Towards an autonomization of Jihadism? The ideological, sociological and political permeability between contemporary quietist Salafism and Jihadism in France

Mohamed-Ali Adraoui, Georgetown University

This introduction is part of POMEPS Studies 32, The Politics of Islam in Europe and North America. Download the full PDF here.

Grounded in several years of fieldwork on French Salafism and Jihadism, this essay advances the thesis of the emancipation of Jihadism. By this, I mean that the violent career[1] represented by Jihadism must first be conceived of as a form of socialization. Entering into a Jihadist trajectory from the possible starting point of quietist Salafism (the main form of Salafism in France) must be understood on the basis of objective criteria, namely through a certain number of connections and social ties with the main actors and contexts of French Salafism. More specifically, it is important to raise the question of quietist Salafist socialization as a potential prior step in Jihadist engagement. Is it possible to verify this relationship? Another question must also be considered: if this link is not observed between quietist Salafism and Jihadism, how is it possible to explain that the violence expressed by certain Muslims takes on a symbolic, even practical language of the Salafist matrix (despite its diversity)?

I call the autonomization of Jihadism the convergence of three more specific dynamics. The first is the clear disconnection, in sociological terms, between French Jihadists and quietist Salafist communities. Put differently, here the question concerns the lack of permeability between Salafist quietism and Jihadist violence, with the two forms of socialization being totally disconnected. The second is the polarization between quietist Salafism and Jihadism. By this, I mean a phenomenon of increasingly clear separation, even clear-cut competition, between the two branches which, nonetheless, claim to come from the same doctrine. Put differently, these two sides of contemporary Sunni fundamentalism are more different than they are similar. The third concerns the emergence of a form of political violence which echoes, ideologically speaking, the Salafist imaginary, but lacks fundamentalism in terms of religious practice.

Jihadism is thus becoming an independent branch of Islam, with no real attachment to religious and social puritanism. It organizes itself increasingly as a religious branch that is above all violent, but without the claim to orthodoxy which is the very raison d’être of Salafism. In other terms, Jihadism, by putting the emphasis on the pressing need for violent struggle in the name of Islam and oppressed Muslims worldwide, imposes itself above all as an ideology of combat, while religious practice (in terms of worship) is put in the background. This extreme form of dissenting and revolutionary politicization thus replaces the preaching characterizing Salafist ethics. This element nonetheless forces us to evoke an important feature in current debates on Jihadism, in that the absence of the claim to orthodoxy or sociological permeability between quietist Salafism and Jihadism does not make it possible to omit the cultural domination of revivalist discourses constructed on the paradigm, echoed by Salafism for nearly a century, of the need to return to original Islam. There is thus an essential question that must be raised, namely the juxtaposition of a double reality: the promotion of the Salafist imaginary in the context of a lack of connection between Salafist communities and Jihadist trajectories in contemporary France.


I have shed light on these three dynamics through long-term fieldwork. From 2004 to 2011, I aimed to study the various forms taken by socialization within French quietist Salafist communities.[2] Although, during this work, I met a number of Jihadists (or sympathizers with Jihadist theses), the latter didn’t represent the core of my work. Since 2013 and the emergence of a form of political violence legitimized by a Jihadist vision of Islam (even though attacks had been prepared and committed before) in the wake of the Syrian crisis, I conducted field work in several countries, including France, among populations that I met during my PhD in order to shed light on their trajectories since 2011, and immersed myself among Jihadist actors and sympathizers (in prisons, in neighborhoods where people have left for Syria, etc.). I have tried to dissect their trajectories and, through this, analyze their prior socializations in order to observe (or not) the existence of a Salafist influence or determinism.[3]

The first field primarily concerns the sociology of quietist Salafism in France. In geographical terms, I conducted around one hundred interviews with French Salafists in Mantes-la-Jolie, Les Mureaux, Stains, Argenteuil, Saint-Denis, Nanterre, Villeneuve-la-Garenne, Montreuil, Levallois-Perret, Athis-Mons, Corbeil-Essonnes, Sartrouville, La Courneuve, Clichy-sous-Bois, Montfermeil, Asnières, Gennevilliers, Colombes, La Garenne-Colombes, Maisons-Alfort, Courbevoie, Vitry-sur-Seine, Draveil, Juvisy-sur-Orge, Epinay-sur-Seine, and inner Paris. In addition to this, I conducted research in mosques in cities across France, starting with my home region, Normandy. Finally, I did a research stay in the North of France in 2008 in Lille. In all, I did interviews as well as a number of hours of neutral or participant observation in over 50 places of Muslim worship. The content of these exchanges primarily concerned the reasons of their religious engagement, their vision of political events, the place of Islam in France and in the world, their conception of religious otherness, their relationship to their country of origin, and family relationships.

