Libya: A Controversy Around an Anti-Ibadi Fatwa

Libya has multiple governments and as such it has multiple poles of would-be official religious authority. One such body is the Supreme Committee for Issuing Fatwas (Al-Lajna al-‘Ulya li-l-Ifta’) connected to the Libyan Interim Government. That government is based in the northeastern city Al-Bayda and is associated with Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Committee kicked off a tremendous controversy by issuing a fatwa (Arabic) that denounces the Ibadis, a non-Sunni, non-Shi’i Muslim sect prevalent in Oman and with a small but significant presence in parts of North and East Africa. The fatwa comes in response to a question about the permissibility of praying behind an Ibadi imam – effectively, a question about whether Ibadis should be considered genuine Muslims or not. The response reads, “Ibadism is a deviant, misguided sect. They are Kharijite Batinists. They hold infidel beliefs, such as their belief that the Qur’an is a created object, and their belief in denying that we will see [God in Paradise], so do not pray behind them and don’t esteem them.”

For context, “Kharijites” is a pejorative term that can refer to a specific early Islamic sect but that also can be used widely as a term of abuse. Describing the intricacies of the historical relationships between Ibadism and Kharijism is, I think, a task best left to specialists, so I won’t attempt it here. “Batinism,” meanwhile, is used here as a pejorative term meaning people who claim to see hidden messages in the Qur’an.

Turning back to the fatwa’s reception, negative reactions came immediately from Libyan Amazigh/Bergers, who saw the fatwa not just as a religious provocation but an ethnic one. Ibadism is sometimes associated with the Amazigh in Libya and vice versa. The Amazigh Supreme Council called the fatwa “a direct incitement for a genocide of the Amazigh people in Libya.” (Read a little background on the Ibadis in Libya here.)

Another negative reaction came from a rival governmental religious body, the Dar al-Ifta’ (House of Issuing Fatwas), whose legal status under the Government of National Accord is now somewhat unclear (it’s been reportedly shut down, but it’s still issuing statements). Although the Dar al-Ifta’ and Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Gharyani have a reputation in many quarters as divisive and even extremist, in this context the Dar al-Ifta’ presented itself as a non-sectarian force working for Libyan unity. In a statement (Arabic), Dar al-Ifta’ denounced the “sectarian chaos that simple-minded idiots and youngsters are trying to ignite among the Muslim citizenry.” (See also here.)

Other Libyan commentators have seen the fatwa as evidence of creeping Salafism/Wahhabism (Arabic) in Libya – for all that the eastern Libyan government and the forces of Haftar are often seen as anti-Islamist and even “secular,” there is a strong Salafi influence on those bodies.

Those are just a few of the reactions in an ongoing domestic controversy. It will be interesting to see whether the pressure and criticism elicit any changes on the part of the Supreme Committee or the eastern government.

My Latest Journal Article: “Salafis and the Prophet’s Sermon of Necessity”

The Islamic studies journal Die Welt des Islams has published my latest academic article, entitled “Coded Language Among Muslim Activists: Salafis and the Prophet’s Sermon of Necessity.” The abstract is available here; the full article is paywalled. The article deals with a short text called the Sermon of Necessity that Salafis around the world use to introduce their lectures, sermons, and books. The text’s widespread use speaks to the enduring influence of Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (1914-1999), one of the luminaries of contemporary Salafism. Al-Albani popularized the Sermon of Necessity starting in the 1950s. One interesting thing about the Sermon’s use is that even though al-Albani is widely classified as a “quietist” by Western scholars, today one can find the Sermon being used by both jihadi and non-jihadi Salafis. That makes it a kind of unifying tool for Salafis, despite their many internal political divisions. That also makes it a useful tool for scholars, including in the ongoing effort to decide when Salafism really became a cohesive movement.

In a way, the article is an outgrowth of my book Salafism in Nigeria; I first got interested in the Sermon of Necessity after I noticed many Nigerian preachers using it. The article, however, only deals with Nigeria briefly and is more focused on developments in the Arab world.

If you are able to access the article, I welcome any feedback you may have.

A Few Posts Related to My Book “Salafism in Nigeria”

In September, Cambridge University Press published my first book, which is called Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching and Politics. I haven’t written much about the book here on the blog, but I have written a few posts elsewhere that deal with issues covered in the book. The most recent post is a conceptual “introduction” to the book, which went up at the Social Science Research Council’s The Immanent Frame blog yesterday. That post deals with the idea of “canon” – the main argument of the book is that Salafism, in Nigeria and around the world, is animated by a canon of texts that includes not just the Qur’an and the hadith literature, but also a great deal of relatively recent material.

