Salafism in America: History, Evolution, Radicalization

Salafism, a complex and multifaceted conservative global Islamic movement, has become a topic of increased interest among a range of scholars over the last decade. Although worthy of study in its own right, the Salafi movement often attracts attention because certain components of it provide much of the ideological inspiration for jihadist groups including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).

This study is one of the first to focus solely on Salafism in the United States. Drawing on multiple primary sources, including interviews with leading American Salafis, it provides an overview of the history, evolution, and contours of the movement in America. In doing so, it also offers insights on the genesis of jihadism in the U.S.

Salafis base their beliefs and practices on the salaf al-salih (the first three generations of Muslims) who they believe represent the most authentic form of Islam. In an effort to recreate that era, they follow a literalist interpretation of the two primary Islamic texts, the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad (hadith). The primary mission of the movement is to purify Islam of sinful innovations which they believe many Muslims have adopted over the centuries.

Although Salafism is thought to transcend local culture and politics, this study argues that, since its establishment in America, strands of the movement have adopted traits unique to the national context. Some American Salafis have developed their own set of terms to describe themselves and their opponents. Others are influenced by national politics and social issues and have shed some of the more divisive and obstinate elements of Salafi belief. These developments led to the creation of an indigenous Salafi-influenced Islam which will continue to evolve and change in response to local and global events.

Various Western European nations have grappled with the question of how, if at all, to deal with Salafis operating inside their borders. Most take a negative view and regard the movement as both a threat to social cohesion and a contributing factor to the radicalization of their citizens. Some states have gone as far as enacting laws which restrict Salafi activism, and others have banned specific Salafi groups. In some cases, however, authorities have worked with quietist Salafis to help prevent the radicalization of Muslims. This approach is based on a belief that they possess the credibility and religious credentials to dissuade Muslims from adopting jihadist beliefs.

In the United States, where the government is constitutionally restricted from interfering in religious matters, there is little discussion of the role of Salafis in either causing or preventing radicalization. However, as policymakers continue to consider their options for how to approach homegrown radicalization, it is important that they are informed of the history and status of the various forms of Salafi activism in America.

Read the full report from the George Washington University Program on Extremism

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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