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Review: Chris Heffelfinger's Radical Islam in America: Salafism’s Journey from Arabia to the West
CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN, 10/1/2011

Chris Heffelfinger is an FBI Fellow who provides instruction on radical Islamist movements for the FBI and the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  His book, Radical Islam in America: Salafism’s Journey from Arabia to the West (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2011) opens with the radicalization of John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban."  It is the story of a troubled teenager whose parents are divorcing and who is in search of an identity, structure, and a purpose.  The author delves into how he discovers Islam, and the trajectory that leads him to the Salafi form of Islam, and from there, the Violent Islamist manifestations of Salafism.  What is highlighted in the book is that Lindh would encounter a kaleidoscope of Islamic expression in Yemen that did not fit the fantasy form of Islam he encountered in the United States.  This brings to focus the reality that Violent Islamist recruiters fear diverse interpretations of Islam that could dissuade a recruit from partaking in violent acts on behalf of their agenda and interpretation of what Islam is. 

Radical Islam in America: Salafism’s Journey from Arabia to the West

Heffelfinger defines Salafism as a return to the pious founders, and he further educates the reader that this form of Sunni Islam rejects the existence of multiple sects, interpretations, and denominations of Islam.   For the Salafi there is only one true way, and it is theirs.  This means Salafis exclude a good majority of Muslims both Sunni and Shiite.  To add more complexity, the book discusses the nuanced differences between what has been called neo-Salafis who are a product of the nineteenth century and who attempted to find a happy reconciliation between Islam and modernism, and those Salafis who reject this in favor of retreating from society, or worse, engage in the violent overthrow of the social order. 

Chapters then discuss how Salafism entered the United States as early as 1932, and how elements of the Salafi-Jihadi trend have used America as a base of operations for fundraising and recruitment.  It is easy for the reader to equate Salafism with Islam, and it is important to understand they represent a subsection within 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, and between 2-7 million Muslim-Americans.  The book does not offer ways in which the United States can protect itself while preserving its people's civil liberties.  This requires a refined level of understanding that allows America’s security officials a better grasp of the nuances and diversity not just within Islam, but also the nuances and differences among the Salafis.  For instance, Salafi-jihadi (violent Salafis) can be opposed by Salafi-ilmi (those engaged in proselytizing and who wish to live their lives according to their beliefs and find the actions of jihadis to undermine their lifestyles). 

The Saudi government is a chief sponsor of a form of Salafism, known as Wahhabism and uses this Islamic interpretation to undermine al-Qaida ideology in networks like al-Arabiyah TV and in their pan-Arab newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat.   While one may not be a fan of Wahhabism, this is the complex world we live in today. What is certain is that the imposition of one form of Islam on 1.5 billion Muslims is delusional, as it does not take into account human diversity. In addition, seeing Muslims in America as a one dimensional problem is also counter-productive and provides no realistic options for the defense of the United States.  The book is a recommended read to begin a serious conversation on the nuances and diversity inherent in Islam.

Commander Aboul-Enein is Senior Advisor on Militant Islamist Ideology at DI/JITF-CT.  He is author of “Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” published in 2010 by Naval Institute Press.  Commander Aboul-Enein is Adjunct Islamic Studies Chair at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, where he teaches an elective entitled, “Islam, Islamist Political Theory, and Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Nuance.” He wishes to thank Midshipman Elise Luers, USNR studying at the University of Mississippi for her edits and discussion of these books.  


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