By Gibril Fodor*
It’s a sunny Friday afternoon. We have just completed the traditional Friday prayers in a small mosque located in the shadow of large Brutalist style housing blocks in a suburb south of Stockholm. The mosque imam, alongside one of the senior members of the quietist Salafi movement in Sweden and I, have withdrawn to a small meeting room near the entrance to the mosque, overlooking a small garden. We know each other from before; we have negotiated and planned these interviews for months as a part of my on going research into worlds and inner workings of quietist Salafism. Today’s topic will be about extremism, how the quietist Salafis are dealing with both extremism within their own ranks as well as that of their arch-nemesis’, the Jihadis.
“It’s a very important thing that the Muslim who practices his religion needs to stay away from, but if you only walk around and feel angry, and carry this anger and feelings of revenge and all of this, then Islam teaches you a very important rule; that every person is responsible for their own actions, so there is nowhere in Islam where you can hold a person on the street here or anywhere else responsible for what their countries are doing somewhere else.”
After the interview we walk up towards his house and stop at the corner under the shade of a tree for a while to talk a bit and plan for the subsequent sessions. A young North African man suddenly appears, smiles briefly and gives us the Islamic greetings of peace before disappearing into the building. After the door closes behind him, the leader comments, “Its people like him who blow themselves up, the guy in Manchester was like that, it’s these ones that just go to work, keeping quiet, you don’t know what’s going on inside their minds.”
The controversy surrounding Salafism
The subject of Salafism and its various interpretations have gained more attention in recent years being at the heart in contemporary discussions relating to terrorism, extremism and radicalization. In Western Europe it has in recent times come to be believed to be at the root cause for social problems relating to the Muslim community, like the spread of Islamic extremism among the disenfranchised Muslim youth of the continent’s immigrant-majority ghettos. With the failed Arab Spring and it’s bloody aftermath throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the focus became even more intense; several armed groups claiming to follow the Salafi path sprung up and some gained notoriety, most notably ISIS. With their practices and heavy theological rhetoric, invoking sacred Islamic scripture to justify acts of barbarism and malevolence while proudly flaunting it to the world, there was increased interest in the type of ideology that fuelled such terror.
Salafism is an orthodox Sunni theological and legal orientation that takes its name from the expression “al-salaf al-salih” (“the pious predecessors”), a phrase referring to the first three generations of Muslims who represent the religion’s golden age. According to Salafists, these early Muslims most accurately preserved the Prophet Muhammad’s statements and actions due to their close ties and proximity to his message. Salafists seek to adhere to the reports of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds (sunnah) and avoid religious innovations (bid‘ah). Western academia has categorized Salafism into three branches; quietist Salafismwhose adherents shun political activism and concentrate on education and peaceful preaching, believing that the achievement of personal salvation is more important than worldly politics and rulership; political Salafism, which concentrates on political commitment as an integral part of Islam via activism and societal participation, and; Jihadi-Salafism, whose followers seek to overthrow supposedly apostate regimes in the Muslim world through violence.
Quietist Salafism in Sweden
The phenomenon of Salafism in Sweden is, like in other societies, more complex and diverse than is often given credit. The groups that self-identify or are identified by observers as Salafists in Sweden are among themselves usually deeply divided and at odds. Some are quietist purists and other violent radicals. But with Sweden being one of the most secular countries in the world according to the World Value Survey (WVS), their conservative beliefs are regarded as highly problematic and usually met with either deep scepticism or more increasingly, open hostility from the rest of society. Often evoked by the media, policy makers and politicians as to illustrate the absolute antithesis to everything Swedish and a growing threat to national security, groups identified under the umbrella term “Salafist” are commonly perceived to be fostering religious extremism, zealotry, violent radicalization and the creation of religious enclaves among immigrant neighbourhoods. The quietists have even begun to shun the label “Salafist” because of the connotation it has taken on. “We don’t wish to be identified with it,” as one of their imams explained, “you get lumped together with a bunch of criminal fanatics. We really don’t want to be associated with any of that,” he said. Their mere existence (not to mention, growth) in a country that is hailed as being an international role model in areas such as democracy, human rights and gender equality, is seen as highly undesirable. As a result, the spotlight has turned on groups – not just with violent ideology – but also religious conservatism to examine if they pose a threat to national security and also, to society itself.
