Islamic reformation and Islamic revival have been two hot-button topics in Western media, especially after the emergence of new forms of Salafism after the 2011 Arab Spring. While Islamic reformation is often treated as favorable due to its adaptation to Western norms, the Islamic revival of Salafism is feared to bring back an ancient and anti-modern form of Islam that could threaten Western society.
But in face of Salafists’ increasing usage of mass media, how do we analyze a form of Salafism created through the media? A prime example is the YouTube channel Salafimedia, which was created in 2009 with the aim to promote monotheism (tawheed) and strict adherence to the Qur’an and Sunnah upon the understanding of the righteous predecessors (salaf al-salih) or the first generations of Muslims after the Prophet Muhammad. According to the website, Salafimedia’s main concern is outreach (dawah) and the target audience is male Muslims in the UK and internationally, who are addressed as brothers. As of February 28th, 2013, there are 908 subscribers and 60,661 views of the channel’s shows, interviews, news, lectures, and other “top quality programming,” which are designed produce the best insight to Islam.
Salfimedia identifies as the most authentic and most modern Muslim community (ummah), as demonstrated in their most recent video posting, entitled The New Salafimedia Rebrand Video 2013: 4th Year Relaunch. Describing their new identity as rebranded and Salafism as a brand indexes marketing or business strategies – a new brand usually sells a new outlook. Furthermore, employing the metaphors of “rewriting the script” and “going back to the drawing board” further communicates the members’ desires to reorganize and change their story, more so since they increasingly have to respond to accusations of radicalization by the UK government. Salfimedia becomes a platform for social action and their beliefs become politicized.
The rebranding video has two parts: the first part presents action sequences and special effects that accompany important messages. For instance, the video begins with the image of a lion, later explained by “May Allah make us have the roar of a lion, with the heart of a lion.” Text runs through the screen, urging the audience to “believe in it, live by it, be ready to die for it,” where it refers to the promise of Allah, the call, or the revelation. In the transition to the second part, a wild black horse gallops over a dark, war-torn, post-apocalyptic world accompanied by lightening flashes, symbolizing both the destruction of a corrupt world and the renewal and power through Salafi Islam.
In the second part, four lecturers scold an imaginary Muslim audience about having forgotten the core message of the Prophet Muhammad from 1400 years ago. For special effects, superimposed animations of gunshots are fired through the screen and followed by explosions. The men project Salafism as “the truth and nothing but the truth” and they tell their followers that they are the best ummah. Especially prominent are the speakers’ repeated calls to “enjoin the good and forbid the evil,” highlighting the binary oppositions between the Salafis (the good) and the Western unbelievers or kufar (the evil). Only through a radical reorientation to the way of the salaf can the global ummah regain agency, strength, power, and victory. The video is an urgent wake-up call for misguided Muslims.
So, is Salafimedia an Islamic revivalist or a reformist movement? It’s hard to say. On one hand, it is revivalist because it reinvents the way of the salaf, despite accusations of being anti-modern and oppressive. On the other hand, it differs greatly from Salafist norms before the 2011 Arab Spring that are very much anchored in territory, ethnicity, nation, kinship, or tribe. All four men insist that they are “not a group,” nor do they support any UK based Islamic group or organization. Instead, they call on the ummah to “leave off all groups, deviant sects, and parties.” The audience is encouraged to solely identify with the salaf and to background other possible identity categories, such as ethnicity, nationality, or denomination. This allows new Salafis to circumvent mosques or Islamic centers that might not accept them so readily.
Olivier Roy, a scholar on Islamic practice, links this type of deterritorialization of Islam to the growing number of Muslims living in Western non-Muslim countries, which spreads specific forms of religiosity, including neo-fundamentalism, a renewal of spirituality, and an insistence on Islam as a system of values and ethics. If this is the case and if “religiosity” is more important than “religion,” can we see commonalities between the creed of Salafimedia and contemporary reformed religions, such as Christianity? It is not surprising that the basic ways to get to the truth in Salafism are embedded in postmodern religiosity that foregrounds an inward-looking and personal relationship with God. Feelings of being in touch with God are more important than closed scriptural interpretations that developed over centuries. This privatization of faith has been seen in numerous evangelical and charismatic movements. Roy claims that “Islam cannot escape the New Age of religions or choose the form of its own modernity” (p. 6).
So, do the productive and creative modes of religious meaning-making through an Internet platform complicate the analysis of contemporary Salafist movements? What is clear is that Salafimedia is not a digital extension of a “real” Salafi community. Instead, the YouTube platform creates a third space in which individualized “true” Islam can thrive outside the confines of corruptible human interpretations by the ulama. It creates a decentralized, egalitarian, and multicultural community, aligning with precepts of postmodernity. In this space, both the ultra-orthodox Salafist doctrine and the YouTube channel platform are in a dialogical relationship and promise easy, direct, and unmediated access. The former grants direct access to the Qur’an, Sunnah, and hence to God as the highest authority. Similarly, the YouTube platform grants free and quick access to animated messages. The controversial rhetoric of Salafimedia fits well with this platform that is known for presenting revolutionary, innovative, and authentic ideas. So, isn’t it the case that the YouTube channel creates new possibilities for the actualization of belief that not only defy opposing “real” and “unreal” communities, but also should make us wary of classifying new Salafi movements as anti-modern or not, revivalist or not, or reformist or not? Perhaps rebranding might be a better analytic concept.