Salafism, often referred to as ‘Wahhabism’, is widely regarded as a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that fuels Jihadism and subjugates women. Some even lump ISIS and Salafism together—casting suspicion upon the thousands of Muslims who identify as Salafi in the West. After gaining unprecedented access to Salafi women’s groups in London, I discovered the realities behind the myths. Discover the six most common misconceptions about Salafi Muslims in the West below:
Misconception #1: They’re all foreigners
Salafism is often—rightly—associated with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it was this country’s immense oil wealth that enabled it to spread its ‘Wahhabi’ brand of Salafism abroad from the 1970s onward. But we should not deduce from this that Salafism in the West is essentially an ‘Eastern’ or ‘Gulf’ phenomenon.
Groups that identify as Salafi in Britain are dominated not by Saudi migrants—whose numbers are actually very small—but by young people who were born here or who arrived at an early age. These include second- and third-generation Muslims—particularly South Asians—but above all, young Somalis and Afro-Caribbean converts.
Misconception #2: They support Jihadism and shari’a for the West
While aspects of their purist creed are shared by Jihadi groups, most—probably the vast majority of—Salafis in Europe are explicitly against terrorism. Not only that, but they tend to oppose all formal political forms of organisation, such as political parties and campaign groups. Although they believe that the shari’a is the best system, they do not seek to impose it on non-Muslim countries.
Misconception #3: They secretly support Jihadism and shari’a while publicly claiming to respect the law of the land
During nearly two-and-a-half years of fieldwork with Salafi groups, I never witnessed any explicit or implicit support for Jihadism, or calls for shari’a for the United Kingdom. I only ever witnessed condemnation of the former, and express prescriptions to obey the law of the land. While it is, of course, possible that Salafis moderate their speech in front of researchers, it would become almost impossible to keep this up after a few months of regular interaction. That’s why long-term participant research is so valuable.
Misconception #4: They are brainwashed
‘Brainwashing’ is typically understood as a coercive process that renders an individual powerless to choose an alternative course of action. Although five decades of research on New Religious Movements have yielded no empirical evidence for the so-called ‘brainwashing thesis’, it is nonetheless often regarded as the primary reason why people become ‘Islamic extremists’.
I found no evidence of so-called brainwashing. On the contrary, I found that the Salafi conversion process was largely intellectual, rather than based on social or other pressures.
Misconception #5: They are the uneducated ‘drop-outs’ of society
Some argue that, while Salafis are not brainwashed, they are the downtrodden, alienated ‘drop-outs’ of society, whose lack of education makes them ill-equipped to make sensible, rational decisions about their lives.
My impression as a researcher was that these women are at least as likely as the general UK population to pursue higher education. Most of my interviewees had already started or finished university, and just one had no plans for further education. Most were also keen to launch or pursue existing careers.
Misconception #6: Salafi women are forced to wear niqabs (face veils)
Coerced veiling undoubtedly occurs in many societies, but I could not find a single case among the Salafi women I interviewed in Britain. I did, however, encounter many cases where women’s families tried to force them—sometimes threatening violence—to discard their veils and gowns, which they saw as ‘extremist’ or ‘the culture of the Arabs’. A few young women confessed to having actually concealed their niqab-wearing from relatives, wearing the veil only when at a safe distance from the family home.