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Islamic community ‘must act to counter growing influence of Salafism’

SINGAPORE — Expressing concerns that Salafism — a purist and conservative brand of Islam — has the tendency to promote intolerance, religious studies’ experts nevertheless said on Monday (June 18) that it is up to the Islamic community to counter hardline teachings instead of relying on the authorities to step in.

Islamic community ‘must act to counter growing influence of Salafism’

(From left) Prof Zoltan Pall and Professor Maarten Bruinessen speaking during the book launch of Salafism in Lebanon: Local and Transnational Movements on Monday, June 18.

SINGAPORE — Expressing concerns that Salafism — a purist and conservative brand of Islam — has the tendency to promote intolerance, religious studies’ experts nevertheless said on Monday (June 18) that it is up to the Islamic community to counter hardline teachings instead of relying on the authorities to step in.

Professor Maarten Bruinessen, a visiting academic at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute (MEI), was speaking at a panel in conjunction with a book launch held at the Yale-NUS College. The book, titled Salafism in Lebanon: Local and Transnational Movements, was authored by Dr Zoltan Pall, who was also on the panel and is an MEI research fellow.

Prof Bruinessen said that for decades, “Arabisation” — or the propagation of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic doctrines — has been going on in the Middle East and South-east Asia.

The influence of those doctrines, in particular Salafism, became “more prominent” following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which was a move by the Saudis to halt Iran’s attempt to spread its revolution across the Middle East, he added.

Within South-east Asia, Salafist influence intensified in the last 20 to 25 years, given the increasing number of Muslim students who pursue their Islamic studies in universities in Saudi Arabia.

Photo: Najeer Yusof/TODAY

“So, they become indoctrinated. Salafism is intolerant of other ideas and opinions. It propagates that it’s not good to be Indonesian-Muslim, for example. It is better to be Arab-Muslim,” Prof Bruinessen explained.

In recent years, Salafism has come under scrutiny, with its supporters conducting acts of violence and promoting a political Islam.

In 2011, its followers were responsible for attacks on Coptic Christian churches in Egypt. Then, in the last few years, some European countries, including Germany, have conducted crackdowns on the movement, which they see as trying to topple Western governments.

Other experts have noted that Salafism is often associated with the ideology of terrorist groups Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, despite the adherents of the sect condemning such association. For example, popular televangelist Zakir Naik, jailed radical Muslim preacher Anjem Choudary, and Ismail Menk (the Mufti of Zimbabwe) all belong to the Salafi sect.

Mufti Menk had infamously denounced a Muslim wishing a non-Muslim friend “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Deepavali/Diwali” as “the highest form of blasphemy”.

The ideology of Salafism is rooted in a narrow definition of religious text, similar to another conservative doctrine known as Wahhabism. Followers of both doctrines believe that any other teachings outside the religious texts are considered heresy or blasphemy.

However, scholars have pointed out that Wahhabism, which came to existence from the mid-18th century, is a permutation of Salafism, which has existed for centuries.

Dr Pall said that another reason why Salafist teachings have gained traction is because of its uncomplicated nature. “They are based on what can be found in the religious texts. So, Salafism is a way that is black-and-white or clear-cut, and this appeals to people who want simple answers to religion.”

While both Prof Bruinessen and Dr Pall acknowledged that Salafism is seen as promoting intolerance, they cautioned against “exaggerating” its role. Intolerance, they added, is due to a confluence of factors that include economic and social practices.

Given the concerns over Salafism, there have been calls for government interference, but Dr Pall noted that it could be counter-productive if they are just a “simplistic ban of Salafist materials”.

Prof Bruinessen argued that it is important for the Islamic community to adopt a philosophical approach when it comes to Islamic education, saying that “a contest of ideas” is needed in order for individuals to be more informed.

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