Geopolitics and transnational conflicts
But things are complicated. With geopolitical and ideological struggles raging throughout the Muslim world, these inevitably impact Muslim communities across Europe, Sweden being no exception. According to Säpo, the Swedish security services, more than 300 young Swedes travelled as foreign fighters to fight in the MENA region, spreading their ideas among the vulnerable Muslim communities they left behind. According to an evaluation by Säpo, there are likely to be thousands of possibly violent Islamists in Sweden as stated by the former director Anders Thornberg. Unsurprisingly, countering the ideology that motivates these fighters is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Hundreds of suggestions and models have been put forth, considered, rejected or reviewed; from harsher punishments to the criminalization of certain beliefs, but none appears effective enough a counter measure. What leads to extremism? Is it only about foreign ideologies? What’s going on among the grassroots communities? Is the message for violence confronted enough?
As a matter of fact, a lot is going on, but far from the public eye. Obscured from mainstream society, squabbling over what to do, a battle for hearts and minds is fought. With the rise of religious and political consciousness following the Arab Spring, the stage was set for ideological warfare, both in the parliaments and battle fields of the Arab world as well as on the back streets of Western European suburbs. In this new climate, emotions began to run high as bloodshed became the norm and groups with violent ideologies began to capitalise on the horror abroad and increasing polarisations in society at home. This was the dawn of a new emerging reality that were to affect Western societies, Sweden too.
It was not an easy task though to investigate. The topic is very sensitive. You yourself as a researcher might also find yourself under attack from voices perceiving you of trying to defend or trivialize what they deem to be religious extremism. But the quietist Salafis are, notwithstanding their conservative and controversial beliefs, witnesses to, and a part of, contemporary history. As such, I chose to approach them.
The stage is set for open ideological war – the “Caliphate” is announced and recruitment for soldiers has begun
As the proclamation of the new “Caliphate” echoed out of the Mosul grand mosque in the form of a black-clad al-Baghdadi, it rang through screens, phones and pads in Muslim homes throughout the socially vulnerable suburbs, both awing, encouraging and confusing the Muslim young of the immigrant-majority banlieues. Such for many Muslims positively charged words as “caliphate”, “God’s law”, “honour” and “restored dignity” was enchanting to the many Muslims who would go about their daily lives in the thorny maze that is the difficulty to orientate in the Swedish society and feeling at odds with it. Groups of young friends would come together and say, “guys, these seem really good”, and agree to travel together to join them. The quietist Salafi imams recall how they suddenly saw a surge in interest in religion and politics among common Muslims, and began to be approached on a daily basis by people ranging from drug-dealers to the devout with questions about the “caliphate” and whether it was legitimate and if you should go there. To the Takfiri-Jihadis in Sweden, who had mostly kept a low profile in the late 2000s and up till then, it was a God-given gift, literally. Thousands of young Muslims were religiously and politically awakened, eager to serve their coreligionists abroad. This marked the start of a ferocious battle for hearts and minds, fought between the quietist Salafis and Takfiri-Jihadis, where both sides found themselves in a race to conquer the right to interpretation of Islam itself, the credbility as religious authorities, and the souls of the Muslim youth.
The first question was, what socio-political role does religion, and quietist Salafism, play in this context? To get some answers I met with one of the top leaders of quietist Salafism in Sweden, Abdul-Latif, a senior graduate of the Islamic University of Medina, Saudi Arabia, with many years experience in lecturing in mosques around Sweden. I inquired about the role of religion in the socially segregated, alienated areas. He replied that religion often gives meaning to an otherwise rather hopeless existence.
“It might be the only sacred left in their lives, Islam and the family”, he said. “The rest you can perhaps compromise with, but not those two things.”
According to this imam he performed a pastoral role in the suburbs and neighborhood with large Muslim residents, and believed that they have an important influence within the Muslim diaspora communities in Sweden.
“We are regularly contacted to solve family problems”, he said.“To resolve disputes, also young people involved in criminality seeking guidance will turn to us, they want to know how to escape that life, how to resolve old conflicts and so on, so we definitely play an important role.”
I asked another Salafi imam of twenty years, Mahmoud how he argues quietist Salafism works. He displayed a conciliatory attitude towards the wider society. Their influence is related to the fact that many people with Muslim background feel trust in religious authorities and leadership figures, he said, “because they feel that they are respectable. The Swedish authorities lack grassroot contact and speak in a completely different universe,” he put it. Authorities and politicians lack trust and credibility in the marginalized, immigrant-majority neighborhoods, he said, because people there only see goverment cuts and social problems, whereas religious people such as the quietists have come to gain trust and respect, because people see how they work to live honest lives in spite of all the problems around them, he said.
”…[quietist]Salafism has become a way of reaching out to Muslims, because people in the end turn to religion, and they wish to know what God wants of them.” He went on to explain that the belief of obeying the law of the land is a integral part of their beliefs, that they do not seek to coerce others into their religious practices.
