As Their Influence Grows, the Maghreb’s ‘Quietist’ Salafists Are Anything but Quiet
BENGHAZI—The young fighters huddled on lawn chairs in the nighttime shadows of the militia camp, smoking and drinking coffee. Around them in a courtyard sat the machinery of war: howitzers, tanks and truck-mounted recoilless rifles. Artillery and rockets boomed in the distance.
It was the late fall of 2015—the height of a fierce, multiyear battle for this troubled eastern Libyan city. The fighting was often described in the media as pitting Islamists against “secularists.” The men at the camp were lumped together with the so-called secularists, led by a former Libyan army general named Khalifa Hiftar.
Yet seated among them was an older figure, one who stood out from the others. Clad in a bleached white robe that stopped at his calves, he had a henna-dyed beard and a closely clipped mustache. His appearance marked him as an adherent of Salafism, the literalist, Saudi-inspired current of Islamism.
Listen to Frederic Wehrey discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast. His audio starts at 19:40.
The man—we’ll call him Ahmed to preserve his anonymity—spoke in the formulaic idioms of an Islamic scholar. He talked about ridding Benghazi of Islamic “deviancy” and of purifying the hearts and minds of the young men who’d strayed to the “other side,” meaning the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida and the self-styled Islamic State, which he considered one and the same. To that end, he was heavily involved in a prison dialogue with captured enemy fighters that was modeled on a Saudi-pioneered program for imprisoned al-Qaida members. The goal of the dialogue, he said, was to foster their “theological” rehabilitation and promote a “correct” Islam.
As with many Salafists, Ahmed was convinced that his was the “victorious sect” of Islam—and the one that would spread rapidly across the globe. “Salafism is Islam,” he later said. “One day, the label ‘Salafi’ will disappear.”
Ahmed belonged to a militia fighting for Gen. Hiftar in Benghazi called the “210 Brigade” that was composed entirely of Salafists. It was one of several like-minded Salafi armed units who’d started fighting for Hiftar’s military campaign against rival Islamists and jihadis in Benghazi—dubbed Operation Dignity—since 2014.
The entry of these armed Salafists on Hiftar’s side—a development that confounded the simplistic secularist-versus-Islamist framing of the conflict—heralded a larger trend that has seen the Salafists gain influence in the country. Today, across Libya, Salafists are major players in factional fighting, in battles against the Islamic State, and in the social and educational realms, where they try to subvert the influence of other Islamic currents.
Most importantly, as Ahmed explained that night in 2015 in Benghazi, Salafists are especially involved in the policing sphere, functioning as self-appointed morality patrols and running prisons where they deploy Salafi doctrine to “correct” infractions ranging from drug abuse to violent jihadism.
It’s not just in Libya where Salafi influence is being felt. Its adherents are also making headway across the other Arab states of North Africa—Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia—that, along with Libya, make up the region known as the Maghreb.
The growth of Salafism, part of a broader transformation and reconfiguration of Islamism, is one byproduct of the socioeconomic and political trends in these countries since the 2011 Arab uprisings. And within Salafism, one trend in particular has stood out: the rise of the so-called quietist current, so named because of its theoretical eschewal of overt political activism, such as participating in elections, and its obsessive loyalty to sitting political rulers. While no hard figures exist, our fieldwork throughout the Maghreb suggests that the quietist current is growing in influence, particularly in Algeria and Libya. And as the case of the armed Salafi fighters in Benghazi demonstrates, the “quietists” are anything but “quiet.” To the contrary, they are increasingly asserting themselves in the political and social sphere.
The quietists’ rise has been abetted by a number of factors. The first is Saudi educational and material support, though this is often overplayed as a determinant. What’s more, Saudi influence over Maghrebi Salafism is filtered through local social and political contexts.
Second, the quietists in Libya have benefited from the country’s political and institutional fragmentation and a security vacuum.
But perhaps the most important factor has been the allure of the quietists’ narrative of triumphalism in response to the widespread disappointment that followed the Arab Spring. Protesting or revolting against sitting political rulers, the quietists argue, was both a strategic mistake and a deviation from Islam that has brought only ruin and chaos, or fitna.
The growth of Salafism is one byproduct of socioeconomic and political trends in North Africa since the 2011 Arab uprisings.
