In early December 2017, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson gave a speech to the Foreign Commonwealth Office on the U.K’s counter-terrorism efforts entitled ‘How global Britain is helping to win the struggle against Islamist terror.’ The address defended existing foreign policy commitments and outlined what he considered as the ongoing threat posed by the “virus” of Islamism.’ A contested term within academia – Islamism has become a blanket term to describe a ubiquitous ideological threat in the public sphere. In the U.K, it is utilised to refer to an “extremist narrative” that potentially indoctrinates young minds and has resulted in thousands of school children being referred to the government’s Prevent programme. The term is widely used in international media outlets without qualification or nuance to describe a theo-political inspiration which guides the actions of Muslim terrorists.
Over the last ten years, the terms “Islamism” and “Salafism” in particular have acquired common currency among Western politicians and media professionals who interchange these concepts to describe various forms of undesirable Muslim religiosity.
“This causal use of language fails to distinguish between conservative, radical and violent expressions of Islam. ”This causal use of language fails to distinguish between conservative, radical and violent expressions of Islam. In contrast, Sufism is usually portrayed as the peace-loving, friendly version of Islam that focuses on the mysticism in contradistinction to politically assertive, visible Muslims who are pejoratively labelled as Islamists or the strict, religious conservatives who are likely to be referred to as Salafis. But what do the terms Sufism, Salafism and Islamism actually mean?
“The problem with unqualified labelling is that it fails to distinguish the multiple manifestations of the Islamic tradition and incorrectly compresses diverse theological and political tendencies into lazy sound bites.”The problem with unqualified labelling is that it fails to distinguish the multiple manifestations of the Islamic tradition and incorrectly compresses diverse theological and political tendencies into lazy sound bites. Sufism is a rich, religious current which is distinct for the prioritization of spiritual concerns. This is not only an academic matter as the recent atrocity perpetrated against worshippers at the Al-Rawdah mosque in the Sinai region of Egypt demonstrated. The site of the deadly attack was reported in most of the media as a “Sufi Mosque,” instead of purely a mosque whose congregants happen to be members of the Jaririya Sufi order. This appellation gave the mistaken impression that Sufism is a separate sect within Islam rather than an aspect of the mainstream. This also plays into the myth of the apolitical nature of Sufism and its potential for being co-opted into authoritarian regimes or Western geo-strategic interests. Furthermore, this type of labelling is used by some Muslims as an intra-community boundary making device that perpetuates sectarianism and enables internecine violence.
Some scholars have noted ‘Islamism is thrown about loosely and clumsily because it is an amorphous and contested term that reflects the worldview… of whoever is using it more than any fixed reality.’ In fact, Islamism is a broad spectrum of movements that all share a common feature of wanting to have religious values shape economics and politics but greatly differ in their methods in different contexts. While some Islamist movements have attempted to achieve the idea of re-establishing a caliphate through the use of force and have committed acts of terrorism, it would be incorrect to suggest that all Islamists groups approve the use of violence.
Similarly, adherents of Salafism perceive themselves to be following the Salaf –the pious ﬁrst three generations of companions of the Prophet. They are distinguished for their referral to the Qur’an and “authentic” Hadith texts to evidence correct belief, religious action, dress code and social behaviour. Salafis are highly socially conservative, most often politically quietest and theologically intolerant towards other faiths and even fellow Muslims such as the Sufis and Shia.
Followers of the strand of Salafism that do not shy away from confrontation with state authorities or engage in offensive warfare have been described as “Salafi-Jihadists” or “Takfirees,” for their habit of making takfir – excommunicating fellow Muslims. This enables them to accuse those whom they disagree with as apostates and enemies that can be fought. So, terminological precision does matter and therefore it would be more accurate to describe terrorist phenomena enacted by Muslims as Takfiri-Jihadism.
Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The British Experience
Muslims in Britain are rarely out of the news cycle in the U.K. The hypervisibility is most often in relation to a set of frames that represent them in negative terms. This, in turn, has produced a surplus of problem-centered, crisis driven publications that focus upon terrorism, extremism, religio-cultural differences or social unrest. Fears about public security have led the state to institute measures to prevent violent radicalization which have been criticized for being conceptually flawed and delivered in counter-productive ways. Successive governments have also searched for and promoted “Moderate Muslims” to displace those considered “Extremists.”
“Fears about public security have led the state to institute measures to prevent violent radicalization which have been criticized for being conceptually flawed and delivered in counter-productive ways. Successive governments have also searched for and promoted ‘Moderate Muslims’ to displace those considered ‘Extremists.'”
