From a British Correspondent
Seeing, Squinting, Looking Away
In the Cold War years, Europeans could survey communist regimes and see no end of misery, oppression, and brutality. Those with eyes wide open were horrified.
Some Western European communists were not among them. They preferred to squint, or simply look away. Communism was a wonderful idea, they insisted. It just hadn’t been implemented “correctly” in the Soviet Union, China, and many more benighted countries.
As momentous winds of change sweep across Saudi Arabia and Islamic State’s so-called caliphate project is reduced to rubble, perhaps the time has come to see certain strands of Salafism in much the same way – with coldly realistic eyes.
Mosque Teacher and Prolific Jihadi Propagandist
Consider the case of the British terrorist Husnain Rashid. In November 2017, the 32-year-old from Nelson, Lancashire was arrested in a police raid on his street. He was subsequently charged with seven terrorist offences. Rashid denied the charges.
Police vans on Husnain Rashid’s street when he was arrested in November 2017.
On 31 May 2018, eight days into his trial at Woolwich Crown Court in London, Rashid abandoned his defense and decided to plead guilty. He will be sentenced on 13 July.
Rashid’s main mission was the production and dissemination of jihadi propaganda on the internet. He was determined and prolific. A report from The Guardian on the day of Rashid’s guilty plea notes:
DCI Andy Meeks, the case’s senior investigating officer, from the north-west counter-terrorism unit, said Rashid had posted 360,000 messages in 150 different forums on Telegram, an online messaging service, between November 2016 and his arrest a year later.
Lees said the messages, which also included exhortations to attack UK football stadiums, the 2017 general election, Wimbledon, the Trafford Centre in Manchester and BBC Proms in the Park, may have been viewed by millions of people.
He praised successful terror attacks in other countries, writing: “Look around you how many infidels can you reach to and kill, with your car, knife, or even a stone, or poisoning them! … Go out and take revenge! What are you waiting for? … We ask Allah to bless you and make you successful.”
He also posted: “No need to board trains. Just get to the train station. Then, in the name of Allah, get busy!” These words were followed by emojis of a bomb and a knife dripping blood.
In October 2017, Rashid posted an especially chilling message on Telegram. It juxtaposed images of Prince George, who is third in line for the British throne, George’s school, and jihadis. Rashid added this line: “Even the royal family will not be left alone. School starts early.” Backed by ample supporting evidence, the prosecution asserted that this message was a call to lone wolves to attack Prince George.
Rashid also hoped to join the self-styled Islamic State (IS) in Syria. According to reports from the trial, he asked the British jihadi Omar Ali Hussain for advice about how to reach Syria. Just days before his arrest, he also contacted Amaq, a propaganda arm of IS, saying he was “desperate” to join IS.
Omar Ali Hussain
According to multiple media reports on the trial, Rashid worked as a teacher at the Muhammadi mosque in Nelson. It is a strict Salafi mosque, holding firmly to traditional Saudi teachings.
The mosque has been asked if it had any concerns about him. It has not responded and it appears to have made no public statements on the conviction.
The Salafi Bind
One could argue that the mosque’s silence is a Salafi sign of wearied indifference to potential critics, or even justified contempt.
Briefly, the mosque’s strand of Salafi Islam may well not be to the taste of many in Britain, but one can hold that it is actually helpful in a difficult security situation.
Consider some of the core Salafi traditionalist messages, often echoed in UK mosque sermons, including preaching at the Muhammadi mosque:
* Jihad has rules. Above all, non-combatants must not be harmed. The same goes for places of worship and even plants and animals. Islamic State does not obey these rules. Instead it flouts them with vicious abandon, and this makes it an enemy of Islam, not a champion of the faith.
* The case for “defensive jihad” against a non-Muslim invasion of a Muslim land may seem especially strong, but the reaction to the Western invasion of Iraq by the likes of al-Qaeda was disfigured by countless transgressions which only harmed Muslims. As for “offensive jihad”, in our times it is for thoughtless hotheads, not the devout and discerning.
* In fact, going to war with peoples who are at peace with Muslims and grant them security in their non-Muslim lands is simply not allowed. Unjust as the UK may be abroad, this “covenant of security” undoubtedly applies inside its borders.
