Globally Salafism has attracted a lot of attention lately. This is because it appeals to Muslims who believe that through Salafism they gain direct access to the truth. In contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafism concentrates on theology and the purification of doctrine. It takes its name from the first three generations of Muslims after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (sm), the pious forefathers, al-salaf al-salih. These first generations, as the closest companions to Muhammad (sm), are considered to be the fountain of pure knowledge of Islam. Salafism is perhaps the most rapidly expanding current thought within Islam, both in the Muslim world and in Europe and the United States, where it appeals to young people who find a ‘de-territorialized’ and ‘de-culturalized’ Islam more attractive than the traditional Islam of their parents, which tends to be influenced by non-Islamic local customs. Globally Salafism are divided into three forms: apolitical quietist Salafism, whose adherents focus on the purification of Islam and live strictly according to Hadith and the Qur’an; political Salafism, which mixes the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood with Salafism; and Jihadi Salafism, which focuses on jihad.
Apolitical to political: A U-turn of Salafism
For much of its history in the twentieth century, leading Salafists criticized political groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, for being distracted by modern concerns and not focused enough on what Salafists regarded as the “purification” of creed. It was only after the Arab Spring that some Salafists started moving in the opposite direction. So why is it that some Salafists choose to remain outside of the political arena altogether while others jump right in? First, a definition of Salafism is in order. It is often lumped together with Islamism, the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example. But they are not the same thing.
Islamism as practiced by the Muslim Brotherhood or Jamaat-e-Islami is a modern ideology that seeks to introduce Islam into the political sphere, the way a lobby group would, for example. Islamists are famous for forming political parties, participating in elections, and pushing for constitutional reform. Their targets are governments, universities, and any other institutions into which they can integrate Islam. Salafism, on the other hand, has sought to “purify” Islam of Western influence and centuries’ worth of “deviant” digressions from the true Islam (which, according to its practitioners, include Shiism, Sufism, and even non-Salafist Sunni). Salafism is strictly Sunni, and when opening a Salafist text, one would be more likely to find a discussion of an obscure theological concept than any mention of strategy or goals.
To Salafists, anything Muhammad (sm) did not explicitly condone—is considered un-Islamic, an extremely broad category. Of course, secular political ideologies, nation-states, political parties, and so on are all, by this definition, un-Islamic. In short, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamism accommodates the trappings of modern political life, the Salafists’ does not.
Paradoxically for an apolitical ideology, Salafism has become a major force in Arab politics. This story begins with the Arab Spring, which started in January 2011 and marked a significant turn in the course of Islamism in the twentieth century. The Arab Spring saw the rapid rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s oldest Islamist movement, on its home turf in Egypt. It also saw the formation of Salafist parties in Egypt and elsewhere, which, betraying the Salafist principles of rejecting modern institutions, participated in post revolution political transitions.
In Egypt, for example, the Salafist Al-Nour Party was created in 2011. Perhaps owing to the total lack of any previous political experience, it had few substantive policy positions. Rather, aside from insisting on the primacy of Islamic law, as all Islamists had done before, it branded itself as representative of Egyptian society, even partnering with Copts. In the year leading up to the elections that are currently under way, Nour removed virtually all religious slogans from its platform.
Nour turned out to be more politically sophisticated than the other religious parties in Egypt, which chose to attack the Sisi government for its suppression of political opposition and met various unhappy ends. Nour’s acuity was evident in its founding conference in June 2011, at which the party’s head, Emad Abdul Ghafour, announced that he would pursue “legal methods . . . not those, used by political powers, who deceive the Egyptian people. . . . Egyptians must live in justice and in peace.” Since then, Nour leaders have routinely condemned violence (both religiously inspired, including by ISIS, and popular demonstrations). And rather than insisting on applying Islamic law, Nour has vaguely promoted the rule of law.
Nour’s efforts may be impressive, but because Salafist ideology traditionally prohibits participation in modern politics, the party hasn’t really been a focal point for Egyptian Salafists, even if it represented their ideology. Rather, groups ranging from Salafi Front to ISIS’ satellite in the Sinai Peninsula, have either kept silent about, criticized, or (in the case of the later) violently opposed Nour’s participation in the elections. They have focused their rhetoric on theological dimensions of current events, for which they can offer commentary that betrays neither their sectarianism nor their physical safety. One such topic, for example, was Russia’s recent involvement in Syria. Nour’s parent organization, the Salafi Call, condemned the operations because of Russia’s support for a Shiite regime that oppresses Sunnis.
