Education on Islam for Special Forces Needs an Overhaul: Africa as a Case Study

By: Capt. Caleb Slayton

Islam is and should be a core education topic for Special Operations units. Dozens of nations' armed forces have been engaging enemies in Muslim-majority countries for decades. Besides violent engagements, Special Forces partnerships are growing in places like Morocco, Senegal, Niger, Chad, Somalia, and Kenya. In many Western countries, religion is a side note, an asterisk. But in West and East Africa, Islam determines much of life's patterns. The aspects that think tanks, inter-religious foundations, universities, and formal military courses must strive to explain are the visible tension and variation inside Islam itself. This tension can lead to violence where Muslims and non-Muslims alike are the victims. Because militaries are in the business of security and stability, understanding the causes of violence in any social context is obligatory.

The strategy for teaching Islam to Special Forces members has included various approaches, without losing sight of two very important objectives. The first objective is to gain an honest understanding of Islam, especially as it relates to military and diplomatic engagements. Security-sector assistance and long-term military partnerships are possible only when mutual cultural understanding is present. The second objective is to gain mutual respect through inter-religious dialogue, to correct misperceptions, and to avoid overgeneralizing the "source" of violent extremism.1 In this paper, I argue that while these objectives are noble, the method and specific instruction for achieving the objectives, which are influenced by media accounts and even "moderate" Muslims, have been overgeneralized to the point of becoming unhelpful and potentially dangerous. These sincere but misleading approaches will ultimately achieve the opposite of their intent.

Furthermore, in recent contingencies, religion has been labeled a taboo topic. Special Operations forces are told to avoid the topic in every instance. This injunction ignores two important factors: (1) religious discussions do not harbor the same heated undertones in every region, even between Muslim regions, and (2) religion is often the most important, if not the favorite, topic for an African Muslim. How does one build a relationship when a prime topic of discussion is consciously avoided?

Instruction and the Media on Islam

This may be an optimistic assumption, but most Special Forces operators have received some kind of formal education on Islam. In initial education models, SF members learn the basic "five pillars" of Islam, which focus on praxis, or the outward expression of the religion. Members with a more personal interest may receive a deeper education on Islamic beliefs and the theological pillars, including a discussion of tawhid, iman, ‘adl, and reward and punishment.2 Due to more recent events and the conflicts in the Middle East, Special Forces members are digging deeper to understand the sources of violent extremism, the roots of Islamist teachings, and dangerous takfiri ideology. In most curricula, the military member will be reminded that the violent extremist Salafist ideology represents a very small minority of the world's Muslims.3 That small percentage, however, can do a lot of damage physically, socially, and psychologically.

The "takfiri" title used to describe today's terrorist groups and activities is important. Takfiri is related in its root to the word kafr. Kafr can be translated as "unbeliever" and kufr as "unbelief." Takfir is the practice of calling out unbelievers, specifically Muslims who have supposedly turned away from proper Islam. The takfiri terrorist takes this accusation to the extreme conclusion and deems "apostate" Muslims a legitimate target because they have abandoned Islam. Al Qaeda and its various branches—Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya, Ansar al-Sharia in North Africa, and Boko Haram in Nigeria, to name a few— are takfiri terrorist organizations.4  Most Muslims and non-Muslims alike agree that takfiri terrorism is the enemy of all.

There are two additional items that must be clarified from the previous explanation. First, despite the vigorous efforts of a few well-respected Muslims to remove teachings on apostasy from Islam altogether using Islamic methods of kalam (rational argument), the majority of Muslim clerics hold the belief that someone who leaves Islam deserves death.5  The takfiri terrorist, however, bypasses the moderate Islamic justice system, which makes "proving" apostasy almost impossible and leaves the punishment up to God. Second, in expediting the punishment of supposed apostasy, the takfiri terrorist utilizes an extreme interpretation of shari'a law, often called Wahhabi Salafism, which bases all legal interpretation on the literal and legalistic reading of the Qur'an and Hadith and rejects other valid legal methods, such as consensus (ijma'a), analogy (qiyās), or personal judgment and independent reasoning (ijtihaad).6

What begins as a simple explanation of Islam is necessarily transformed into a theological and legalistic discussion of what it means to be Muslim. The Salafist thought that can lead to violent takfiri extremism is often called an ideology. But as Anna Simons points out, this takfiri theology has been around since the beginning decades of Islam in 700 AD, and arises from a fundamentally religious outlook more than an easily corrected or logically defeated ideology.7  Ideology and religion aside, a correct understanding of this aspect of Islam can help counterterrorism professionals to directly identify the perpetrator of unjust violence and the violator of human rights. In addition, this education for SF personnel can serve to correct stereotypical assumptions about all Muslims, thus righting destructive prejudices.8

As is already made clear in the previous paragraphs, it is important to know who is defining the problem and who, overall, can claim to represent the Muslim ummah, the "global population of Muslims." Media machines, policy think tanks, Muslim professors, and Western academics are striving to define and label these Islamic phenomena. Misrepresenting all Muslims as terrorists is just as dangerous in the long run as the extreme counter-approach that the moderate moguls have come up with of late; nowadays, all Muslims tend to be placed neatly into one of two categories: "good" or "bad."

