A few years ago I got involved in a deep discussion with a Salafi man. We started talking about the Qur’an. I pointed out that the sacred text celebrates diversity and pluralism in over 200 verses and encourages Muslims to think and reflect. We can interpret the Qur’an in a contemporary way to promote knowledge, democracy and the evolution of civic societies in the Muslim lands. He replied that democracy was a Western innovation that had no place in Islam; and, in any case, there was only one God, one Qur’an and therefore only one correct and pure Islam. There was no place in Islam for thought as this led to a deviation from the true practice of Islam. Islam, he suggested, should be practiced in the same way the Salaf, the first three generations of Muslims. As our argument proceeded, he started to quote Sheikh Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, the eighteenth-century founder of the Wahhabi movement. He pointed out that, according to Sheikh Abd al-Wahhab, kuffur (disbelief) and fikr (thought) are the same because the two words in Arabic are made up of the same three letters: Fa’a, Kaf and Ra’a. Our discussion became a little heated when I discovered his intense hatred for the Shia. The argument ended with him denouncing me as an apostate and an enemy of Islam. And me asking him: was the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah or Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahab?

I have been an activist most of my life. As the Chair and Director of International Forum for Islamic Dialogue (IFID), for the past fifteen years, I have travelled extensively around the Muslim world. IFID is a non-governmental organisation that aims to develop a modern understanding of contemporary Muslim issues through dialogue. Our goal is to create independent and prosperous Muslim societies led by visionary and ethical leaders. The biggest hurdle we face in our work is the conservative ideologies of Salafism and Wahhabism. It is well near impossible to engage with any kind of dialogue with our Salafi brothers and sisters – if they are kind enough not to murder me; they are nevertheless ready to denounce me as a member of a dangerous and deviant thinking group.

Even with the so-called moderates, the dialogue reaches a quick impasse. A couple of years ago, I got involved in a conversation with a middle ranking leader of the Muslim Brotherhood regarding society and democracy.  Our conversation took place in the post-Arab Spring period, prior to the 2012 elections in Egypt, which saw Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood come to power. The general assumption throughout the Arab world was that the Brotherhood had matured politically and learned to play the democratic game. They were supposed to be ‘pragmatic’. My hypothetical question to him was simple: what would happen if a Muslim society did not end up electing a political Islamic party? The ummah, he shot back, would always elect its own Muslim vanguards to run their affairs, as the ummah rejects secularism. That was the end of our conversation. It was hardly worth pointing out that it was civil society activists and secularists, and not Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, or their Salafi collaborators, who initiated and led the Arab Spring of 2011.

There is little doubt that the governance experiments of Islamists across the Arab world have been catastrophic. In Egypt, as has been well documented, the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood was marred by infighting over the new constitution, corruption, and attempts at running the state to the exclusion of all others. The Muslim Brotherhood, in collaboration with the Salafis, introduced a closed-minded style of governance where their standard puritanical approach was applied in social spheres, in education and preaching. If politics is defined as the art of the possible by some, for the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood it is simply the art of managing puritanical affairs and the destiny of man. Regardless of the wishes of a sizable opposition, the Morsi government went ahead with the formulation of a dominant role for Sharia in the new constitution, which treated the minorities – including women, Copts (who account for about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population) and Shias – as second class citizens. The Salafists created an environment where the citizens worried, even inside their own homes, whether they were abiding by Sharia. Moreover, the Morsi government had absolutely no idea how to handle the economy, which was close to collapse when the government was overthrown.

In Iraq, Islamists, both Shia and Sunni, have failed miserably in building the foundations for a democratic State, or independent political institutions. There is centralised power and plenty of it but no institutions that can harmonise the political process and provide a real foundation for the political community.  The disintegration and incompetence of the Iraqi army in dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in June 2014 in Mosul is a prime example of the political failures in the country. Corruption is rife amongst all variety of Islamists – Sunni or Shia. The 2013 Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranked Iraq as the sixth most corrupt nation in the world in a top ten list that includes Somalia, North Korea and South Sudan.