In Jordan, the leading Salafists remain outside of the parliamentary sphere. Since the 1980s, the nonviolent factions have advocated political quiescence rather than popular and violent agitation. They have gone so far as to condemn the tide of takfir (excommunication) at ISIS’ hands and have even criticized physical involvement in the Palestinian cause. As a result, they have attracted criticism not only from jihadists but also from various secular segments of society.
For some Salafist groups, participating in political processes—or at least not getting in the way of them—have been a wise strategic choice, keeping them out of their local governments’ targeting sights. Still, the choice has opened them to the criticism of other political parties on the one hand and other Salafist groups on the other. That has, in turn, cost them their grassroots supporters, who regarded them as betraying principles in favor of political exigencies.
Salafism and ISIS
Born in an Iraq beset by the rise of Shiite militias and encouraged by a civil war in Syria that progressively took on sectarian undertones, ISIS—unlike al Qaeda—won recruits by promising pure Islam. Today, even as ISIS takes on Western targets, it devotes equal energy to classroom materials explicating its theological views. And ultimately, its success will depend on this program—its unwavering commitment to establishing a theologically authentic state rather than a modern political one.
Although ISIS’ territorial expansion and attacks on the West will continue to captivate observers, local populations, and adherents, those are not the reasons for its successes. Rather, it is the group’s doctrinally consistent bypassing of Western political culture that has allowed it to pick up so many recruits. No measure of rhetorical “countering” of ISIS’ narrative can be successful without physical intervention.
To face the ISIS threat, the world must understand that ISIS, as well as various other proponents of Salafism, are part of a new chapter in the book of Islamism. Although nonviolent Salafism will continue to appeal to those more concerned with surviving in their local communities—and, it should be emphasized, such nonviolent voices represent the majority of the world’s Salafists—ISIS’ project will continue to attract and expand as long as it has the means to enforce its way of thinking.
A group of Salafists rejects the strict adherence or taqlid to the four Sunni schools of law or mazhabs, and stresses the importance of hadis and ijtihad or independent legal judgment; the other one adheres to taqlid and follows one of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence. Then again, there are two other types of Salafists as well, the “good ones” and the “bad ones”. The former are akin to the followers of the famous Egyptian Islamic reformer Sheikh Muhammad Abduh (1849-1906), who glorified the Earliest Pious Ancestors as the role models of all Muslims. Unlike the violent Salafists, Abduh believed in peaceful co-existence of Muslims and non-Muslims. The “bad ones” are extremely intolerant to Shiites, non-Muslims, “deviant” Muslims who support liberal democracy, nationalism, and secularism.
Bangladesh under threat of Salafism
It is believed that the killers of dozen of anti-Islam bloggers were involved with or influenced by Salafi ideology in Bangladesh. Backed by lavish financing from abroad, Salafist has been spreading across Bangladesh in recent years. After that, the brutal carnage in Gulshan has taken militancy to an alarming level in Bangladesh. The persons involved, the nature of the attack, the targets and the types of weapons used, indicate the third stage of dangerous militancy in the country.
Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) came into being in 1998 and gave rise to the extremist group of Salafi ideology in Bangladesh. In four and a half years (September 2001-December 2005), JMB carried out 26 attacks in the country. A total of 73 persons were killed and about 800 injured in these incidents. With HuJI-B also carrying out several violent attacks at the time, the country faced tension and turmoil at the time.
HuJI and JMB were of different religious strains. HuJI was of the ‘hanafi’ creed, imbibed in the Deoband line of qawmi madrassa education. On the other hand, JMB members were mostly educated in madrasas under the madrasa board and of the Ahle Hadith line of madrasas. In fact, all JMB members were of the Ahle Hadith school of thought. One of the main leaders of JMB at its beginnings, Mohammed Faruk Hossain alias Khaled Saifullah, was a former HuJI member and of the ‘hanafi’ line, but turned to Ahle Hadith ideology before joining JMB.
Ahle Hadith was previously known as ‘wahabi’ and, in the other parts of the world including the Middle East, as ‘salafi’. Followers of this branch of Islam are a minority in Bangladesh, but the majority in the Middle East. Founder of JMB, the later Shaikh Abdur Rahman, was inspired to form the ‘jihadi’ organisation when he went to study at Madinah University in Saudi Arabia.
JMB’s objective was to take over state power. When they simultaneously exploded 500 bombs all over the country on 17 August 2005, they declared in their pamphlets their intention to establish Sharia law in Bangladesh. Though JMB is known as a homegrown organisation, from the very outset its leader Shaikh Abdur Rahman aimed at building contacts with international militant organisations and, with their assistance, start an armed struggle in the country. He set up contact with several salafi-inspired organisations in Pakistan, India and the UK. He underwent training in arms and explosives at a militant camp in Pakistan. He gave details of all this to the law enforcement agencies after his arrest.
