Call It What It Is: Salafist Jihadism


The Donald (echoing others in the GOP) insists that it is important to “call it what it is.” And what It is, he insists, is “radical Islamism” or “Islamic radicalism.” Clinton took his bait, saying “radical jihadism or radical Islamism, I’m happy to say either. I think they mean the same thing.” Both the Donald and the next president are wrong: Neither of these terms is accurate. Here’s why.

For starters, “radical Islamism” is the ideology of the Iranian revolution. When the ayatollahs seized power in 1979, they explicitly called for a mass-based Islamic revolution throughout the region (earning them the enduring enemity of Saddam and the Al Saud). The Islamic Republic continues to espouse the ideology of revolutionary Islamism. And far from being allied with global jihadists, Iran has always been at the receiving end of their violence.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology may also be faithfully described as “Islamic radicalism.” More generally, there are plenty of radical Islamist movements that are not in the business of jihad—some of whom are indeed progressive, at least by Islamic standards (e.g., the Gülen movement).

Even “global jihadism” hides more than it reveals. It does not capture the character of the threat we are facing at all. Neither the victims nor the perpetrators are dispersed globally. The victims are located in unstable Muslim countries, their neighbors, and Western powers (in that order). The dispersion of the pepetrators is far from uniform as well, either across the globe or in the Islamic world, nor is it even vaguely proportional to the size of Muslim populations. No, the dispersion is dictated by one variable and one variable alone: The penetration of salafi ideology—an ideology that is not radical but reactionary.

Beyond the geographical dispersion, the timing of salafist jihadism is also explained by the accumulation and deployment of salafi petrodollars. Had the Soviets occupied Afghanistan in the sixties, the Saudis would’ve been in no position to bankroll the Mujahideen War, and Al Qaeda would never have come into existence. It was only the oil price revolution of the seventies that filled up the coffers of the oil monarchies and made jihad financially viable. (Although perhaps the Americans in their infinite wisdom would’ve bankrolled the jihad against the Russians all by themselves—as such, the CIA split the cost evenly with the Al Saud.)

Let me be clear. There is no evidence to suggest that the oil monarchies officially bankroll jihad. What they’ve been doing is promoting salafism. And salafism is the manure that makes the soil fertile for jihadism.

The implications of these observations for US foreign policy are clear. Instead of seeing the Al Saud as a partner in the fight against jihad, the United States should aim to contain Saudi influence. In particular, the US should be working with other Muslim powers to thwart the advance of salafi ideology. Neither candidate seems to grasp this. But at least Clinton is not hell-bent on antagonizing the world’s entire Muslim population.

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