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On the Salafis of Palestinian Rafah

August's bloody clashes between the security forces of the Palestinian government in the Gaza Strip and the group that identify themselves as Jund Ansar Allah constitutes a remarkable development in the Palestinian national arena. The importance of this tragic incident has absolutely no relation whatsoever with the politicized and highly superficial comments from Ramallah whether by Fatah institutions and leaders, the self-rule authority or even by what remained of the committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

The significance of this development lies in the slide of a group of Palestinians into Salafi illusions that can no longer be classified as practical; likewise the ability of this current of backward Salafism to survive and be active in the Arab intellectual and political arena and finally, the responsibility of salafi scholars and intellectuals to check the spread or continuation of this tendency.

There is absolutely no doubt that Ramallah's comments on the incident have been politicized, giving its conflict with Hamas precedence over the truth and the interests of the people of Gaza.  Notably, their claim that this phenomenon of radical Salafism came into existence and flourished as a result of Hamas control of the Gaza Strip is too simplistic. In view of the bloody history of these groups across the Arab Region, the Palestinian arena is clearly the least influenced by this phenomenon.

The first expression of this trend of armed Salafism emerged in the late 1979 in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when Juhayman Al-Otaibah and his followers took over the Holy Mosque in Makkah for several weeks and the Saudi authorities could not eliminate them before the death of tens of victims among the security forces and the armed militants seizing the mosque.

Within a few years, Salafi erroneous notions were employed to justify Islamic armed action against the Egyptian regime, manifested in a wave of bloody clashes along Egyptian towns and villages that only ended in the second half of the 1990s. Before the phenomenon of armed Salafism retracted in Egypt, it erupted in Algeria as a reaction to the military coup against the 1991 elections results. This phenomenon is still causing a number of bloody explosions from time to time.

As most students of this phenomenon already know, although Al-Qaida has not openly employed the Salafi discourse to justify its approach and despite the fact that one should read its intellectual roots as being multi- sourced, its prime leaders do not mind the propagation of the belief in its relying on a Salafi ideology, targeting of course the attraction of the biggest number of Salafi individuals and groups across the Islamic world. It is obvious that such a strategy was successful indeed. The majority of the Saudi youths who carried out an extensive series of violent attacks in Saudi Arabia in the name of Al-Qaida during the first years of this decade came from a Salafi background; Al-Qaida in Bilad A-Rafidain (Mesopotamia) started in Iraqi Salafi-Jihadi circles and so did the majority of Indonesian armed groups. An Algerian Salafi-Jihadi group ended up affiliating with Al-Qaida. Lebanon had witnessed a local attempt to establish a branch for Al-Qaida. There are certainly similar groups varying in size and impact in Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen and Tunisia. Rafah Salafis are another plant of a phenomenon that is not new at all, which has affected the majority of Arab countries and a number of Islamic countries. Neither the Islamic- oriented Hamas government nor Fayyad government (supposed to be secular and having close relations with the Hebrew state), has a direct or causal relation with this phenomenon. After all, this is an intellectual, political and social phenomenon that should only be read as such.

Most of the Salafi armed groups claim that they derive their understanding of Islam from the heritage of the great Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyyah who lived in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. It was not surprising that his name was given to the mosque that was used as a center by the Rafah Salafis. There is absolutely no doubt that Ibn Taymiyyah is one of the great figures of Islamic classicism at the peak of its maturity. The complexity, however, lies in that he left a huge legacy of texts and fatwas (religious rulings in Islam), that he lived and wrote in a period of extreme social unrest, political conflict and wars, the study of which requires a great deal of knowledge and analytical capacity. Ibn Taymiyyah's fatwas on the Tatars, for example, were misunderstood by the armed Salafis who did not see that the fatwas were related to the issue of legitimacy and Caliphate and were not to deny the Tatars' conversion to Islam. Ibn Taymiyyah's emphasis on giving priority to the text was not studied in parallel with his texts on the origins of Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) and his recognition of Qiyas (analogical reasoning) as a source of Fiqh extraction (Istinbat). Radical armed Salafis utterly overlook the fact that he never rebelled against his contemporary Mameluk Sultans and never justified carrying weapons against them and used to look upon them as Muslim sultans although he was imprisoned many times on their orders and even died during his last imprisonment.
In fact, Ibn Taymiyyah is the most progressive, so to speak, of scholars in the Islamic heritage not only due to his belief in the relativity of the Islamic human understanding but also owing to his insistence on the continuity of Ijtihad (a technical term of Islamic law that describes the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of the legal sources). During the 19th century and the early 20th century, Ibn Taymiyyah's legacy was a source of inspiration to the new Muslim reformists from Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Ridha; members of the Alusi scholars family in Baghdad; to Jamaluddin Al-Qasimi and Tahir Al-Jaza'iri in Damascus, to the Association of Muslim Ulama in Algeria.

