Salafi-Wahhabis = extremists and terrorists?

In the public political discourse of the USSR and post-Soviet states, the concept of “Wahhabism” is often used as a synonym for Salafism, but it is only a particular manifestation of the Salafism phenomenon, which is broader in content and meaning. Up until the 18th century, disagreements between the Salafis and other ideological movements in Islam were theoretical in nature and were limited to disputes and debates within theological communities in various parts of the Muslim world. One of the first attempts to transform the Salafism from an ideological and theological movement of Muslim thought into a religious and political movement was the activity of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, which was aimed at creating a standalone state on the Arabian Peninsula that would be independent from the Ottoman Empire. The ideology of Salafism was adopted as the ideological basis of the new Arab state of the Saudis (the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since 1932), and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s movement itself became known as Wahhabism. The very term “Wahhabiya”/Wahhabis is not considered legitimate by the Salafis, because they do not consider Ibn Abd al-Wahhab to be the founder of any separate or theological movement. [1]

The use of the term “Wahhabism” in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet republics, in a polemical terminology, has practically nothing to do with the actual meaning of this term in the Muslim world. In Islam, Wahhabism is a movement the ideological origins of which lie in the teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (18th century). “Al-Wahhab proclaimed that after the death of Prophet Muhammad Islam had been perverted and developed in a way that is alien to the fundamental principles. He called for a return to fundamental Islam, as close as possible to the ancient sacred texts” [2]. At the core of his teaching was the condemnation of the cult of saints and affirmation of monotheism (tawhid): Allah is the single source of creation and only Allah is worthy of worship by people. The followers of al-Wahhab (Wahhabis) thought that the only source of true Islam are the Quran and the Sunnah, and anything that “did not agree” to those sources of orthodoxy was attributed to bida', “unlawful innovations,” “delusions.” Therefore, according to the followers of al-Wahhab it is necessary to cleanse Islam of innovations and return to its original principles.

As a matter of fact, the Wahhabis share with other Muslims of different denominations a belief that the Quran contains divine revelation and that any Muslim should live according to the commandments of Islam. However, the Wahhabis go even further by strictly adhering to the literal interpretation of the foundations of Islam and encouraging Muslims to return to this path of Islam. [3]

The term “Wahhabism” was coined in the Soviet Union in the 1980s during the war in Afghanistan, when the representatives of the Mujahideen opposition were originally called Wahhabis: among them were a large number of volunteers from the Gulf countries who were actual Wahhabis since Wahhabism is the official religious political doctrine in Saudi Arabia. Generally, anyone who was fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviet regime was called Wahhabi. The term received a new meaning during the civil war in Tajikistan (the main confrontation unfolded between the former communist elite (so called “yurchiks” named after Yuri Andropov) and national democratic and Islamic forces (so called “vovchiks” - a derivative of the word “Wahhabi”). As can been seen, the Tajik Wahhabis had no relation whatsoever to the Wahhabis from the Arabian Peninsula). Later on, the term had been transformed resulting in all adherents of the Islamic revival in the post-Soviet space to be called Wahhabis, to emphasize their hostile character. The fact that they rejected the established norms, and their conflict with the so-called traditional, popular Islam, was interpreted as hostile. In the modern information space, the terms “Wahhabism” and “Wahhabis” continue to carry a derogatory meaning and are still used in a negative connotation, to signify brutal violence, which is a remainder of the grave consequences of the Soviet-Afghan war, wars in Tajikistan, Chechnya, and Dagestan--conflicts in which all enemies were called Wahhabis.

Experts on the Middle East and Islamic scholars speak out against a vicious interpretation of Wahhabism, which presents this movement and its followers in an extremely negative light. L.A. Bashirov, a Russian religious and Islamic scholar, clarifies: “There are many negative, tendentious judgments about the nature and ideology of Wahhabism. Through the efforts of many official Muslim theologians and people writing about Islam, politicians, and the media, Wahhabism has become a scary label marking various crimes that are not necessarily related to religion, not to mention extremism has become de-facto associated with Wahhabism. That despite the fact that there is no genetic connection between extremism and Wahhabism, and one does not determine the other.”

Assessments of Wahhabism have become subjective, politicized, and tendentious. Completely misinformed journalists, who had been intimidating an average reader/viewer with spooky Wahhabism, asked the President of the Russian Federation to give a clarification. At a press conference on 31 January 2006, Vladimir Putin clearly formulated his position: “Wahhabism by itself does not pose any threat; however, the perversions of the norms of Islam, perversions of Wahhabism--of course, those cannot be interpreted in any way other than calls for terrorism. I repeat here, perversions of those notions.”

