By Asra Q. Nomani
5 January 2016
From mass executions to ISIS and the San Bernardino attack, the manifestations of Saudi Arabia’s Salafi extremism are everywhere—and it’s time for Muslims to fight back.
I had to see just one detail on the night of the San Bernardino killings to get a clue about the shooters’ ultraconservative leaning.
On the Facebook page for Syed Farook’s mother, the 62-year-old Rafia, I studied her “likes.” My eyes widened at one of them: she’d “liked” Farhat Hashmi, the founder of the nonprofit school Al-Huda International, based in Islamabad, Pakistan. The school is popular among middle-class and upper-class women in Pakistan, including many of my aunties. It has branches in the U.S. and Canada, and boasts a strong online teaching network. When I had studied among Al-Huda students in Islamabad in the days after the 9/11 attacks, I described them one way: “the Taliban Ladies Auxiliary.”
It has taken the almost 15 years since the attacks—as governments, political leaders and special-interest groups have obfuscated our discussion of Islamic extremism—for me to fully understand the underlying ideology that we must dissect if we hope to dismantle the threat of terrorism in the name of Islam.
While the school says it doesn’t support extremism or terrorism, as one observer noted, the group is “#Salafi-lite.” It’s a word anyone interested in Islamic extremism needs to learn: “Salafi,” a puritanical, literal interpretation of Islam that becomes “political Islam,” or “Islamism,” in its radicalized form. This weekend, invoking its Salafi doctrine, known as Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia, executed a cleric from the minority Shia sect and 46 others, in “Saudi Arabia’s ISIS-like justice,” appropriately earning worldwide condemnation.++ Years ago, a Muslim writer pondered if Al-Huda was in fact “cultivating al Qaeda in Muslim women.”
Meanwhile, the government of Qatar, with an official state religion of Salafism, too, is known for its “official sympathies” with “the Salafi movement.”
Before long, it emerged that the female shooter—Farook’s Pakistani-born wife, Tafsheen Malik—had studied under “Dr. Farhat,” as she is known, an “Islamic feminist.” It was then that I understood very clearly the family culture of puritanical hyper-religiosity in which the killers had lived. It doesn't necessarily equate to violence. I have many extended family members who are ultraconservative, and guided by their faith to compassion and kindness. However, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking Salafis are like the Amish.
In the conveyor belt of radicalization, conservative Salafi doctrine is too often a gateway drug to violence—or what French political scientist Gilles Kepel coined as “Salafi jihadism.” Al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden was considered the most famous of the “Salafi jihadists,” and the title now goes to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. It is the doctrine being taught by the more inflammatory preachers in Britain and France. The perpetrators of mass terror acts in the past 15 years—9/11, London and Madrid, Paris, Bali nightclubs, Lebanon, Mali, San Bernardino and countless others—were carried out by practicing Salafi-jihadists. At the Rand Corporation, terrorism expert Seth G. Jones released a report early last year, “The Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qa’ida and Other Salafi Jihadists,” which documents an increase in “Salafi-jihadist” groups from three in 1988 to 49 in 2013. The number of fighters has increased from just a few in 1988 to as many as 40,000 to 100,000 in 2013.
The Quilliam Foundation, founded by Daily Beast contributor and counter-extremism expert Maajid Nawaz published a report in 2013, titled, “It’s Salafi-Jihadist Insurgency, Stupid!”
In 2014, four girls left Canada to join ISIS after study at the Al-Huda Institute in Mississauga, Ontario.
A few months ago, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation published a report, “Inside the Jihadi Mind,” dissecting the propaganda and ideology of “Salafi-jihadism,” with themes of “the nobility of jihad,” the “end of humiliation” and the “disgrace of enemies.” Researchers, including terrorism expert Emman El-Badawy, said they found Islamic teachings in 87 percent of the propaganda of “Salafi-jihadism” that they studied.