In Libya, Islamist militias are running riot. The democratically elected government has no mandate in certain parts of the lawless country. The situation has become so chaotic that Arab commentators now talk of the potential ‘Somalisation of Libya’. The failures in Sudan and Iran, in terms of state management or human rights violations have been well debated. Add the case of Gaza, with its own experiment of Islamist governance, and you have a complete political map of chaos, paradoxes and contradictions.

Tunisia is often cited as a success story. It has been able to build a consensus on the constitution and managing pluralism. It is paving the way for a social contract between the state and society. Nevertheless, all this has only happened because the secularist opposition parties who managed to remove the word ‘Sharia’ from the constitution have kept the Islamists of the Ennahda party in check.

The harsh reality is that Islamists and Salafists have turned the Arab World into a wasteland. Their rigid and non-flexible agenda, and puritanical outlook, leaves no room for dialogue, let alone negotiations of any kind. The fact is that they are intensely exclusive, intolerant, and operate with a one-dimensional mentality that goes against the very basic tenets of an inclusive democratic rule that encompasses pluralism and diversity. Whether moderate, radical, or violent, the basic message advocated by all Islamists is rooted in Salafism. It is predicated on division and jihadism, even if Jihad is limited to mental onslaughts. The psychotic obsession with ideological purity (similar to the eugenic theories used by the Nazis) and the ‘true’ representation of God’s will is readily rationalised as the need for obsessive control and demonisation and exclusion of all others. In their view, the Shi‘ites are Rafidahs or rejectionists, as they call them, and should therefore either be treated as non-Muslims (the ‘moderate’ view) or killed as apostates (the extremist view). However, it is not just the Shia who are the target of their wrath. Sufis too should be dealt with harshly as a result of their ‘distorted ideologies’. Jews and Christians, although labelled in the Qur’an as ‘People of the Book’, are classified as kuffar or infidels and deserve ‘the exit’ or to be beheaded according to one violent Salafist. I have heard these views and words again and again in my travels in the Middle East. The very idea of a moderate Islamist, as far as I am concerned, is an oxymoron.

When not denigrating, or indeed eradicating, all those who they consider kuffar, the Salafis turn on Sunni Muslims. Those not following the Hanbali School of jurisprudence are declared ‘bad Muslims’. During the 1990s Algerian civil war, the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), carried out a violent campaign of massacres against Sunni civilians justified by fatwas issued by radical Imams, such as Abu Qatada, who was then a member of the Al-Qaeda fatwa committee. To some extent, ISIS are simply carrying on where GIA left off.

Both the ‘moderate’ and extremist Salafis believe in the fundamental role of Sharia in governing the lives of people. Sharia law, in its medieval form and outlook, would become the basis for enforcing ‘puritanical Islam’. Its ancient and fossilised rulings would be interpreted only by fuqaha (jurists) or religious scholars. Therefore, only the fuqaha would be the source of power to interpret ‘Allah’s rule’ on earth. The absolute in dogma is thus transformed into the absolutism of political policy to enforce what is considered truth or right, and what would be considered false or wrong. This is then transformed into the absolutism of the social aspects of government, as clearly envisioned by jihadi Salafis such as Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the ‘Caliph’ of the ‘Islamic state’.

It seems that the Salafis have learned nothing from almost four decades of the Wilayat al-Faqih system of Iran – where all human behaviour is regulated by the dictates of a Supreme Ruler and a Guardianship Council. The Muslim Brotherhood have established a similar al-Murshed al-A’am (General Guide) set-up. The citizens are referred to as raayia, the Arabic word meaning shepherded. Therefore, the people are by definition sheep who need to be shepherded by a Wilayat al-Faqih or a Murshed al-A’am! The Islamists look at the individual with suspicion and regard him or her as incapable of doing anything without the guidance of those who are qualified to interpret religion. Notice how the ‘Islamic State’ has put up posters in Rifah and other towns they have captured telling the citizens how to pray, perform ablution, dress and brush their teeth. The aim is not just total intellectual tutelage, but also how to exist as a human being – every aspect of life, however minute, has to be governed by the dictates of ‘Sharia’, which simply means the dictates of those with religious power.