Alexei Vasilyev, Director of the Institute for African Studies (Russian Academy of Sciences), has expressed a similar opinion:

“In my opinion, fundamentalism and what is called 'Wahhabism' do not pose any threat for Russia by and in itself... The centre [of power], secular authorities should only be guided by principle: whether the behaviour of a particular group of the population complies with existing laws." [3]

An important assessment that helps in the understanding of the nature of Wahhabism is the one done by the official representatives of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK) and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Russian Federation (DUM RF). Below are the excerpts from the speech and interviews of Ravil Gainutdin, Chairman of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Russian Federation and Chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia.

1) “It has long been known that the people who are waging a war in Chechnya against federal troops and are engaged in terrorism and extremism, murders of civilians, including Muslim clergy, while calling themselves “Wahhabis,” have little to do with Wahhabism, or indeed Islam. Speaking of the Wahhabis, I mean those believers, mostly young people, who are non-traditional in the performance of certain Islamic rites or elements thereof, and who reject certain generally accepted religious precepts. They consider it possible to deviate from the teachings of the four madhhabs (schools) of Islam. In short, we are talking about intra-religious differences, i.e. differences that do not prompt to label the Wahhabis as terrorists and extremists, or a militant enemy of modern society. Today, not only serious researchers but also publicists writing about Islam oppose the equating “Wahhabism” to “extremism” and emphasize that from a legal point of view, being a Wahhabi is not a crime.”

2) “Take, for example, Wahhabism, which is not always correctly interpreted by politicians and journalists--people that are far unfamiliar with Islam. Wahhabism is constantly being branded as negative, but in reality the situation is more complicated than that. In Chechnya and Dagestan, there are uncontrollable radical groups that have “adopted” Wahhabism to suit their needs and ambitions.

- Nevertheless, such a phenomenon as Wahhabism does exist...

- Wahhabism is a teaching based on the Quran and Sunnah. There is not a hint of extremism or terrorism in it. Moreover, those are condemned. For example, if a person set himself on the path of terror, he must be punished.”

Noteworthy is the position of Danis Davletov, a regional representative of the Russian clergy, which he made clear in a Muslim publication in Sverdlovsk region, in an article “Mufti of the Urals: Radicalism is born out of a lack of justice.” The Mufti of the Urals who was undergoing a training program in Damascus at the time, recommends: “People harbouring radical views can be dissuaded in disputes through convincing arguments and evidence, while brute force might not yield much result.” [4].

An idea of the position predominantly held by Kazakhstan official representatives of the clergy (DUMK) can be drawn from in the title of the publication: “Yershat Ongarov: Salafism is a great threat to the unity of the Muslim Ummah” (at the time of publication, the author was the secretary with the DUMK’s Council of Ulema, and an expert on Islam), which must be read as “Salafism is always a threat to Muslims, and as such must be fought against” [5].

The official policy toward Salafism is most clearly expressed in a small information note published by the website on 30 November 2020, citing KazTAG: “There are politically motivated Salafis in Kazakhstan, who are skilled at conspiration,” said Askar Sabdin, director of the Center for Applied Research of Religion “Thought” and a partner of the “Hotline-114.” “There are more than twenty thousand followers of the so-called destructive religious movements in Kazakhstan, according to our law enforcement agencies. (...) There are also so-called politically motivated Salafis in Kazakhstan. They are masterfully hiding and do not reveal themselves,” Mr. Sabdin said on Monday at a press conference dedicated to the “Hotline-114” project. The said number, he said, has been consistent at this level for a number of years. The largest destructive religious movements in Kazakhstan are the ones that identify themselves with the Salafis. “Probably the largest number of those Salafis consider themselves to be adherents of the so-called Madhalism. This trend is associated with the preacher by the name Madhali,” said Sabdin.” [5]

In this text, the Salafis are labelled as representatives of a destructive religious movement. The text is illustrated with a snapshot of a prison bar with a lock on it. The journalist who published it, even without realizing it, makes an implication regarding the main method of “interaction” between the state and the Salafis.

