The Mostly Weird Ways of the Muslim Purists
Having read the recent Andrea Elliott article on Yasir Qadhi in the New York Times Magazine and the relationship of Salafism to jihad, I have to say my view on Salafi positions is starting to be that they are bizarre, divorced from geopolitical realities, a fringe on the Muslim spectrum of thought that is worth thinking about ONLY because some small minority within them seem to be the home for all too much terrorism conducted in Islam's name, thought provoking and relevant in no other way. I shall explain.
Let me first say it is something of an article of faith of mine not to discuss positions of people described in articles on the basis of what they are quoted as saying I'm not suggesting that misrpresentation has been done here of course, only that if you have a beef with what Yasir Qadhi says, it has to be based on what he has said in his own words, not what someone else, no matter how faithfully they seek to report it, has said about him. So this post isn't really about him at all.
But the article does raise generally, turning entirely away from Yasir Qadhi himself now, of what I understand to be the relevant Salafi position respecting the position of Muslims in America, one described in fuller detail in the voluminous erudite pieces by Andrew March on the subject, and the sort of slippage from that which ends in jihad. In very reductive summary, I would describe it as follows:
First, forget about offensive jihad for whatever reason you want to (many are raised). But Muslims are required to engage in defensive jihad when their lands are attacked and under occupation. Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel qualify, in fact no mainstream Muslim jurist would argue otherwise. However, if you are a Muslim in America, then you live by its laws and have effectively a treaty of nonaggression with it. You cannot attack it. The Iraqis have a duty to kill American soldiers pursuant to the Islamic rules of jihad. You, as American Muslims, do not, and in fact cannot under Islamic rules because you are here, in America living and practicing, preaching, etc your religion freely and that places you under social contract not to.
Perhaps the most common Prophetic example raised for this distinction was a person released from the custody of the Quraish just before the Quraish were ready to fight the Muslims in the battle of Badr. Asked by Muhammad what earned his release, he said it was a promise not to fight, and was then forbade from fighting, because it was a promise he made. But the fact that he couldn't fight didn't mean others could not, the battle still went on without him, the Muslims still won.
It is patently anti-jihad, let's be clear, at least for American Muslims. But only a truly slow person cannot see how easily one slides from that into Awlaki's war. The distinction made as between one group of Muslims and another is not a very natural one. In these circles, you're convinced all sorts of Muslims are under relentless attack by the U.S., they are attacking Muslim lands in a manner you think no reputable jurist would ever argue could be anything but justification for violence of an Islamic sort against the soldiers conducting it. But you don't get to stop your brothers from getting killed, because of a pact? It's a tenable distinction of course, one I understand the Salafis to be making, but one that is easy to slide away from and into terrorist violence because of a jump that at least at first glance appears counterinuitive.
I also understand what the article's themes are in that light--do you pursue people advocating such a posiiton aggressively even if they are nonviolent. Do you let them say and support their saying Iraqis are obligated to kill American soldiers but American Muslims are not? Doing that lets them articulate their position better and potentially dispute the terrorists who might otherwise arise. Not doing that helps spread a message that is dangerously close to it among American Muslims. I think it's tough. Not for me, If I heard in a Friday prayer here in Pittsburgh, where I go regularly now, the idea propounded that some group of Muslims should kill American soldiers, I'd leave disgusted and never return, and I'm glad no such thing has happened or even close (none of our speakers say anything close to this, they don't believe it). But who cares about me, I'm just some law professor. The issue is the person more prone to extremism than I am.
So it's an interesting matter.. Still, I wonder about how bizarre all of this is anyway, how remote this world from Muslim realities. Here's what you have to believe to make sense of this, at least as late as the end of 2009 when the Nigerian bomber blew up his underwear or whatever he did and this debate having been conducted for some time was apparently a matter of active ferment.
First, you cannot believe in the actual POLITICAL sovereignty of nation states at all. Whether you think that the Iraqi invasion was a noble venture to liberate a shackled people from their despicable tyrant or an act of aggression against a Muslim state that was not solicited and is an attack on their lands (same for Afghanistan, of course), the fact is that there is now a sovereign in those states with an agreement approved by a Parliament allowing US troops. It's a treaty now, the argument for the jihad would have died a long time ago. The jihad argument because of invasion of Muslim lands looks a little loopy by late 2009, three months before Iraq's THIRD national election. But then, that's easy, this sovereign is effectively America in sheep's clothing, the argument goes, so you make another jump. First, American Muslims can help their brethren resist the occupation of Muslim land , then the occupation includes the Muslim government itself, so you can bomb Iraqi soldiers and cops. Attacked much more and with much more force by these terrorist nutjobs than US soldiers. I think because much easier and just as legitimate in their eyes. While you're at it, Iraqi ministries also legitimate for the same reason.