Naturally, this narrative of loyalty to the state is very appealing to the region’s authoritarian rulers. In some states in the Maghreb, authoritarian regimes are partly responsible for the quietists’ rise: Governments have supported the quietists to shore up their rule, weaken and divide the Islamist opposition, and—increasingly—counter the ideology of violent jihadis.
The pro-authoritarian dimension of quietist Salafism received a major boost in the teachings and pronouncements of a Saudi cleric named Rabi bin Hadi al-Madkhali, who taught at the Islamic University of Madinah, one of the kingdom’s key institutions for the global propagation of Saudi Salafi Islam. Al-Madkhali’s rise was part of a broader regime-sanctioned push in the 1990s to diminish the role of Muslim Brotherhood-influenced “activist” Salafists, the so-called sahwa or “awakening” clerics in Saudi religious institutions, whose politicization and criticism of the ruling Al Saud family, especially after the first Gulf War in 1991 and the kingdom’s hosting of American troops, was deemed dangerous to the absolute monarchy.
Al-Madkhali’s body of vitriolic writings and speeches denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood and Sayid Qutb—who is often described as the progenitor of the Brotherhood and more violent jihadis—and his doctrinal insistence on subservience to a sitting ruler made him a natural centerpiece of the Saudi regime’s strategy. Yet despite this royal backing and his ascendance at the Islamic University of Madinah, al-Madkhali himself never achieved widespread popularity in Saudi Arabia.
Rather, as noted by the scholar Roel Meijer, he became more of a “transnational phenomenon” in the Saudi missionary project, with greater influence in Europe and North Africa than in the Gulf. This influence spread through media and proselytization, but more importantly through an influx of non-Saudi students into the kingdom who studied at the Islamic University of Madinah and then returned to their home countries to spread his ideas. Other Maghrebi adherents of quietism studied in Yemen, with a Yemeni cleric named Muqbil al-Wadi’i—though al-Wadi’i’s death occasioned a doctrinal schism that reverberated among Maghrebi Salafists, especially in Libya.
Libya: Exploiting Fragmentation
In Libya, adherents of al-Madkhali’s brand of Salafism—labeled “Madkhalis” by their critics—gained traction in the early 2000s as part of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s efforts to promote a countercurrent to the jihadism embodied by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG, which had waged a low-level insurgency in Libya in the 1990s. These efforts by Gadhafi included arranging visits to Libya by several notable Saudi clerics.
Under the patronage of Gadhafi’s third son, Al-Saadi Gadhafi, and—reportedly—Libyan intelligence, Madkhalis expanded their influence in religious schools and mosques. With the outbreak of the 2011 revolution, several key Libyan Madkhali figures warned that revolting was impermissible, urging citizens to remain loyal.
In the years since Gadhafi’s ouster, in the context of growing political divisions and an institutional vacuum in Libya, Madkhalis have steadily grown as a major social, political and military and policing force. When it comes to security, Madkhalis have dominated a number of quasi-official militias that took on urban policing responsibilities in the aftermath of the revolution, fulfilling roles like countering the flow of illegal narcotics into the country. They have expanded control over mosques, schools and the media, and they have used violence or the threat of violence against rival Islamist sects and figures, most notably the Sufis and the Ibadis, but also more activist Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. They have also closed down activities they deem un-Islamic, like art festivals and theater productions, stoking the ire of some Libyans who had otherwise praised them for their crime-fighting prowess.
In 2014, with the outbreak of civil war in Libya, Madkhali armed groups amassed power as warring blocs moved to coopt them. During the battle for Benghazi, which lasted from 2014 to 2017, Madkhali militias like the 210 Brigade fought alongside Gen. Hiftar’s Libyan National Army, or LNA, bolstered at one point by an exhortation from Rabi bin Hadi al-Madkhali that labeled Hiftar’s opponents as the Muslim Brotherhood. In the aftermath of that battle, Madkhalis emerged as a significant force in eastern Libyan religious institutions and have exerted influence over policing and prisons.
The fight against the Islamic State, particularly in western Libya, has given Madkhalis another opportunity to expand. They fought alongside U.S.-backed Libyan militias in the 2016 battle against the Islamic State’s stronghold in Sirte. Since then, a Madkhali militia called the 604th Infantry Brigade, rooted in the powerful Firjan tribe, has emerged as a major political and security actor in the liberated city, taking up police functions that include enforcing its vision of Salafi social norms.