The mass media, without concerning themselves with understanding the tenets of Salafism as a trend in Islam, contribute to a negative image of a Salafi. Look at a headline (“A Salafi brutally beat a drunkard in Pavlodar”) and subtitle of the information note (In Pavlodar, a neighbour-drunkard has been seriously injured at the hands of an adherent of radical Islam). In a message that has six lines in it, about an ordinary case of a domestic quarrel, the religious affiliation of a participant is mentioned four times; therefore, a Salafi is painted as a petty criminal. [6] Another communication from relaying a Facebook post with a title “Salafis deprive Kazakh athletes of a sporting spirit - a publication by an art critic” which was published on 24 September 2019. Quote: “Until we cleanse the sport from Salafism, we will not achieve success. Today, wrestling, boxing, national games and other sports are under the control of the Wahhabis”, says Yerlan Toleutai, a poet and art critic. Thus, the entire post’s message is this: Salafis (Wahhabis) in Kazakhstani sports are the evil.” [7]

Well-known Kazakhstani political scientists and religious scholars express different views on the issue. In a detailed interview with Torgyn Nurseyitova (published on, Talgat Mamyraiymov talks about the peculiarities of the ideology of Kazakhstani Salafis, the reasons people choose to join radical sects rather than the DUMK, about the prerequisites for the emergence of religious extremism in Kazakhstan, about external influence on the situation with religious radicalism and the possibility of religious radicalism being spread across the entire society, predicts the growth of adherents of non-traditional movements as a manifestation of social protest, etc. Below are three excerpts from the interview, in the author expresses his position on key issues discussed herein (emphasized by R.K.)

According to Talgat Mamyraiymov, a political scientist and head of the analytical service of the Public Foundation Real politik, “in Kazakhstan there exists a clearly manifested intra-confessional conflict between official and non-traditional Islam, and law enforcement agencies are involved in it. The disproportionate forceful measures used by the authorities have become one of the main catalysts for religious radicals getting involved in terrorist activities, and they (the religious radicals) will increasingly have the sympathies of the population against this backdrop of a social, economic and ideological crisis, the political scientist believes.

- Talgat Kiyatbekovich, the words “Salafi underground,” “terrorism based on Salafi radicals” have become commonplace in the news. What can you say about modern radical Islam in Kazakhstan in general?

- To begin with, a Salafi and an extremist are not the same thing. Not all Salafis represent the radical wing of Kazakh Muslims. The main perpetrators of the terrorist acts, the preachers of religious extremism in Kazakhstan are apparently those who adhere to the so-called jihadist wing of Salafism, as well as the Kharijites-Takfirites. Moreover, the practice of takfir (accusation of lack of belief - “kufra”) is one of the distinct features of both of these movements.

Among the Kazakhstani Salafis, the dominant role is played by the Salafis-Madhalites who appeal to their adherents to submit to the authorities completely and unquestionably. The Salafi-Madhalites are beginning to become widespread in Kazakhstan, making up, by some sources, 5-10 percent of Kazakhstani people practising Muslim religion. <…>”

- Are you saying that the reaction to Salafism is the result of those distinct features of their ideology?

- Unfortunately, no. The Salafis, if they do not directly attack other branches of Islam, could have existed without much problem. Moreover, not all Salafis are extremists. Things are much worse as it turns out. This is a bilateral conflict, and it is clearly broader than just a confrontation between Salafis and official Islam. Here we have, on the one side, law enforcement agencies and DUMK, and on the other side we have all Muslims who are not members of DUMK. It is only recently that the Salafis have become a common bogeyman. Prior to that, it was Hizb ut-Tahrir, and before then it was the Sufi sects. The law enforcement have always been pursuing a policy of conflict with them.

- In other words, the main problems with religious extremism began back in 1999?

- Yes, it all began around that period, and started gaining momentum in the early 2000s. In the beginning, it was a conflict between official Islam and new Islamic movements. Had it been left to its own devices, it would have stayed at the level of intra-faith discussions. There would have been no terrorists, no craziness we have now. Unfortunately, the law enforcement, while having little understanding of anything, had begun persecuting and imprisoning the believers, and not necessarily the Salafis--anyone who did not belong to official Islam. Today, even an adherent of DUMK, as long as he has a beard, which in fact is in compliance with Islam provisions, would not be able to peacefully walk the streets. Where will this ultimately lead? It will result in the ever-increasing outflow of believers from the DUMK-controlled mosques.

- But does the SAMK really have or did it have such a political weight that it would be able to sway state authorities into persecuting people on this basis?