Second, you have to more or less not believe in the right of the people to determine themselves pretty much anything. Iraq's sovereign is elected, which elections were broadly monitored, and in whcih all groups participated. It was an elected Parliament which approved the Status of Forces Agreement. So now it's looking even loopier. So my interlocutor Salafi, are you seriously saying that no Muslim jurist would disagree with the position that the Iraqi Parliament, elected by Iraqis with the full support of Iraq's clergy, Sunni and Shi'i (Sunni Boycott led by a clerical association was once, about seven years ago, and never repeated), has a right to permit American trooops on its soil? Because it's occupation? Of who?
So you need another step to make this make any sense at all. Now it's not just the sovereign government you can attack, it's also the Iraqis themselves. Now you can't sensible blame all of them, even if the Parliamentary vote had ALL relevant factions there voting in favor, except the Sadrists, so you make it theological. It's the damn Shi'a, well they can't be expected to do the jihad thing properly, they're heretics, and so they must be the reason there is this elected body doing this thing that approves of an occupation that every right thinking Muslim must do. So you attack a Shi'a market, or a Shi'a religious procession.
And before you know it, you've got a guy leaving his house in Connecticut or somewhere to go off to Iraq to resist an occupation of Muslim land by blowing himself up in a tent of indigent Shi'a pilgrims eating rice and beans on their way to a mosque.
And while we're on it, what about Libya? Is THAT also now aggression against Muslim land? Are Libyans now obligated to unite against the Western occupier? Why not? Because they want to be rid of Qaddafi? If Iraqi popular will didn't count, why does Libya's will of its people? If the Iraqi sovereign couldn't approve US presence, how could Libyan rebels? I think the terrorist philosophy seems to mandate heading over there to blow up a few cafes in Benghazi.
Let's not forget Manama, and not for the reasons you think, about repression of peaceful protestors. Bahrain holds one of the largest US bases in the world. Why could a Bahrani king allow US troops and an Iraqi Parliament could not. More bombing added, because there's another Muslim occupation. Like I said, bizarro world.
And note the generality of much of this over all the thought of these so-called Salafi purists. MOST let's stress would say as an American Muslim you do not fight. But they do say Afghans and Iraqis are obligated to, or let's say that's the thrust of much of the movement. Which as noted deprives nationhood, and national will, of the people whose land is supposedly being attacked. From there, it's just a couple of steps (bomb the illegitimate government that approved the attack, bomb the people who put them there) to something almost nihilistic in its undiscriminating terror. Steps the mainstream Salafi might deplore deeply and fundamentally, of course, but steps that aren't hard to take for others however much they might be deplored.
Here's the alternative to all of this:
There are nation states in the Muslim world to which their respective citizens are deeply bound politically and to whom they owe political allegiance. Muslims are also united by a common tie of religious affiliation to a community, granting them an obligation to help their fellow Muslims in need. But the circumstances of when they are truly in need, and when assistance must be given, and the nature of that assistance, particularly of a political sort, must be determined on a case by case basis in the individual nation states in question, paying due regard to the nature of the sovereign, its pronouncements, the popular will to the extent it can be discerned and general treatment of Muslims and Islamic welfare.
I think the purist would tell me you can't find any of that in the classical texts. But as the Realist, my retort would be to look at the world as it exists. Look at the broad support for the Libyan intervention, look at the nature of the opposition to the US in Iraq, which moved from visceral anger at one point to grudging recognition of Iraq's sovereign to much more robust respect for its government regionally and internationally. Look at the Egyptian flags in Tahrir, and the Egyptian changes receiving so much support and spreading virally, originally from Tunisia of course where there was much broad sympanty. Look at the world, I say, if you want to find the real Muslims. They DO care about nations and national liberation, they DO distinguish between (national) popular desires for US support (Libya) and those where it is not present and of course they do feel bonds of kinship nonetheless that span the religion. They're far more hybridized, more moderate if you will, than this purist lot.
But then, the world does have this lunatic fringe, and this lunatic fringe does come from a group of mostly peaceful purists who nonethless have these really odd worldviews, and so perhaps we do have to look a bit at them too. . . .