Should Salafism be banned to prevent terrorism?

It is often a difficult question for governments to decide which activities to allow and which to ban. There are clear cases where certain actions should not be tolerated, like murder for instance, and we have laws to take care of those.  Some argue, however, that governments should just stay out of our lives, that our “freedoms” trump all.  Well, no they don’t and a society unfettered from all rules would not be a very nice one.  I sure wouldn’t want to live there.  Yes there should be limits to what the state can and cannot do and we can only hope that reasonable people can agree on what those limits should be.

In recent years Western governments and a few bodies like the United Nations have developed lists of entities that are proscribed: i.e. terrorist organisations.  Public Safety Canada has one such list (you can see it here) based on input from portfolio partners like CSIS and the RCMP.  If you have a look I think you will agree that the groups included should be there and that it would take a strong argument, or woeful naivete, to remove any one of them.

But what do we do with groups that are unwanted but do not engage in, or promote, violence?  Should we put them there as a precaution? What about the contention that some groups, not terrorist in nature themselves, lead people to the path of violent extremism (the so-called gateway groups)?  Do we lop them together with Al Qaeda?  If so, where do we draw the line?

This dilemma came up again today when I read (here) that the Dutch government has decided not to act on an earlier parliamentary suggestion that Salafist groups be considered for proscription since, according to the Dutch security services, they breed extremism (side note: I spoke with the main Dutch service, the AIVD, over a period of many years and I found it was always at the forefront of analysing groups and individuals that it believed undermined the “democratic order”.  That service took a dim view of Salafism.  You can see some of the AIVD’s unclassified papers on its Web site

Is this a good decision by the Dutch government?  It is really hard to tell.  As with most things in life, little is black and white but rather multiple shades of grey.  I have written in earlier blogs that I do not think that Canada should list, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood.  Many disagree with me and just last week a US House committee recommended the exact opposite (see the article here).  Similar arguments have been made about Hizb ut Tahrir which is seen as a terrorist group in many parts of Central Asia.

So what about Salafist organisations?  What do we do with them?  In a previous blog (Fundamentally wrong published on June 30, 2015) I talked about Salafism at length and I will not repeat those arguments here.  Suffice to say that the terrorist listing process is a precise one, in Canada at least.  According to Public Safety, for a group to qualify as a terrorist entity it must

  • have knowingly carried out, attempted to carry out, participated in or facilitated a terrorist activity
  • knowingly acted on behalf of, at the direction of or in association with an entity that has knowingly carried out, attempted to carry out, participated in or facilitated a terrorist activity.

Even here, the word “facilitate” may be hard to define (I am sure that there is a definition in law that can help, but I think you see where I am going with this).  In other words, once you get past the obvious candidates (AQ, Islamic State, Boko Haram, etc.) the decisions get harder to make.  Hizballah is listed for instance, and I think it should be, but what do you do with the political party it spawned (shades of IRA/Sinn Fein in Ireland)?

There is no question that I am not a fan of Salafist thinking.  I find it intolerant and hateful.  Then again I am no fan of fundamentalist Christianity or ultra-Orthodox Judaism either.  And there is no question that many terrorists hold Salafist views.  But we in Canada would be hard-pressed to justify listing such a group, and that starts with identifying an organisation that we could reliably determine to be “Salafist”.  These do not carry out terrorist acts and it is far from clear whether they “facilitate” terrorism.

Terrorist listings are one tool in the fight against violent extremism.  Public opposition and challenge is another.  We should let Muslim populations deal with Salafism since it most directly affects them.  Listing is a hammer, and a serious one, but not all problems are nails.


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.

Leave a Reply