In a new Jamestown article, Michael Scheuer has refined some of the arguments he made in May in response to the al-Qaeda-is-almost-defeated meme that has been going around since April. He and I had a brief exchange about it here (look in the comments), so I won’t reprise all of it. But I do want to offer a counterpoint to his remarks on Saudi Arabia and Salafis.
In his new article, Scheuer asserts that the Western press has bought the idea that al-Qaeda is near defeat. Journalists, he says, have bought it because some Islamist ideologues who previously supported al-Qaeda have criticized the organization. (Scheuer calls these criticisms “recantations,” but only a few of the people he mentions have recanted.) These criticisms, Scheuer says, “are part of a bigger project conducted by several Arab states–led by Saudi Arabia–to make the United States and its allies believe Islamism’s strength is ebbing.” This idea has been picked up by the Western media because people in the West “desperately wants to believe such claims.”
Why is Saudi Arabia conducting this campaign? To divert attention from the real problem, Salafism, which Scheuer calls “Saudi Arabia’s state religion.” The Saudis have even gone so far as to reach out to the pope and to consider the building of a church in the kingdom, all in the hopes that the West will forget that its religious ideology is the “engine of contemporary jihad.”
The West has a lot to be worried about, Scheuer says (quoting an al-Ahram article by Khalil El-Anani), because Salafism is gaining ground:
- Salafis won a majority of parliamentary seats in Kuwait
- A Salafi is the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan
- Salafis are running the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt
- Hamas hawks have more power than Hamas pragmatists
Al-Qaeda will be defeated, Scheuer concludes, when Salafism is removed “from schools and missionary activities.”
As I said in my earlier exchange with Scheuer, I agree with him that al-Qaeda is not near defeat, but I don’t think the al-Qaeda-is-near-defeat meme is a bad thing. The U.S. wins against al-Qaeda when it is no longer able to recruit or when the morale of its members becomes too low. One of the ways to achieve this is to create the public perception that al-Qaeda is losing. As long as the analytical community does not let this public perception cloud its judgment, I’m all for it. (Incidentally, I do think 2007 and 2008 have been rotten years for al-Qaeda in the Middle East proper.)
Scheuer’s assertion that the Saudis are leading a “project” to push this idea and to distract the West from its support for Salafism is too conspiratorial. The U.S. stands to gain as much as the Saudis do from exposing al-Qaeda setbacks to public view. Moreover, I would look a little closer to home for the idea’s origin. Finally, what in the world is wrong with Saudi leaders reaching out to the pope and considering the building of a church in the kingdom?
As for Salafism and its spread, there is less coherence to the movement than Scheuer makes out. Salafism is an ecumenical, originalist, Protestant-like movement in Sunni Islam whose followers reject adherence to the four traditional schools of law. But under this wide rubric, you find a great deal of variety. Wahhabis (a better term for the followers of the official religious ideology of the Saudi state) and the Ahl-e Hadith in Pakistan are Salafis under my definition, but they have very different attitudes toward politics. And it’s the attitude toward politics that should concern analysts the most.
A further problem with the label “Salafi” is that it says little about a group’s beliefs or political orientation. Many Sunni groups call themselves “Salafi” because the word signals that their beliefs are derived from Islam’s “pious founders” (Ar. salaf). But that’s almost like of a Sunni calling himself an “authentic Muslim,” which doesn’t give you a good idea of his religious or political attitudes (Thomas Hegghammer has made this point elsewhere). Take the Muslim Brothers in Kuwait for example. They sometimes call themselves Salafis, but they are usually at odds with self-described Salafi political parties in that country.
As an aside, Salafis in Kuwait did not win a majority of seats in that country’s recent parliamentary elections, as Scheuer’s al-Ahram source asserts. They took 7 seats by my count.
Scheuer took this point and several others from op-eds written by Arab secularists. For someone who berates the Western media for accepting ideas from Arabs who have agendas, he might view his own sources with a little more skepticism. Lumping every Islamist into the same Salafi stew may make a complex phenomenon more digestible or satiate the reading public’s appetite for ubiquitous doom, but it is neither analytically accurate nor politically useful.