Recurring Definitional Issues Surrounding Salafism, or Why Analysts Are Too Quick to Equate Salafism with Early Islam

A quotation:

[Part of faith is] that the best of generations is the generation who saw the Messenger of God (SAW) and believed in him, then those who followed them, then those who followed them. The best of the Companions are the Orthodox, Rightly Guided Caliphs: Abu Bakr, then ‘Umar, then ‘Uthman, then ‘Ali, may God be pleased with them all. None of the Companions of the Messenger should be mentioned except in the best way, refraining [from mentioning] the [quarrels] that broke out between them…

[And another part of faith is] obedience to the imams of the Muslims among the people in charge, and their scholars, and the followers of al-salaf al-salih (the pious predecessors), imitating their traces and seeking forgiveness for them, and leaving off quarrel and controversy in religion, and leaving all that the innovators have innovated.

Salafism, right? Not in the way I define it. This is quotation from the Risala (Epistle) of ‘Abd Allah Ibn Abdi Zayd al-Qayrawani (d. 996). The Risala is one of the foundational texts of the Maliki school of Islamic law. From Mauritania to Nigeria and likely further, almost any classically trained scholar you meet (and not a few of the Salafis, I should add) has read this book. It belongs, at least in its usual context, to a tradition that blends the Maliki school with Sufism – and let us recall that Salafis often consider Sufis to be dubious Muslims at best, heretics at worst, and that many Salafis say that they do not follow any legal school, instead depending solely on the Qur’an and the Sunna.

I bring all this up because far too many analysts are quick to define Salafism as an effort to return to original Islam. Two recent examples:

  • A RAND analyst, discussing Libya: “Salafi-jihadis and traditionalist Madkhalis may share ultra-conservative views, such as strictly applying Shariՙa law in everyday life, morally policing the public sphere, and returning Islam to its purist [sic?] form, during and immediately following the life of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.”
  • CSIS’ big (and flawed) report on Salafi-jihadism (p. 4): “First, the group or individual emphasizes the importance of returning to a ‘pure’ Islam, that of the Salaf, the pious ancestors.” CSIS also counts the Taliban (Deobandi by orientation, rather than Salafis) as Salafis based on this minimal definition (p. 5): “Deobandism follows a Salafist model and seeks to emulate the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad It holds that a Muslim’s primary obligation and loyalty are to his religion, and loyalty to country is always secondary.”

Such analysts are way too quick to take Salafis’ claims at face value – and they also evidence little knowledge of how other kinds of Muslims talk about the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. Most Muslims are at least nominally committed to imitating the Prophet and his Companions and avoiding “blameworthy innovations” in the religion. The important question when defining Salafism is not whether Salafis are more committed to this project than are other Muslims, but rather how/what Salafis understand the early community to have been, and how that understanding furnishes a model for action in the present. Put differently, there are a lot of Sufi Malikis in northwest Africa today who “share ultra-conservative views, such as strictly applying Shariՙa law in everyday life, morally policing the public sphere, and returning Islam to its purist [again, sic?] form, during and immediately following the life of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.”

Now, some Salafis today are keen to reach into the past and claim figures such as al-Qayrawani as a Salafi of sorts. The Nigerian Salafi/proto-Salafi Abubakar Gumi (1924-1992) said that the Risala was one of his favorite books. But even if you, the analyst, said, “The Risala is Salafism” (I think you would be wrong, but nevermind), you would still have to confront the sociological fact that thousands of non-Salafis read, study, even memorize this book, and take what it says very seriously.

So take a little more time when you define Salafism, so that you don’t sound like you’re implicitly labeling them the most authentic Muslims.

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Three Recent(ish) Articles on the Death of Yahya Abu al-Hammam

Last month I wrote about the reported death of Yahya Abu al-Hammam, a key field commander and senior official for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and, at the time of his death, the number two in Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). I wanted to flag three other pieces (all in French) for readers who are particularly interested in this issue:

  • RFI gives a readout of an audio message from Malian national and (ex-?) jihadist Sidan ag Hitta, wherein he says that Abu al-Hammam is indeed dead. A bit of background on ag Hitta can be found here, but the story has many twists and turns. Telling which jihadists are alive and which are dead is trickier than ever, as anyone following Amadou Kouffa’s saga knows.
  • Kibaru, citing anonymous sources, gives interesting if difficult-to-confirm details about the end of Abu al-Hammam’s life. That article goes on to speculate a bit about the future of AQIM and JNIM, and also gives a good overview of Abu al-Hammam’s jihadist career in Mali and Mauritania.
  • Libération puts Abu al-Hammam’s life and death in a wider context of politics, violence, and Mali’s overall trajectory.