* An Islamic state is desirable in theory, but it must be established by good and pious Muslims, under the guidance of wise and knowledgeable scholars serving a just Caliph. This concept is no call to a band of wild-eyed and ignorant firebrands to wreak havoc as they see fit.
* Suicide is strictly forbidden in all cases. This makes suicide bombings completely impermissible, even if they secure military advantages for the perpetrators.
* Muslim rulers must be obeyed, even if they are unpopular and corrupt. Look at the carnage unleashed by the Arab spring, traditionalist Salafis say. How has it served Muslims? Discreet and wise counsel to leaders and even greater devotion to the faith are the way forward in times of repression. Violent chaos serves no one, starting with the Muslims.
* Islam does encourage social separation. In Western lands, Muslim parents should not even allow their children to take part in a Christmas play at school, for example. But showing some kindness and consideration to non-Muslims is allowed. Indeed, it is encouraged. How can Islam spread, as it should, if Muslims do not put its very best face forward?
Indeed, some deradicalization experts do say that Salafi scriptural readings can be helpful in some interventions, provided they are handled carefully. In the wider world beyond deradicalization circles, though, they certainly can be dangerous, some say, and this view appears to have gained ground over the years. Furthermore, orthodox but non-Salafi readings can be better suited for this kind of deradicalization work.
In fact, strong as their case may seem, Salafis in the UK are actually in a bind. The terrorists of Islamic State are only realizing much of the social blueprint they promote, including jihad and brutal sharia punishments.
Moreover, their preaching has evidently not dissuaded Husnain Rashid and many more drawn from traditionalist circles to the most dangerous extremism.
If anything, Salafi preaching can be a gateway, not a barrier.
The Muhammadi mosque provides a case in point, as the rest of this report will show.
Abul Abbas Naveed Ayaaz
Abul Abbas Naveed Ayaaz is the Muhammadi mosque’s main imam. Like many of his Salafi fellows in the UK, he studied Islam at the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Ayaaz also preaches at other mosques and Islamic centers in the region. They include the as-Sunnah mosque in Accrington, the Darussalam Education Centre in Blackburn, the Furqan Centre in Leicester, the Newcastle Central Mosque, the Umar mosque in Nottingham, the Nottingham Islam Information Point, and the City Mosque in Preston.
Ayaaz opposes Islamic State, but he lauds the concept of jihad in sermons. This is a quote from a sermon titled “Advice to the Muslim Youth”, apparently delivered in 2015 and available on YouTube (emphases added):
The obligation upon every single Muslim is to bear witness, that you have to bear witness that he, the prophet, he fulfilled the trust, the trust which Allah placed upon him. The prophet, he fulfilled the trust. And you have to bear witness that the prophet conveyed the message, and that he advised the ummah, and that he strived and fought jihad in the way of Allah in the utmost sense until certainty came to him, i.e. the certainty of death.
So, the prophet, he passed away. However, there remained after the passing of the prophet great men and great scholars. His supporters, the Ansar, his companions, the Khulafa (the rightly guided successors), they remained behind. And they took it upon themselves to carry on the message of the prophet, and to spread tawheed (the oneness of God), and to teach the people, give dawah (propagation), and fight jihad according to the sunnah (sayings and actions of the prophet).
Note how Ayaaz frames this message. Salafi preachers urge Muslims to return to what they see as the pristine Islam of the faith’s earliest years. The prophet and his companions are the ultimate role models. In our times, presenting their participation in jihad as exemplary is obviously potentially dangerous, no matter how many caveats and qualifications a preacher may add.
In another sermon on “victory” for the Muslims, apparently recorded in December 2016, Ayaaz warns Muslims that they must not let worldly concerns distract them from the faith, including the “obligation” of jihad (emphases added):
Ibn Umar (a companion of the prophet) said, “I heard the messenger of Allah say, if you deal in interest, and if you take the tails of the cows, and if you become happy and content with farming, and you abandon jihad, then Allah will bring humiliation upon you until you return back to your religion.”
You learn all of knowledge, but regarding the religion of Allah you are negligent and you are ignorant. The dunya (earthly life) is in front of your eyes and the you throw the akhira (the afterlife) behind your back. When you do this, and when you leave jihad, and this jihad is the jihad which is an obligation upon the Muslims.
