How I almost became a salafist

Wednesday 19 June 201903:17 pm
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Fifteen years ago, I was a young adolescent looking for something that would make me feel like I existed.

I was terrified of being devoured by loneliness, so I decided to become a salafist, which everyone in Libya was doing in the early 2000s. This was due to the failure of the national project, a failure that created a dichotomy: it succeeded in making everyone reject the notion that we are different, and yet it made the country a suitable place for the growth of religious sectarianism, whose only justification as an ideology is the fact that differences exist.

It started out as a way to fill out my leisure time, and it was normal then to meet salafis, adherents of a fundamentalist and austere version of Islam, on their daily trips to the mosque five times a day.

"Fifteen years ago, I was a young adolescent looking for something that would make me feel like I existed": How I almost became a salafist

But my questioning of the movement was growing because of the contradictions within salafist thought which seemingly pushes you in two opposing directions: either to look for answers that will be shocking, or to be content with facile answers. And because my companions of the mosque at the time were limited in knowledge and refused to think out loud, they asked the advice of a salafist responsible for running a mosque close to our neighborhood.

I entered the living room for our appointment. He was bearded and powerfully built and was wearing a long robe, surrounded by relatives of the owner of the house who were listening to his talk about everything. He had strong convictions about Heaven and Hell and the inhabitants of both.

He asked me: "Brothers say that you are questioning the hadiths of al-Bukhari [a compendium of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad] and measuring them on the scale of your mind. Is this true?"

His tone was like that of a police investigator from a television series. We had a brief conversation in which he said that copying the behavior of early Muslims took precedence to using the mind, and that this belief was a pillar of the faith. He declared that anyone who contradicts what is stated in the inherited traditions is an infidel, an epithet he used to describe his own father and mother, whom he said would go to Hell.

This was a shock to me. I had not imagined that things had gotten so bad, that the isolation from the rest of society had reached such a degree. Then I remembered the wedding of our salafist neighbor, who used to play football with us, and who did not invite any of the neighbors to the wedding. He just built a tent in the middle of the road as per Libyan tradition, and that day turned the neighborhood into Afghanistan under the Taliban – no music, no singing, a tent full of bearded men and veiled women entering from the back door, and no one in the neighborhood knew them. It's another society that has nothing to do with any of us.

Our salafist friend, the sheikh of the mosque, justified his certainty that his parents were in hell by saying that they asked him to shave his beard for fear of arrest. I wondered why this man would fear arrest if he was the imam of a mosque in the middle of the Libyan capital, when everybody knew that the state’s security organs managed all of Libya’s mosques?

He continued to talk, saying: I left the house, as staying with my father and my mother is not permissible because they are infidels. I stayed in a shelter at the farm of a friend and got married there, until a group of good salafists managed to find halal work for me after I left the university that taught the infidel Western sciences, and I worked distributing water to the shops as work in the state institutions is haram according to these salafists .

Working in state institutions, because they deal with a usury-based banking system, is "haram". Schools, hospitals, and even football… all of them are "haram" for many reasons, such as the mixing of the sexes, imitation of infidels, or because they did not exist in the era of the Prophet 14 centuries ago.

The salafist suddenly turned to me with questions: "They told me you are Jebali/Amazigh. Is this true?" I replied in the affirmative. He replied: "You Amazigh follow the doctrine of misguided, Ibadi infidels, and you must repent and follow the righteous path of salafism”

And here I decided to flee around the time our host announced lunch, claiming i had a prior engagement with someone I made up, before the salafist became more ferocious. Anyone who declares before everyone that his mother and father will go to Hell because of his beard is most certainly someone who would be likely to eat me alive without any qualms while his conscience assures him that he is a good man.

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