Salafism and the Politics of Free Market Religion


Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.
~ Milton Friedman
If Islamism is a dirty word, then Salafism is a pejorative. While the origins of both these terms are certainly fluid and relational,[1] Salafism has often been demonized, particularly in the West. Despite this, Salafism has been a significant social force in the Muslim world for at least the last seventy years—seeking to reform practices that purportedly diverge from prophetic practice.[2]
While many modern Islamic movements are viewed through an ideological lens, mediated as either a reforming force or “a modern innovation,”[3] there is value in analyzing Salafism through the lens of economics (absent any discussion of whether or not the movement is “valid” in its religious interpretation) in order to understand why it has been so influential.

In the broadest terms, economies are either regulated or unregulated, free markets. Regulated economies are managed top-down by governments or states, with decisions managed centrally. The state itself regulates pricing, market entry of competitors, and, often, undertakes production.

Free market economies, on the other hand, are just that: economies in which the market is free. Conditions in a free market are dictated by producers and consumers, with supply and demand unimpeded by external intervention, price-setting, or monopoly. Simply put, the free market is devoid of any political interference.[4]
There are obvious tensions between proponents of regulated and unregulated economies. Those opposed to the free market are best represented by economist Karl Polanyi’s statement that “[t]o allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment…would result in the demolition of society.”[5] To avoid the “demolition of society” that would occur in an unbridled free market, the government imposes controls and restraints to prevent market exploitation, instability, and suffering. This inevitably leads to the regulation of people themselves, and limits the trade they would otherwise undertake.
Does trade and competition between religious movements constitute a marketplace? Can religions be viewed as markets? If we look at ideologies as economic forces, we can analyze religion much like we analyze commercial economies. Like economic forces, some ideologies may be best explained as different approaches to the marketplace of religion. In applying this idea to Salafism, we see that it promotes a free market “faith economy.” Salafism seeks to break the monopoly of state religion over Muslim identity, analysis of texts, and daily religious life.

What is Salafism?

The terms Salafi and Salafism are loaded and elastic—used in media reports, counter-terrorism briefings, educational programs, and everything in between to describe certain kinds of Muslims and Islamic practices. Outpaced only by the use of “Islamism,” Salafism is more often than not used contemptuously against any individuals and movements that do not fit conveniently into a narrative of acquiescence to quietism, state power, and state appointed religious authority.
Anthropologist Martijn de Koning has lucidly highlighted the difference between Salafism and Islamism:

Often the Salafi movement is seen as a cultural movement without a clear political program, which shies away from becoming involved in the political fray while the Islamist movement, in contrast, has politics at the heart of its ideology and aims to transform society into a ‘true’ Islamic society. The Salafi movement claims not to be involved in political negotiations with states and does not engage in the public sphere in defense of Muslim interests, let alone attempt to build an Islamic state.[6]

According to Islamic scholar Alexander Thurston, Salafism “is at its heart an educational movement dedicated to spreading the canon as the basis for identity, interpretation, and action.”[7] Salafism, until very recently, was not formally invested in politics. It was, as such, largely distinct from larger Islamist organizations, like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbul Tahrir, and others. Salafism is not, however, agnostic to the societies in which it operates; many Salafis engage in social education and proselytization programs.
As a concept, Salafism exists in two forms, ritual Salafism and epistemological Salafism, with the former more dominant than the latter. These terms—coined by Georgetown researcher Muhammad Bushra[8]—suggest that the latter, unlike the former, is less invested in the outward trappings of ritual and convention. Epistemological Salafism, however, overlaps with ritual Salafism intellectually and ideologically when it comes to ascertaining religious truth.
Epistemological Salafism, like its ritual counterpart, provides a critical reading of culture and tradition, without operationalizing it. It is interested in Islam as an intellectual endeavor that changes the individual and, thus, society, though not through proselytizing, evangelizing, or challenging the status quo. Ritual Salafism, on the other hand, is focused on the daily life of its adherents, reorganizing them around the Islamic values they find in their particular interpretation of Islamic texts.[9]

What is State Religion?