Over four decades, I—and dozens of other Muslims with whom I have spoken—have seen the spirit of religious dogmatism overtake the lives of loved ones, as the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have exported their state religion of Salafism to the world. They are buttressed by the teachings of Islamist ideologues like Syed Qutb, the godfather of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; Maulana Mawdudi, a godfather of Islamist movements in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, like Tablighi Jamaat and Jaamat Islami; and Abdullah Azzam, teacher to a generation of Afghan and Pakistani fighters, including Al-Qaeda leaders Osama Bin Ladin and Ayman al Zawahiri..
Key to their most extreme teachings is the romanticization of “jihad and martyrdom.”
When I first arrived in Pakistan in the summer of 1983, I saw the first inklings of this ideology through a female cousin, a dear pen pal of mine. She was starting to get influenced by the Saudi Islamization of Pakistan, which started with the rise to power of General Zia ul Haq in 1977 and the radicalizing of U.S.-sponsored Afghan warriors into “mujahideen” fighting the Soviets with the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. During that time, Salafi ideology cross-fertilized with a traditionally conservative ideology of South Asia called Deobandism. The Deobandi ideology is named for a village in my native state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India where the school is based, at the university, Darul Uloom Deoband, or “House of Knowledge Deoband.” I have family members who studied there, and its ultraconservative dogmatism influenced my paternal and maternal lineage, with my mother, as a rising teen, having to wear the black face veil and burka, or gown. Militant Deobandism has become the ideology of the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani militant groups.
My pen pal retreated away from playing late-night games of gin rummy with our male first cousins, because, by conservative interpretations of Islam, where one can marry first cousins, they were suddenly haram (forbidden or illegal) to her; they were potential marital partners.
Back in the U.S., in the early 1990s, I got disturbing news one day from my mother that a cousin in Gaithersburg, Maryland—indoctrinated to extremist Islam through the Tablighi Jamaat, a missionary group founded outside Delhi as an offshoot of Deobandism—had taken his wife and children to India on a ruse and seized their passports, refusing to let them return to America. The story was he had seen a note from his daughter, indicating she had a crush on a white boy at school, and he didn’t want his children “corrupted.” They remained in India. Not long ago, one son returned to the United States. The daughter, a star college graduate in India, got married and lives in Saudi Arabia, wearing a full-face veil by “choice.”
Back in Pakistan, “Dr. Farhat” started Al-Huda in 1994, indoctrinating women by the thousands to her hyper-religious doctrine. Born in the province of Punjab in Pakistan, she earned a PhD in hadith studies at the University of Glasgow and taught at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, largely influenced by Saudi Salafi ideology. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s late leader, Faisal, donated a towering mosque in Islamabad to the university. Soon, some husbands of Dr. Farhat’s pupils were protesting that their wives had become “extremist.”
When I went to Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks, I saw my pen-pal cousin had grown even more rigid in her religiosity, now wearing a tight headscarf, and my aunts, otherwise liberal when growing up in our native India, had started to cover their faces in black veils and shroud their bodies in black burkas—just like the newly-married Tafsheen Malik did when she arrived years later in the United States, according to the security camera photo released by law enforcement.
For the men who followed their wives’ leads, they grew their beards but shaved their moustaches, following doctrine promoted on Salafi websites that a hadith, or tradition of the prophet Muhammad, holds that growing the mustache is haram.
In South Asia, the school of thought associated with Salafi are “Ahl al-Hadith,” or the “people with the hadith,” with a literal and strict view of hadith.
If the alphabet soup of names is confusing, that’s because extremist Islamist ideologies, just like anything, are filled with competition, rivalries and power plays. One Facebook user takes a swath through the groups with this page: “We Sunnis Must Unite to Fight Wahabi/salafi/Deobandi Tablig jamat Terrorism.”
In Karachi, I saw the face of the Deobandi militancy in the faces of the men who kidnapped my colleague from the Wall Street Journal, Danny Pearl. When I saw a police report on one suspect, on the line for religion, the police hadn’t written “Muslim” or “Sunni” or “Shia.” They had written, “Deobandi.”
They knew. And, meanwhile, his kidnapper, Omar Sheikh, had been indoctrinated by radical Salafi clerics in London. And his alleged murderer, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or “KSM,” had studied under the respected Salafi scholars of the Afghan mujahideen, and, in fact, in 1996, when FBI agent Frank Pellegrino landed in Doha, Qatar, a Salafi state, to arrest KSM, the future mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was alerted by someone in authority and escaped extradition to the United States. U.S. authorities were that close to stopping the 9/11 planning before they had even begun.
Like the clue that I got when I saw the “like” for Al-Huda International, when I heard the name of the San Bernardino husband’s mosque—“Dar Al Uloom Al-Islāmiyah of America”—my heart sank. I knew the husband was immersed in a very rigid Islam, akin to the Deobandi ideology that has cross-fertilized with “Salafi jihadists.” With or without formal affiliation with the mosque in India, Darul Uloom Deoband, we know in our community that a “Darul Uloom” mosque follows a hyper-conservative Islam, connected to Deobandi or Salafi Islam, or both. Mosque officials didn't return messages seeking comment.
Salafi thinking is based off of the writings of an 18th-century Saudi scholar, Muhammad ibnʿAbd al-Wahhab. Thus, Saudi thinking has most often been known as “Wahhabism.” In the Salafi school of thought, adherents “place a great emphasis on literal interpretation of the Qur’an and hadith,” or the traditions of the prophet Muhammad, “with skepticism toward the role of human reason in theology,” according to a recently-released report by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, based in Amman, Jordan, on the world’s “500 Most Influential Muslims.”
Salafi adherents try to emulate their strict understanding of the lives of the salaf, or the “predecessors,” including Muhammad and the first three generations in Islam, starting in the 7th century.
The report by Jordan, which opposes Salafi teachings, says “Islamic fundamentalism” compromises nine percent of the world’s approximately 2 billion Muslims and is made up of mostly “Salafi (8%)” and the Egyptian Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood (1%), as well as “Revolutionary Shi’ism.” It describes them as following “a highly politicized religious ideology,” that is “characterized by an aggressiveness.”
In the report, No. 3 on the list of the world’s most influential Muslims is Saudi Arabia’s leader, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, with “Moderate Salafi” listed as his “School of Thought.” His occupation is “head of the most extensive … network of missionary Muslims in the world, promoting the Salafi brand of Islam.” It goes on to note: “Salafism is historically rooted in Saudi Arabia, and owes its global spread to the financial backing of Saudi Arabia.”
Others on the report listed only as “Salafi” include Abdul-Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh, the grand mufti, or top cleric, of Saudi Arabia. His family traces his lineage to the original Wahhab and for 250 years it has “closely associated and intermarried” with the ruling House of Saud. As the “Central Figure of Global Salafi Movement,” the report notes, “the movement [Aal Al-Sheikh] leads is characterized by an authoritative stance on Islamic religious practice.”
Like the beheadings, lashings, stonings and other regressive rulings prescribed by Salman Al-Ouda (No. 17), a “Moderate Salafi” sheikh and founder of a website,IslamToday.net; Saleh Bin Fawzan Al-Fawzan, “the most senior scholar of the Salafi movement in Saudi Arabia”; and Rabee Ibn Haadi ‘Umayr Al-Madkhali, “one of the most radical thinkers in the Salafi movement,” with a branch of Salafi named for him.
Though the government of Saudi Arabia says ++it will sue anyone++ who says it is “like ISIS,” as Twitter users, including me, have said, the report notes that ISIS has 21 pledges of allegiance from “Salafi-Jihadi” groups, with “Salafi-Jihadi foreign volunteers” arriving from around the world to fight to “re-establi[sh] the Caliphate,” which is “so important on a psychological plane for radical Salafis.”
The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, is also listed on the “500 Most Influential Muslims” report—an important addition considering the many Muslim leaders, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Democratic politicians, like President Obama, who have said that the Islamic State isn’t “Islamic.
“He is a Muslim,” Abdallah Schleifer, chief editor of the Jordanian report, told The Daily Beast as he explained why his staff picked Al-Baghdadi for the list. A former NBC bureau chief in Cairo and an American convert to Islam from Judaism, Schleifer adds, “But if he was standing in front of me, and I had a gun, I’d kill him. He’s evil.”
Schleifer notes, “While I understand that American Muslim leaders are well-intentioned in defending Islam, when they deny the Islam in Islamic State, they are wrong. And they are doing Muslims a disservice by not dealing honestly with the issues that confront us as Muslims.”
The officials at Syed Farook’s mosque said they don’t support violence. Meanwhile, FBI Director James Comey announced that the San Bernardino shooters may not have supported ISIS on social media. American Muslims widely shared headlines about this recent revelation, with one Facebook user demanding, “WHO WILL MAKE RETRACTIONS ABOUT the San Bernardino case?”
The headlines, however, glossed over a more important revelation by the FBI director: in late 2013, before they married, the couple was “communicating online, showing signs in that communication of their joint commitment to jihad and martyrdom. Those communications are direct private messages.”
The revelation of the “joint commitment to jihad and martyrdom” underscores a singular point that, unfortunately, too many Muslim leaders still want to deny, with flimsy excuses and conspiracy theories. But most of us in the Muslim world have seen all this too clearly—and painfully—over the past four decades, ever since the government of Saudi Arabia started pumping out the virulent ideology of Salafism’s “Jihad Inc.” into the world, with all its intolerance, rigidity, anti-Western prejudice, hatred of Israel, sexism and misogyny.
The San Bernardino couple are just the latest to ascribe to Salafism’s violent belief in a political Islam that supports an Islamic caliphate with a small “c,” if not the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” of ISIS.
The FBI director didn’t say what kind of “jihad” it was.
But we know.
It wasn’t an Irish jihad. Or a pagan jihad. It was a violent Islamist jihad rooted in the most intolerant expressions of Salafism.
On the night of the San Bernardino attacks, seeing the “like” of “Dr. Farhat” by Tafsheen Malik’s mother-in-law took me back to the women’s halaqa, or Quran study circle sessions, that I attended in Islamabad in the days after the 9/11 attacks, meeting the middle-class and upper middle-class Pakistani women who were devoted AlHuda students. They bragged about the “glow” of piety on the face of their teacher.
In their halaqa meetings, they prayed feverishly against the West. They lambasted Christians and Jews. And they swapped theories about 9/11, always concluding, “the Jews did it.” They sold clothes from their wedding trousseaus to raise funds for Taliban and Muslim militants in Pakistan, supporting those on the path to “jihad and martyrdom.”
That’s why I called the women “the Taliban ladies auxiliary.”
At one meeting, a woman sold wedding trousseau fineries and second-hand clothes, like a shocking pink fabric with flowers, tagged as “suit piece, 200 rupees,” to raise funds for the mujahedin fighting the West. The school that Tafsheen Malik attended also teaches Muslim women that they should wear the niqab, or face veil.
The classes so sickened me that I fled to Karachi, where, alas, militants took that same hate against Jews to justify killing my friend Danny, who was Jewish.
This fall, on the night of the Paris attacks, I walked onto the set of HBO’s “Real Time,” hosted by Bill Maher, a liberal comedian who has been a leader in the U.S.—forcing a conversation about Islamic extremism, despite being vilified by apologists—and I urged viewers, “Wake up!” to the threat of Islamic extremist ideology to the West.
I noted, “We have to be honest about the fact that there is an ideology of Islam, that is our war, of our generation, and this is an ideology that we have to address, and we have to address it with moral courage.”
Since then, I have heard from hundreds of viewers who are heeding the call to action, not out of any irrational fear of Islam or Muslims, but because they, like me, want rational threat assessment and effective solutions, which should include an Islamic reformation in which a progressive interpretation of Islam becomes normative. This past December, I stood with other courageous Muslim women and men in Washington, D.C., to launch the Muslim Reform Movement, to challenge “violent Islamist ideology,” by whatever names we call it. Following our announcement, we walked through the gates of the Saudi-led mosque on Massachusetts Avenue, because we need to stop the path of Muslims, like Tafsheen Malik, to “jihad and martyrdom.” There, one of our brave members, Sohail Raza, taped our declaration for reform on the front door with our first precept: “We stand for universal peace, love and compassion. We reject violent jihad.”