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The Owl in the Olive Tree | July 9, 2019

Culture as Counter Extremism: West African, European, and Southeast Asian Cases

By Mark Woodward and Muhammad Sani Umar


While only a small percentage of Muslims are Salafis, most Muslim violent extremist movements (VEM) are rooted in Salafi teachings. Salafism is a revivalist Islamic theology rooted in the teachings of the 13th-14th century jurist Ibn Taimiyyah. Wahhabism, the only form of Islam permissible in Saudi Arabia, is based on those of his 18th century disciple, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Contempory versions of their teachings are known as Salafi-Wahhabism in many Muslim societies. The Saudi state, individual donors, and non-governmental organizations have spent untold billions of dollars to promote Salafi-Wahhabi teachings. They have generated a great deal of publicity and have established sustainable communities in many Muslim societies. They have not, however, been nearly as successful as it might appear. Surveys we conducted in eight countries in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and Western Europe indicate that 85 to 90 percent of Muslims are Sufi-oriented traditionalists who reject Salafi teachings (2016 A Cross-National Survey of Muslim Attitudes). What we have found is that most analyses of Islamist extremism underestimate the role of cultural resistance to VEMs.

There are many kinds of Salafism. Those who established isolated communities, living pious lives as far removed as possible from what they believe to be a hopelessly corrupt world, are at one end of a social engagement continuum. There are what we term “domesticated Salafis” who remain engaged with local cultures and restrict reform efforts to the “purification” of religion. They hope to attain these goals through missionary efforts: preaching and teaching.  There are Salafis who have participated in politics, contesting elections and serving in parliaments. In Saudi Arabia, different Salafi tendencies are discernible, ranging from royalist Salafi establishment—especially in the Saudi judicial and educational systems—to anti-royalist Salafi dissidents—including those who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. These dissident Salafis are the ones who joined al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and other VEM that resort to unrestricted violence to impose Salafism on unwilling populations. Clearly, Salafism is not a monolith.  

One of the basic components of Salafi theology is that Sufism (Islamic mysticism) and cultural performances based on it—including dance, drama, and music—even those intended to promote Muslim piety, are strictly forbidden (haram). Salafi extremists are incensed by devotional music because it invokes Sufi saints, a practice they hold to be blasphemous. Salafi VEMs forbid saint veneration and desecrate their tombs wherever they come to power. They follow in the footsteps of Saudi Arabian religious authorities who destroyed many of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina in the 1920s-1930s.
Salafi-Wahhabi VEM are what anthropologist Anthony Wallace called “revitalization movements” that seek to destroy the world as it is and rebuild it on the basis of mythological archetypes. Salafi-Wahhabi VEMs including al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Southeast Asian Jemaah Islamiyah, seek to eradicate what Marshal Hodgson called “Islamicate Civilizations” and replace them with societies based on their imagination of how Islam was practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. They use pejorative hate speech terms including shirk (polytheism) and bidah (religiously prohibited innovation) for Islamicate cultures, and kafir (unbeliever) and murtad (apostate) for Muslims who do not share this view. In a 2010 sermon, Jemaah Islamiyah leader Abu Bakar Ba’asyir stated: “I have nothing against Javanese (the majority ethnic group in Indonesia) culture except the 99% of it that is shirk.” The most extreme Salafi-Wahhabi movements, including Boko Haram, take the position that their opponents’ blood and property are halal (permitted), meaning that they can be killed and their property confiscated without any legal consequences. 

Modes of Cultural Resistance
We investigated responses to this anti-culture agenda in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and Western Europe. Three basic findings emerged: 1) increasing the scale of devotional music and other cultural performances is an increasingly common and effective strategy for countering Salafi-Wahhabi extremism; 2) domesticated Salafis are less inclined to condemn music and other cultural performance traditions than others; and 3) there are emerging transnational anti-Salafi performance traditions. Findings from Indonesia, Nigeria, and the United Kingdom are especially significant because performers from these countries have large transnational followings.

Traditional Sufi leaders in all of these countries stress the importance of promoting culture to counter Salafi-Wahabi extremism. Performers often add explicitly anti-Wahhabi comments such as “and they call this bidah” (Indonesia) and “Almighty, I thank you, since I do not hate the saints” (Nigeria) to devotional songs. Salafi-Wahabi extremists find performances by women— such as that of Nasida Ria, an Indonesian female music group that adapts religious poetry for popular audiences—to be particularly disturbing for two reasons: 1) the performances explicitly oppose violence and 2) because they believe that female voices are aurat (beauty) that must be covered.
There are spontaneous, independent efforts to increase the frequency and scale of cultural performances that Salafi-Wahhabis most stridently oppose. In Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, these include Arabic language shalawat, devotional music praising the Prophet Muhammad and his family. In Nigeria, and elsewhere in West Africa, Hausa devotional poetry praising the mystical prowess of local Sufi saints is especially significant. In the United Kingdom, it is qawwali, a South Asian devotional musical tradition. In Indonesia and the United Kingdom, what were formerly home- and mosque-based traditions have developed into larger scale “rock concert”-style events attracting hundreds of thousands of people. Sufi musicians have massive social media followings in all three countries and the popularity of devotional music diminishes the appeal of violent extremism. We interviewed young people who told us that if they had not become fans, they might have become terrorists.

