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Research grant to bring clarity to the understanding of Salafism

March 20, 2013

Protests that erupted at U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East last fall were sparked by an American-made film criticizing Islam. The film didn’t receive much attention at first, but by Sept. 11, after a Salafist talk-show host in Egypt screened the film on his show and a clip was uploaded to a Salafist website, the Middle East was aflame in protest. Since then, concerns among policymakers have increased as Salafists have emerged as powerful political players in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

An internet search of the term Salafist brings up information about a militant group of extremist fundamentalist Muslims who seek to insure that their own version of Islam will dominate the world. It also reveals that Salafism was cited in 2010 as the fastest growing Islamic movement on the planet.

But much of what is written about Salafism is religiously or politically motivated. In policy literature, the term is often used as shorthand for terrorism. In reality, however, many different Muslim groups claim to be Salafist, and not all are violent.

A group of researchers affiliated with the ASU Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict recently received a $285,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to help bring clarity to the understanding of Salafism. Their focus will be on Southeast Asia, where the oldest and largest Salafi organization is based.   

“Salafism is the driving force behind movements ranging from al Qaeda to quietist groups living pious lives in self-imposed social isolation,” says Mark Woodward, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and the project’s director. “Because these diverse groups share religious teachings and symbols, scholars, policymakers and intelligence analysts often have difficulty distinguishing between violent and nonviolent Salafis.”

The term Salafi means “pious forbearers” in a general sense. It specifically refers to the first three generations of Muslims (salaf). Many, perhaps most, schools of Muslim thought claim to be the upholders of this tradition. Groups including Sufi traditionalists, self-designated modernists, non-violent Wahhabi fundamentalists and terrorist groups all claim to be Salafist.

Woodward and his team plan to construct a comprehensive inventory of historical and contemporary Salafi movements in Southeast Asia, which is home to at least 300 million of the world’s approximately 1.5 billion Muslims. Salafism has a long history and continuous presence in the region dating to the 17th century.

The political conditions and religious freedom in Southeast Asia will enable the research team to conduct intensive fieldwork that would not be possible in the Middle East or South Asia. They also will be able to explore the ways in which Salafi teachings and movements develop in the absence of political constraints.

“By clarifying the varieties of Salafism and their significance for global and regional religious-based conflict, we think our research will have important policy implications,” notes Woodward. “Our goal is to contribute to the development of new interpretive lenses through which other regions and religious traditions can be clearly viewed.”

Woodward is a prominent anthropologist who has been engaged in the study of Islam and politics and religion in Southeast Asia since the late 1970s. Two of his three project collaborators are graduates of ASU’s religious studies program who now teach in Indonesia. The third collaborator works for Radio Singapore. The team will conduct research in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Southern Thailand and Saudi Arabia.

Among the researchers’ goals is to determine the extent and structure of Salafi networks in the region and the position of these networks in larger global systems. They also expect to learn which economic, religious and social factors are influencing the spread of Salafi teachings.

One major research topic will be the importance of gender in Salafi discourse and religious practice. The team will conduct interviews with leaders and members of Salafi women’s organizations and also examine sermons delivered at gender-segregated religious gatherings.

Major outcomes of the three-year research project will include the first book-length study of the history, influence and contemporary significance of Salafism in Southeast Asia and a series of white papers aimed at a policy audience that will be disseminated online.

The research project will be overseen by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, an interdisciplinary research center in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that examines the role of religion as a driving force in human affairs.

Story by Barby Grant