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What is a (French) Salafist?

What is a (French) Salafist?
02.11.2011 •  France
Almost a third of the 12.000 French Salafists are Catholic or Protestant converts. Following the precepts of theologians from Saudi Arabia, they wear a beard and the djellaba of the Prophet Muhammad. Whether or not they are terrorists, they are certain to go to Heaven.




1. The clothes make the Salafist
Most often a Salafist has a beard, a skullcap, and a qamis (djellaba) which ends above the ankle like at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (7th century). His outfit aims to re-establish a link with the founding principles of the original Islam.
Salafist women wear the jilbab, an ample veil with large armholes, of a dark colour, which leaves the face visible, or the niqab which only reveals the eyes, or the sitar which allows them to see without being seen. They can add accessories from big brands, belt, bag and shoes. To wear Chanel or Dior products is not in contradiction with the religious they defend.
Incidentally, the ‘Salafist fashion’ is responsible for some streetwear clothing lines like Billal Wear, which offer a hybrid look combining traditional Islamic outfit with Americanized hip hop clothing of the suburbs (trainers and jeans which reveal the ankle).

2. A real Muslim is Salafist
A Salafist can be considered an extremely orthodox Muslim. A Muslim who considers Islam has to regulate all behaviour, whether sacred or profane. He has a literal approach concerning the Quranic verses. He thinks the Quran must be understood and enforced to a tee.
The teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abd al Wahhab, an eighteenth-century theologian who tried to revitalize the Islam of the origins and who dominates Salafism, constitute the official doctrine of Saudi Arabia today.
Among the Muslims of the world, Salafists represent a minority, but an active minority. However, more and more Muslims judge their religious practices in relation to Salafi Islam. The latter is on the way to becoming the worldwide Islamic norm.

3. One is not born a Salafist, one becomes one.
One becomes Salafist of his own freewill, without any pressure from a guru, because one thinks it is the purest path, the one which embodies Muslim orthodoxy and that guarantees a spot in Heaven. There is no father to son transmission since European Salafists aged between 18 and 35 are a new phenomenon.
The person is not brain washed; he internalizes the fact Salafism is a legitimate religious norm and convinces himself on a voluntary basis. As long as he does a minimum (go to prayer, meetings, dress like a Salafist, etc) he is adopted by the group.
Becoming Salafist is a way for some young Arabs of refusing the alternative ‘shav or the assimilated type like Rachida Dati’. They rediscover a sense of pride and a new identity. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have tainted the image of Islam and Salafism in public opinion but have enhanced their prestige in working class neighbourhoods which see it as their ‘pay back’ since Salafism is feared.
In France, the Salafi movement includes a quarter to a third of converts from Catholic and Protestant circles: French natives, people from the French Caribbean, Congolese, Zairian. These converts are often the most radical because they have to ‘compensate’ for a life which has not been Muslim until then.

4. Salafism and terrorism go hand in hand
All the jihadists (al-Qaida and cie) are Salafists, but not all Salafists are jihadists.
Salafists are not necessarily violent. There are even branches of Salafists who unanimously condemn violence. Pacific Salafists for example, who have a legalistic approach and who follow the Western legal system even when a norm contravenes a religious principle. Thus, pacific Salafists called for Western Muslims who wear a veil to take it off if the law requires it.
After the 9/11 attacks, the pacific Salafists condemned all forms of political violence and terrorist acts. Some even urge European Muslims to collaborate with the security forces in order to denounce a person or an organisation wanting to commit a terrorist act.
A small minority of Salafists has a revolutionary understanding of Islam which makes the use of violence legitimate. The jihadist Salafist sees himself as ‘the good guy’ fighting for a just cause, the instauration of an Islamic state which will herald the advent of God’s justice on earth.
Since 11 September 2001 in New York, all the attempts of attacks have been avoided – except in 2004 in London and 2005 in Madrid. In London, the level of tolerance towards Salafists is higher than in France. Over here, the public authorities are helped by most of the imams who head the mosques and who prevent sermons which are too violent from being pronounced. Furthermore, the French secret service is doing a remarkable job of infiltrating Salafi circles, especially in prison.

5. Salafists are stern and fight for a more equal social order
Salafists have an easy relationship with money and personal success. Ideologically and economically, Salafists are closer to the Medef than the CFDT and run all sorts of commercial activities.
Material success is a way for them to fulfil themselves. Salafists are crazy about technology, the latest car, or sophisticated computers… Openly against the West, Salafists defend, often in spite of themselves, the Western consumerist model as well as individualism.
A Salafist can put his money in a Western bank, but not in a savings account because usury is forbidden for him and he follows the rules of Islamic finance as they were defined by Saudi theologians. If a Salafist is successful in business, he sees it as revenge from this West which criticises him and a sign that he is chosen by God.
Salafists fight to Islamize the world, not for the emancipation of all.