Ayaaz returns to this theme in another sermon at the Nottingham Islam Information Point, apparently recorded in December 2017. The context makes it clear he is talking about physical conflict – he mentions the weapons, strength, numbers, and technology of “the enemies”. He also laments Muslims “losing Jerusalem”.
The prophet, he said, “when you, when you start to deal in interest, and when you, the Muslims, when you start to chase the tails of the cows”, meaning the dunya, “and when you, the Muslims, when you become happy with farming”, meaning when you become happy with the dunya, “and when you, the Muslims, you leave jihad fisabilillah (in the path of God)”, then, he said, “then Allah will bring humiliation upon you and he will not remove this humiliation from you, the Muslims, until you, oh Muslims, you return to your religion.”
Look, this hadith does not talk about the strength of the enemies, or the weapons of the enemies, or the greatness and the great numbers of the enemies, it only talks about you Muslims, us, with our weakness. We’ve become happy with the dunya and leaving the religion. And what is the solution? Until you return to your religion.
And Allah said in the Qur’an, that any calamity, any affliction which touches you as an ummah (community of believers), it’s not because of their strength and their numbers and their technology, it’s because of what your own hands have earned. And we find this message in the Qur’an and the sunnah again and again. So, it isn’t that they have conquered Jerusalem, but it is that we have lost Jerusalem because of our sins.
In another sermon delivered at the Darussalam Centre in Blackburn in December 2016, Ayaaz describes jihad this way (emphases added):
Just as he [Allah] has obligated acts of worship upon the limb, like sujood (prostration), like jihad, and performing hajj (pilgrimage), all of these are physical acts of worship.
This information was gathered from samples of Ayaaz’s recorded sermons, not an extensive review. It is likely that he has delivered similar messages in other sermons.
The Student Who Went to Jihad
In a sermon apparently recorded in April 2017, one learns that Husnain Rashid was not the only man Ayaaz’s mosque failed to dissuade. Another man who was Ayaaz’s student went on to jihad and was killed by his own group for defiance. Even in this harrowing context, Ayaaz stands up for the concept of jihad (emphases added):
In my town, there was a brother who used to attend my lessons and at that time we used to teach the 40 hadiths of Imam al-Nawawi. And this brother, mashallah (God has willed it), he had a beard, you know, he was practicing, and he used to give dawah in the town centre, he was very active, mashallah. And then all of a sudden, he’s left. He’s left Britain and he has gone to a particular country where there was a lot of fighting.
And I know this person personally. He used to attend my lessons and his brother told me afterwards. So, this brother, he went to the people he was fighting with, I’m not going to name who they are, and he said to them, “look, I left kufr (disbelief) to come aid Islam. I didn’t come to kill Muslims, so I’m taking a step back.” You know what happened? He was assassinated.
And this is jihad? This is how the Islamic State is going to be established? So, the true jihad and the true Islamic state, it isn’t established by, you know, young foolish people of visions. It is through usl, through principles, through knowledge.
Note that the “40 Hadiths” collection Ayaaz mentions includes some disturbing words – a call “to fight against people until they testify that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammed is the messenger of Allah and until they perform the prayers and pay the zakat”, an endorsement of the “legal” spilling of Muslim blood for adulterers and apostates, and a description of jihad as the “peak” of Islam.
Support for Brutal Sharia Punishments
Brutal sharia punishments are a hallmark of Islamic State operations. Once again, support for the concept can be found in many Salafi preachers’ sermons.
Ayaaz is no exception. In a sermon titled “This is what Islam teaches us”, apparently delivered in 2017, he supports the lashing and stoning of “fornicators”:
From the comprehensive rulings of Islam, is that it protects the lineage of a person and it protects the honour of children in the future. And for this reason, zina (fornication or adultery), it was made haram. And not only was adultery made haram, rather the punishment is severe. That if the adulterer and the adulteress were married, and then they committed adultery, then they are stoned to death. This is what Islam comes with. And if they were not married, then they are lashed 100 times in public.
For emphasis, Ayaaz makes the point again less than a minute later:
So Allah condemned to death the man and woman who commits adultery and Allah condemned the one who was not married to 100 lashes and for that person to be exiled from his land for a whole year.
These messages are dangerous in a world where Islamic State carries out just such punishments with macabre zeal.
Even if Islamic State did not exist, the very idea of stoning an adulterer to death – or indeed anyone – is abhorrent.