Other posts related to the book include:

  • A post outlining part of the history of (non-jihadi) Salafism in Nigeria, published at the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa in Transition blog
  • A post on Saudi Arabia’s influence in Nigeria, published in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog
  • A post discussing the Salafi-jihadi thinker Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s influence on Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf, published at Jihadica

I’m hoping to write a bit more here on the blog about the book soon, but these posts treat some of the key themes in the book.

Nigeria and the Islamic University of Medina’s Dawra: An Interesting Anecdote

Last week, while doing a quick Google search to confirm the life dates of Umar Fallata (see below, I came across this obituary for the Nigerian Muslim religious leader Isa Waziri (1925-2013). The obituary contains an interesting anecdote about the dawra (tour), a kind of educational and recruitment initiative by Saudi Arabia’s Islamic University of Medina. The dawra, as I discuss in my book, was a key mechanism for recruiting Nigerian students to Medina; worldwide, Nigeria was one of the countries where the University conducted the most tours. The dawra was a key early step in the careers of several prominent Nigerian Salafis.

But as the anecdote makes clear, the Saudi and African scholars who ran the dawra took pains to make sure that it was not just a Salafi affair:

I saw one great quality with Shaikh Isa Waziri around 1994 during the annual Dawra, which is a course for Arabic teachers organized by the Islamic University of Madina under the leadership of Shaikh Abdalla Zarban Al-Ghamidi.  A dinner was organized at Da’awah Group of Nigeria in which almost all the Islamic Scholars in Kano were present. Equally present at the dinner was late Shaikh Umar Fallata, a highly respected Islamic scholar who teaches in the Mosque of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

It was an interesting event, because despite all the differences between Izala and Tariqa, many prominent Islamic scholars from Tijjaniyya, Qadiriyya, and Izala were present. But one thing you cannot miss during the dinner was that Shaikh Isa Waziri was the rallying point among these scholars, some of whom do not get along publically. On that day, I saw some wonders, because some of the scholars that members of the public thought would look away when they meet each other were so respectful of one another. You wouldn’t be completely wrong if you suggest that sometimes our scholars dribble the followership.

Not only was Waziri a prominent shaykh from the Tijaniyya Sufi order, but the dinner included figures from both the Tijaniyya and the Qadiriyya, the two most prominent Sufi orders in northern Nigeria. This is not to say that there are no tensions between Salafis, who are often vehemently anti-Sufi, and Sufis – it would have been quite fascinating to attend that dinner! – but it is to say that sometimes stereotypes don’t hold true. Moreover, as the author of the obituary points out, sometimes public hostility can give way to private cordiality.

The anecdote raises two other points:

  1. African scholars who took up residence in Saudi Arabia and became part of the Saudi Arabian religious establishment also, often, became key links between Saudi Arabia and Africa. One can see that in the case of this anecdote and Umar Fallata. The best English-language source on Fallata is Chanfi Ahmed’s 2015 book on West African scholars in the Hijaz. See also here (Arabic) for an official Saudi Arabian biography.
  2. I think a lot about the idea of a “fragmentation of sacred authority” in the Muslim world (see here and here). That’s on display in this anecdote too, as the author of the obituary argues that no scholar in northern Nigeria today can play the unifying role of someone such as Waziri. No one wants to fall prey to a distorting nostalgia about the past – it’s not like there were no intra-Muslim conflicts during the twentieth century! – but it does seem like the Muslim world, and various Muslim communities, are much more internally fragmented than they were even a generation ago.

Guest Post on Salafism in Nigeria for CFR

Today’s post is outsourced to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa in Transition blog, which is authored by former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell. In my guest post there last week, I wrote about “Salafism in Northern Nigeria Beyond Boko Haram” – a summary, of sorts, of my recent book.

If you read the post, I welcome your thoughts here in the comments section.

On Salafism and Terrorism in Mali: A Response to the Monkey Cage

On November 20, a team of gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako, taking hostages and killing twenty people. The tragedy reflects the complex aftermath of Mali’s 2012-2013 civil war, which was centered in the northern part of the country, but which has left in its wake a nationwide terrorism problem.

There has been much helpful commentary on the attack, and there has been some unhelpful commentary. In the latter category is a piece published on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, entitled “After this month’s attack in Bamako, what do we know about fundamentalist Islam in Mali?” The author, a University of Florida political scientist named Sebastian Elischer, unfairly links some non-violent Malian Muslim political activists to terrorism. By “fundamentalism,” Elischer means Salafism, a literalist form of Sunni Islam.

