Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Of Wahhabism and Salafism

Recently, a reader e-mailed me asking about the difference between Wahhabism and Salafism. To put it simply, Salafism is the form of Islam that believes that society needs to be structured exactly as it was in the 7th Century, during the reign of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors. The ideal Salafist state is one governed solely by a narrow and literal application of Islamic law (sharia). Militant Salafism is the ideology of al Qaeda and the jihadist movement. Wahhabism is the Saudi form of Salafism, dating back to the 18th century.

Former CIA director R. James Woolsey has a terrific piece at National Review Online on the long-term threat posed by Salafist ideology, and its Wahhabist variant in particular:

Recently President Bush addressed a number of the ideological aspects of this long war in which we are now engaged. As he has put it now on two occasions, "Islamofascism" is one plausible characterization of our enemy. Although this is a major step forward beyond designating "terror" as the enemy (we're certainly at war with more than a tactic, albeit a terrible one) there was still a major element missing in his presentation. The elephant in the Middle East living room is Wahhabism. Over the long run, this movement is in many ways the most dangerous of the ideological enemies we face.

Within Sunni Islam, along with several more moderate schools, there are two varieties of theocratic totalitarianism. Both of these are Salafists, believing that only a literal version of the model of rule implemented in the seventh century in Islam has ultimate legitimacy. Both have the objective of rule by a unified mosque and state; for some this theocracy is personified by the caliph. Different individuals in these movements emphasize different aspects, but generally the common objective is to unify first the Arab world under theocratic rule, then the Muslim world, then those regions that were once Muslim (e.g. Spain), then the rest of the world.

Such totalitarian visions seem crazy to most of us; we thus tend to underestimate their potency. Yet the Salafists' theocratic totalitarian dream has some features in common with the secular totalitarian dreams of the twentieth century, e.g., the Nazis' Thousand Year Reich, or the Communists' World Communism. The latter two movements produced tens of millions of deaths in the 20th century in part because, at least in their early stages, they engendered "fire in the minds of men" in Germany, Russia, and China and were able to establish national bases. Salafists had such a national base for the better part of a decade in Afghanistan and have had one controlling the Arabian Peninsula for some eight decades. They haven't attained the Nazis' and Communists' death totals yet, but this is only due to lack of power, not to less murderous or less totalitarian objectives.

The Elephant in the Middle East Living Room


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