In a centralized religious economy, there is only one product: state sanctioned religion. By mandating one religious approach, the state guarantees sources of production, ensures consistent branding, and regulates market anomalies.[10] In a regulated faith economy, consumers are captive audiences. Because the state enjoys a monopoly, it does not need to ensure that its product, state religion, is adequate or appealing to this audience. This usually means the quality of that product suffers, which is why most monopolized religious economies have low levels of popular participation.[11]
Almost every Muslim majority country has a state approved religious apparatus that manages, approves, and produces religious “goods” for its population. As such, state-sanctioned Muslim religious scholars and clerics (ulema) have maintained an interpretive monopoly over how Islam is presented. Whether this is in the form of fatwas, Friday sermons, religious litanies, or other written material, this monopoly on “knowledge production and religious representation” in the Muslim world has led to a decrease in religious participation relative to the size of the populations they control.[12]
This is evident in countries with centralized religious authorities, most of which report lower numbers of turnout for clergy-led services such as Friday prayer and generally lower numbers of commitment all around than those that are in decentralized or diverse religious populations. In countries like Tunisia and Libya (before the Arab Spring), the state controlled not only who could become religious experts, but also when and how people practiced their religion.
Indeed, in many Muslim majority countries, mosques are routinely locked after certain hours of the night, between prayer times. While the people yearn for more direct religious participation, the ulema—at the behest of governments—often support the status quo. This has caused popular resentment toward the scholarly class, which is viewed as backward and obscurant.[13]
Consider, for example, the remarks of Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, who in a 2014 speech, lauded the need for state religion, insisted on the need to obey the rulers despite oppression, stressed the interpretive monopoly that state institutions enjoy, and disparaged those who are outside of state-sanctioned religious circles as “upstarts who aren’t able to understand [Islam’s texts] because they did not study in Al-Azhar—which they dislike—because they wish to appoint themselves wardens over us.”
Through these comments, Gomaa was asserting his (and by extension, Al-Azhar’s) authority over the interpretation of religious texts, and criticized those not sanctioned by the state as lacking the authority to interpret them. In other words, “proper religion” is produced by the state, and a proper state must produce “true religion.” The premise and the conclusion are one and the same.
This line of thought is notably a type of fundamentalism. Salafist movements arguably stand as a midway between the fundamentalisms of state control and total anarchistic revolt.

Salafism’s Rise

When the state “monopolistically” defines religious identity and enforces the parameters of scriptural interpretation, individuals feel compelled to limit “heterodox” (i.e. non-state sanctioned) forms of religious expression, often out of fear of reprisal for challenging state authority. Still, however, questions about the quality of the state’s “religious product” will arise. Against this backdrop, Salafism has gained a competitive advantage, by producing religious goods that are more appealing and easily accessible to consumers.[14]
Salafism focuses more on an individual’s principles and ethics. It is not enough for the state and scholars to protect the faith. The individual must also “establish the state of Islam in his heart,” which will result in “the state of Islam being established in the land.” According to Salafism, the individual is elevated above more imperial notions of allegiance and dedication to state. The focus is on individual dedication to a broader set of values, including duty to self, family, and neighbors. In short, Salafism is about a kind of personal transformation that does not depend on social externalities.
Much like the Protestant Reformation, Salafism has been able to personalize religion for the masses. No longer do people need to be slavishly attached to saints, approved texts, catechisms, rituals, symbols, or holy days sanctioned by paternalistic states. To make an analogy to the consumer cellphone market, this “religious product” was bloatware—unwanted accessories that took up space, was never used, but couldn’t be un-installed. Salafism is the rootkit that allowed this excess to be eliminated.
By connecting the individual to God “directly” and focusing one’s dedication on his or her personal identity, Salafism encourages a sense of personal responsibility. Take, for instance, this quote from Ibn Al-Qayyim, the 14th century religious thinker and often quoted progenitor of Salafi thought:

