Should we “ban” Salafism?

What causes terrorism?  Lots of things, and that is why it is so hard to stop.  We can identify, and have identified, the behaviours and attitudes that terrorists engage in, but we are very far from coming up with a hard and fast list of the why and the who and, frankly speaking, I am doubtful we are ever going to get there.

When it comes to the role of religion in all this, it gets complicated.  The best answer is “it depends”.  As far as Islamist extremism is concerned, there is absolutely no doubt that terrorists of this ilk use Islam to justify what they are doing – i.e. the contention that this kind of terrorism has nothing to do with Islam does not cut it and is woefully inaccurate – but at the same time, Islam is not a “religion of terrorism”.  There are 1.5 billion Muslims on this planet and a tiny number of those are terrorists.  If Islam = terrorism we would have an insurmountable problem on our hands.   The fact that we don’t should say something to those convinced otherwise.  The vast majority of Muslims are just average folk.

Drilling down deeper, it is also true that certain interpretations of Islam are more conducive to extremist behaviour than others.  There are not a lot of Sufi terrorists and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the way in which Sufis see their faith has an impact on why not.  Salafism, on the other hand, is problematic.  Not all Salafis are terrorists it must be stressed, but most Islamist extremist terrorists hue to that version of Islam.  Again, not rocket science.

So, what to make of calls by the German Vice Chancellor that “Salafist mosques must be banned, communities dissolved, and the preachers should be expelled as soon as possible?”  He made these comments just weeks after the Christmas market attack in Berlin in which 12 people were killed and 50 wounded.  Emotions are raw in Germany, a country that saw a worrying spike in Islamist extremist attacks in 2016.  Germans want to feel safe and they want action.

Tied to this, the deputy head of the BfV, Germany’s CSIS, said that “the country’s radical Islamist scene – estimated at close to 10,000 people, a huge increase since 2011 – is not only growing, but becoming more decentralized, posing greater challenges to surveillance operations.”  What gives and is this justified?

Truth be told, I am no fan of most Salafis (full disclosure: I am not Muslim so my views count for little).  I happen to find them arrogant, intolerant and distrustful of Muslims who are not like them (this means most Muslims – look at the figure presented above: of an estimated 4.3 MILLION Muslims in Germany, 10,000 – i.e. less than 1% – are Salafi).  In the same way I have little time for fundamentalists of any religion, including my own.  But, I don’t tell them how to pray and how to worship – that is not my job.  Is the German government now the arbiter of Islam in Germany?  Does it really want that job?

This is fraught with problems.  Is anyone associated with the German government qualified to determine who is a Salafist and who isn’t?  What about divisions within Salafism?  Most reputable scholars recognise at least three divisions with only the third – the Salafi jihadis – as a group that must be opposed because they believe in the use of violence to get their way.  If Germany cracks down on “Salafists”, whether or not they espouse violence, should it not also ban other fundamentalist groups (Jews, Christians, Hindus…)?  If not, why not?

At the end of the day the people best placed to deal with Salafism, if we agree that it is a “problem”, are not those in government but the communities where it has taken hold.  They are the ones most affected by it and they are the ones criticised by those with more intolerant views.  They have a vested interest in challenging this issue, not the State.  If certain preachers advocate violence, then ban them.

Furthermore, and this is really important, just as there is not  a direct correlation/causation between Islam and terrorism, nor is there one on every occasion between Salafi Islam and terrorism.  Saying there is is disingenuous.  Let’s  not make the serious problem of terrorism bigger than it already is.  The “escalator” model of terrorism (i.e. that there are concrete steps always present along the pathway to violent extremism) is a poor one and has never been shown to apply universally.  This lack of certainty describes the relationship between Salafism and terrorism.

Canada’s 15th Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, famously said that the “state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation”.  Nor does it have a place in the mosques, pews, synagogues, temples or gurdwaras.  If any of these places serve as hub or venue for conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, then that is a different story and the State does have both a right and a duty to get involved.  Otherwise, it is wiser to stay out of that domain.


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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