This is not our Salafism

There is ongoing debate about Salafism and its role in terrorism in Europe and Saudi Arabia

Jamal Khashoggi

Published: Updated:

I was supposed to be in Berlin to attend the discussion of a book written by my colleagues Hassan Abu Haniya and Mohammed Abu Ruman entitled “The Islamic State Organization: Sunni Crisis and the Struggle of Global Jihadism.”

However, due to some booking arrangements I ended up in Amsterdam, where I became interested to know more about the Sunni crisis represented by the term “Salafi.”

While there, I spent most of my time reading Abu Ruman’s interesting book “I am a Salafi,” in which he collects testimonies showing that the term “Salafi” is not inclusive or precise.

Europe’s security establishments are unable or unwilling to understand the differences between the various Salafi movements. While Arab security establishments are aware of the differences, some Arab intellectuals refuse to acknowledge them because they are against all Salafis.

This reminds me of the story of former US President Ronald Reagan listening to the head of US intelligence about the structure of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the differences between its divisions. Reagan, confused, ended the meeting by saying: “You mean all of them are terrorists.”

Accusations against Saudi Salafist thoughts should stop, because the Salafism that is raging in Europe and feeding the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not ours

Jamal Khashoggi


While in Amsterdam, I asked a seemingly religious taxi driver of Moroccan origin about his status as a Muslim living in Europe and how he describes himself. “I am a Salafi,” he said. I wish he had said “I am a Muslim.” This change in description should be the main target in the war on extremism.

The image of a Salafi can be confusing. Fouad Bel Kacem, mentor of the radical Salafi organization Sharia for Belgium, looks like well-known Egyptian Salafi preacher Mohammed Hassan, who rejects violence. They both wear the white ghotra without a headband, like any Saudi Salafi preacher.

The question is, who is the true Salafi? Even in Saudi Arabia, considered by Europeans as a breeding ground of Salafism, there is no common answer. There is ongoing debate about Salafism and its role in terrorism in Europe and Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi debate is more critical due to the close relation between the kingdom and the Salafi school that gave birth to the Saudi state 270 years ago. The kingdom is trying hard to return Salafism to its origins, which have nothing to do with today’s belligerent Salafi groups.

I find in Salafism the meaning of freedom. It is a way to get rid of a religious man’s hegemony. This is behind the rise of creative capacity among most of the religious and political reform movements that constituted the Islamic world until now. This includes Wahhabism, as Westerners call it, which gave birth to present-day Saudi Arabia. For many, however, Wahhabism means a refusal to adapt to modern life.

For more than a century, it was possible to describe a reformist such as Sheikh al-Azhar Mohammed Abdu, who died in 1905, as a Salafi. However, after Salafism became radical and divided into several parties, it became impossible to consider him as such. Current Salafis say he has no respect for Salafism.

Certainly, young men such as Salah Abdul Salam or Abdul Hamid Baoud, who led the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, will not sit at a table discussing Islam and the multiple Salafi movements.


Most of these Salafi groups constituted their thoughts and jurisprudence in mosques in poor European regions, in Peshawar (Pakistan) during the last days of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and in Arab prisons. Their violence crossed into Egypt at the beginning of the 1990s and then into Libya and Algeria, fueled by outrage over political failure and despotism.

They do not want a moderate Islam. They believe that they cannot make change via democracy. They always had doubts about democracy, but some decided to give it a chance in Algeria in 1990, and through the Arab Spring in 2011. However, attempts in both cases failed, reinforcing the belief that the use of power is the only solution.

We must recognize that jihadist Salafism, extremism and infidelity are viruses attacking the Muslim world. It can be contained as long as it does not threaten governments, and is dealt with under the law and by firm accountability. The world can live with it as it lives with neo-Nazis and European right-wing extremism.

However, this virus will expand amid chaos and state collapse, so efforts must focus on recognizing the main causes of the virus. Accusations against Saudi Salafist thoughts should stop, because the Salafism that is raging in Europe and feeding the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not ours.

This article first appeared in Al Hayat on May 21, 2016.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending