Thursday, March 30, 2006

Salafism as anti-Imperialism (part I)?

What prompted my earlier ramble on the current fragmented nature of left was trying to think of a better way of saying the following “currently one of the Shibboleths of the left is…” Clearly what follows isn’t a discussion of a Shibboleth of everyone who considers themselves progressive or leftwing, just some. If you want to know exactly whose Shibboleth it is, I refer you to my previous post. Having said that, lets start again.

Currently one of the Shibboleths of the left is that the wave of Jihadi terrorism that has been gripping the world’s attention since 9/11 is basically a new form of anti-Imperialism. This fits nicely with the “blame America” ideology that typified much of the opposition to the Iraq War and even, to a lesser degree, the response to the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001. At its most crude, this argument makes Bin Laden and his band of merry men out to be plucky freedom fighters resisting the new American empire of hegemonic Hollywood culture and neo-liberal free markets. This is a complex debate, but at its heart there is some truth to it, it’s just that the major flaw in this analysis is that it gets the empire wrong. The ideology of al-Qaeda can be called Salafi-Jihadi (al-Salafiyya al-jihadiyya), it is the violent wing of the Salafi movement. Salafism is often used interchangeably in the media with Wahabbism, the ultra-orthodox Saudi version of Islam, and with some justification as the two movements have increasingly merged over the last half a century – but they did not start out together. The Salafi movement began in the Middle East towards the end of the 19th Century as essentially a modernist movement. Its founders, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Mohammed Abduh wanted the Muslim world to be able to compete with the rising powers of the West and believed that to do so they would need to borrow from the West ideas in science and even social organization. Although Afgani in particular was no fan of the British Empire, he was not an anti-imperialist per se. Firstly the Muslim world was at the time synonymous with the Ottoman Empire and even outside of the Ottoman’s realm he was not averse to taking the support of one empire, Russia, to tweak the nose another, Britain, if it fitted his agenda.

Afghani realised that the Muslim world had created a history of culture and jurisprudence that would see the use of Western ideas as heretical or ‘un-Islamic’. Abduh and al-Afghani set out to clear the decks of over a 1000 years of sedimented Islamic scholarship that would deny the legitimacy of their modernising ambitions and continued to leave the reactionary conservative scholars, the ulema of the Ottoman Caliphate in power. To do this they looked back to the time of the companions of the Prophet, and the generations of followers who came immediately after, who were known as the Salafi – hence the movements name. The Salafis of the 19th Century argued that this seventh century Arabian Islam was the purest, and hence correct, form of Islam and what had evolved since was unwelcome innovation – or Bida. This argument, although sounding conservative, was actually progressive as it took away power of the ulema alone being able to say what was and wasn’t acceptable. This de-legitimisation of the religious “establishment” gave theological breathing room to allow the importation of western ideas including liberal democracy and constitutional government into the Islamic discussion.

Yet the First World War intervened, destroying the Ottoman Empire which had so long staked its claim as the seat of the Caliph, and hence the centre of the Muslim world. The remains of the Ottoman Empire were divided up between the British and French empires, with most of the modern states of the Middle East coming into existence as vassals states of those empires. The idea of a modernist reform movement borrowing ideas from the West had made sense whilst much of the Muslim world had at least been nominally linked to the Caliphate – but once so much of the region had become part of the Western Empires, resistance took precedence over renewal. From the 1920s onwards under Rashid Rida, one of Abduh’s disciples, the Salafi movement became increasingly anti-western as the trauma of the dissolution of the Caliphate and the increasing power of the European empires made many in the Muslim world believe that West was interested in not only political dominance but also ideological hegemony – to undermine Islam itself. Now operating from inside the European empires and aimed at resisting them, Salafism had become by default an anti-imperialist ideology.

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