By Robert Fulford
October 28, 2016
In the chaos of Middle East politics, even the most passionately held opinions can change fast under the pressure of events. Consider the remarkable case of Shiraz Maher, author of a recent Oxford University Press book, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea.
Born in 1981 in Birmingham, England, to British-Pakistani parents, Maher in his young life has expressed totally opposite views on the most pressing question in world politics today.
He grew up in Saudi Arabia, where his father worked as an accountant. He became excited about Islam as part of a widespread shift among young Muslims after 9/11. He believes that “the greatest period of anti-Western intellectual development in Salafi-jihadi thought took place in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”
That devastating atrocity was an event that divided his world. Until 9/11 his latent anti-American ideas lay beneath the surface. Now sides had to be taken and he took one.
Maher began by giving up alcohol, ending his relationship with his girlfriend and joining Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic Sunni organization founded in 1953 with dreams of establishing a pure Islamic state stretching from Morocco to the southern Philippines.
Back in Britain, he studied at the University of Leeds, and then became a graduate student at the University of Cambridge. As part of Hizb ut-Tahrir, he advanced from cell leader to regional director, but began to doubt its beliefs. He decided its ideology was erroneous and led, in fact, to terrorism. On July 7, 2005, the day the London Underground bombings killed 52 people, he gave up his membership.
After his views turned upside down, he became a vigorous opponent of jihad. He’s a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. He studies Europe’s home-grown Islamist movement and young people who go off to wage jihad with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. He produces reports on counterterrorism strategy and appears on international news media as a commentator. He produced a BBC documentary, How I Became a Muslim Extremist. He’s been a witness before parliamentary committees. Now he admires the U.S. and defends Israel against its many enemies. The Economist magazine calls his new book “a must-read work in the study of radicalism.”
Those he calls Salafi-jihadists believe, Maher says, in progress through regression. They are the most extreme of fundamentalists. Salafism seeks to revive the purity of the first three generations of Islam, starting with the Companions of the Prophet. Only a small fraction of the world’s Muslims accept that idea, but their impact is large.
As Muslims often point out, the word jihad literally means struggle, but carries two sharply different connotations. For many, it suggests the inner spiritual struggle against sin. On the battlefields of the Middle East today, it means warfare in defence of Islam. A medieval scholar, quoted by Jihadis, wrote that in times of need jihad is more vital than prayer or any other obligation. It “takes precedence over feeding the hungry, even if the hungry would starve as a result.”
Maher makes a strong case for the idea that 9/11 was a turning point in history, perhaps even more in the Middle East than in the West. In this new era, militant young Muslims were told that they must take action lest they break their covenant with God. The idea that only Islam preaches divine truth grew more popular.
When these absolutes took hold, everything else changed — even violence within Islam. After 9/11, the jihad leaders felt entitled to resurrect rules that previously had been used only in extreme circumstances. For instance, the punishment of excommunication from Islam was used as a power tool. After 2003, al-Qaida in Iraq employed it “to license a fratricidal civil war against the Iraqi Shia community.”
Young militants were told to reject the support of unbelievers. The U.S. being the home of “corruption and moral decay,” those who helped and supported it were themselves apostates. Democracy itself is an error because it separates religion from public life. Government must depend above all on divine sovereignty.
Maher leaves us with the unsettling knowledge that Islamist extremism is evolving, a series of many ideas within the large idea of Islam. As he understands it, ISIL and its caliphate represent only one set of beliefs, one formulation grounded in its own murderous way on the endlessly ambiguous words handed down by Muhammad.