This has resulted in the promotion of individuals and organizations from Muslim communities who are keen to adopt government narratives. It also functions to reinforce a narrative which suggests a raging “Battle for British Islam” taking place between those who promote a form of Islam in sync with “British values” and “non-violent extremists” who provide the mood music for violent radicalization.
Islamicization or Radicalization?
In policy circles this has translated into the scrutiny of various theological and ideological currents within British Muslim communities with a focus on Islamic revivalist trends who are blamed for radicalizing Muslim young people. The fear of terrorism and rise of conservative forms of assertive religiosity among Muslim young people is understandable. However, this has led to a problematic government assessment that confuses islamicisation for radicalization.
In my recent book Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism, I challenge these representations and explain why it is necessary to distinguish between these trends and know the difference between Muslim religious conservatism and violent radicalization. I argue that to fully understand the formation of faith-based identities, it necessary to track and contextualize the impact of global Sufi, Salafi and Islamist religious paradigms on the identity formation of British Muslims.
“…to fully understand the formation of faith-based identities, it necessary to track and contextualize the impact of global Sufi, Salafi and Islamist religious paradigms on the identity formation of British Muslims.”
I further contend that these trends have profoundly shaped the Islamic landscape of Britain and illustrate the ways in which many of the leading members of these groups have gone on to acquire prominent places in Muslim communities, with some becoming influential outside them. A few have lead the biggest Muslim charities in the UK, others hold positions within the UK’s largest umbrella body- the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the Prison Service, local government and a founding member of one youth movement is now a Shadow Minister in the Labour party.
“Youth (re)Islamization, where it occurred, was largely due to the work of four activist trends –Young Muslims, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Salafi-oriented JIMAS and the neo-Sufi ‘Traditional Islam’ networks.”
Understanding the role of these groups is crucial as they assumed positions of informal religious authority and deﬁned the parameters of those aspiring to become devout Muslims. Youth (re)Islamization, where it occurred, was largely due to the work of four activist trends –Young Muslims, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Salafi-oriented JIMAS and the neo-Sufi “Traditional Islam” networks. Not only were they critical in mobilizing those who wanted to increase their religiosity, but their outlooks continue to exert an inﬂuence on modes of personal and collective faith commitment today.
Thinking Globally, Acting Locally
The first half the book describes each of the four faces of faith-based activism: reformist Islamist, radical pan-Islamist, Salafi and neo-Sufi, by tracing their intellectual genealogies and explaining how these trends migrated, evolved and integrated into British society. The Young Muslims (YM) was ideologically inspired by both the Jamaat-e-Islamic and Ikhwan al-Muslimun Islamist movements. The international link with the South Asian and Middle Eastern political groups helped develop solidarities with transnational struggles and opportunities to serve Muslim causes. YM’s popularity peaked in the 1990s due to a series of successful projects that raised awareness of the war in Bosnia and ongoing conﬂicts in Palestine and Kashmir. The central strand of YM’s re-Islamization strategy attempted to develop a religious youth counter-culture through the production of “halal alternatives” in sports, music, recreation, leadership training and peer-networking opportunities.
Similarly, the Salafi orientated JIMAS (Jamiyyah Ihya’Minhaj as-Sunnah) organization drew it religious inspiration from scholars in Saudi Arabia and were influential in communities and college and university campuses. JIMAS, was formed in 1984, the same year as YM and became known for its claim to represent “pristine Islam” and were able to attract young people otherwise unreceptive to what became known as “cultural Islam.” The Salaﬁs of JIMAS developed a reputation for imposing their religious interpretations on non-Salaﬁ Muslims. They were able to convince people that their approach was intellectually rigorous, evidence based and free of the culturally contaminated religion of their parents’ generation and more authentic than the politicized alternatives offered by YM or Hizb ut-Tahrir.
“Salaﬁs of JIMAS developed a reputation for imposing their religious interpretations on non-Salaﬁ Muslims. They were able to convince people that their approach was intellectually rigorous, evidence based and free of the culturally contaminated religion of their parents’ generation and more authentic than the politicized alternatives offered by YM or Hizb ut-Tahrir.”
Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) also received their inspiration from the MENA region. Though not speciﬁcally a Muslim youth movement, it drew most of its membership and popularity from young people and students and was responsible for (re)introducing the concept of Khilafah into popular Muslim discourse. The central core of HT strategy intended to create a socio-psychological dissonance between the idea of being a British citizen and a Muslim and presented its self as being the force that would eventually usher in a modern Caliphate. They were known for their aggressive tactics and appealed to youthful angst and provided a clear purpose to life with pre-packaged answers to pressing political questions affecting Muslims.
The neo-Sufi “Traditional Islam” (TI) network, unlike representatives of established Sufi orders, commanded impressive scholarly credentials from both Muslim and Western academic institutions, emphasised a spirituality thought to be missing in the other three currents and had the cultural literacy to engage young Western Muslims. Convert shaykhs from the USA and UK were largely responsible for the emergence of TI in Britain which could be characterized as “Muscular Sufism.” They helped to popularize higher religious learning among young Muslims in the West and revitalized Sufism from folkloric cultural traditions prevalent among their parents’ generation.
The second part of the book examines the discursive narratives of these four trends and shows how they helped to recruit people into Islamic activism. This is then mapped against the internal and external dynamics that caused social change within British Muslim communities and follows the repercussions upon the groups. Population growth, youth acculturation, higher education and digital technologies produced new elites who had to deal with the impact of the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks. Internal debates about transnational political movements, competing claims over religious authenticity, scholarly authority and group priorities converged to fragment the organizations and disillusioned many members.
A number of interesting developments occurred accordingly. YM, JIMAS and HT all experienced protracted internal disputes around the same time, resulting in leadership resignations in YM and HT and breakaway groups from JIMAS. It also caused individuals to defect from one group to another –some were won over to the emerging TI network, the former leader of HT went on to lead the extreme Al-Muhajiroun organization, while in JIMAS a number of inﬂuential members broke away to form other institutions which precipitated divisions that still remain.
This had serious implications. For instance, HT has been accused of being a ‘conveyor belt to terrorism,’ a catchphrase picked up by commentators and politicians seeking to exaggerate the radicalizing role of the movement. A handful of its ex-members went on to found the controversial Quilliam Foundation and have made careers out of adopting government security narratives and are criticized for their opaque relationships with right-wing American networks. This co-option of official state narratives can be seen in the contemporary work of JIMAS which is unrecognizable from its former hardline Salafi origins.
“At their peak, these groups in their different ways, helped young people learn their religion and participate in collective faith-based activism. However, since the beginning of the 2000s, most faded and others rebranded.”
At their peak, these groups in their different ways, helped young people learn their religion and participate in collective faith-based activism. However, since the beginning of the 2000s, most faded and others rebranded. A younger generation of religiously inclined British Muslims became more interested in experimenting with their religious identities and explored creative cultural synthesis. Today, most Islamic activists prefer to express their Islamic values on advocacy platforms and in online network hubs rather than formal, hierarchical socio-political movements. Today the likes of YM, HT and JIMAS have been displaced by new Islamic trends which synthesize elements of British and Muslim cultures using the mediums of music, art, literature and social enterprise.
Despite all of the above, Sufi Salafi and Islamist perspectives in Britain persist because of the ongoing competition for religious authority and recruits in many Muslim-majority societies and the globalized repercussions. As a result, new hybrid-versions of these trends have emerged which could be described as “Salafi-Islamist” and those subscribing to this position continue to exercise influence in the current activist scene. They are different from the past, however, in that they are eclectic, heavily use social media and focus on political campaigns more than theology or ideology.
 Transcript of speech delivered by Boris Johnson. How Global Britain is helping to win the struggle against Islamist terror. Foreign Commonwealth Office. 7 December 2017.
 Simon Hooper. Thousands referred to UK Prevent Strategy over ‘Islamist extremism’ fears. Middle East Eye. 9 November 2017.
 Omid Safi. The Characterization of Sufism as a Separate Sect Within Islam Is Inaccurate and Problematic. On Being. 6 December 2017.
 Arzu Merali. The Wrong Side of Britishness: Anti-Muslim Narratives in the UK. Countering-Islamophobia Kit. University of Leeds. 21 September 2017.
 Alice Ross. Academics criticise anti-radicalisation strategy in open letter. The Guardian. 29 September 2016.
 Nafeez Ahmed. ‘The Circus: How British Intelligence Primed Both Sides of the ‘Terror War’, Middle East Eye, 27 February 2015.
 Sadek Hamid. Young British Muslims: Between Rhetoric and Realities. LSE Religion and the Public Sphere, 24 April 2017.