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Flexible Salafis: The Growing Political Power of ‘Woke,’ Modernist Islamism

By Sam Westrop for New Age Islam 

09 May 2020 

Imam Omar Suleiman rarely talks about da’wah – the Islamic duty of proselytization. He never talks about Islamist designs for an Islamic state. Instead, America’s leading Islamic cleric speaks about broad political change, employing the language and ideas of progressivism. In fact, Suleiman, president of the Yaqeen Institute, is not just a preacher; he is an activist, found often in front of TV cameras, speaking before Congress, or being arrested on Capitol Hill at protests against the Trump administration’s policies. 

His success is surprising. Suleiman is one of a number of popular clerics who emerged from a network centered around the AlMaghrib Institute, a Salafi-founded organization dedicated to a hardline strain of Islam. Its own extremism is incontrovertible. Founder Muhammad Alshareef once wrote a paper titled "Why the Jews Were Cursed," in which he claims Jews control the media and murder prophets. Other leading AlMaghrib clerics include Abdullah Hakim Quick, who calls for the killing of homosexuals and urges God to “purify” Al-Aqsa from the “filth of the Yahud [Jews],” and “clean Afghanistan and Iraq” from the “filth of the Kafiroun [unbelievers].” 

Suleiman’s rhetoric has at times been just as extreme. Around 2014, he was busy beseeching the ummah to rise up and act against the forces that threatened Islam. He praised a newer generation of “awakened” Muslim youth, and lauded the piety and commitment of the people of Gaza. And he criticized those who were “too lazy” to boycott the “Zionist regime,” claiming such activism by a committed few had already cost the Israelis over 8 billion dollars. 

But as his fame grew, his tactics changed. Whereas once Suleiman excused the killing of adulterers and denounced homosexuality as a “repugnant shameless sin,” today he is an ardent advocate for political alliances with the progressive Left, including “LGBT” movements. In lectures and quasi-academic essays, Suleiman and Yaqeen now promote Islam as a force for “social justice.” 

Instead of talking just about refugees from Gaza or Syria, Suleiman is today also found at the border with Mexico – equipped with journalists and their cameras – to embrace non-Muslim emigrants and loudly protest the Trump administration’s policies. 

And rather than remain just a regular fixture on the Islamist conference circuit, Suleiman today finds himself introduced to Congress by Nancy Pelosi, and given a platform at Bernie Sanders’ campaign rallies, to talk about the “promise of America … an America that resists the forces of bigotry … the forces of greed … that distract us from corrupt billionaires.” 

Omar Suleiman is both the Left’s talking-point and its talking-head. He is no longer issuing parochial calls for an awakened Muslim youth, but he has become part of a broader hard Left movement that claims to be building a utopia for all.

 And yet this same Omar Suleiman continues to serve as the star of Islamist circles. He remains a key figure at the AlMaghrib Institute, where his colleagues continue to express bigoted, radical Islamist ideas. 

Contrast Suleiman with another popular AlMaghrib preacher, Abu EesaNiamatullah – one of the leading Islamic clerics in the United Kingdom, and a current featured speaker at AlMaghrib events. Niamatullah also has a history of extremist statements. He once said of Jews, “Look at them today, look at the way they massacre. They blow up babies like as if it’s a computer game. They have no humanity, no morality, no ethics.” He has warned Muslims of the “inherent weakness of democracy,” adding that the people could be trusted to choose because they are “animals,” far removed from the “noble” theocracy of the Sharia. 

But Niamatullah has not embraced the political Left. In fact, the British Left - even under the radical, Islamist-friendly influence of people such as Jeremy Corbyn – has no Omar Suleiman; it has no Linda Sarsour or Ilhan Omar. The British Left enjoys significant grassroots Muslim support, but it lacks Islamist-leaning stars in its ranks. Why? 

In Europe, the clerics and activists from Salafi and other Islamist movements face a rather different set of circumstances. Islamism is more deeply-rooted among European Muslims, the fastest growing demographic in Europe - constituting 6% of England’s population today, over 6% in Germany and 9% in France. 