Deciding Who Is Good or Bad

Drawing from my own review of media (in Arabic, French, and English), think tank papers, research reports, and lectures from Special Operations curricula, I have developed a list of the terms most commonly used to describe these two categories, as shown in table 1.9

Table 1
"Good" Islam/Muslims "Bad" Islam/Muslims
Moderate Takfiri
Secular Jihadi
Democratic Salafi
Sufi Islamist
Quietist Khomeinist
Modernist Wahhabist
Pro-Western Shari'a Supporter
Reformist Fundamentalist
Liberal Extremist/Radical

On the one hand, having a chart to give us the "answers" is very handy. In the struggle to define a Muslim, there will be those who claim to have the "correct" definition, which, at the political and diplomatic levels, might conceivably be useful to accept. This may aid in a very surface understanding of various Muslim movements, but there are simply too many social, cultural, historical, environmental, and self-interested actors in this "name game" to render such a dichotomy very useful, especially in regard to ground-level, relational interactions. A few of the labels are completely misleading but still very tempting for the secular Western audience to apply. The best analysis of Islam and Muslims, as with any other large ethnic or religious group, looks at each region, state, province, and village on its own merit. When Special Forces members are directly engaged in-country at these several levels, doing everything from assisting in combat to advising on civil-military relations, there is no one representative answer to what it means to be Muslim.

The "Bad" List: Wahhabi and Salafi

Wahhabi Islam is a school of thought related to the Hanbali tradition of jurisprudence. Wahhabis are found mostly in the Persian Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia, where the ruling Saud monarchy continues a fragile power-sharing agreement with the Wahhabi religious establishment—each giving tacit and active consent, and therefore legitimacy, to the other. Saudi Arabia is not officially categorized as a state sponsor of terrorism, but it is certainly difficult to balance the realpolitik of Saudi Arabia's international relations when Wahhabi thought is so closely connected with more extreme Wahhabi teachings. The international political realm has a tightrope to walk in its relations with this enormously important country when considering the "bad" and "good" columns of table 1.10

What is Salafism? According to the Jordanian Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, Salafism is not regarded as a school of jurisprudence or theology.11 In most definitions, it is labeled as Salafi thought, which gives it more of a philosophical or ideological connotation.12 According to The Muslim 500: The World's 500 Most Influential Muslims 2013/14, a publication by the Jordanian Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, "Salafism seeks to revive the practice of Islam as it was at the time of Muhammad and can be critical of too much emphasis being placed on thinkers from after this period. Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al Wahhab (1703–1792 CE) was an important figure in the resurrection of this ideology, therefore Salafism is often simply known as Wahhabism."13

Salafi movements and their active and passive followers are too politically and economically influential to label as "bad" (even calling them a minority undersells the impact), especially in the Arab world. The "Top 50" section of The Muslim 500 lists more than a dozen Salafi figures, and for at least the three editions prior to the 2013 edition the top slot went to a Salafi, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud.14 Salafi political parties exist in force from Morocco to Kuwait. Their leaders and religious teachers are avid Facebook users. They are often the respected voice defending Islam in disruptive areas such as Syria and Lebanon.15 Their movements are as varied as they are influential. Not only is it misleading to regard Salafi thought as a less-important minority sect, but labeling Salafism as "bad" per se completely disregards the diversity of its leaders and followers. Many Salafi thinkers trace their ideas to Wahhabi scholars. Other less-studious and more-zealous Salafis tend to focus on modern Muslims' apparent decadence and lack of religious duty and practice. But there are Salafi movements that are leaning toward political compromise, others that reject violence, and still others that want nothing more than to retreat in silence and give themselves completely to the individual study of the Qur'an and Hadith.

An Al Jazeera report on Salafism in West Africa described three types of Salafism. Purist Salafism is nonviolent and seeks to reform Islam away from Sufi and "heterodox" movements, basing its teachings on the Qur'an and Hadith alone. Political Salafism, which works alongside the political establishment in support of a political party or regime, could be considered a subset of general Islamism or political Islam. Finally, jihadi Salafism is the violent form of Salafi thought associated with takfiri groups.16 With these categories in mind, the Moroccan reformed jihadi Salafist Sheikh Fizazi believed that there was hope to bring Salafi followers away from violent extremism and focus on purist Salafism alone, a movement to which King Mohammed VI of Morocco gives active support.17

At the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, there were those who wanted to give the Salafist movements a chance and those who prophesied only chaos if Salafists were given a share of government. In some cases, the former were correct. The latter cases may have been examples of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Respected analysts like Robin Wright, in her book and corresponding blog titled The Islamists Are Coming, came down somewhere in the middle: the behavior of any Salafist movement completely depended on the country, its history, and its unique political environment.18 Depending on the context, during the Arab Spring many analysts and Arab Muslims applied a "let's wait and see" attitude to Salafist and Islamist groups.

Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood

A large number of Muslim scholars are endorsing what they consider to be the "cure-all" for "bad" Islam: "good" religious education. As in Morocco and also in Mauritania, there are efforts to reform violent extremists by correcting their Islamic theology and takfiri ideas through re-education. More recently, the outspoken target for religious re-education has been Muslim Brotherhood supporters and sympathizers. Analysts, Muslim and non-Muslim, have been generally baffled by the split-offs, evolution, pacification, revolution, and resurgent extremism of the Muslim Brotherhood. There is a historical and ideological connection between Brotherhood teachings and violent Islamist groups, and it is well documented that some Muslim Brotherhood splinter groups formed the base of many of today's takfiri groups. The various Brotherhood branches today, however, do not all maintain the same links and strategies. Some have played important roles in Egypt's economic development and in political administration at the local level. Syria's former president Hafez al-Assad and Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak not only kept the Brotherhood on the "bad" list but also resorted to extreme measures to politically marginalize or even physically exterminate its members, a trend that has only deepened under each president's successor.

In 2012, a U.S. military officer instructor triggered a chain reaction of reform in the Department of Defense's approach to teaching Islam when he was accused of indirectly describing all Muslims as the enemy and showcasing his research claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood is embedded in and seeking to dominate the American government.19 The partisan language and gross overgeneralizations of the instruction were not in line with the educational objectives of understanding and respecting Islam and Muslims. In Egypt today, however, the Muslim Brotherhood clearly remains on the "bad" list. The government of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi not only banned all Muslim Brotherhood activity after deposing the Brotherhood's elected president Mohamed Morsi, but also removed all Brotherhood associates from religious establishments and criminalized any direct or indirect contact with the Brotherhood or its activities.20 The Egyptian courts have recently rounded up thousands of people suspected of being Muslim Brotherhood activists, and so far have condemned over 700 to death in questionably legal trials, most in absentia.21

Egypt announced its stance on the Muslim Brotherhood to the rest of the world, tacitly encouraging neighboring countries to follow its lead.22 So far, only Saudi Arabia has done so to the extent that Egypt would like.23 Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, and Jordan are still working hard to come to a political compromise with their Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties; Tunisia and Bahrain reject the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is globally united. Its various offshoots in different countries have developed independent movements capable of enjoining more-moderate principles.24

The Muslim Brotherhood, far from being an elite band of radicals, represents a large portion of society in Egypt and, to a lesser extent, the Arab world, whether religiously, theologically, or just socially. Some Brotherhood leaders elsewhere in the region are looking at Egypt and learning to tone down their rhetoric, and to favor the more moderate popular sentiment above hardline political Islamism. The United States, for its part, prefers stability above all, and has refused to come down in favor of any side. This careful position has led parts of moderate Egyptian Muslim society to discredit the United States for attempting to mediate between all religious parties in Egypt, including the Brotherhood.


The term jihad is often linked to the other "bad" Muslim titles to make them even more "bad."25 In most media contexts, jihad refers to Muslims who resort to violence to promote their beliefs. Moderate Muslim scholars and academics continue to correct the improper view of jihad by explaining that the most important jihad is the struggle to live a good life, eschew temptation, and support one's family. However, in this sense, jihad needs more than just these two contextual definitions; it requires a third, a middle way. The first kind of jihad is the internal fight to be a good Muslim. The second kind is the takfiri jihad taken on by terrorists with the intent to wipe out all apostate Muslims, and the people and governments who support them. The first definition is related to moderate Islam, and the second to Salafi or Wahhabi extremist teachings. The third kind of jihad sits somewhere between these two.

To support the inner jihad as the only legitimate jihad and condemn the takfiri jihad as un-Islamic is only partially correct. The conflict in Syria, continuing rhetoric against Israel, and the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq remind us that even moderate Muslims will find clerical and Qur'anic support to defend their brethren, and Islam itself, from slaughter, invasion, and slander.26 One does not need jihadi teaching to be inspired to defend one's own country or neighbors; any patriotic citizen of any creed would do the same. Thus, those who are not actively joining takfiri groups in Syria but continue to support the defense of helpless Muslims feel they are fulfilling proper jihad. The many Muslims who support this middle jihad mix with the takfiri jihadists in blogs, comments, and reactions to current events. They often comment on the same news article or event to support their own ideas.

Using one simple example among many: The Maghreb countries (Morocco to Tunisia) have reported on their attempts to deter and prevent Muslims from fighting in Syria. The online news source Magharebia, which typically receives barely a dozen comments on its articles, released a news article on this policy in February 2014 and was flooded with hundreds of diverse reactions. In between the pacifist and takfiri reasoning was the middle jihadist, who believed he should fight simply to protect Muslims from dying. As one commenter railed, "Cracking down on jihad! By God this is unfortunate. [Is it] not enough that men are extinct! Still you ban jihad! No, you want us to stay idle and watch our brothers tortured and women raped so that your conscience would rest."27 Call it self-defense or simply nationalism, as a great deal of the West would, but many Muslims still call it jihad.

Secular, Liberal, Pro-Western, and Shari'a

Every Muslim believes in shari'a law.28 When shari'a is placed on the "bad" list by Muslims and non-Muslims, neither is offering a true definition of shari'a. The non-Muslim often imagines only the sensational aspects of shari'a, without realizing that shari'a is part of everyday Muslim life. The Muslim who calls shari'a bad is either catering to the sensationalism or has in mind an unvoiced, more liberal image of shari'a. Shari'a is what explains how to pray, how much alms to give, family law, inheritance, and how to determine what is prohibited, neutral, or obligatory and the associated punishment or reward. What the majority of Muslims do not prefer is the extreme interpretation of shari'a that forgets mercy and abuses the death penalty.29

At the same time, non-Muslims support the idea of secular Islam, comparing it to their own idea of "secular." Many Westerners have shed their religious identities in practice and claim to be religious primarily as a nominal heritage. When a Muslim calls himself (or herself ) secular, however, it doesn't mean that he does not observe religious practice. A secular Muslim supports shari'a but does not believe that a government or institution should force its observance. A secular Muslim would rather that each individual Muslim be motivated to observe Islam, and shari'a, as he or she sees fit. When reporters lean too far and condemn shari'a in practice, a flood of Muslim commentators will correct them. For example, in the comments section of a recent article reporting on events in Libya, one commentator represented the moderate voice: "Implementing the shari'a of God in all affairs of life is necessary for the adjustment of this life and its stability."30

The miscommunication between Muslims and Westerners runs much deeper. Most Muslims fear what Westerners think of as "secular." As Muslims look at Europe and North America, they hope that more-moderate Islam does not degenerate into liberal morals, the rejection of religion, and the increase of atheism. The individualistic and secular Western culture doesn't quite grasp the concept that a secular Muslim can still be religious. The famed African scholar Ali Mazrui described the dichotomy of "Christian legacy and liberal secularism" as one of the most confusing dualisms of the colonial heritage for Africans to grasp.31 Most of the Muslim world lives in collectivistic societies where family takes precedence over the individual. A Muslim society will not stand by as its values erode into immorality.

The shari'a debate is central to North African politics. In Egypt, the competing parties argue about the extent and implementation of shari'a. Tunisia is again an example of diversity within the "good" and "bad" Muslim categories. Tunisia's Ennahda party, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, not only refused to put shari'a to a referendum vote but also, through its main leader, Rashid Ghannouchi, may even advocate for freedom of conscience in religion—"to leave or embrace any faith."32

As many Muslim countries debate the extent to which shari'a and Islamic culture should be codified in their constitutions in order to preserve the faith, many sub-Saharan African countries are proud of their secular constitutions.33 If asked, a Muslim from Senegal, Mali, or Niger will recount his proud Islamic heritage and observe that these countries remain 90 percent or more Muslim without their citizens being forced into observance by law. Having a secular government but a very religious population is a source of pride for African Muslims, two characteristics that many Arab countries have yet to balance.

Fundamentalism and Modernism

Many of the terms on the "bad" list are related, such as Wahhabi, Salafi, or Islamist. Fundamentalism is another term often associated with extremism, but again, it is an example of cross-terminology and, in this case, a little hypocritical. A fundamentalist Christian is someone who believes that the Bible is literally true: that Jesus was God and said and did the exact things found in the scripture. How one acts on these beliefs may place a Christian in a more extremist or pacifist camp, but the definition remains the same.34

While a growing number of Christians believes that the Bible should not be taken literally, and that it may contain numerous historical mistakes and mythical influences, you will be hard-pressed to find the same degree of secularizing ideas among Muslims. The vast majority of Muslims believe that Muhammad was the final prophet and that through him, the perfect Qur'an was relayed without error. The Muslim world is fundamentalist in this sense.35 It is how the words are interpreted and how shari'a is then applied, however, that divides the moderates from the extremists. The term fundamentalist can be equally as unhelpful on the "good" and "bad" list as the terms secular and shari'a unless we reevaluate our ethnocentric viewpoint.

Islamic modernism is also varied in its definition and application. Islamic modernism emphasizes the need to transform Muslim thought and Qur'anic exegesis with changes in society, technology, and "Westernization." Modernism implies reconciling scientific advancements and cultural shifts with religious imperatives.

In Islam, it can refer to a liberal interpretation of the Qur'an where many shari'a requirements evolve to fit a modern reality, or it can relate to acquiring and utilizing modern conveniences to advance Islam, thus allowing Islamic teachings to meet a wider audience's legalistic needs.

Examples of the latter case are Iran's Ruhollah Khomeini and the Brotherhood's Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. They did not reject modernization but sought to mold it and apply it to their Islamist, "fundamentalist" cause. To these modernist Islamists, "Islam was the answer to the social, political, economic and cultural decline of the ummah."36 Another modernist who was more accommodating and moderate in his dialectic approach to reasoning was Muhammad ‘Abduh of nineteenth-century Egypt. An Al-Azhar University notable and mufti (scholar of Islamic law) of Egypt, ‘Abduh issued a fatwa (a formal legal opinion) favoring unity between the Muslim and Christian sects of diverse South Africa, rather than have them abide by strict shari'a legalism.37 The fatwa may have been controversial, but it recognized the multifarious nature of Africa's Islamic environment.

Pluralism in Sub-Saharan Africa

The overgeneralization of Islamism, Islamists, and political Islamic influence often results from the fact that the Middle East has dominated most analyses of global Islam for decades. Western news media are tempted to apply 10 years of Middle East analysis to the entire region south of the Sahara, based on the assumption that one Muslim culture is like the other. Political Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, however, is just as weak as the region's governmental institutions and political culture. For a dozen historical, cultural, and religious reasons, political Islam is not the force in the Sahel (the Muslim-majority region just south of the Sahara proper) that it is in the Middle East.

There is no one picture of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, no unified leadership or go-to mufti. In modern Morocco, for example, Sufism is all but institutionalized, with regular government-sponsored festivals and well-cared-for shrines, while across the continent in Kenya, Sufism is barely visible.38 Sub-Saharan Muslim communities rely on local marabouts, imams, lamidous, and scholars who are loosely tied to a legal school—or more often, who rely on personal study, flexibility, and independent reasoning.39

Africa as a whole is said by most scholars to contain an Islam highly influenced by Sufi thought. Sufism is on the "good" list. Since many Sufi teachings are abhorred by Salafists and takfiris, this may be a decent indication that it belongs on the "good" side. Generally speaking, Sufism is a mystical, esoteric branch of Islam in which religious texts and poetry have a metaphorical meaning that serves to bring one's being closer to goodness and God's love. Overgeneralization, however, again cripples the analysis. Sufi Islam is a very broad term. 

Sufi Islam and its various mystical practices, which vary widely between regions, molded well with the spiritual foundations of Africa's traditional cultures.40 Salafi purists are unsettled with the way that pre-Islamic African traditions are woven into Sufi ritual. Sufi leaders and tariqas ("orders") can be political or apolitical.41 Some of the most powerful reform movements, such as the uprising of 1881–85 under the famous Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad, were led by Sufis. Uthman dan Fodio, who founded the Sokoto Caliphate in Nigeria in the early nineteenth century, was also a Sufi scholar and reformer. In present-day Senegal, the most powerful Mouridiyya Sufi order has at least four million followers, while Senegal's presidents and politicians hail directly from either the Mouridiyya or Tijaniyya order.42

Many present-day Sufi leaders boldly voice their opposition to takfiri teachings. Other Sufi orders have moved to cleanse and reform what they consider syncretistic practices in African customs, similar to a Salafi quietist approach. Depending on the country and village, Sufism can be political or quietist, reformist or traditional, competitive or sublime.43

Generally speaking, sub-Saharan African Muslims are more moderate, more secular, perhaps more "Western" than their North African counterparts, probably because Middle East politics is not reflected as strongly in sub-Saharan societies. This is not to assume, however, that they are any less "Muslim." It will serve Special Forces well to interact often with their African counterparts to keep a finger on the religious pulse. For better or worse, the cultures are changing with the times, and Islamist teachings are influencing many sub-Saharan Muslim communities.44 Hasty government or community backlashes made in response only threaten to add fuel to the fire of radicalism. 


If Western democratic values are what Western policy makers prefer for Muslim-majority countries, they will have to first consider all the misconceptions discussed here. Freedom of religion does not necessarily mean freedom of conversion.45 Secular does not mean "godless."46 What a "majority" of Muslims prefer in terms of democracy does not imply that the minority will rest easy if their values and beliefs are in jeopardy. Tunisia appears to be treading in the "correct" direction politically, but its secular president, Moncef Marzouki, admits that every court opinion and constitutional paragraph is a tightrope walk of verbal gymnastics, balancing de jure and de facto compromises and legal intent.47

Irony of Analysis 

The irony behind the misleading "two column" education and understanding of Muslims is that it achieves the opposite effect of its aim. Instead of encouraging mutual respect, it results in confusing confrontation. Instead of dissecting and explaining Islam, it waters down the reality while espousing tolerance and compromise. In the end, all these blunders have angered and will continue to anger the very populations that this information approach seeks to engage. Those at the top levels of political discourse are avid supporters of tolerance and religious dialogues. Leading Middle Eastern and Western scholars have signed multiple petitions promising to support mutual understanding.48 These efforts are bold and necessary and should continue, but their failure arises from assuming that the political consensus of top-level scholars' definitions of Islam can capture the practice of every Muslim in every cultural context. Defining "proper Islam" does not necessarily describe everyday Muslim practice, and non-Muslims should avoid taking for granted that the elites and pundits who appear in international media speak for the Muslim masses. 

Many Muslim scholars and "moderates" have also succumbed to the "two column" style of teaching Islam, which is counterproductive to education, counterterrorism, and their own political strategy. In some cases, the fumble is caused by difficult Arabic-to-English translations of religious terms. It is also the result of variations in Islamic practice, the political diversity of Islam, and the pressures placed on Muslim representatives to "explain" their faith to a skeptical and demanding Muslim and non-Muslim population.49 The Qur'an and Hadith are clear on the fact that Muslims are to be united. There is one ummah, and indeed, the broad analysis at the scholarly and political levels ultimately attempts to effect this concept.50

Don't Stop Learning and Talking 

For Special Forces personnel and policy makers alike, the answer to this problem of in-depth understanding involves some of the same steps: Seek out dialogue, personal and communal, with faith systems that are unlike one's own. Approach every engagement with patience and tolerance, even if one does not accept the others' beliefs. Engage and research each Muslim community as its own entity. Do not allow political and emotional baggage from past experiences to determine one's picture of the counterpart. 

This educational approach is politically and religiously sensitive. In many ways, it contradicts the image of a global Islam.51 This method does not intend to incite, create, or even highlight division. The differences are already present, and implying an orthodox or singular Muslim identity not only is counterproductive but also makes military partnerships and long-term relationships at every level impossible. The ummah of believers prays toward Mecca, but how they govern their faith and how they act on the ethical imperative to promote and preserve Islam varies greatly, particularly in Africa. Cooperation must occur in the reality of ethnic, cultural, and ritual diversity.

The military needs continued education on Islam that supports tolerance, dialogue, and compassion. Mutual respect occurs at the lowest level of interpersonal reaction; the more generalized that analysis becomes, the less useful it is. What exactly is a "moderate" Muslim? It all depends on whom you ask. And you can ask, after building a sincere relationship, without depending on a cheat sheet of catchphrases and misleading titles.


About the Author(s): Capt. Caleb Slayton, United States Air Force, is the director of the AFRICOM theater course for Special Operations Forces.


1. These two objectives are largely the approach of conventional military forces as well. 

2. The most important doctrinal point in Islam is tawhid, meaning "the oneness of God." Iman means "faith" and explains the most important items a Muslim must believe about God and his creation. ‘Adl means "justice" and is concerned with how God administers justice in relation to our perception of justice. God is always just. 

3. The exact number is impossible to quantify, as this paper explains. It may be possible to approach a round number for active extremist fighters, but placing a figure on active sympathizers is very difficult. According to one Gallup poll, 7 percent (91 million) of the world's Muslims were identified as radicals based on their favorable response to the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center. Dr. John Esposito and Dr. Dalia Mogahed went on to explain that the radical sentiment is more politically motivated than religious, hence ebbing and flowing with current events. See John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think (New York: Gallup Press, 2007). 

4. Some defectors from other named terrorist groups such as Ansaru in Nigeria, Ansar Dine in Mali, and al Shabaab in Somalia were less comfortable with the indiscriminate targeting of Muslims under the takfiri branding. Groups like Ansar Dine also preferred a less harsh form of shari'a, compared to al Qaeda's preference. Not even all terrorist groups abuse takfiri thought in the same manner. 

5. Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004), 88. 

6. Ibid., 42, 51, 80. 

7. Anna Simons, Axis of Trouble: Male Youth, Factional Politics and Religion (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2005). 

8. The early brand of takfiri thought came from a group called the Khawarij. This group believed that a Muslim who sinned had ceased to be Muslim and therefore was an apostate to be killed. The counter to this early group was the Murji'a, who believed that such condemnation should be "suspended" until after death, when God would determine the status of apostasy. 

9. The "good" category is in no particular order. The "bad" category is arranged roughly from category to subcategory, where all Islamists may be influenced by Khomeinism or Wahhabism but not all Islamists are Salafists, not all Salafists are jihadists, and not all jihadists are takfirists. The terms Islamist, shari'a supporter, fundamentalist, and extremist/radical are in no particular order. "Takfiri" is the only word in red because, according to this author, it is the only category that is unambiguous—regarded by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike as a clearly destructive force. In terms of policy, it can be argued that every other category may contain non-terrorists, with whom most governments will negotiate. 

10. Due to Saudi Arabia's oil wealth and the imperative within Islam to spread the religion and support Islamic instruction, it is often the Wahhabi variant of Islam that is exported to sub-Saharan Africa. Saudi Arabia funds scholarships for African students to learn in Saudi Arabia and provides resources for madrassa and mosque construction in many African countries. 

11. The main Muslim schools of jurisprudence are Shafi'i (Sunni), Hanafi (Sunni), Maliki (Sunni), Hanbali (Sunni), and Ja'afari (Shi'a). The main schools of theology include Ash'ari (Sunni), Maturidi (Sunni), Mu'tazili (influencing Islamic modernism), Ja'afari (or Twelver), Isma'ili (Shi'a), and Zaidi (Shi'a). Salafi/Wahhabi theology is often placed in a category all its own. Historically, it is related to the Sunni Hanbali school; scholars who seek to diminish its influence on majority Sunni belief, however, assign it its own category. 

12. More-moderate Muslims will claim that Salafi extremists reject the centuries of Islamic dialogue and reasoning that condemn the takfiri practice and instead favor tolerance. Salafists, however, will point to a series of well-read scholars of Islam to support their own claims, and cite the Qur'an literally, regardless of context, to support their extremist teachings. 

13. Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, The Muslim 500: The World's 500 Most Influential Muslims of 2013/14 (Amman: Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, 2014), 29: http://www.usislam. org/pdf/The-Muslim-500.pdf 

14. Ibid., 36. 

15. The heavy-hitting rebel groups in Syria such as Saqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, and Jaish al-Islam proudly carry the Salafist title but strongly oppose takfiri teachings; in fact, a few of them welcome non-Muslim fighters. The Syrian rebel landscape is one that attempts to differentiate between Salafist and takfiri; groups like al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant (aka Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) and Jabhat al-Nusra (or al-Nusra Front) are overtly takfiri. 

16. Mohamed Salem Ould Mohamed, Purist Salafism in the Sahel and Its Position on the Jihadist Map (Mecca: Al Jazeera Center for Studies, 17 July 2012): 

17. Sheikh Fizazi went to prison for his involvement in the 2003 Casablanca terrorist attacks. After renouncing his takfiri Salafist beliefs, he was pardoned by King Mohammed VI and now hopes to reform other takfiri youth. But he remains a Salafi in thought and practice. Other influential Salafists, like Salman al-Ouda of Saudi Arabia, also repented of their extremist Salafism but still support Salafi ideals, including defending Islam and Muslims in Syria. See Mohamed Saadouni, "Salafi Cheikh Fizazi Talks Reconciliation," Magharebia, 11 April 2014: http://magharebia. com/en_GB/articles/awi/reportage/2014/04/11/reportage-01 

18. Robin Wright, ed., The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2012). 

19. Spencer Ackerman, "Top U.S. Officer: Stop This ‘Total War' on Islam Talk," Wired, 10 May 2012: dangerroom/2012/05/dempsey-islam-irresponsible/ 

20. Al Jazeera's Arabic network has been an overt supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, reflecting the foreign policy of its base in Qatar. Al Jazeera reporters have been accused of stirring up insurrection in Egypt, and had their offices looted and destroyed. Al Jazeera sees itself as the voice of justice against the indiscriminate Egyptian courts of recent times. 

21. "Mass Egypt Death Sentences ‘Breach International Law,'" BBC World News, 25 March 2014: world-middle-east-26726901 ; "Court Confirms Egypt Muslim Brotherhood Death Sentences," BBC World News, 21 June 2014 : 

22. Daniel Atzori, "Egypt, Saudi Arabia Ban Muslim Brotherhood," About Oil, 23 April 2014: 

23. Habib Toumi, "Saudi Arabia Sacks Preachers for Brotherhood Links,", 12 May 2014: saudi-arabia-sacks-preachers-for-brotherhood-links-1.1331677 

24. Ibrahim Hatlani, "Bahrain between Its Backers and the Brotherhood," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 20 May 2014: bahrain-between-its-backers-and-brotherhood/hb8a 

25. Examples include Islamist jihad, Salafi jihad, takfiri jihad, radical jihad, and extremist jihad. 

26. Omar Fahmy, "Sunni Clerics Call for Jihad against Syria's Assad, Allies," Reuters, 13 June 2013: http://www.reuters. com/article/2013/06/13/us-syria-crisis-sunnis-jihad-idUSBRE95C16U20130613 ; Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, "Thousands of Jihadis Going to Syria," Asharq Al-Awsat, 2013: issueno=12616 

27. Yasmin Najjar et al., "Maghreb to Tighten Noose on Syria-Bound Jihadists," Magharebia, 26 February 2014: http://magharebia. com/en_GB/articles/awi/features/2014/02/26/feature-02 

28. Harris Zafar, "Muslim without Sharia?," Washington Post, 19 January 2012: blog.html 

29. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 30 April 2013), 41: patriziamanduchi/files/2012/04/The-Worlds.pdf 

30. Aya Elbrqawi and Essam Mohamed, "Is Derna Becoming an Islamist Emirate?", 8 April 2014: http:// feature-01 

31. Ali A. Mazrui, The Africans: A Triple Heritage (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1986), 249. 

32. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, "Islamutopia: A Very Short History of Political Islam," International Affairs at LSE (blog), London School of Economics and Political Science, 11 April 2012: islamutopia-a-very-short-history-of-political-islam/ 

33. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood party in Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi, admitted that if instituting shari'a law as a government policy were put to a vote, the majority would vote in favor. For this very reason, the Muslim Brotherhood refused to put it on the ballot, out of concern that the Tunisian polity was too divided and fragile for such a step. See Fatima El-Issawi, "Islamists of Tunisia: Reconciling National Contradictions," International Affairs at LSE (blog), London School of Economics and Political Science, 13 April 2012: islamists-of-tunisia-reconciling-national-contradictions/ 

34. Many Muslim apologists utilize the negative connotation of fundamentalism to segregate those they regard as extreme. The Muslim 500 annual report claims that "fundamentalists" represent only 3 percent of the world's Muslims, using the following definition: "a highly politicized religious ideology … characterised by aggressiveness and a reformist attitude toward traditional Islam." Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, The Muslim 500, 26. 

35. Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 2, 15–16: http:// . Abrahamian, speaking in the context of Shi'a Khomeinism, argued that the term fundamentalism fits no concrete description and therefore is of no value in describing Muslims. There are Muslims who embrace modernity and science and still believe the Qur'an to be free from error. 

36. Adib-Moghaddam, "Islamutopia." 

37. Charlotte A. Quinn and Frederick Quinn, Pride, Faith, and Fear: Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa 

38. Ibid., 15. 

39. Abdullah Ahmen An-Na'im, "Islam and the Human Rights in Sahelian Africa," in African Islam and Islam in Africa: Encounters between Sufis and Islamists, ed. David Westerlund and Eva Evers Rosander (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1997), 80; Quinn and Quinn, Pride, Faith, and Fear, 8. Respected institutions like Al-Azhar University in Egypt, along with universities in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Jordan, southern Iraq, and Qom in Iran, all compete for the reputation of "most prestigious" Sunni or Shi'a Muslim center. In most of Africa, traditional Muslim scholars exercise their own legal opinions and do not follow any single legal school. 

40. David Westerlund and Eva Evers Rosander, eds., African Islam and Islam in Africa: Encounters between Sufis and Islamists (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1997). 

41. John Hunwick, "Sub-Saharan Africa and the Wider World of Islam," in Westerlund and Rosander, African Islam and Islam in Africa, 28–54. 

42. Quinn and Quinn, Pride, Faith, and Fear, 96. 

43. Geert Mommersteeg, In the City of the Marabouts: Islamic Culture in West Africa, trans. Diane Webb (Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland Press, 2012), 138. 

44. As more African students become exposed to and influenced by more conservative, Salafist, and "corrective" Islamic studies, there is a culture shift occurring at the deeper social and cultural reaches of many societies. See Lansiné Kaba, "Islam in West Africa: Radicalism and the New Ethic of Disagreement, 1960–1990," in The History of Islam in Africa, ed. Nehemia Levtzion and Randall Lee Pouwels (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2012), 189–208. 

45. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, The World's Muslims, 63. 

46. Esposito and Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam? This resource does an excellent job of detailing Muslim attitudes without reciting Islamic teachings. While more than 50 percent of Muslims do report supporting democracy, they are not an overwhelming majority (defined as 85–90 percent), and they do not embrace liberal social values in their desire for democracy. 

47. "Latest World News—Talk to Al Jazeera—Moncef Marzouki: The Price of a Revolution," YouTube video, 24:59, from a news clip published by Al Jazeera English on 9 February 2013, posted by "LatestWorldNews24h," 1 April 2013: watch?v=h6sjNO5epIU 

48. Drew Kumpf, "The Kingdom of Jordan: Intra-Faith Dialogue, Inter-Faith Diplomacy," The Review of Faith and International Affairs, 20 March 2009: the-kingdom-of-jordan-intra-faith-dialogue-inter-faith-diplomacy/ 

49. Making a "bad" list assures non-Muslims that something is being done about the errant, warped interpretations of Islam that make it less attractive. The "bad" list can be used as a preaching tool to make moderate Islam look more sincere. 

50. "The Amman Message," The Amman Message, n.d.: http://www. 

51. The influential and moderate Ali Gomaa of Egypt argues that the concept of the Muslim ummah is as foundational as Islam itself. To deny the unity of the ummah is to deny a basic Islamic teaching. See Ali Gomaa, "A Journey into the Muslim Mind," MuslimVillage, 24 September 2013: http://muslimvillage. com/2013/09/24/44003/journey-muslim-mind 

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