Domesticated Salafis are more inclined to accept music than others. The Indonesian Muhammadiyah movement has used music as a tool for dakwah (propagating Islam) for more than a century. Muhammadiyah events typically open with song and dance performances by school children. Many domesticated Salafis who are ambivalent about devotional music find it impossible to condemn it because their children are avid fans. Others dismiss extremist views as “Arabization” or “Saudification” and are as devoted to it as Sufi traditionalists are. Hausa songs and music are commonly used in Nigeria to mock the Salafi presumption that they own the most authentic expression of Islam on account of their command of spoken modern Arabic gained in the course of their studies in Saudi Islamic universities. 

Transnational performance genres are gaining popularity. Shalawat, Nigerian Sufi poetry, and qawwali are especially significant in diaspora communities that are vulnerable to radicalization. Social media plays an important role in preserving traditional performance traditions, personal and collective identities in these communities. Touring performers are also important. For example, Indonesian shalawat artist Habib Syech tours throughout Southeast Asia and in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, attracting crowds as large as 300,000. The London based Aga Kahn Trust for Culture sponsors Islamic music events around the world, in addition to festivals and dance classes in London. When Woodward interviewed Aga Kahn Foundation officials in 2014, they explained that their goals were to preserve Muslim cultural traditions and to combat Salafi attempts to destroy them. The Swedish-Lebanese Islamic pop star Mahir Zain—who performs in Arabic, English, French, and Indonesian—brings a contemporary Sufi pietistic message, including shalawat, to a global audience. His signature number “Insha Allah” has more than sixty-six million views on YouTube. The YouTube video features Muslims of African, European, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian origin. It is this contemporary global shalawat that appeals to Muslim young people nearly everywhere.
While Salafi-Wahhabi extremism is the ideological foundation of global terrorist movements such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, it has brought war, suffering, and death to many Muslim societies. It has not won the hearts, minds, and souls of more than a tiny fragment of the Muslim masses. Salafi-Wahhabi extremists disdain for beloved pietistic performance traditions centering on the veneration of the Prophet Muhammad and Sufi saints is an Achilles’ heel for their global agenda. Poets, musicians, dancers, and their legions of fans are underappreciated sisters and brothers in arms in a global struggle against violent extremism.

Associated Reading
2016. A Cross-National Survey of Muslim Attitudes, Wave 1 and Wave 2 (PI: Mark Woodward). The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA).
Kim, Nyunsu, Sedat Gokalp, Hasan Davulcu, and Mark Woodward Mark. 2013. LookingGlass: A Visual Intelligence Platform for Tracking Online Social Movements, Proceedings of International Symposium on Foundation of Open Source Intelligence and Security Informatics (FOSINT-SI), in conjunction with IEEE ASONAM 2013, Niagara Falls, Canada.
Umar, Muhammad Sani, and Mark Woodward. Forthcoming. The Izala Effect: Unintended Consequences of Salafi Radicalism in Indonesia and Nigeria. Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life.
Woodward, Mark. 2017. Resisting Salafism and the Arabization of Indonesian Islam: A Contemporary Indonesian Didactic Tale by Komaruddin Hidayat. Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life. 11(3): 237-258.
Woodward, Mark, Muhammad Sani Umar, Inayah Rohmaniyah, and Mariani Yahya. 2013. Salafi Violence and Sufi Tolerance? Rethinking Conventional Wisdom. Perspectives on Terrorism. 7(6): 58-78.
Zacharias, Pieri. 2018. Identifying Counter Radical Narratives from Within British Muslim Communities: The Case of “Muslim Patrol” and Muslim Community Responses. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. 38(1): 39-56.

Mark Woodward is Research Professor in the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University.  His research focuses of religion, culture, and politics in Southeast Asia.

Muhammad Sani Umar is Professor of History at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria. His research focuses on Sufi and anti-Sufi movements in West African Islam.

Associated Minerva Projects
Finding Allies for the War of Words: Mapping the Diffusion and Influence of Counter-Radical Muslim Discourse

New Analytics for Measuring and Countering Social Influence and Persuasion of Extremist Groups

Emerging Trends in Muslim Discourse: The Rise of Religious Intolerance, Sectarianism and Shari’ah Consciousness

Supporting Service Agency
Office of Naval Research

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