Early Activities: Shaikh Abdur Rahman was from Charshi, Jamalpur. His father Maulana Abdul Ibne Fazal was a well-known alem and popular speaker among the Ahle Hadith followers. Shaikh Rahman graduated with a Fazil degree from the Kamal Khan Hat Senior Madrasa of Jamalpur in 1978 and Kamil at the Sultanganj Islamia Madrasa in Rajshahi. In 1980 he went on a scholarship to study at the Madinah University from where he obtained his degree in Islamic fundamentals and preaching. He returned to the country in 1985.
After his arrest on 2 March 2006, Shaikh Rahman told the law enforcement agencies, “I had contact with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood when I was in Saudi Arabia. I expressed my interest in setting up Islamic rule in Bangladesh…Upon my return, I could not accept Jamaat-e-Islami’s method of democratic politics and so decided to set up a separate jihadi organisation to usher in Islamic rule.”
Shaikh Rahman then began teaching at the Mirza Kasem Senior Madrasa set up by his father-in-law in Jamalpur. He also set up a soap factory there. In 1986 he took up a job with the Saudi Embassy and worked there till 1991. After that he was involved in various enterprises including fertiliser business, import of lentils, running an Arabic translation service and so on. Behind the scene, he was preparing to form a jihadist organisation. He wrote several jihadist books which were later studied by JMB members.
Before setting up JMB, Shaikh Rahman held meetings with HuJI leaders in 1995. He told the law enforcers, “Initially I wanted to work together with Harkatul Jihad, but moved away to form my own organisation due to differences in ideological beliefs.”
In the early stages of forming JMB, Shaikh Rahman met Indian militant leader Abdul Karim Tunda. Rahman said that Tunda, leader of Pakistan’s terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, set up an office in a mess next to the Ahle Hadith madrasa in Jatrabari. Towards the end of 1997, Tunda arranged for Shaikh Rahman to fly to Pakistan where he took him to the head office of Markaz ud-Dawa wal-Irshad (an Ahle Hadith institution in Pakistan and mother organisation of Lashkar-e-Taiba) in Lahore. He was then taken to Muzaffarabad where he underwent 20 days training in arms, explosives, war tactics, and secrecy. He then returned home.
Shaikh Rahman said that Abdur Rahman established JMB in April 1998. In 2002 he went to Pakistan again. There he met with Lashkar-e-Taiba acting amir Abdus Salam Bhatti at the organisation’s headquarters. Shaikh Rahman gave them a four-page Arabic translation of JMB’s manifesto, objectives and programmes. It mentioned why jihad was essential in Bangladesh. The reasons given were: 1. Islamic rule was absent in Bangladesh; 2. Indian hegemonic attitude; 3. Indian activities in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts; and 4. Anti-Islamic activities of western missionaries all over Bangladesh. Shaikh Rahman became the amir of JMB when it was founded. The first shura committee was formed at rented premises in Khilgaon, Dhaka. The other members were Khaled Saifullah, Hafez Mahmud, Salahuddin, Nasrullah, Shahed bin Hafiz and Tangail’s Rana. Shahed bin Hafiz and Rana left the organisation later due to difference of opinion. In 2001, Faruk Hossain alias Khaled Saifullah, Asaduzzaman Hazari, Ataur Rahman Sani (Shaikh Rahman’s brother), Abdul Awal (his son-in-law) and Siddiqur Islam alias Bangla Bhai, joined the shura committee.
In 2002 Nasrullah died in a bomb explosion in Rangamati. In 2003 Asaduzzaman Hazari left the organisation due to ill health. Only Salahuddin remains living among the rest. In 2014 militants attacked a prison van in Trishul and made off with Salahuddin.
JMB divided the country into six administrative zones and began collecting members in Ahle Hadith populated areas. Outside 15 areas up north, Ahle Hadith followers also lived in areas of Jamalpur, Mymensingh, Kishoreganj, Tangail, Narayanganj and Satkhira. In the initial years the shura members, including Abdur Rahman, mostly came from these areas.
As time went on, the most members of the now banned organisation were gathered from Bogra, Gaibandha, Dinajpur, Thakurgaon, Jaipurhat, Chapainawabganj and Rangpur. Training centres were set up on these char (river island) areas.
Upon completion of three types of training, selected members were next trained in making bombs and using weapons. Then following a ‘cut out method’, they would form small groups for various operations.
They all had code names and Shaikh Abdur Rahman’s code name was Ahsan. They used coded messages for communication, using secrecy methods learnt from Lashkar-e-Taiba, according to Shaikh Abdur Rahman in his statement to the law enforcement agencies.
Towards the beginning, a group of them went to Rohingya camps in Naikhangchhari and trained in firearms. In exchange, they imparted IED training.
