THE BLOG
01/22/2016 12:48 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2017

Don't Fear (All) Salafi Muslims

Juanmonino via Getty Images

Sometimes dissertation research involves reading in a quiet library with a cup of coffee, and sometimes it leads you to a lecture hall full of some of the most feared people in America today: Salafi Muslims. Most Westerners who've heard of the Salafis associate the Muslim reform movement with ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Wahhabi strictures that hold political sway in Saudi Arabia. Even such a nuanced and thoughtful observer of the Muslim world as Robin Wright wrote an alarmingly titled op-ed for the New York Times a few years ago: "Don't Fear All Islamists, Fear Salafis."

But the Salafi movement contains much more diversity than these menacing popular associations might lead one to believe. There are many peace-loving and even quietist Salafis around the world, and while these folks might have rigorous religious standards for themselves that guide their behavior, there are plenty of Salafis who have no intention of imposing those standards coercively on anyone else. They may be puritanical, but it's always odd to me that our country can contradictorily celebrate the original Puritans' religious-freedom sensibility, their independent mindedness, and their bootstrapping work ethic, while still using "puritanical" as an insult.

So, having attended a few hours of a seminar this past weekend in a room full of 200-250 Americans most of whom would willingly identify as Salafis, I've got some good news for you, General Public: You don't need to be afraid of your Salafi neighbors. Sure, ISIS is scary (that's their goal), and al Qaeda is violent and intently inhumane, but we don't need to paint all Salafis with that broad jihadi brush.

In fact, the people in the seminar I attended, American Muslims who come to weekend workshops hosted by AlMaghrib Institute, might be the best people in world to deflate the pretentious claims of ISIS to speak for Islam with a capital I or Salafis with a capital S.

Setting aside the rancorous debates about even defining what a Salafi is, the simplest shorthand I can offer is that Salafis are Muslims who look back nostalgically to the first generations of Muslims (the Salaf) as the ideal time in human history, an era worth scrupulously imitating. Like all Sunnis they seek to follow the path (sunnah) of the Prophet Muhammad, but Salafis extend the prophetic ideal to include all of the companions of the Prophet. They search the Muslim scriptures for every detail they can find about that early community.

Moreover, the Salafis are scriptural popularizers -- much like the early Protestant Reformers, they seek to put the tools and interpretation of their scripture, in this case, primarily the Hadith (the words and sayings of the Prophet), in the hands of everyone. The leader of the seminar I attended was Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, who also happens to be a professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis. Qadhi himself is a fascinating figure who, despite some years spent as a enthusiastic preacher of Salafism, several years ago abandoned the title Salafi, at least in part because of its increasingly polarized and polemical connotations.

He is now a mild critic of the Salafi movement, yet Qadhi continues to be a popular teacher among American Salafis, with his lectures garnering tens of thousands of views on YouTube. He is the Dean of Academic Affairs for AlMaghrib Institute, which is not a Salafi institution either, but its classes tend to draw many of the Salafi-inclined. The Institute claims to have taught over 80,000 distinct students in its seminars since its inception.

For the hours I was in his seminar, Qadhi held the mixed gender audience's rapt attention as he moved between quoting particular Hadith passages, cross-referencing them with Qur'an passages, and then segueing smoothly into practical advice for day-to-day living for Muslims in the modern, Western world. In this weekend's seminar, he argued, from scripture, that all Muslims should develop genuine friendships with and concern for their non-Muslim neighbors and be good citizens in Western societies. It's a surprisingly controversial topic... but less surprising, when you realize he's arguing against the likes of ISIS. In fact, Qadhi's criticisms of ISIS and their jihadi/separatist mentality has recently earned him a death threat in ISIS' magazine, making him the first American academic to have that honor.

To be sure, many of the positions Qadhi argued for and many elements of even the moderate Salafi worldview are hard to square with a liberal, inclusive religious ethos. I had a moment realizing that I had probably never been in such a large audience of people all believing that I, a Christian scholar of Islam, was literally going to hell (sympathies to my atheist friends), but I also remembered that a free religious sphere occasions diversity, and pluralism requires room for even those groups that have sharp elbows, and there are probably plenty of Christians out there who also think I'm hell-bound.

The weekend seminar, set in the lecture hall of a biological sciences building of a local state university, felt, if anything... very familiar. It resonates for me with the countless seminars and lectures I've attended with evangelical Christian groups. Qadhi's didactic and aesthetically pleasing Powerpoint slideshow and the seminar's branded hashtag (#NoDoubtYQ) remind me that Salafis, like every other community in our religiously experimental and diverse democracy, are changing. They're adapting, exploring the frontiers of religious freedom that our Puritan forebears, perhaps unwittingly, pioneered.

It is tempting to throw out blanket statements that conflate Salafis with those frightening Muslims, to treat ISIS as their representative sample, and to rhetorically consolidate all the good Muslims under some other heading. Indeed, many liberal Muslims are eager to jettison the Salafis as those crazy fundamentalists occupying the hinterlands of Muslim normalcy. But the attendees at the weekend seminar poke holes in the neat divisions we prefer.

What if these Salafis are actually the antidote to the ideological disease that is radical jihadi militarism, as exhibited by ISIS? Qadhi and his fellow AlMaghrib Institute instructors speak a language and have a religious cache that American academics and interfaith idealists will never have. Here are Muslim leaders and thinkers who can grasp ISIS' arguments and refute them. Here are Muslims who have Christian and Jewish and atheist friends and neighbors, who can push back on the rhetoric of ignorant hate.

ISIS is a fever dream, a malevolent fantasy entertained by angry and alienated jihadi Salafis and fueled by narratives of Muslims versus the West. Our inclusion of Salafis here in our bustling democracy at the very least might take some wind out of ISIS' sails, and might just, in the long term, help to break the fever.