What is Salafism?

The ultra-conservative Islamic ideology is growing in popularity

Salafi Salafism

Children at Salafist schools in the Netherlands are being taught that death is a fitting penalty for people with different religious beliefs, according to Dutch media.

Journalists posing as parents of prospective students found that children in Salafist schools were being asked to answer multiple-choice questions about the appropriate punishments for different crimes under Sharia law, “including whipping, stoning and beheading by sword”, reports Dutch News.

Pupils are also being told to turn away from Dutch society and "the principles of equality and freedom", says newspaper NRC Handelsblad, which carried out the joint investigation with current affairs programme Nieuwsuur.

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The claims come months after the Dutch intelligence services warned that radical Salafist preachers were gaining increasing influence in the education of young Muslims in the Netherlands.

What is Salafism?

Salafis are fundamentalists who believe in a return to the original political and moral practices of Islam.

The word “Salafi” comes from the Arabic phrase, “al-Salaf al-Salih” , which refers to the first three generations of Muslims (starting with the Companions of the Prophet), otherwise known as the Pious Predecessors, or “righteous ancestors”.

Rather than being a distinct branch of Islam, Salafism is an intellectual current of Sunni Islam.

In the second half of the last century, Salafist ideas began inspiring movements including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

Salafists have also formed militant groups with the aim of establishing an Islamic state by force - Salafism and Salafi Jihadism are the core beliefs of the Islamic State (Isis).

“In Britain, however, the vast majority of self-described Salafis are explicitly anti-violence,” says The Independent. “Indeed, their leaders have been among the most vocal in their condemnation of terrorism.”

What do Salafis believe?

The 100-year-old Sunni-based Salafi school of thought aspires to emulate the ways of the Prophet Mohammed.

“The aim of Salafism is to bring Muslims back to what they see as the true faith practised by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers,” says the BBC.

Recognisable from their distinctive long white robes, long beards and flowing head scarf, Salafis are socially and religiously conservative.

Although they believe in a unified Islamic state and Sharia law, they are not always politically radical, because they regard political involvement as un-Islamic and impure.

However, since the Arab Spring, Salafists have formed their own political parties.

Ultimately, Salafism encompasses a huge range of beliefs - extending from non-violent religious devotion at one extreme to Salafi jihadism at the other.

How popular is Salafism around the world?

Salafism offers what many see as a purer form of Islam, stripped of cultural and national associations. This, coupled with its traditional lack of political involvement, makes it especially popular with new converts.

It is the predominant form of Sunni Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, where most people are Wahabis, subscribing to a far-right interpretation of Salafism. And Saudi Arabia has spearheaded an “aggressive promotion” of Wahhabism, says the BBC.

In Egypt, around five to six million of the 82 million-strong population are believed to be Salafis.

The Arab Weekly claims there may be an alliance forming between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Salafists, “with the aim of choking the Muslim Brotherhood”.

Salafism is also flourishing in Britain. Indeed, it is “thought to be the fastest growing Islamic faction in the UK”, says The Independent.

Deutsche Welle says Salafism is also the “fastest growing current in the broad range of Islamist groups” in Germany.

And in a report published by the Programme on Extremism at America’s George Washington University, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens says that all forms of Salafism have “flourished” in the US, reports The Economist.

What about the rest of the Middle East?

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Salafis received an unusual amount of press as a result of their growing involvement in politics.

Following the toppling of president Hosni Mubarak, Salafi groups in Egypt were responsible for a number of violent attacks on Coptic Christians. They burnt two Coptic Christian churches in 2011 and were responsible for a death during a clash with a Christian alcohol shop owner, while another fight with a Coptic Christian led to his ear being cut off.

At about the same time in Jordan, around 350 hard-line Salafis took to the streets during protests in Zarqa to demand the imposition of Sharia law. Violent clashes ensued in which 83 police officers were injured.

And in Gaza, a Salafi group called Tawheed and Jihad claimed responsibility for the brutal kidnapping and murder of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni, claiming he had spread “corruption".

Where else is Salafism growing?

Salafism is also on the rise in China. “Among China’s Hui ethnic group, Saudi-influenced Salafism has been present for nearly a century,” reports The Diplomat. Salafism is confined to small pockets of the Northwest and Yunnan provinces, but in recent years the Chinese government has begun to keep closer checks on the group.

“Since the 1990s, and particularly following 9/11, the Chinese state has placed the Salafi community under close surveillance,” the news site continues. The government fears that Salafism's “close connections with Saudi Arabia as well as presumed Uighur Salafi networks … might herald political and religious violence in the future”.

The rise of Salafism in northern China’s Gansu province has “rattled China’s officially atheist communist government, which finds any expression of religious fervour to be unnerving, especially when it carries associations with foreign extremists,” says the Los Angeles Times.

“I’ve been studying Muslims in China for the past 30 years, and it’s only over the past four or five that we see young Han men converting to a radical, conservative Islamic ideology,” Dru Gladney, an expert on Chinese Muslims at Pomona College, told the newspaper.

“I think Han Chinese men, as well as younger [Chinese Muslims], look at [Islamic State] and say, ‘What are the alternatives to communism, to capitalism, to socialism?’”

How organised is the Salafist movement?

They have no coherent policy or ideology and there is no governing body to control various Salafist elements either in Egypt or elsewhere. As a result, there is a wide range of Salafist movements pursuing various agendas, and they are accountable to no one - which makes them potentially dangerous.

A 2017 documentary on Muslims extremists in Britain, Muslim Resistance, followed a Salafi group in Luton. The programme’s maker, Masood Khan, has insisted that most Salafis have spent the last 20 years “trying to persuade Muslims not to get involved with [extremist] groups”.

Nonetheless, says The Spectator’s Gavin Mortimer, Salafism “has inspired the global jihad that has killed tens of thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims this century”.

He adds: “That’s an awful lot of dead at the hands of one ideology.”

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