In the initial stages JMB would not use firearms so much, but relied more on explosives. They would bring explosive gel and other such items from India, including local handmade one-shooter guns. Bangla Bhai would use an SMG, snatched from extremists in Bagmara.
There is no accurate account of how many JMB members there were actually. During the caretaker government it was sometimes said JMB had 5,000 members, and sometimes said 250 members. However, certain reliable sources say the number stood around 5,000 in all. After the nationwide bomb blasts in 2005, over 700 were arrested.
In 2002, JMB’s 65th committee was formed in Malda, India. Arms and explosive were brought from India into the country through this committee. The presence of JMB in India came to the limelight after an explosion in 2014 in Bardhman. JMB was hardly known before the 2005 bomb blasts in 63 districts and distribution of leaflets. However, they did come into the news in 2004 after Bangla Bhai’s operations against left-wing extremists in Bagmara of Rajshahi and two upazilas in two neighbouring districts. The name JMB hadn’t been made public then. They were called JMJB (Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh). Investigations revealed that their sabotages actually began back in 2001. It was they who exploded bombs at Roxy cinema hall and the circus grounds in Satkhira on 28 September that year. Three died and about 100 were injured in these incidents. Then they carried out bomb blasts at the Kiron cinema hall in Gurudaspur, Natore on 1 May and four cinema halls in Mymensingh on 7 December. They carried out 18 such operations till 17 August 2005, though the BNP-Jamaat government remained inert about it. They maintained that these were figments of the media’s imagination and there were no terrorists in the country. In fact, the accused in the Mymensingh cinema hall bomb blast case were Shahriar Kabir, Muntasir Mamun, Saber Hossain Chowdhury and others. In February 2005 JMB began looting BRAC and Grameen Banks up north. On 23 February 2005, the government banned JMB and JMJB.
The JMB leaders claimed that their organisation didn’t have any separate suicide squad. However, after the 17 August 2005 bomb blasts, many of the members were inspired to take up suicidal missions. JMB leaders felt that since splinters were not used in the bombs during the 17 August and there were not too many casualties, the government would not pay much heed. They were also boosted by previous cooperation from the police and ruling party MPs and ministers during the previous operations in Rajshahi. But after the 17 August incident, RAB and the police were deployed against them. Even so, in November and December JMB carried out five suicidal attacks in Jhalkathi, Chittagong, Gazipur and Netrakona. These were the first suicidal attacks in the country. In four years JMB carried out 26 attacks in which 73 were killed and around 800 injured.
It is alleged that JMB from the outset received assistance from Middle East-based NGOs. Prominent among these was the Kuwait-based Revival of Islamic Heritage Society. Prothom Alo published several investigative reports in this regard. Towards the end of 2005 the government prohibited the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society. In his statement, Shaikh Abdur Rahman said, they also had contact with the UK-based organization al-Muhajirun, headed by the Syrian-origin British national Omar Bakri. The organization had requested JMB to train their members in Bangladesh. They even inspected JMB’s training programs on the char land. After the 17 August incident, al-Muhajirun leaders reportedly called JMB leaders over the phone, advising them to attack various foreign diplomatic missions in Dhaka, and RAB, and also to abduct and assault important foreign persons.
Shaikh Rahman and his family were arrested in Sylhet on 2 March 2006. Bangla Bhai and almost all top JMB leaders had already been nabbed. Towards the end of the BNP-led alliance government in 2006, death sentence was passed on its top JMB leaders, including its head Shaikh Rahman and second top leader Siddiqur Rahman alias Bangla Bhai. They were hanged on 3 March 2007 when the caretaker government came to power. That was the end of the first phase of JMB. There was an attempt to revive the organisation when Maulana Saidur Rahman of Sylhet formed a new committee, but this was foiled when he and the others of the new leadership were caught.
After this, another organisation following al-Qaeda, Ansar-ul Islam, became active. It came to the limelight with the killing of blogger Rajiv in 2013. A new militant organisation also emerged from the ashes of JMB. They claim to be IS and are carrying out brutal acts of killing.
Executive director of the Colombo-based Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, Professor Imtiaz Ahmed, said “Salafism is at the root of the terrorism we see worldwide now. Bangladesh is not outside of this.” He said that in the seventies, some wealthy persons in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries invested in the spread of salafism. Then in the past three decades, alongside salafism, extremist ideology also spread extensively. Europe and America were not spared either. Professor Imtiaz said, “We speak of Islam as the religion of peace. But that is just lip service. There is no initiative or investment to uphold moderate Islam as opposed to extremism. The state hasn’t paid any attention to this either.”
The Author is the Executive Director of Bangladesh Initiative for Policy and Development and teaches politics.