Some Symbolism Behind New Street Names in Nouakchott

In Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, the municipal authorities in Tevragh Zeina, a large and relatively upscale neighborhood, have decided to rename several major streets. Charles de Gaulle Avenue becomes Al-‘Allama al-Hajj ‘Umar Tall Avenue, John Kennedy Avenue becomes Al-‘Allama Buddah Ould al-Busayri Avenue, and Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir Avenue becomes National Unity Avenue.

At least to me, the symbolism reads as the replacement of foreign, decolonization-era figures with regional/local Islamic leaders. ‘Umar Tall (d. 1864) was a leader within the Tijaniyya Sufi order, and the architect of a pre-colonial jihad state extending deep into present-day central and northern Mali. He is the subject of a great deal of Western scholarship, including by David Robinson. Tall, significantly, was ethnically Toucouleur, rather than Arab, and it is possible to see this street renaming as a gesture toward the idea/hope  of Islam as a basis for racial unity in Mauritania.

Buddah Ould al-Busayri (1920-2009) is actually the topic of my next book project (so perhaps I’m on the right track, research-wise!). He was imam of Nouakchott and mufti of Mauritanian throughout much of the postcolonial period, and acted as a kind of “papal” figure (somewhat similar to Stéphane Lacroix’s depiction of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Baz in Saudi Arabia) during a period of rising Islamic/Islamist activism in the 1970s and after.

Are these renaming a form of decolonization? I’m not sure. But it’s interesting that figures such as de Gaulle, JFK, and ‘Abd al-Nasir have lost some of their resonance, perhaps above all for younger generations born long after the independence era.

 

“Africa Past & Present” Podcast Episode on Boko Haram

I was up at Michigan State University last week for a classroom discussion (on Salafism in Nigeria, my first book) and a talk on Boko Haram (i.e., my second book and also some ongoing research). MSU has a fantastic African Studies community, including my host, Prof. Mara Leichtman, whose book examines the Shi’a in Senegal. At MSU I also had the opportunity to go on the Africa Past & Present podcast with Prof. Peter Alegi. The episode has now been posted here.

Problematic Framings from the NYT and WSJ on Terrorism and Counterterrorism in West Africa

Recently, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal wrote articles with remarkably similar headlines:

  • NYT: “Where Terrorism Is Rising in Africa and the U.S. Is Leaving”
  • WSJ: “In West Africa, Violent Extremism Spreads as U.S. Trims Military Footprint”

The words “and” and “as” are doing a lot of work in these headlines – more work than should be asked of these poor conjunctions. I know, I know, you’re never supposed to ascribe intentionality to anyone, but it looks to me as though the headline writers wanted to (a) lead readers to think that “as” means “because,” but also (b) preserve plausible deniability for when people call them on their bullshit.

In any case, Nathaniel Powell took the words right out of mouth:

There’s a lot going on with these articles, but one thing that’s clearly going on is that some American journalists went to an annual U.S. military training exercise called Flintlock. The exercise rotates among Sahelian countries, and this year the main portion of Flintlock was held in Burkina Faso. The WSJ, to their credit, is more upfront about the ways that Flintlock informed their reporting; the WSJ article leads with a description of Flintlock. The NYT is less clear about this, not mentioning Flintlock until the ninth paragraph of their story.  The NYT buries the context and presents the article as a savvy description of long-term trends – rather than, say, a readout of a few days in Burkina Faso and a handful of interviews with Nigerian special forces officers, the head of US Special Operations Command Africa, and a few think tankers and NGOers. (The NYT and the WSJ, I should add, interviewed a lot of the same people, including the Nigerian special forces colonel who gets a prominent role in both articles.)

Some of the quotes from think tankers, moreover, implicitly contradict the framing of the NYT article. Here are Jean-Hervé Jezequel and Alice Friend, both of whom I respect a ton, quoted in the NYT:

Military analysts and human rights groups cited three main reasons for the spiraling violence in Burkina Faso and its neighbors: French-led counterterrorism operations in Mali have pushed the problem south, into Burkina Faso. Armed Islamic militants have effectively exploited grievances among local populations. Abuses by security forces have fueled jihadist recruiting.

“These are a series of small rural insurgencies that are spreading,” said Jean-Hervé Jezequel, director of the International Crisis Group’s Sahel project in Dakar, Senegal.