In Tripoli, the Madkhali Salafist militias are among the constellation of militias that profited from the capture of state economic institutions, particularly after the arrival of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord in 2016. One militia in particular, the Special Deterrence Force, which contains a significant portion of Salafists, earned notoriety for running a prison and a theological “rehabilitation center” for captured jihadists and criminals at the capital’s only functioning airport. Elsewhere in western Libya, along the coastal border region near Tunisia, Madkhali militias have gained power while becoming embedded in Libya’s national political struggle, with some groups reportedly claiming allegiance to Hiftar.
Oct. 30, 2014 (AP photo by Mohammed el-Sheikhy).
Despite their avowal to form a cohesive community of believers, Madkhalis have run up against the hyper-localism and fragmentation that characterizes the Libyan landscape. There is some evidence of coordination and cooperation across these lines, especially among geographically disparate groups allied with Hiftar. And Salafi unity does sometimes take precedence over tribal and communal solidarity. But there are also subtle divisions. In the Hiftar-controlled east, for example, there are disagreements over the question of allegiance: Some Madkhalis do not follow the general but rather the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. Still others do not even look to Rabi bin Hadi al-Madkhali in Saudi Arabia for guidance but rather to another Saudi cleric from the same tribe, Muhammad bin Hadi al-Madkhali—and the two currents often disagree.
That said, Madkhalis are likely to continue to grow as a force. As such, their penetration of weak state institutions, their military involvement in Libya’s factional struggles, and their willingness to take up arms to enforce Salafi norms that have no basis in codified law remain deeply concerning challenges.
Algeria: Bolstering the State
In Algeria, the steady expansion of quietist Salafism benefited from structural opportunities afforded by that country’s bloody civil war as well. That conflict, which lasted from 1992 to 1998, pitted the military regime against a formidable armed Islamist insurgency. In this context, quietist Salafists repositioned themselves within the religious and political sphere as an alternative to contentious political and violent action, endearing themselves to the government.
For this reason, the government propped up influential Salafi figures such as Mohamed Ali Ferkous, who is widely regarded as the doyen of the quietist strain of Salafism in Algeria. Ferkous spent his formative years in Saudi Arabia, where he established connections with major Salafi scholars. Ferkous, who seizes any opportunity to denounce jihadis as seditionists and political Salafists as propagators of dangerous religious innovations, boasts a large following in Algeria, as illustrated by the number of visitors to his website—over 60 million so far. He is also a prolific author, a producer of numerous fatwas, and an eloquent orator. His exhaustive mastery of the Salafi canon and his exemplary loyalty to political authority endeared him to both the Algerian regime and Saudi Salafists, especially those who follow the teachings of the aforementioned Muhammad bin Hadi al-Madkhali, who in January 2018 designated Ferkous as his representative of Salafism in Algeria.
After the end of the civil war, Salafists continued their gradual expansion in Algeria, profiting from tacit state support, the growing irrelevance of co-opted mainstream Islamist movements and the weakening appeal of the traditional institutions of religion. Even in the remotest areas of the country, Salafists began to gradually carve out a foothold. In the southern town of Ghardaia, the gateway to the Algerian Sahara and the birthplace of famed Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Salafists shrewdly exploited the simmering ethnic tensions between the Chaamba Arabs, present in most of the Algerian south, and the Berbers of the Muslim Ibadi sect, an insular group with its own systems of values, codes of conduct and rules. Farther south, in Adrar province, near the border with Mali, Salafists began to challenge the dominance of the Tijaniyya Sufi Brotherhood.
The onset of the 2011 Arab uprisings provided a fresh opportunity for quietist Salafists to prove their worth to the Algerian regime as a rampart against social and political contestation. All of their main figures issued calls for Algerians to buck the wave of regime change rocking the Arab world. In March 2017, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia returned the favor when he publicly portrayed Salafism as a virtuous model to follow. “We love Salafism, it is in our religion, let us be Salafists in our nationalism,” he told his party’s activists in the southern town of Tamanrasset.
The stature of quietist Salafists in Algeria continues to rise as that of their rivals, namely Islamist parties and Sufi organizations, declines.