Does it not then, as is commonly believed, contribute to division and polarization resulting in isolationism?
“Criminality and unemployment are countered by it in these neighborhoods”, he said. “It shuts the ways to these things. It proves to the Muslim who wants to live here, practice his religion and be a part of this society that it’s not about either you have to abandon your identity and your faith in order to be a part of society or that you have to completely isolate yourself. This way of thinking that are being propagated by the establishment right now, that you need to distance yourself from religion in order to be an active part in Swedish society are pushing people into alienation. It pushes them right into the arms of extremists.”
I asked a prominent quetist Salafi imam if they as a group can understand the criticisms that they constitute a potentially dangerous parallel society and are perceived as a threat by many Swedes. “We understand that criticism,” he said. “However, it’s a question of definition. If it’s about adjusting as to comply with the laws, not being criminal, working, paying taxes and not cheating the system or our surroundings, then that’s something we strongly support. If it is about complying with all the customs and norms that the people have – then no.” Does not it eventually create parallel societies, I asked . “In a homogeneous country where everyone thinks and act in a similiar way, undoubtedly, we may appear as if we have a parallel society, but in Sweden, in the end, we are all part of the same society, although we can have different views on things” he believed.
One thing that has been given attention in the national media over the last three years are instances of alleged Salafist overzealousness, where individuals or groups ascribing to the Salafi methodology try to threaten or coerce people living in their neighborhoods into complying with Islamic practices. This has then been a cause of concern and fear from residents and neighbours. From my own observations and interviews, this behaviour seems to be limited to individuals with a Takfiri-Jihadi persuation, even though some young followers of the quietists might fall into it as well, in spite of them as a group not condoning it. In the case with the quietists, it correlates closely to the “Convert’s Cognitive Development Framework” model, developed by Dr. Abdul Haqq Baker, where this behaviour would fall into the “Youthful” phase. In this form it represents from their perspective a shallow understanding of the Islamic concept of ‘amr bil ma’ruf wa nahyi an il munkar, to enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil. I asked imam Mahmoud his thoughts on the matter. “In Islam, there is no such thing as vigilantism to begin with. You can’t take matters into your own hands” he began. “However,Islamic knowledge can give some hubris, just like money, they become cocky,” he said. “When they feel that they learned something that lots of people do not understand, some people get a kind of hubris that makes them behave inapproprietly. This has to be controlled and you need to know that it might come about, then you can handle it. But when you can’t, and just hang around, and it’s just youthful people leading youthful people, yes, you’ll get this problem.” He said they are working against it, and that the solution has always been, in their case, to go back to older and more experienced scholars and imams from their tradition and get their advice to contain this issue and promote moderation.
At a small gathering, I asked a younger Salafi about why they are drawn by the Salafi message rather than turning to the majority culture of the Swedish society, and why the Salafis have gained such standing that they have.
“Because there is a big difference between the authorities and the way of God,” he concluded.
“To call someone to God’s way and to give them a lifestyle and meaning of life is not the same as the authorities calling you away from crime and giving you a job, at the very best. These kids need more than that. So when we talk, we care in a completely different way, it’s about getting the social bit right, it’s about helping out, it’s about the meaning of life, it’s about prayer, it’s about peace in the soul, do you understand? So it makes them come, turn around and listen in a different way than listening to the authorities. It’s a whole life situation that changes, not two or three things like a job or apartment, which is about the most authorities can get you, if they get it.”
I asked another Salafi of many years if he could also understand the objections Swedes or Westerners in general raise against their beliefs, as well as the reasons behind rising Islamophobia in society overall.
“Actually, I do understand them,”he told me, “…they see all these people with their strange customs coming here. The media has also equated Islamic practices with coercion. Most Muslims here are not knowledgeable in their faith either and do foolish things. And how would we feel, as Muslims in an Islamic country, if all of a sudden Westerners in large numbers moved in and criticized our way of living? This is how the Swedes feel, and I understand that.”
Quietism: Socio-cultural participation & engagement and the fight over Sweden’s future
The quetist Salafis of Sweden have an integrationist and pragmatic approach to their host Swedish society, where they instruct their followers to be good citizens, live honest lives, work and pay taxes, but to maintain their Islamic identities to the extent it is possible. When I asked a Salafi leader what differentiates his group from others labelled Salafi by Swedish observers, he is very adamant to point out that their group publicly distance themselves from violence, while others called ‘Salafi’ by the observers might not, as well as from criminality and fraud. The Swedish ‘politico-Salafis’ and Jihadis however, exhorts their followers to separate themselves from mainstream society on the grounds that it is ‘dar-ul harb’, ‘territory of war’, a term used by Medieval Muslim jurists to denote zones of conflict,fueling polarization, marginalization and the growth of radical and violent ideas.