In what way can I devoid myself of insatiability and panic? I answered: Through God’s oneness, relying on him, and having trust in him; knowing that no good comes from any except him and no bad is removed expect by him, and that all affairs are for God, none shares in anything which is God’s.[15]

Personal responsibility here is at the forefront. The individual must rid himself of greed, gluttony, and panic. All forms of “establishing the state of Islam in one’s heart” are encouraged. This includes relying on God as the solution to one’s problems, utilizing one’s innate ability to succeed spiritually and materially, and striving to better oneself through personal accountability.
In these ways, Salafism has democratized access to the production of religion. By adopting a more fluid and organic concept of religion, nostalgically marketed as embodying the simplicity of the Prophet and his companions, it gives people the peace of mind that comes from having a personal connection to faith. This has led to greater religious participation, despite seemingly dire political circumstances.[16]
Salafism has also effectively lambasted state-controlled religion, critiquing it as defective, deficient, counterfeit, or sub-par. This has further helped Salafism gain market share and, in many instances, capture a significant number of “consumers.”
As one of the first movements to challenge state religious monopolies, Salafism has opened the door for many other religious movements to operate in otherwise closed markets. It has also forced one of two reactions from the state: a working relationship with religious approaches outside of state sanctioned religion, or a violent backlash against any attempt to force a market change.
Take Algeria, where Salafist movements were first viewed as pariahs by state-sanctioned religious institutions. Salafist mosques were routinely closed and Salafist imams banned so that, according to Algeria’s interior ministry, “foreign rites [were] not inappropriately imported” and religious edicts (fatwas) were issued in conformance with Algerian law. Years later, these same Salafist movements were used by the same government institutions and their patrons as a counterweight to more revolutionary (and violent) movements.

Forcing the Government’s Hand Open

For greater diversity in religious “products” and consumer choice in the market (pluralism), religion must be privatized. This can actually benefit the state. By granting religious autonomy to Salafis, and all religious approaches in general, the state can achieve two things. First, it can create market equilibrium and thus minimize religious conflict predicated on state favoritism. Second, by allowing religious consumers the ability to choose which “religious products” they use, attempts at warping religion for political purposes (like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda) can potentially be undermined or at least slowed down.
In a “faith economy” free from state regulation, greater levels of religious participation, and possibly even civic duty, become possible. By heeding Salafism’s call to deregulate religious identity, authority, and interpretation, greater religious freedoms can be enjoyed by all.
[1] Lauziere, Henri, “The Constructions of Salafiyya: Reconsidering Salafism from the perspective of conceptual history.” Int. J. Middle East Stud. 42 (2010), Pg. 369
[2] Basyouni, Amru and Salim, Ahmed “Ma ba’da al-Salafiyyah” Pg. 199.
[3] Al-Bouti, Muhammad Said, “Al-Lamadhhabiyyah Akhtar Bid’ah tuhaddid al-Shariah al-Islamiyyah.” Pg.15
[4] Mankiw, Gregory, Macroeconomics, Pg. 413
[5] Polanyi, Karl, The Great Transformation, Boston, Beacon Press, 1944, Pp.73
[6] de Koning, Martijn, “The ‘Other’ Political Islam. Understanding Salafi Politics”, C. Hurst and Co. Publishers
[7] Salafism in Nigeria, Thurston Alexander, Pg. 10
[8] From a recent conversation with M. Bushra about his presentations on the subject
[9] Yaşar, Nebahat Tanrıverdi O, “Egyptian Salafi Movement in Post-Mobarek Period”, ORSAM Uzman Yardımcısı
[10] Mankiw, Pg. 413
[11] Witham, Larry, Marketplace of the Gods, Pg. 146
[12] Ibid.
[13] Brown, Jonathan AC, “Is Islam Easy to Understand or Not?,” Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Pg. 117
[14] Lauziere, Pg. 370
[15] Ibn al-Qayyim, al-Fawaid, Pg. 116
[16] Witham, Pg. 131