- Of course not. DUMK did not want this, but it could not anything about it. This has been done at the initiative of the security authorities. The problem is that our law enforcement and special services, without thinking about the socio-economic and ideological basis, without taking into account our specifics, have stupidly copied Russia’s policy toward non-traditional Islam and Islam in general. The most important thing is to develop a certain worldview. Who are they and who are we? A typical Muslim in our country now is a young Kazakh. Why should the same Kazakhs beat him up and put him in prison? If there are discrepancies, would it not be better to resolve them through a dialogue? But nobody has ever tried to talk to them. Our law enforcement agencies’ decision to crack down on non-traditional Islam was not based of analysis and serious reasoning, it was based on the childishly-primitive Russian TV series about the “evil Wahhabis.” This is a clear indication of how pathetically low is the level of intelligence and attitude towards their own society in general. The disproportionate use of force by the authorities has become one of the main catalysts for religious radicals to get involved in terrorist activities. <…> [8].  Note the title of the publication “The driving force for radicals in Kazakhstan is a strong sense of injustice and social protest,” which expresses T. Mamyraiymov’s position in relation to the factors of radicalism, which echoes the opinion of the Russian mufti.

As far as key aspects of the topic are concerned, Serik Belgibay, an independent political scientist, concurs with Talgat Mamyraiymov. The article “Beard Hunters: Who and What is Behind It?” dated 2 February 2018 offered a discussion of an initiative by draftsmen of the draft law “On the Introduction of Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts on Religious Activity and Religious Associations” to prescribe what kind of beards Kazakh men should wear in order not to fall under the ban because of the “public display of features of destructive religious movements.” A number of Kazakhstani political scientists, including Serik Belgibay, had something to say about it.

- The idea of prescribing the length of beard seems fantastic only at a first glance. In fact, this has been in the making for a long time, and in the future we will hear many interesting things from this kind of story... <...> However, there is certain logic in every stupidity. And if you understand the reasons for the “hunt for beards” and, in general, the fight against destructive religious movements, then there will be little reason to laugh at all... Few now remember how it all had begun. The first sign was when small Sufi sects were persecuted back in the early 2000s. And then the representatives of the Salafi movements had been named the main extremists...

In fact, one of the reasons is the extent of influence the Russian media has exerted on our society. As early as the 1990s, Russia began the effort to build a negative image of the so-called Wahhabis. A war in Chechnya was the starting point, and then the situation has been developing on its own. It was precisely under the influence of such propaganda that Kazakhstan began its fight against what, in fact, does not exist--religious extremism. Yes, I believe we do not have religious extremism, but at the same time we do have non-traditional believers. Those people have become targets of persecution. Those who have been killed in the suspicious “anti-terrorist operations,” who have lost their life and health in prisons, or who have been serving sentences, are in the hundreds now.

Another reason is the negative attitude towards Muslim believers in general. This has been conditioned by the fight against religion that had been waged during the Soviet times. Islam has never been able to take root in Kazakhstan. For the majority of our population who live in the Russian information space, the image of a practicing Muslim with a beard and his wife in a hijab is one that is unambiguously negative. And this negativity has had a fertile ground to grow. Official Islam, in the fight against its critics, has embarked on this process. A dispute between believers within the same religion would have remained just that, a dispute--had the state and law enforcement not begun to take the sides. As a result, blood has been spilled. <…> [9]

Assylbek Izbayirov, a religious scholar and a professor at the Gumilev Eurasian National University, has expressed his view on the ban on Salafism: “I have always been against the ban on Salafism, and I have said on multiple occasions that such a ban can only fuel terrorism and extremism.” [10]


  1. M.F. Murtazin. Salafi discourse in the post-Soviet space // Russia and the new states of Eurasia. Issue no. 4 (45), 2019. pp. 88-102
  2. D. Voropaev. Wahhabism: origins, features of ideology and the position in modern Russia // Russia and the Muslim world. Issue no. 2, 2009. pp. 35-41
  3. L.A. Bashirov. Wahhabism in Russia: origins, features of the doctrine and the reasons for its spread // State, religion, church in Russia and abroad: Information and analytical bulletin. Issues nos. 1-2 (38-39). - M.: RAGS Publishing House, 2007.
  4. Mufti of the Urals: Radicalism is born out of a lack of justice / Istina, December 2014 (
  5. Yershat Ongarov: Salafism is a serious threat to the unity of the Muslim Ummah (
  6. There are politically motivated Salafis in Kazakhstan, they are masterfully hiding (
  7. “A Salafi brutally beat a drunkard in Pavlodar” (; “Salafis deprive Kazakh athletes of a sporting spirit - by an art critic” (
  8. Talgat Mamyrayimov: Not all Salafis are extremists and terrorists ( Other materials: Talgat Mamyrayimov: The fight against dissent within the Muslim Ummah of Kazakhstan becomes obscurantism (;-72; The driving force for radicals in Kazakhstan is an acute sense of injustice and social protest (
  9. Beard hunters: who and what is behind it? (
  10. Asylbek Izbairov: I am afraid of the politicization of religion (
  11. Methodology for expert research in recognition cases

R.D. Karymsakova