Elischer’s argument is politically dangerous. He writes in the context of a wider environment in which many observers assume that Salafism, a theological position, predisposes its adherents to jihadism, a form of violent politics. This assumption is wrong: as Jacob Olidort has pointed out, if the hundreds of thousands of non-violent Salafis around the world “were involved in forming political parties or in direct violent activity, the world would look very different” (p. 4, footnote 1).

The fact that the majority of Salafis reject jihadism has been largely ignored amid the media’s and the terror-ology industry’s constant equations of Muslim activism with violence. This environment makes it easy for various governments to justify crackdowns against a wide swath of activists, regardless of whether or not they are involved in violent jihad. This environment also distorts Western policymakers’ understandings of the roots of jihadism and terrorism. The current and naïve framework of “countering violent extremism” has yielded many failures, and these failures stem in part from the assumption that the “wrong beliefs” are the main factor in people’s embrace of violence.

Elischer, of course, denies that he is engaging in guilt by association. But listen to the language he uses:

The political Salafists in Bamako are not behind the recent attacks on the Radisson. But they provide an ideology that opposes democracy and secularism — two major achievements of Mali’s political trajectory in the past two decades. Nonetheless, the international community should note that the forces seeking to destabilize Mali are not just isolated in far-flung northern regions but are actually not that far from the presidential palace.

Let us pause briefly here to ask how one ought to explain the Radisson Blu attack. First, one should start by elaborating the histories and agendas of the groups that have claimed responsibility and have previously been involved in violence. One should then contextualize these groups’ violence within the broader history of politics and conflict in Mali during the colonial and post-colonial periods, with particular emphasis on the period 2011-present. One should also make appropriate reference to how the aftermath of Algeria’s “Black Decade” of the 1990s has affected Mali, especially in terms of the spillover of Algerian-led jihadist groups into northern Mali and their long-term efforts to implant themselves in local communities there. In his effort to link southern Salafis to terrorism, Elischer skims over or neglects the relevant history.

The villain in Elischer’s piece is Mahmoud Dicko, a southern Salafi cleric who serves as president of Mali’s High Islamic Council. Dicko is a major Malian public figure who is, by all accounts, uninvolved in jihadist activity – and who has publicly condemned the Radisson attack. In Elischer’s eyes, however, Dicko’s political activities are anti-democratic and “destabilizing.”

Dicko is not going to be any Western policymaker, academic, or human rights activist’s ideal of a “moderate Muslim.” Dicko linked the Radisson attack, for example, to what he calls the Western world’s “promotion of homosexuality.” Dicko envisions and works toward a Mali that is religiously and socially conservative.

But are Dicko’s actions anti-democratic? Elischer writes that Dicko and his camp seek “to impose fundamentalist Islamic beliefs on society by asserting a role in the political sphere.” Doesn’t everyone who participates in politics seek to impose some kind of belief system on their society? In a U.S. context, I want everyone to have free medical care, housing, and a minimum income – and if I can help get politicians elected who support those views, then I am willing to have that system “imposed” on voters who disagree with it. That’s how politics works: even in a democracy, some people don’t get their way.

The issue raised by people like Dicko is what happens when democratic contexts coincide with mobilization in the name of illiberal values. What happens, in other words, when a group of Malian Muslims mobilizes to protest a family code that would give greater rights to women, as happened in 2009? Dicko helped lead a campaign that pressured former President Amadou Toumani Toure to back down and amend the proposed code in a more conservative direction, in line with the wishes of Dicko and others. Such changes, however, were accomplished without significant violence. Arguably, that’s just democracy in action – but for Elischer, all of Dicko’s political actions constitute an inappropriate fusion of religion and politics, a form of “intimidation” against the government, and/or a nefarious “influence” over elected officials and civil servants.

Worth adding, too, is that Dicko is not the only proponent of social conservatism in Mali. Does anyone think that Sufi shaykhs in Mali, or post-Sufi media stars like Shaykh Cherif Haidara, are going to be lining up to advocate for the rights of homosexuals in Mali? Dicko and the Salafis, after all, were far from the only voices arguing against the more liberal family code. And if we’re talking about threats to democracy in Mali, then surely the politicians who steal public money, the junior army officers who staged a coup in 2012, to say nothing of the northern jihadists and separatists, deserve some mention. With secularism, finally, one might ask whether Mali must remain beholden to the version of secularism it inherited from France, or whether the country’s vast Muslim majority has some right to reimagine the relationship of religion and politics in their country.