There are social risks as well. How will deeply devout family members react if they learn that a son or daughter has had premarital sex or that a spouse has had an affair? The concept of a divine mandate for violence is clearly perilous in such situations.
Social separatism is important to Salafis. Ayaaz is certainly “on message”, as one can see in some of his sermons.
For example, in a sermon titled “Do not imitate the disbelievers in their celebrations and festivals”, apparently delivered in February 2018, Ayaaz has harsh words for Muslims who imitate “enemies”
What is wrong with some of the Muslims, that they seek honour through other than Islam. So they imitate the disbelievers. They follow the kuffar (a pejorative term for disbelievers) in their beliefs, they follow the kuffar in their mannerisms, they imitate the kuffar in their celebrations and their festivals.
Allah and his messenger, they forbade us from imitating the enemies of Islam, from the mushrikun (polytheists), Yahood (Jews) and Nasara (Christians). So we are not allowed to imitate the kuffar in anything which is specific and exclusive to them, anything which is part of their culture and exclusive to their culture, then it is not allowed for a Muslim to imitate it.
Even if they were to enter the hole of a lizard, then you will follow them and imitate them and enter into this hole. The companions said, “oh messenger of Allah, are you referring to the Jews and the Christians?” The prophet said “who other than them”.
And the prophet, if you read his sira (biography), and if you contemplate the rulings of Islam, you’ll find many things the prophet did and legislated so we are different from them and that we don’t imitate them. So, for example, the Yahood and the Nasara, they used to take the graves of their prophets to be places of worship, so the prophet forbade us from doing this so we don’t be similar to them. He said “the curse of Allah is upon the Yahood and the Nasara”.
Jews and Christians are not the only people who need to be concerned about this message. In Pakistan, the graves of figures revered by Sufi Muslims are cherished shrines. Incensed by this violation of what they see as Allah’s clear and strict injunctions, Salafi extremists carry out brutal terrorist attacks on the shrines.
In the same sermon, Ayaaz goes on to map several mundane, harmless and usually cheerful Western social events as serious theological dangers:
So, all of these rulings and many more rulings that show us what? That there is a principle in our religion that we have to be distinguished from the Yahood, the Nasara, the mushrikun. And we are not allowed to imitate them in anything which is specific to them. And this prohibition of imitating the Yahood and the Nasara is even more severe when it comes to festivals, gatherings, and their celebrations.
So, celebrating birthdays is from the culture of al-kuffar, not from our culture. And marriage anniversaries, death anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Christmas, Easter, all of this is from the practice of the Yahood and the Nasara and the kuffar, and the mushrikun, exclusive to them. And therefore it is not allowed for a person to celebrate it in any way. Mentioning it, remembering it, giving greetings, giving cards. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, all of this.
For Ayaaz, even a Christmas school play is a hazard. In another sermon titled “Christmas and Islamic perspective” on YouTube, apparently delivered in December 2014, he says:
Every parent has a right to go to the school and say “I don’t want my child, as a Muslim, taking part in any Christmas festivities, any plays, any cards, I don’t want my child to be a part of this”. Even the young Muslim brothers, even if your parents don’t know, then you have the right to do so. That you go to your teacher in school, and you say to them “we’re Muslims and we don’t celebrate Christmas. We don’t take part in these plays. We don’t act out Jesus and Mary and the angel and things like that. This is an insult to our religion.”
In Britain’s multicultural society, these messages are a path to social division. At best.
The Charlie Hebdo “Criminals”
The dangers of Ayaaz’s messages can also be seen in a sermon on “The Rights of the Prophet of Islam on His Ummah”. It was delivered just after the terrorist attack on the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Ayaaz does say the attack was a crime. But he follows up with this observation, almost in the same breath:
We say that those people, those journalists who were killed, and they mocked, by drawing cartoons of the prophet, then they are also criminals. They are criminals in the sight of Islam.
This is another illustration of the Salafi bind. Salafis may insist that Muslims must not take such matters into their own hands. But if they paint terrorist targets as reprehensible criminals, they cannot be surprised if some Muslims do decide to take action. This is just what happened in Paris in January 2015 and countless other places before and since.
It is no use blaming careless architects or thoughtless builders alone. In our dangerous times, the Salafi blueprint is part of the problem.