The European Left may want Muslim support; but many European Muslims - whether Islamist or not - do not necessarily need the Left. 

Prominent clerics from Salafi and other Islamist circles know this all too well. Consequently, in contrast with their colleagues in the U.S, the overt radicalism of Salafi rhetoric in Europe has persisted, with little pressure for it to be toned down or intertwined with the language of the Left. 

At one recent talk by Niamatullah, on the “Rise & Fall of the West,” he explains that Islam has always been at war with the ‘West,’ which, he claimed, is doomed to fall, just like other empires before it. 

The West will collapse, Niamatullah argues, because Western countries have embraced ideas that contradict Islamic values – including rampant “consumerism”, the perversion of the “natural state between a man and woman” and the rejection of the “institution of marriage.”

All this liberalism and corruption, Niamatullah claims, have decimated Western birth rates. Because of this, he argues, Muslims will eventually be embraced by Europe, because Europe will come to regard Muslim commitment to Islamic values as their only chance for redemption. Muslims, Niamatullah argues, “work hard, have family structure … Massive shoutout to the Muslim immigrants coming here and … breeding like rabbits. … We are saving the West.” For Europe to save itself fully, he concludes, its peoples must “taste the consequences of their criminality,” so that they may then “turn back” to Islam and its laws. 

While Almaghrib’s clerics in Europe talk openly of an Islamic-led future; its clerics in the U.S. – claiming to represent a (relatively) much smaller Muslim population - speak more diffidently, and with  progressive motifs, about the need to “diversify the face of [our] institutions,” and impart the Islamic “vision” to “the next generation [of Muslims].” Clerics such as Suleiman do not speak grandiosely of America as a future Islamic state. Instead, they focus more practically on securing future Islamic influence. 

Salafism is typically known for its absolute dogma. Any changes in behavior or religious belief have, in the past, been quickly denounced by Salafi clerics as dangerous innovations – to the extent that many Salafi groups spend more time aiming their vitriol at other Muslims regarded as deviant, instead of at non-Muslims. In fact, Niamatullah himself has been the subject of such attacks himself from traditionalist Salafis in the U.K. 

But these modernist Salafis - arguably now the leading Islamist force in the U.S. - have deviated far further from the Islamist orthodoxy than most could have ever expected.  It is one thing to offer differing expectations for the advancement of Islamic influence, adapted to the circumstances of each country; it is a bold change indeed for Islamist clerics to call for partnerships with ‘LGBT’ groups and other progressive movements – against which these very same extremists have spent decades inciting hatred and violence. 

So significant is this ideological shift, that some American Islamists are now publicly warning Muslims against working with Suleiman, Yaqeen and other modernists. Many argue that these clerics and movements are in fact no longer Salafi. Indeed, some of the modernists have publicly shunned the term. One prominent colleague of Omar Suleiman, Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, claims to have left the Salafi movement but not its theology. As for Suleiman, while once he appeared to belong to the Hanbali school of thought (from which Salafism derives), he now rejects all Islamic ideological labels; instead encouraging Muslims to “sleep peacefully while others waste their days and nights trying to ‘figure you out.’” 

What does all this mean for everyone else - for the politicians, journalists, moderate Muslims and the American public? American Islamism is changing fast. Flexible, modernist Salafism is one prominent, confusing example of a rising Islamist force, but there are others. Islamism is, as Suleiman promised, ‘diversifying’ in ways that few previously thought it could. 

But as the rhetoric of Abu Eesa shows, it is vital that we are not persuaded to regard these changes in tone as evidence of moderation. If these modernists are not challenged, Suleiman and other besuited radicals will continue to convince politicians and the media that they are the reasonable, progressive face of a new American Islam. The hope that moderate or reformist Islam finally gains back some control over America’s Muslim communities will diminish further, and the extremism and radicalization that has plagued America’s Muslim communities for decades will continue, albeit confusingly shrouded under the cheerful colors of a Women’s March banner or an ‘LGBT’ flag.

Sam Westrop is director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.




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