THE BLOG

Back to the Future

11/02/2014 10:34 GMT | Updated 12/04/2014 10:59 BST

"A way of life that is odd or even erratic but interferes with no rights or interests of others is not to be condemned because it is different."

US Supreme Court v. Yoder 1972

What do Salafi Muslims, Hasidic Jews, and Amish Christians have in common? Wearing "odd" clothes? Each seen as an "erratic" sect belonging to an Abrahamic faith? That might win one point in University Challenge. To win a second, there needs to be reference to splitting into sub-groups with closed identities. But for three points, add on the following: withdrawal from the messiness, or sinfulness, of the world, the creation of separate communities seeking purity of belief and practice, identification with a past that has long disappeared.

I hope the juxtaposition of Salafi Islam with Amish and Hasidim does not cause offence. They are not usually compared. The mass media puts each in very different positions on the spectrum of minority religion: good, bad and quaint, attractive, irritating or downright dangerous. The reasons for these labels are not clear. Stereotypes, prejudice and misunderstanding are all too common.

Recent portrayals of each begin to explain why. The Amish feature in the quaint or attractive box. Harrison Ford and the 1985 movie Witness set within the Amish community - two Academy Awards - helped move their category from quaint to good. The 2012 TV Discovery Channel's Amish Mafia, produced by the - well-named - Hot Snake Media, served up a bizarre sitcom disguised as a reality show. An Old Order Amish informant of the Amish researcher, Donald Kraybill, put it this way: "Television is the sewer line that connects you directly to the cesspool of Hollywood." I do love understatement but, historically, he had it the wrong way round.

The world of Hasidic Judaism was lifted by its novelists' sensibility and empathy, out of the boxes marked quaint and irritating. Chaim Potok's The Chosen, which sold over three million copies and his sequel The Promise met widespread acclaim. Deborah Feldman's Unorthodox is on the New York Times best seller list. Both deal with two features of such communities, the demand for marriage within the community, endogamy, and the emotional drama of leaving. The Chosen was turned into a movie starring Rod Steiger then a theatre play.

In comparison outside Muslim majority countries, Salafism had virtually no purchase on the public imagination until after 9/11. When it did, it was seen in the West as the handmaid of jihad. It therefore got a terrible press. Even in the Islamic world, it only began coalescing, as a defensive reaction to colonialism, around the thinking of a few scholars in the 19th century. They had been attracted to the mediaeval Muslim scholar Ibn Tamiyya, who wrote in the context of the Mongol invasions, and to the thinking of the 18th century scholar Abd-al-Wahhab.

The name "Salafi" refers to the Founding Fathers of the first three generations after the death of the Prophet, al-salaf al-salih, whose practice, manhaj, was considered as exemplary. Much more than for even the Amish or Hasidim, the community life of the distant past was normative. What was believed to be the conduct, Sunna, and the creed, 'aqida, of the first three Islamic generations, is theologically considered unchangeable. All Muslims believe, of course, that the final revelation, the Qur'an, is their starting point.

Since this foundational community and its caliphs, when not fighting for survival, were fighting for territorial expansion of their rule, the possibility of jihad was always there. By the 20th century, however, the conditions under which it might take place, and Muslims required to take up arms in defence, and the conduct of war, was elaborated in a way hardly different from Christian just war theory.

Nonetheless, after 9/11, the name Salafi became associated in the media with the tiny percentage of Salafis who actively espoused jihad and rejected traditional teaching about its licit undertaking and conduct. Some of the core features of its sectarian thinking (Salafism itself implies membership of al-firqa al-najiya, the saved sect) were ignored. The most notable were: hisba, commanding right and forbidding wrong, loyalty and rejection of kufr, unbelief, getting back to beginnings by discarding the schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and a fervent proclamation of the unity and otherness of God, tawhid, and his absolute sovereignty, hakimiyya, expressed in compliance with the Shari'a.

So do these themes make Salafism downright dangerous? If there were a linear progression from rejection of kufr, to rejection of everyone not in the sect, takfir, including Muslims who disagree with you, to the need to convert or kill unbelievers, then yes. If the designation of all non-Salafi governments as illegitimate, to be overthrown by armed struggle, then yes. Some of today's jihadists have travelled via these way stations. Many more have not.

The young men pouring into Syria are far more diverse in their religious ideologies than even the young men of the left who went off to fight in the Spanish civil war. Many are jihadis first and a brand of sectarian Islam second. Religious ideology is pulled in, most often, to legitimate practice not vice-versa. The basic problem is, ironically, a modernising perversion of Islam that puts individual commitment to jihad as the central tenet of Islam.

So what is the lesser problem? Essentially the impact of withdrawn, exclusive communities on social cohesion. For people not in the sect, living amidst a closed-minded minority community which doesn't understand how they think, perhaps does not speak their language, and, above all wants next to nothing to do with them, is neither convivial nor desirable. Doing so can be a tough test of genuine belief in religious freedom and multiculturalism. A mutual desire for empathy, a shared language, a willingness to mix and encounter, make all the difference.

No-one wants to be "judgmental" these days. But let's put sects such as the Amish, Hasidim and Salafis, not into simplistic little boxes based on prejudice and lack of understanding, but along a spectrum of conviviality and civility.