The immature quote of Ibn Taymiyyah is not only an evidence of the poverty of knowledge of the majority of the armed Salafi current but also, by and large, an indication of an attempt to cover up the fact that these groups are more an outcome of a radical understanding of the sayings of Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulwahab, the 19th century prominent Najdi reformer, than an understanding of Ibn Taymiyyah's legacy. The writings of Saudi Salafis were spread in the 1970s and were, in most cases, characterized by a lack of critical as well as analytical approach or were, in other words, a blind imitative tendency that was by no means harmonious with the Salafi approach in its historical sources. This employment came in a period of uncertainty and socio-political turmoil in the Arab region that was undergoing a phase of continuous rapid modernizing characterized by a broad and deep sense of defeat, an inability by the modern Arab state to face the crisis of legitimacy, and the refusal of the ruling elite to consider the absurdity of denouncing the recognition of the role of Islam in the political life of Islamic societies. The mainstream current of political Islam in most countries within the Islamic world such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jamaa'a Islamiyyah and the Rafeh Party was mainly Salafi-modernist and was somehow a succession of Abduh, Ridha and Iqbal. The mainstream Islamic current could have absorbed the largest section of society due to the new Islamic enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the recurrent waves of its organizations' dissolution, the imprisonment and the expatriation of its leaders or the continuous marginalization and isolation of its powers prompted some Islamic elements to take extremist and more radical positions. Most radical Islamists hold a sharp critical vision vis-à-vis mainstream Islam blaming this current for its moderation, rationalism and modernism. Most of the armed radical Salafi leaders suffer from a double feeling of marginalization, a marginalization that has become a major characteristic of the state's policies towards Islamists, and a marginalization stemming from mainstream Islamic forces turning into gigantic hierarchical political institutions with highly influential and dedicated traditions sometimes incapable of meeting the needs and aspirations of their young Islamic members.

This typical analysis does not necessarily apply to all Arab arenas. Unlike the general belief among some circles that the Arab regional state has asserted its existence and that its boundaries have turned into walls dividing deep-rooted identities, the truth is that channels and forces of communication within the Arab sphere are much stronger than elements of separation and rupture. This also applies, though to a lesser degree, to the forces of communication between the Arab sphere and the broader Islamic one. There are phenomena which are only born in particular places due to intellectual and socio-political variables and soon expand to other places for the mere existence of partial similarity between the circumstances of those places and not necessarily correspondence. It is hard, for instance, to talk about identical contexts between Tunisia and Algeria on the one hand and Kuwait, Yemen and Jordan on the other. Rather, all these societies witnessed and are still witnessing armed Salafi manifestations in one dimension or another. Perhaps the Salafis of Palestinian Rafah are closer to the secondary rather than the true version of this phenomenon. In addition to the fact that the Palestinian society in the Gaza Strip is basically conservative, the existence of an urgent national cause on the ground for 100 years has protected Palestinian societies from radical Islamic tendencies.

There is no security solution to this phenomenon. Perhaps the Gaza government should have resorted to another solution rather than the armed force in dealing with the Rafah Salafis and could have avoided the bloodshed resulting from the armed confrontation. Just like Salafi violence that only practically ended in Egypt through the revisions undertaken by its leaders, a comprehensive Salafi review has become a necessity not only to put an end to the bloodshed caused by radical Salafi groups but also to reinforce the legitimacy of the Salafi current within the general Islamic sphere and to provide a healthy climate of intellectual interaction between this current and all other Islamic manifestations. Such an interaction has contributed to the huge vividness and dynamism that has characterized the long historical course of the Islamic intellectual heritage. Perhaps it is now time for Salafi scholars, leaders and intellectuals to stand up, away and independent from the security policies designed by the ruling classes/elites toward the violence and "takfir" phenomenon that is about to devour the whole of the Salafi current and a considerable group of Arab youth, and to bring about a new revival of the historical progressive powers of the Salafi tendency.

*The author is a writer and researcher in modern history.
Translated by Monjia Abdallah Abidi for MEMO

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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