Reuters An undated photograph of a man described as Abdelhamid Abaaoud that was published in the Islamic State's online magazine Dabiq.

What Is Salafism?

How a Nonpolitical Ideology Became a Political Force

In the wake of the bombing of the Russian plane in Sinai and the attacks in Paris, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) seems bent on confrontation with the West. The group’s minute-by-minute statements, social media posts, and videos seem to offer a flood of concurring information.

Lost in the wash of information, though, has been an examination of ISIS’ precise religious ideology and how it informs the group’s strategy. Some have even cast doubt on the worth of such investigations. “There should be no ‘deeper understanding’ of the ISIS terrorists,” wrote the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek on November 16, responding to the Paris attacks, which he described as “reactions to European brutal interventions.” Writing in The Wall Street Journal in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France earlier this year, the activist and author Ayaan Hirsi Ali likewise wrote that “today’s Islamists are driven by a political ideology.”

But the relationship between the group’s strategy, politics, and religious ideology is complex, and understanding it is the first step to confronting it. Part of the apparent confusion is that Salafism—the ideology to which ISIS subscribes—is inherently nonpolitical. In fact, for much of its history in the twentieth century, leading Salafists criticized political groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, for being distracted by modern concerns and not focused enough on what Salafists regarded as the “purification” of creed. It was only after the Arab Spring that some Salafists started moving in the opposite direction. 

So why is it that some Salafists choose to remain outside of the political arena altogether while others jump right in? First, a definition of Salafism is in order. It is often lumped together with Islamism, the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example. But they are not the same thing.

A Belgian soldier patrols a shopping street in central Brussels as police search the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, Belgium, November 24, 2015.

A Belgian soldier patrols a shopping street in central Brussels as police search the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, Belgium, November 24, 2015.

Islamism as practiced by the Muslim Brotherhood is a modern ideology that seeks to introduce Islam into the political sphere, the way a lobby group would, for example.

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