6. A Salafist is automatically polygamous
Salafists defend polygamy in the name of men’s pleasure and the ‘protection’ of women. In reality, few are the Salafists that are actually polygamous. Often before the marriage, the betrothed’s family and the betrothed herself set down their conditions and can very well ask the future husband to give up polygamy.
For Salafists, the search for a wife or a husband is predefined by a whole set of rules. And it is the group to which a Salafist belongs which is responsible for finding him the right match. In general, a ‘sister’ who wears the jilbab and the niqab is the most popular choice.
Salafists in fact fear their ‘sisters’ from the Muslim Brotherhood quite a lot. One of them living in Montreuil explains it is out of the question for him to marry one of them: ‘She is going to nag me about studies and Tariq Ramadan, she will want to study and then work, there is no one more feminist than the girls from the Muslim Brotherhood, if I can choose I would rather marry Fadela Amara’, recounts Samir Amghar in his book.
For Salafists, you do not get married because you are in love, you get married because it is an act of adoration of God; it is half of faith according to the words of the Prophet. More and more Salafists also use community martial sites like Index Nikah to get married.
According to the Quran, divorce remains the least appreciated act as far as God is concerned, but Salafists do not hesitate to divorce if their partner does not correspond to their expectations. In keeping with the prophetic tradition, Salafists’ sexuality is very normative: the spouse must be a virgin, fellatio is forbidden and the only recommended position is the ‘classic’ position.
Nonetheless, Western Salafists come from a much freer environment; they surf the internet a lot  and go to bookshops full of books on marriage and sex. All of these things influence their sexuality; just like the very sexy lingerie which the young Salafi women are fond of wearing.

7.  No worse traitor than a Muslim Brother for a Salafist
Israel and the West constitute the number one menace in the eyes of the Salafists. Yet, they also consider some Muslims, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as opponents, suspected of wanting to destroy the unity of the Ummah and to pervert Islam.
Salafists accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of having added values such as democracy, foreign to the Muslim tradition, to the Islamic heritage, or of wanting to renovate Islam in accordance with Western modernity.
Thus, we can say that in spite of themselves, Salafists are defenders of secularism because they defend the idea that religion and politics should not be mixed! Salafists deem the Muslim Brotherhood’s concessions to constitute inacceptable changes to the reference which the Quran constitutes and the prophetic tradition.
In France, the preacher Tariq Ramadan linked with the Muslim Brotherhood is one of the Salafists’ favourite targets.
Nonetheless, there is a small current that agrees to get involved in politics when Islamic identity is questioned in the West. This current of Salafists, born and bred in the West, is also ready to negotiate their vote with the political representatives in order to lobby for Islamic identity to be better respected. In this case, Salafists become rivals of the Muslim Brotherhood since they share with the latter a strategy of entryism in politics and fight over the same customer base.

8. Salafists run the risk of losing out in the ‘Arab Spring’
At the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Committee of Senior Scholars of Saudi Arabia, supported by many Salafists in the West, stipulated in the name of social cohesion that it was forbidden to rebel against a regime.
In fact during all this time, the Salafists have de facto been the allies of Arab dictators. In Tunisia, Ben Ali’s regime had authorized many Salafists to preach when any other Islamic activism was banned. In Algeria, Bouteflika has favoured the development of pacific Salafism to counter Jihadi Salafism; he institutionalised and appointed as civil servants a number of people belonging to this trend, and Salafism has taken charge of the country’s re-islamization. In Cairo, the rise of Salafism has been and continues to be sponsored by Saudi Arabia that fears the competition of the Muslim Brotherhood.
By authorising Salafi preachers, the Arab governments kept a grip on the re-islamization of society and satisfied the religious aspirations of their populations, while also making sure that the return to Islam would not be accompanied by political demands of opposition.
Yet, with the Arab Spring and the fall of the dictators, the Salafists have lost their privileged position. It is the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey who should be the ones to benefit from the Arab Spring.

9. There is a Salafi danger in France
Estimated to 12.000 in 2010, with around thirty places of worship (Stains, Marseille, Lyon, Besançon…), Salafists fall into a sectarian logic. They do not mix so as not to be contaminated.
Therefore, they are not in a logic of confrontation with French authorities. In November 2005, a hundred Salafists would have been incarcerated as part of the fight against terrorism according to the numbers presented to the members of Parliament by the Minister of the Interior at the time, Nicholas Sarkozy.
We also witnessed the neutralization of a ‘Chechen’ network in the suburbs of Lyon and Paris in 2002, the dismantling of the Farid Benyettou group in the 19th arrondissement in January 2005, the identification or the arrest of volunteers gone to Iraq in 2005, as well as the deportation of Salafi imams, for the most part of Algerian descent, stemming from the Islamic Salvation Front.
Nevertheless, France constitutes a centre of the Salafist organisation in Europe.
‘The Salafi current works like a multinational of the religious, explains Samir Amghar. It is today and for the years to come a key actor in Islam in the West.’ But the sociologist notes ‘the more Salafists take root in the West, the more they become westernized and lose their eloquence.’ Consequently, ‘to attack them head on is to reinforce it; treating them like possible partners is the best way to contain them in order to bring about a chastened Salafism’, concludes Samir Amghar.
Ariane Bonzon
Translation: Suzanne Compagnon
Drawing: Damien Chavanat

Original French version:
C’est quoi un salafiste (français) ?


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