[…]

Military officials and independent analysts stressed that American and other Western military aid may at best buy time for African allies to address poverty, lack of education, government corruption and other grievances that extremist groups seek to exploit.

“There are no fully military solutions here, just holding actions,” said Alice Hunt Friend, a former top Pentagon official for Africa and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

So the analysts themselves are saying (a) any real or imagined U.S. drawdown is not a top-tier cause of spreading militancy, and (b) you can’t solve all this with more guns and training.

Another well-informed response to the NYT came from Peter Dörrie:

In other words, the NYT has really confused some issues regarding causality. The situation in the Sahel is bad. The situation in Burkina Faso is very bad. But the view of the world where American military deployments are the only thing standing in the way of rising jihadist tides is just fundamentally wrong. That worldview is, moreover, politically convenient for politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers in Washington, Stuttgart, Niamey, and beyond. The NYT could’ve done more here to question such narratives.

A Cabinet and Military Reshuffle in Burkina Faso [Updated]

On January 19, the cabinet of Burkina Faso stepped down, including Prime Minister Paul Kaba Thieba after three years of service. The country’s security crisis seems to have been the trigger. A new prime minister, Christophe Joseph Marie Dabiré, soon took over. According to his official biography, Dabiré served in senior positions under both Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré, and was a deputy in the National Assembly from 1997-2007. A new government was announced on January 24, and it contained familiar faces from Burkinabé politics, with several key ministers (Alpha Barry at Foreign Affairs, René Bagoro at Justice) keeping all or most of their previous portfolios.

A military reshuffle soon followed (more details here), with some of the most important changes and promotions affecting the Armée de Terre and its three military regions.

Here, then, are some key civilian and military members of the reconstituted national security team:

  • Minister of Defense: Chérif Sy, former president of Burkina Faso’s transitional parliament. (Read more on the challenges he faces here, and an old but useful biography can be found here.)
  • Minister of Security: Ousséni Compaoré, longtime United Nations official and commander of Burkina Faso’s gendarmerie during the 2014 revolution, retired gendarme (according to some sources, head of the gendarmerie under Sankara, or at least high up in the gendarmerie), and in any case a close ally of Sankara.
  • Chief of Staff of the Armée de Terre: Colonel Gilles Bationo, former commander of the first military region (replacing Léon Traoré – read a bit more about the handover here; one interesting detail is that Bationo reportedly speaks both English and Arabic).
  • Head of the first military region: Colonel Yves Patrick Ouédraogo (some biographical details available here).
  • Head of the second military region: Colonel Adam Néré (short biography here).
  • Head of the third military region: Colonel Moussa Diallo (read a bit on his background here). [UPDATE]: Apparently there are two Colonel Moussa Diallos, and this one is different than the figure profiled at the link.

In terms of patterns, it’s tempting to say that within both the cabinet and the military, President Roch Kaboré had an eye out for not just his own men, but also Sankara loyalists, some of whom had opposed Compaoré. But I would need to dig a bit deeper into the bios to confirm that hunch.

Mali: Alghabass ag Intalla’s Comments on the “Sharia in Kidal” Affair

If you’re not familiar with the background about the recent dispute between the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and Malian authorities concerning the CMA’s 30 January declaration of new regulations for Kidal, then start here.

Now that the CMA has (partly?) walked back the regulations, CMA President Alghabass ag Intalla gave an interesting interview to the Malian newspaper 22 Septembre. Three quick points:

  1. Whereas the CMA’s 30 January declaration only implicitly referenced the 2015 Algiers Accord and its provisions concerning the empowerment of Qadis/Cadis/Islamic judges in northern Mali, here ag Intalla explicitly references that part of the Accord. He emphasized that the CMA remains committed to implementing and observing the Accord.
  2. Ag Intalla expresses considerable concern about artisanal gold mining in Kidal and how it brings foreigners (i.e., from West African countries) to the region. Conflicts between authorities and gold miners are now occurring in parts of the Sahel from Mali to Chad, so it’s an important trend to watch. New patterns of human movement connected to gold mining make a lot of people nervous – and/or provide a pretext for authorities and would-be authorities to assert greater control.
  3. Whereas the CMA’s critics see the regulations as undermining and challenging state authority, ag Intalla explains them as a response to the state’s absence. Viewed from a certain vantage point, this starts to look like a chicken and egg problem. On the other hand, one could argue that the state is weak/absent in Kidal in large part because the CMA has blocked and discouraged state efforts to reassert control.