Elischer’s own orientation, ironically, is nakedly anti-liberal. In his recent article for African Affairs, he suggests that the state of Islamic affairs was better in Sahelian countries like Niger during the 1970s and 1980s, when an alliance of military rulers and Sufi shaykhs could more tightly regulate the religious sphere. Elischer implies that the free of exchange of ideas – allowing Salafis to compete for political and social influence – is inherently dangerous and “destabilizing.” Some societies, we hear, need top-down control and a class of state-appointed “good Muslims” to keep the “bad Muslims” in check.

The ultimate problem with Elischer’s analysis of Salafism is this implicit “good Muslim, bad Muslim” dichotomy. His approach to Salafism is too simple. In his Monkey Cage piece and elsewhere, he relies on an outdated typology of Salafis from 2006, which classifies Salafis into “purists/quietists” (allegedly apolitical preachers oriented toward moral reform), “politicos” (politically engaged preachers), and “jihadis.” As I told Elischer in person at the fall 2015 meeting of the American Political Science Association, recent work has challenged this typology, showing that “purists” participate in politics, that “jihadis” can be “quietists,” and that it’s tricky to assess how theology might inform violence.

Nevertheless, the tripartite typology persists. Elischer invokes it to suggest that Salafis exist along a spectrum from quietism to jihadism, and that the more they participate in politics, the closer they move to jihadism. The case of Dicko should show why that’s too simple: Dicko participates in politics a lot, but he condemns jihadism and in no way seems to be veering toward terrorism. For Elischer and others who are suspicious of all Salafis, however, Salafis’ political behavior will always be interpreted as inherently suspect. In this worldview, other actors participate in politics with integrity, but the Salafis enter politics with the end goal of undermining democracy. If one holds Salafis to be inherently anti-democratic, then they can never prove their democratic bonafides – they will always be asked to defend themselves from the claim that they are potential terrorists.

In this, Elischer’s analysis echoes a wider claim echoed across various media outlets. It is not just Salafis, but all Muslims, who face intensive scrutiny about their relationship to violence. I commend Omid Safi’s question to the reader, “I wonder what [that relentless scrutiny] says about our preconceived notion of a majority of Muslims worldwide secretly being complicit regardless of what they do, regardless of what they say, and regardless of how many of their leading scholars, imams, and experts are denouncing the practices of ISIS” – or any terrorist group.

Returning to Mali, how are policymakers supposed to act on Elischer’s analysis? The “international community” is supposed to “note” the “destabilizing” influence of Dicko and other Salafis in southern Mali. Then what? Demand that Malian politicians repudiate Dicko? Seek to influence elections to the High Islamic Council? Advocate for the arrest of non-violent Salafi preachers? Elevate Sufi Muslims and empower them to marginalize Salafis within Malian institutions and public life? Would any of those actions make it less likely that jihadist groups would storm hotels in Bamako? Or would this kind of suspicion of non-violent Salafis make it even harder to resolve Mali’s many interlocking crises?

Analysts and policymakers desperately need more complicated maps of the religious and political terrain of the Sahel. Nearly a decade into my thinking about the region, I realize how little I understand. But I do believe that “good Muslim/bad Muslim” dichotomies serve everyone poorly, and can have dangerous and unintended consequences when applied in policy.

Article on Salafism and Media in Nigeria

This summer is proving to be a season when some of my academic projects are coming out. Earlier this month, Islamic Africa published an article I wrote about figures I call “mainstream Salafis” in Nigeria – i.e., shaykhs who do not belong to Boko Haram, and in fact reject the movement. The article for Islamic Africa discussed how mainstream Salafis find themselves in an awkward position as they become targets of violence by Boko Haram, and objects of suspicion from the state.

Recently, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion published another article of mine. This piece deals with a similar group, but the focus is on how mainstream Salafis use electronic media, especially radio and recorded lectures. It’s called “The Salafi Ideal of Electronic Media as an Intellectual Meritocracy in Kano, Nigeria.” The piece argues, in part, that Salafis strategically use electronic media to level the playing field against religious rivals who have greater institutional power. This latter article has very little to do with Boko Haram, except perhaps for context regarding the media landscape in northern Nigeria.

One point I hope readers will take from both articles is that Boko Haram is not the only story in northern Nigeria. In fact, the Boko Haram story has distracted attention away from other, equally consequential topics. Muslim religious authority in northern Nigeria is being contested and reshaped through channels other than violence – and if one pays attention only to the violence, one will miss broader and perhaps ultimately more far-reaching changes.

The JAAR article is, for now, available for free at the journal’s website. It will at some point, hopefully this year, appear in print as well. If you read it, I  welcome any comments you might have.