The Sharia peddled by the Islamists has no notion of citizenship, human rights, freedom or the dignity of man. It is intrinsically tied to aqidah, belief or faith. The mantra of the Islamist, of any particular ilk or persuasion, is correct aqidah. This is why ‘Guardians of Faith’ and ‘Morality Police’ are needed – so everyone can have the right belief and do the right things according to this belief. In their nature and practice, these enforcement groups are no different from the Spanish Inquisition that dominated Europe from the late fifteenth to the early nineteenth century.

What the Islamists mean by Sharia was brought home to me in the summer of 2004. I was in Nigeria attending a conference on ‘Democracy and Sharia’. I recall the late Sudanese thinker, Mohammad Hajj Hammed, showing me one of the documents that the Nigerian Muslims were using in the North of the country as guidance. The document contained what can only be described as pretty obnoxious rules about slavery, treatment of women, and included the word for an ancient currency – in use over 900 years ago in the Middle East – in which business transactions were to be undertaken. This old interpretation of men long dead was seen as immutable. I wondered how this ‘guidance’ could possibly be of any use in Northern Nigeria in the twenty first century. A few years later, Boko Haram provided me with an unambiguous answer.

It is commonly believed that the Islamists, the Wahhabis, the Deobandis and others of the Salafi bent, are a minority. But it seems to me that they would rapidly become the majority. From Egypt to the Sudan, Morocco to Iran, the most common Muslim I encounter carries some sort of Salafi or Wahhabi gene. A 2012 survey in Jordan suggests that 61 per cent of the population prefers a political system similar to the one in Saudi Arabia with only 17 per cent preferring the Turkish model. Another survey in Jordan showed that 62 per cent of respondents demanded a system of government ruled by Islamists, with no elections. In Egypt, a 2011 Pew survey revealed that 88 per cent of respondents believed in the death penalty for apostasy, and 80 per cent supported stoning for adultery. In a region saturated with mosques, where schools, hospitals and basic amenities are conspicuously lacking, citizens yearn for more mosques – which are being constructed in increasing numbers.

Islamists of all shades have embedded their ultra-puritan religiosity in every sphere of life. A significant proportion of the population of the Arab world believes that Sheikhs and Ayatollahs have the answers to all our problems – despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In a region steeped in religion, the average citizen thinks that more religion is the answer. And the answers we need have already been given by our religious scholars. Religious scholars themselves perpetuate this myth as I discovered during a recent conversation with an influential Islamist who is both an established jurist and a ‘leading light’ in a political party. How are we to define the ‘abode of Islam’ in a globalised worlds, I asked the learned Sheikh. He instantly replied that this problem has already been dealt with by an influential Mawlana, two hundred years ago; and proceeded to quote chapter and verse.  ‘O Sheikh’, I retorted, ‘what is your opinion about equality in citizenship that corresponds with our time, the twenty-first century, and the rule of democracy? Can the concept of citizenship in the modern world actually be defined by an ancient division of the world in black and white?’ He dismissed me with a wave of his hand.

Religion has always played a major part in the social and psychological makeup of the individual and society in the Arab world. Perhaps that is why religious reforms are so difficult in the Middle East, a region that has witnessed the birth of all three major religions. Europe, where religion was imported, had a much easier task. But it is obvious to me that no progress of any kind, or positive development of any type, can take place in the Middle East without radical reforms in Islam.