I spoke another day with a prominent imam that I became close to during my work. I asked him to explain the difference between different groups called Salafis by observers, and who appear to be similar to each other on the surface. What would he, as a leader, do they understand, in his opinion?
“They are dishonest and frivolous. The whole mentality is different,” he argued. They attach little importance to theological knowledge and greater to politics and play on a lot of emotions and are “playful” as opposed to serious is his view. Neither do they take a clear distance from violence, not condemning it, but rather have an “accepting atmosphere” for that type of message in their environments”, he said.
“Takfiris constantly work on depicting the world as very dark and requiring a quick revolutionary solution to the world problems to change them. They then try to paint themselves the salvation and that the solution must come urgently. According to them, Muslims do not have a choice other than to join their group to save the world by engaging in what they consider to be jihad. ”
Like in the rest of Western Europe, the Jihadis prey on the rootless, second and third generation Muslim youth by on the surface offer them a long sough after sense of belonging, sympathizing with their grievances, displaying excessive love and brotherhood, attracting followers through social media and activities. They offer an alleged “quick fix” for their problems. But it’s a game, as a Salafi leader told a group of young adults in a meeting about the dangers of extremist ideology in a youth community center in the suburb of Husby. “The experts claim that radicalization is incomprehensible” he began, “…but we all know why it occurs, right guys? The kids out here don’t know what they are, Swedes, immigrants, what? They see what the Swedes have and want it too but their families are poor and dad says it’s haram (forbidden). They are lost.” The Jihadis come and try to take advantage of that by “putting on an act” as he put it. Their true face is far more sinister. They merely want them as cannon fodder for their cause, “…it begins with them buying you pizza, and ends with them handing you guns!” as the leader warned the small audience. He compared the Jihadis with criminal gangs who recruit adolescents to run errands for them, and assured the large gathering that if they fall on hard times, their Jihadi mates won’t be there to save them. Don’t be fooled by them or their rhetoric, he finished.
They did though see how the Jihadi call spread. As the effects of the Jihadi propaganda began to have an impact, become more visible and gaining more sympathizers and followers, the Salafis felt the urgent need to engage them. The whole situation turned into a race against time, where the Salafis needed to reach out to the many Muslim youth vulnerable for Jihadi propaganda and radicalization before the Jihadis or their ideology had reached them. Other Islamic organisations were during the time mostly disconnected or lacked the credibility among the common Muslims to be able to properly deal with the matter. The Salafis started with publicly and privately preaching and lecturing against the Jihadis, where they attacked the propaganda and the Jihadi ideology itself, describing it as deviant, modern and in direct opposition to classical Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence. The Jihadis, angered at this, would attack them in return, calling the Salafis “liars” and instructing their followers not to listen to them. The Jihadis also launched a campaign of harrassment against the Salafis, were they would threaten and abuse them where they came across them, and even showed up at the Salafi lectures at their grounds, wanting to confront the lecturers and imams. This later resulted in polemical religious and political discussions being arranged in secret between the two opposing sides, where they would heatly debate topics like politics, violence, Jihad and terrorism. One Salafi leader who extensively partook in such debates agreed to tell me about them and their other work in trying to counter violent extremism. I asked him in an interview via WhatsApp about their on going work against violent extremism and its followers.
“We have previously focused mainly on Stockholm with good results”he began. “Lately besides that we have aimed our efforts more towards other problematic cities. In those places significant progress have been made against leading figures in those groups, and against other ISIS-sympathizers that have subsequently dropped those ideas as a result. Can’t tell you more, it’s confidential.”
Q1. What do you talk about?
Ans:“Theological arguments, refuting their arguments for terrorism and proving it’s [Islamically] forbidden, proving that it’s forbidden to join terrorist organizations or groups, rulership and revolts in the Muslim world. They can be very emotional, and sometimes you have to meet them on the same terms.”
Q2. How many do you think have been prevented from traveling to Syria or have left violent ideology through you?
Ans:“Hard to tell, but many.”
Q3. More than a hundred?
Q4. How do you reach out to them, or even find them?
Ans:“Discussions and similar. They have often approached us, wanting to debate. Contacted us on social media and sometimes showed up in person after our lectures. Also, people who bring their old friends from those groups to us. Some were proper ISIS-types.”