This public endorsement unnerved prominent secular voices who have been warning for years against the “creeping Salafization” of society. Newspapers, especially Francophone ones such as El Watan, have run alarming stories about Salafi conspiracies and their “war plan” to undermine Algerian Islam. It is important to note that there is a faction within the Algerian regime led by the minister of religious affairs, Mohamed Aissa, that has joined the chorus of warnings about the rigid teachings and insubordination of Salafi clerics. For now, though, the stature of quietist Salafists continues to rise as that of their rivals, namely Islamist parties and Sufi organizations, continues to decrease.
Tunisia and Morocco: Expanding and Adapting to Politics
In Tunisia, the 2011 revolution precipitated an explosion in Salafi activism. After the stunning overthrow of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, youths who had adopted Salafism clandestinely to avoid direct confrontations with the authorities came out of the shadows.
Quietist Salafists set up several charities and schools, and newly founded Salafi political parties ratcheted up pressure on Tunisia’s new rulers to carve out a bigger role for Islam in politics.
But it was Salafi jihadis who most profited from the political transition. Post-revolution Tunisia created a unique situation in the Arab world, in which jihadi ideologies and the democratic experience intermingled for the first time. For a brief moment, Tunisia became the theater to test the political and ideational impact of democratization on groups with jihadi ideological visions opposed to the system.
In April 2011, the radical jihadi Salafi group Ansar al-Sharia, or AST, founded by Seifallah Ben Hassine, also known as Abu Iyad al Tunisi, attempted to become normalized and institutionalized. For example, AST argued against the espousal of violent methods of resistance against a nascent democratic system it nonetheless criticized. The possibility that a nonviolent jihadi group would operate like a social movement within the fold of a nascent democratic structure was tantalizing. But this experiment in normalization slammed against the movement’s own contradictory tendencies. Most of its members relished their new freedoms but demanded that the same privileges and rights not be extended to those they deemed as irreligionists. In fact, they wanted the government to enforce their own understanding of what constituted Islamic social models. AST’s inability to resolve this core quandary could explain, at least partially, the group’s contradictory behavior and its eventual demise in late 2014.
Out of the ashes of AST however, there are signs that a more conciliatory strain of Salafism is trying to secure a place for itself in the public arena. Mostly, this has taken the form of peaceful activism. For example, some Salafists have created associations to protest against the aggressive and intrusive policing of young people suspected of radicalism. Salafists have also adopted legalistic strategies to push back against the state’s reassertion of control over the management of religious affairs. For example, in October 2015, several associations from the city of Sfax staged a well-organized protest in front of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in the capital, Tunis, to denounce what they deemed to be the arbitrary dismissal of a number of imams. Such well-organized and peaceful mobilizations represent a stark contrast from the revolutionary practices and confrontational street protests of AST. But it is too early to say whether this type of activism can offer a framework for peaceful social mobilization by Salafists.
In Morocco, quietist Salafism began to emerge as an influential force during the 1970s. The Moroccan monarchy allowed the quietists room to maneuver, as their existence served to fragment the religious field and counteract its political adversaries. The royal family tacitly welcomed the quietists’ drive to activate their deep connections with Saudi Salafists in the service of the fight against first leftist, then Islamist opposition groups.
However, two major events shook the quietist current to its core, raising fundamental questions about the adaptability of its activities and methods of activism. First, the May 2003 Casablanca bombings, in which suicide attacks carried out by small jihadi gangs killed 45 people, ruptured the tacit relationship between the regime and Salafists. The authorities’ subsequent security crackdown against Salafi NGOs, Quranic schools and makeshift spaces for gatherings and prayers was a stark reminder of the vulnerability of Salafists and their need for protection, which for some Salafists meant looking for political allies sympathetic to their plight. Over time, the feeling of being besieged by the state’s unrelenting hard-line approach sowed the seeds of the politicization of some parts of the Salafi camp, even as they remained dedicated first and foremost to doctrinal purity and peaceful proselytization. This created tensions and contradictions in Salafi thought that were compounded by the 2011 Arab uprisings and their chaotic aftermath.
The uprisings nudged the quietist Salafi current toward a far less equivocal course of political engagement. Protests that broke out on Feb. 20, 2011, broke the Salafists’ isolation and emboldened them to demand the opening of their closed schools and the restoration of their right to preach freely and peacefully. The quietists did not go as far as forming a political party and challenging Islamists in electoral politics as their Egyptian counterparts did. Nor did they attempt to integrate into political parties.
