Fundamentally wrong?

In some ways Canada is a post-religious nation.  This is not to say that religion is not important or that it is not present, but it is certainly not as front and centre as it used to be.  The Canadian landscape has also shifted as believers of other faiths (Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, etc.) multiply.

As a result, we Canadians sometimes have a hard time talking about religion – much the opposite of our southern neighbours, where political candidates and everyday citizens wear their religious beliefs on their sleeves all the time.

This discomfort can extend to our analysis of terrorism, especially the Al Qaeda brand.  The dialogue surrounding what to call this phenomenon makes some people uneasy as they tiptoe through the minefield of whether to call it “Islamic” or “Islamist” or “Muslim” or “jihadi” or “religious”.

Unfortunately for the faint of heart, it is an inescapable truth that we have to use some religious terminology to accurately assess what we are faced with.  I intend to deal with this issue over the next few blogs.

Here I want to focus on the term “Salafist”.  The term comes from an Arabic word that means “ancestors” and refers specifically to the earliest leaders of Islam: the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the first four Caliphs (“successors”).  Salafists hanker for a time when the faith was young and pure and free of defect, and are usually quite critical of other interpretations of Islam.

But does that make them terrorists?  If you read the most recent BfV (the German equivalent of CSIS) report, you might get that idea.  Here’s a quote:

“The Salafist scene represents a very important recruitment ground for jihad”

(you can read the entire 2014 report here)

I don’t agree.  Simply because there are several forms of Salafism.  In a blog you can’t go into great deal but scholars generally divide the movement into three subsets: “quietist”, political and jihadist. Only the last group embraces and promotes violence.  They are the terrorists.  The others may pose challenges, but violence is not usually one of them.  And you cannot equate the three groups.

In a way, you can say that all (or almost all) AQ-type terrorists are Salafists, but not all Salafists are terrorists (much like all Catholics are Christian but not vice versa).  It is not inevitable that a quietist becomes a jihadist.

The distinctions matter if we are going to understand the threat and what to do about it.  Labeling them all with the same brush is counter-productive.   It is also important that the right people challenge ideology.  Governments in the Western world are not the best candidates to engage in religious debates (especially not in post-religious Canada).  Community members, religious leaders and average Muslims are.  Because they have the knowledge and credibility to tackle religious differences.

I personally find Salafists intolerant, hateful and arrogant.  But it is not my place to do anything about it.

That’s just basic.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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