Q5. What do you talk with them about, how do you talk to them, what subjects are brought up and how do they argue?
Ans:“We usually try to have a pedagogical approach to people. Firstly, we want people to start questioning these ideologies that they are following and those persons that they follow, to cite examples that those they follow lack proper Islamic knowledge, that they are unknown, what Islam says about following unknown people, we’ve also brought up historical examples of the Khawarij and what their signs are, and compared them to the groups of today, quotes from ISIS-leaders that is similar to historical quotes from the Khawarij, scholarly arguments against terrorist attacks and to perform terror attacks, that just because injustices and killings is carried out against Muslims elsewhere it doesn’t justify similar actions being carried out against non-Muslims here, there is a lot of focus around this topic by them and a lot around the idea of revenge that they believe they are entitled to, and we work to remove those ideas that you can do that against people, and that this has nothing to do with Jihad and so on” he responded.
“All of this is done in obscurity, almost every day” he finished.
According to him, they prevented a large number of individuals from traveling to the war or from the IS violence campaign as well as distancing them from the ideology itself. During Ramadan last year, which occurred during the summer, I found myself on a warm, pleasant night in a mosque in Tensta after tarawih, the special night prayer during the holy month. As the dawn approached, one of the quietist imams started a short lecture to the around houndred people present at this late hour, most of them young from the local area. The subject was a warning for terrorism in the light of the terrorist attack in Manchester in the weeks before. “Do not argue like this, and beware of this type of thinking, that “Bro, they do this to us, so I do not care if the same happens to them!” “Listen, just because someone is commiting injustice, does that mean that we should also respond with injustice? I advise all of you present here tonight that you do not support such things or press “like” on Facebook or comment that this is something good, definitely not! This is not our religion, going to discos and blow them up or go to a concert where there are children, young people, people who do not know anything and just blow them up! It’s not how Islam works! Or I take my revenge out on kids or run into a crowd. I do not want anyone sitting here at my lectures going home thinking that “it’s still good, they deserved it”, no no, we do not support any of this! It does not matter if their leaders have big beards or black turbans and claim to follow the Prophet’s guidance!”
The Swedish intelligence service (Säpo,) – similar to the UK’s MI5 – reported that religious knowledge is usually a deterrent to violent ideology, but it’s a politically sensitive area. The quietist Salafis, like other Islamic conservative groups, hold beliefs and values seen as at odds with the rest of society. Can you cooperate with groups with which you fundamentally disagree in many areas for the sake of common good? Their work has undoubtedly exposed an underlying conflict within Swedish society, which sees itself as having settled its account with religion long ago. The increased visibility of religion in the wake of the fight against Islamic terrorism has caused a concern among certain levels of society, particularly among politicians, journalists and the educated middle class, who fear a reversion of the liberal Swedish society and the re-emergence of ‘reactionary’ beliefs in the midst of a firmly secular society. The fear is that in the long run, these liberties might be curtailed or challenged as a new religiousness gains ground. “Do we need to stand for that?” is the question at the forefront on many peoples’ minds. This concern has already begun to be noticed in the media and in political debate, where a heightened rhetoric about the importance of “our values” have started to resound. This will also be one of the greatest challenges facing Sweden in the coming years, and there is no easy answer. To combine the opposition to conservative beliefs with the need for national security is a question to be debated for a long time to come.
I saw the first leader again to talk about extremism. Extremism he says, isn’t so much about radical ideology as it is about being ‘young and angry’. A shallow understanding of Islam combined with youthful enthusiasm, anger or the drive to ‘go out and change the world’ amounts to a lot of extremism within the community, he told me.
“The problem that arises, and here we enter the picture, is, whatdo you want? You want to go to Heaven and do good. How do you achieve that? All these people, that fall into this, they want to do good, but either they don’t know what it is or don’t know how to do it. When they don’t have this what or how together, then you will have a problem.”
The struggle against extremist ideology needs to be fought through ideology and not just the battlefield he says, that even if you kill all ISIS people new ones will still turn up unless you refute their ideology. This needs to be done by Islamic scholars, not just through arms. He cited the American terror expert Malcolm Nance to prove his point. “You need to fight them [extremists] in the right way, or you’ll just play right into their hands,” he finished. “If they are determined to carry it out, no one can really stop them” he said, “…if they can get all they need to put some bomb together from Bauhaus, they’ll do it. What this is all about is not if the police can prevent it or not, but about the factor behind the ideology. If you counter that, at least half the work is done.”
*Gibril is a freelance writer who has been researching this subject for 3 years.