Instead, they formed a tactical alliance with the Islamist Justice and Development Party. Though this party was far from a paragon of Salafi virtue and rectitude, Salafists came to see it as a trustworthy institutional actor that they hoped could safeguard their religious rights and defend the nation from what they see as the perversions of aggressive secularism and creeping dogmatic liberalism. In other words, the principal motivation for the alliance was its tactical convenience rather than any doctrinal affinity or agreement.
the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia, March 2, 2012 (AP photo by Amine Landoulsi).
In the summer of 2013, however, the Salafists shifted, especially as the Moroccan regime took a more repressive bent, influenced by a counterrevolutionary shift across the region after the coup against the democratically elected Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi. It was now a matter of survival for some Moroccan quietist Salafists to fully line up behind the regime’s preferences. This occasioned a crack within the quietist movement. The main defectors were young, grassroots Salafists who believed that their mission might be better accomplished by political participation, the expansion of alliances and greater charitable activism.
The Risks of Reliance on Quietists
The evolving and growing influence of quietism reflects shifting state-society relations in the Maghreb. Understanding it, therefore, provides a crucial window into the strategies and insecurities of Maghrebi regimes, as well as the demographic and socioeconomic pressures buffeting the Maghreb from below.
The positioning of quietism in Maghrebi societies also has important implications for Western counterterrorism strategy. Because the quietists share certain doctrinal tenets with the jihadis, Maghrebi regimes, along with some Western observers, have presented them as vital partners in the “rehabilitation” of imprisoned militants and a potential firewall against future recruitment. According to this argument, current and potential jihadis are more likely to heed the arguments of someone schooled in Salafi thought and a graduate of a Saudi institution like the Islamic University of Madinah than political Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood, who are often educated in the West, or Sufis, whom the jihadis regard as heretics.
Yet several longtime scholars of jihadism have argued that this is a misguided assumption. They contend that the jihadis’ use of violence is not rooted in theology but rather more worldly socioeconomic and political grievances, so doctrinal arguments by fellow Salafists are unlikely to dissuade them. In addition, the regimes’ focus on theological rehabilitation absolves them of addressing the more pressing issues that could in fact stave off militancy: corruption, police and prison abuses, economic marginalization, and growing authoritarianism, to name but a few.
More broadly, the decision to partner with quietists rests on the mistaken belief that their loyalty to regimes and abstinence from politics and violence is immutable. In fact, in multiple countries across the region, this supposed bedrock of their doctrine has proven more malleable and context-dependent than is often assumed. When expedient, quietists have revolted against rulers and taken an active role in politics. Quietists have also taken up arms, most notably in Libya’s factional conflicts. Moreover, in some cases in the Maghreb, the line between Salafists and non-Salafists like the Muslim Brotherhood is sometimes blurred in terms of political behavior.
The implications of this for the West are clear. Western policymakers should not count on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s supposed reconfiguration of Saudi religious institutions as a way to moderate Maghrebi Salafi discourse. If anything, this project, which includes the arrest of outspoken and popular sahwi clerics, could result in greater quietism and loyalism within Saudi Arabia’s clerical establishment, which serves the crown prince’s consolidation of power. But, as noted above, the expected effects in other countries should not be overstated. Maghrebi Salafism, while influenced by Saudi Arabia through scholarship, the media and charities, is ultimately shaped by Maghrebi society and politics—especially within the Maghrebi state in question or, in the case of Libya, the lack of one.
The decision to partner with quietists rests on the belief that their loyalty to regimes is immutable. But that belief is mistaken.
At the other extreme, and more importantly, policymakers should avoid excessively demonizing the quietists, equating them with violent extremists solely on the basis of some doctrinal similarities. Similarly, Western policymakers should avoid actively supporting other Islamist currents to undermine and counterbalance the quietists: Foreign efforts to promote a so-called “moderate Islam” in the past have backfired. At the same time, backing quietists as counterterrorism allies will also be ineffective—and carries the collateral risk of encouraging the spread of a socially illiberal, sectarian and anti-democratic ideology.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of “The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018).
Anouar Boukhars is a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and the author of “Politics in Morocco: Executive Monarchy and Enlightened Authoritarianism” (Routledge, 2010).
They are writing a book on Salafism in the Maghreb, to be published by Oxford University Press in the summer of 2019.