As European authorities target Salafism, the word needs parsing

What exactly is Salafism? In continental Europe, the word is now used as a catchall for extreme and violent interpretations of Islam. This week for example, authorities in the German state of Hesse raided five premises including a mosque; it was the latest move in a crackdown on ultra-militant forms of Islam all over Germany which began last week. “Extremist propaganda is the foundation for Islamic radicalisation and ultimately for violence,” said the interior minister of Hesse, Peter Beuth, by way of explaining the latest raids. “The Salafist ideology is a force not to be underestimated,” he added.

On November 15th, German federal authorities banned what they described as a Salafi organisation known as “True Religion” or “Read!” whose notional purpose was to distribute copies of the Koran. On the same day, police swept through 200 offices and other buildings across the country. Ralf Jäger, interior minister of the populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), reportedly gave this reason for the ban: “Every fifth Salafist who has travelled out from NRW under the aegis of so-called Islamic State in order to join a terror cell had previous contact with ‘Read!’”

In France, too, the word Salafi or Salafist is often used as a generic term for forms of Islam which are too extreme for any government policy to parley with or accommodate. Manuel Valls, the Socialist prime minister, has reported with alarm that the Salafis, although a tiny minority among French Muslims, may be winning an ideological war in France because their voice is louder and more efficiently disseminated than any other. François Fillon, a centre-right politician who is likely to make the run-off in next year’s presidential election, is a strong advocate of cracking down both on Salafism and on the groups linked to the global Muslim Brotherhood.

In the very loosest of senses, all Muslims are Salafi. The word literally describes those who emulate and revere both the prophet Muhammad and the earliest generations of Muslims, the first three generations in particular. There is no Muslim who does not do that. But in practice the word Salafist is most often used to describe a purist, back-to-basics form of Islam that emerged on the Arabian peninsula in the 19th century.

But even Saudi Salafism, despite appearances, is no monolith, according to H.A. Hellyer, a British scholar who studies Muslim communities across the world. Several different tendencies can be detected among the kingdom’s religious scholars, who underpin the monarchy.

In Egypt, too, the word Salafi is used as though it had a simple meaning, but again that is misleading, according to Mr Hellyer. On the face of things, the Egyptian Salafis are represented by a political party, Al Nour, which emerged as a powerful player after the 2011 uprising, and favours extreme conservatism in matters of dress, gender roles and personal behaviour. This is contrasted with the more tactical and pragmatic form of Islamism represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged in Egypt in the early 20th century and now wields influence through ideological allies all over the world, including Europe.

Here is another source of confusion: in the broad sense, the Brotherhood too is partially Salafi in inspiration. It shares the ideal of going back to the very first generations of Muslims; that was part of the thinking of Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood’s founder.

Do the politicians of France and Germany, who use the word Salafi/Salafist as though it were virtually a synonym for terrorist, need to know all this? Yes they do, because the safety of Europe’s streets is at stake. In Britain, for example, there are Salafi mosques whose preachers are theologically conservative but are far from terrorists; and there have been terrorists who have had nothing to do with the mainstream of Salafism. It’s important to understand that of the various forms of Salafism described, there is one, the unreconstructed kind, which can (though does not always) morph into terrorism. Labels can be a helpful pointer through a maze of complexity, but in the end the labyrinth has to be negotiated carefully.