabis from what I considered to be unfair attacks–butthe solution is not to pretend that there’s no such thing as Wahhabism or to downplay its impact in modern times.  The solution is to provide facts and try to push the discussion in a more balanced direction. Remaining silent is part of what got us into this mess.

Also, given the long history of enthusiastic use of labels (sometimes far less complementary ones) against philosophical opponents by Wahhabis when they were in power, I don’t think it’s fair to suddenly declare a moratorium on labeling just when those who long suffered the consequences of labeling are finally getting to tell their side of the story.  I don’t say that out of rancor–it’s simply justice.

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