The term Salafi was coined by Mohammad Rashid Rida (1865–1935), who is regarded as a great reformer and a symbol of the ‘Arab Awakening’ of the early twentieth century. Rashid Rida’s political philosophy of the ‘Islamic state’ influenced most of the twentieth century reformers and Islamist thinkers. He believed that the technical skills needed for the renewal of Muslim affairs should emerge from deep Islamic morals. As long as you comprehend Islamic rules ‘correctly’ you should be able to succeed in the here and the Hereafter. Rashid Rida formula led to the wide-spread belief that as long as the Arabs are religiously pious, regardless of the circumstances on the ground, they would be able to solve all their problems – a magic template, which provides for every aspect of life, is available to true believers. It has now become the fundamental precept of all shades of Islamists. This is where Muslim Brotherhood’s slogans such as ‘Islam is the solution’ and ‘The Qur’an is our constitution’, a contradiction and legal puzzle in itself, come from. Notice how quickly and easily these slogans, which reduce all complexity into a reductive ideology and emerged from a ‘moderate’ movement, were embraced by extremists such as the Taliban and ISIS.

The mentality that correct belief solves all problems is deeply entrenched in the Arab world. The Arab Spring was able to dismantle the political barrier of fear, but the intellectual, cultural and social barriers of fear remain firmly in place.  Arab intellectuals are still not able to express their ideas freely, loudly and publicly for fear of being labelled as heretic by Islamists, or Salafists, or traditional religious institutions.  Researchers will not touch ‘hard’ cultural issues in an evaluative manner, as the expanding environment of suppressive taboos is a de facto barrier. Authoritarianism is embedded deep in the mind and the personality of individuals and society. Despotism of thought is prevalent in the Arab world. In his celebrated book, Tabai al-Istibdad wa-Masari al-Isti’bad (‘The Nature of Despotism’), the Syrian intellectual and pan-Islamic activist, Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1855–1902), argued that the demise of the Arab world was due to the oppressive rule of the Ottoman Empire. ‘Oppression manipulates facts in people’s minds’, he wrote, ‘leading people to believe that whoever seeks truth is sinful, that whoever abandons his rights is obedient, that the one who cries out against oppression is mischievous’. The oppression of the Ottomans has now been replaced by the oppression of the Islamists. Al-Kawakibi’s words are as true in a post-Arab Spring Middle East as they were in the nineteenth century.

The humane aspect of the Qur’an, its emphasis on diversity and pluralism, and tolerance towards the other, have all been lost – thanks to the Islamist’s ideological and political approach to the faith of Islam. One of the most beautiful attributes of Allah, Ada’ala, or Justice, has been squandered at the altar of an abstract legalistic approach. In the Arab mind, Islam is equal to fiqh (jurisprudence) and fiqh is equal to Islam like a crude mathematical equation. The goal of Islam is reduced to establishing a despotic ideological state rather than creating a universal moral order.

How can one engage in meaningful dialogue with such closed minds that defy all logic? As an activist I think there is an urgent need, beyond all other needs, to broaden the deeply entrenched mental makeup of Arab societies from authoritarianism in all things political, social and cultural towards an inclusivity, diversity, pluralism and openness. Only open minds can produce open society and open government allowing the flow of ideas that create positive change.

A number of questions need answers. Was Islam revealed in order to determine the politics of a certain historical community?  Or was it revealed essentially as a universal message that addresses the moral and social malaise of humanity? How do we liberate our societies from the influence of the religious scholars – the fuqaha? How do we create social institutions, rooted in Islamic sources, with teeth to act as checks and balances to prevent corruption, suppression and oppression, protect the rights of citizens and promote the transparency of government? Clearly, the concepts of freedom and rights have no meaning if there are no institutions to safeguard them; and these institutions should be effective in protecting the moral code and working for social justice, which is the objective of the Qur’an.

The only real antidote to Salafist thought of all kind is viable answers to these questions. The alternative, the spread and dominance of Salafi ideology, does not bear thinking about. It is not just Shias they will kill.

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: