Thomas Pierret is a senior researcher at the Institut de Recherches et d’Etudes sur les Mondes Arabes et Musulmans, a mixed interdisciplinary research unit associating Aix-Marseille University and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. He is the author of Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama From Coup to Revolution (2013, Cambridge University Press). Recently Pierret wrote an article for Carnegie titled “Brothers in Alms: Salafi Financiers and the Syrian Insurgency,” on the role of activist and quietist Salafists during the early years of the Syrian uprising. In early June, Diwan spoke to Pierret about his article and about the implications of Salafi involvement in the Syrian conflict, away from the myths surrounding the subject.
Michael Young: In your recent Carnegie article on the participation of mainstream Salafists in the Syrian conflict, what was the idea that you were trying to get across for readers?
Thomas Pierret: This is the story of a spectacular change of fortune. Gulf-based Salafi fundraisers made a sensational entry into the Syrian insurgency in 2012, as they rapidly became the most important factor in the establishment of rebel coalitions. An iconic figure of that period was Hajjaj al-‘Ajami, a 24-year-old Kuwaiti preacher who appeared, for a while, as the single most influential individual behind the entire Syrian insurgency. This success resulted from the ability of these mainstream, media-savvy Salafi figures to draw on a large pool of private donors within the Gulf states. Due to its relatively liberal character, Kuwait played a key role as a hub for regional networks of Salafi financiers. Yet this era was short-lived, essentially coming to an end in 2014.
MY: Can you explain the difference between activist and quietist Salafists, and how their different views played out in the Syrian context?
TP: In most countries quietist Salafists focus solely on religious proselytizing, and possibly on charity, whereas activist Salafis support some form of political involvement. However, in Kuwait things are more complicated because activist and quietist Salafists (represented by the wealthy Revival of Islamic Heritage Society) field candidates for parliamentary elections. The difference, thus, lies in their respective stances toward the Al Sabah regime and the Saudi monarchy. Whereas activist Salafists tend to be critical and ask for political reforms, their quietist counterparts are generally more subservient and see electoral competition as a way of limiting the influence of rival ideological forces.
MY: You suggest, against a general impression of the Syrian conflict, that Salafi groups only played a role there for a limited period, in 2012 and 2013. What forced the mainstream Salafists to curb their assistance to the Syrian opposition?
TP: Foreign-based Salafi financiers continued to fund individual factions after 2012 and 2013, but some of the most prominent ones, such as Hajjaj al-‘Ajami, disappeared from the scene, and in any case Salafi funding ceased to be a major factor in the establishment of rebel coalitions. This was partly due to state repression, in Kuwait in particular, which was inspired by U.S. sanctions against Salafi fundraisers, but also by the regionwide repression of Islamists that followed the Egyptian coup of July 2013. The influence of foreign Salafi sponsors also resulted from changing needs among rebel factions in Syria. Whereas Salafi fundraisers promoted nationwide ideology-based alliances, military setbacks later required giving precedence to pragmatic cooperation at the local level.
MY: What were the most notable groups in Syria backed by Arab Salafists, and what has happened to them?
TP: Activist Salafis funded the largest rebel coalitions ever seen in the conflict, the Syria Islamic Liberation Front and the Syrian Islamic Front, which in late 2013 merged with each other to form the Islamic Front. The latter rapidly became an empty shell, but its two main components, namely Ahrar al-Sham and the Islam Army, remained the two most influential non-jihadi factions until various misfortunes fell upon them from 2017 onwards.
Quietist Salafis supported the Front for Authenticity and Development (FAD), a smaller coalition that had its center of gravity in eastern Syria. Hence, it was badly weakened when in 2014 the Islamic State expelled other factions from the region. FAD affiliates such as the Army of the Lions of the East and the New Syrian Army kept on fighting the Islamic State in the central desert with U.S. support in subsequent years, but internal differences made the front fall apart in 2016.
MY: What kind of legacy did the Salafists leave behind in Syria, particularly in a country where there is no strong Salafi tradition?
TP: Alongside their support for rebel factions, Gulf Salafists have funded missionary and humanitarian projects in opposition-held areas and among refugee communities. These have had an impact at the grassroots level. However, the activist Salafi organization, Hay’at al-Sham al-Islamiyya, has also played a major role in the Istanbul-based Syrian Islamic Council, which was created in 2014 as an alternative to the regime-controlled religious establishment.
Moreover, the Gulf Salafists have also empowered Salafi factions such as Ahrar al-Sham and the Islam Army, which have their own agenda of religious outreach. Add to that, of course, the separate missionary efforts of jihadi groups, which have also promoted Salafi religious doctrines. Overall, this means that Syrians who live outside of areas controlled by the Assad regime or the Kurdish Democratic Union Party have faced an incomparably larger Salafi religious infrastructure than was the case before 2011.
Yet, it is too early to draw conclusions as far as long-term impact is concerned, because among Syrian Salafists themselves there are concerns about a possible popular backlash against conservative interpretations of Islam. To many Syrians, Salafi doctrines are now associated with jihadi factions that have established despotic governance and attracted disastrous foreign military intervention. As for the once-triumphant Salafi Ahrar al-Sham and Islam Army, they are now a shadow of their former selves, which is likely to reflect negatively upon the religious doctrine they uphold.