What is a Salafist?

Don't Panic!... Your war questions answered

Other than the gratuitous use of vulgar language, my biggest pet peeve is when these goddamned reporters and politicians confuse the fuck out of people with their bullshit jargon.

Some jargon that's been bugging me a lot recently is the increasing and usually unexplained use of the word "Salafist" to describe certain people attacking Iraqi civilians and American soldiers in Iraq.

It's nothing terribly complicated. Salafist comes from the Arabic word Salaf. Salaf means ancestors or predecessors. A Salafist is a self-proclaimed Islamic purist who believes Islam and the Muslim world have veered horribly off track during the past, oh, 1,300 years. They'd like for Muslims to practice Islam the way it was practiced back in the good old days, by their ancestors in seventh-century Arabia. That's when Islam's founder, the Prophet Muhammed, was captain of the then-small community of Muslims.

In the minds of Salafists, the good ol' days also extend forward a bit, to the years immediately after Muhammed's death when the people who knew him directly or once-removed were running things. Salafists think that, after the first and second generations died off, Islam jumped the shark.

There are Salafists all over the world. The most famous group of them is of course al-Qaeda. But who can forget Jamaat al-Islamiyya, the Egyptian Salafist thugs whose so-called spiritual leader is serving time for his role in the first World Trade Center bombing. Other Division 1A Salafists include Jemaah Islamiya in Indonesia, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Algeria's Salafist Group For Preaching And Combat (referred to as GSPC in the British press), and the Filipino group Abu Sayyaf.

Hey, I'm always answering questions for you. Why don't you answer a question for me for a change? How come people from the Philippines are Filipino? Shouldn't they be Philippino?

Where was I? Oh, yeah, Salafists. As you might have gathered from the distinguished list of organizations that are Salafist, these people aren't peaceful, Amish-types longing for a simple life spent praying, pitching tents and churning chickpeas into hummus. Salafists are myopic fundamentalists who yearn for a violent political revolution. They'd like to see a single, theocratic political body ruling the entire "Muslim World" stretching from Spain (which used to be a Muslim-ruled country) all the way across North Africa, Asia Minor, South Asia and Indonesia. You'll often hear this single Muslim political body referred to as the Caliphate.

Salafism's modern forbearer is Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. Just five years earlier, the Ottoman Empire, collapsed and transformed itself into the secular Republic of Turkey.

Flawed though it was, the Ottoman Empire was the Muslim Caliphate, ruling from Istanbul much of the Muslim world for several centuries. At the time, many Muslims feared that the disappearance of the Ottoman Caliphate would lead to greater domination of Muslims by the Imperialist West and, ultimately, the disintegration of Islam.

The Muslim Brotherhood was intended to spark a Muslim renaissance by turning back the clock. Like fundamentalists everywhere, including the ones right here in the good old U.S. of A., the Muslim Brotherhood believed that all political, societal and economic whims would just disappear if everyone would get right with God. As I mentioned earlier, their vision of getting right with God meant aping seventh-century Arabia.

Salafism's most influential writer was Sayyid Qutb. He was born in 1906 in the unfortunately named Egyptian village called Mush. His family was poor. So poor, in fact, that family members were unable to afford the extra vowel necessary to make their last name pronounceable. Sayyid was an ambitious guy, though. He got through school and got a good job with the Egyptian government. But a work-related stint in the U.S. from 1948 through 1951 seems to have triggered his radicalism. He returned to Egypt an angry man. He was angry about American decadence and our sinfulness.

He supposedly referred to American churches as "entertainment centers and sexual playgrounds." (If only that was true, I'd be at church right now instead of writing this.) He was also angry with Muslims for accepting their corrupt, secular, Westernized rulers. In his writings, he envisioned a reawakened, fundamentalist community that would fight anywhere and everywhere to re-establish the Islamic state as it existed in Muhammed's time. Qutb was executed by the Egyptian government in 1966, but his vision lives on in bin Laden's form.