The field work that I started in 2013 is rooted in two dimensions. First, I returned to the cities and neighborhoods where I did work for my PhD in order to analyze possible changes in the religious, social, and political landscape, under the effect notably of the conflicts in the Middle East, in the context of which a change of scale relating to Jihadism has occurred over the past several years with the emergence and bolstering of movements that are among the main actors of these conflicts (Syria, etc.). Secondly, I conducted research within Jihadist circles, primarily in some French prisons (Fresnes as well as other prisons in the Paris suburbs) where I met with a dozen people incarcerated for acts of Jihadist terrorism. Additionally, in certain neighborhoods of some cities in the Paris suburbs (Trappes, Sevran, etc.), I also met a few dozen people over the past few years whom I consider sympathizers of Jihadist theses even if they committed no acts of violence nor declared any direct allegiance (synonymous for now with a promotion of the Jihadist imaginary, and nothing more).

A clear disconnection between Salafist socialization and Jihadist engagement

On a macro-territorial level, the map of Jihadist engagement is the same as that of Salafist mosques, but also of communities which are not Salafist, as shown by the map of consular mosques (linked to the states of origin of several immigrant communities such as Morocco and Turkey).[4] Such an observation cannot demonstrate that Salafism and Jihadism are causally linked. This cartography rather illustrates the presence of various forms of identification with Islam on territories where the population is largely Muslim. It is thus necessary to reason at a much more micro-sociological level.

Thus, the analysis I conducted after returning to the field I had investigated from 2004 to 2011 clearly shows the absence of a Jihadist metastasis among all of the people I had previously met. None of the quietist Salafists that I met and followed for all these years (and up until today) turned towards Jihadism. Moreover, as I will show, there is no legitimation of Jihadist theses, as violence is clearly and absolutely rejected for religious reasons (the killing of civilians, ineffectiveness, immorality, and the abandonment of preaching in the name of political revolution). Although the Assad regime is never defended (unlike Saudi Arabia for instance which is considered to defend the true Sunni Islam), Jihadists are fought through preaching and stances within these non-violent Salafist communities as shown by the different contents of preaching that I observed at regular intervals in a number of mosques known for housing puritan groups.

Although members established within Salafist communities do not evolve towards Jihadism, my empirical research conducted in the past years among a dozen imprisoned Jihadists also makes it possible to see the lack of sociological correlation between these two fundamentalist branches. Even though the latter clearly say that in the Muslim religion they see the only true faith, as well as the justification of extreme violence against any actor (the French state, the Syrian regime, Shias, etc.) deemed to have attacked the “Truth” and Muslims worldwide, thereby reactivating a discourse that can be found within quietist Salafist communities, the various forms of socialization that characterize their trajectories only sporadically rely on religious institutions. The identification with original Islam is real in terms of a desired model for society, but there is no trace of any continuous passing through Salafist mosques over a given period. Their prior socialization concerns interest for illegal activity (various forms of trafficking) and often gang life. Visiting mosques is trivial, and does not show a specific rooting or inclusion into the puritan community that would incite the followers to read specific Salafist works or become familiar with web sites that have popularized theses of clerics located in the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, etc.). The stories told by the people I met in prison moreover show the absence of religious education within the family as well as an emphasis on Islamic reference in terms of identity which happens rather late in life. The age of the sample, between 21 and 29, shows that it is during adolescence, as well as in the first years of adulthood, that a religious quest occurs, without real participation in a given community. Rather, most seem to be fluttering around in sociological terms. No specific Islamic structure characterizes these profiles, whose aspiration to reconnect with Islam is real but is not accompanied by a specific socialization within an established community built on identified principles and norms as is the case with quietist Salafism.

A growing polarization between these two radical forms of Islam

Beyond the lack of sociological permeability between quietist Salafism and Jihadism, the trend also shows an increased polarization between the two branches in terms of doctrinal and social issues. Even though since the beginning of the 2000s, both Jihadist and the quietist Salafist approaches exclude the other in their respective messages, the last few years have shown an increasingly large distinction, and even a veritable symbolic war, for hegemony over the definition of “authentic” Islam.[5] Today, this takes the form of an increasingly clear and intended demarcation in the presentation of the two branches. The disqualification of one branch by the other conveys not only a growing emancipation of fundamentalist discourses compared to others, but also and especially a greater difficulty, today and undoubtedly in the future, to pass from quietist Salafism towards a radical and violent form of Islam such as Jihadism.

A Jihadism without orthodoxy: the primacy of the paradigm of insecurity

The thesis of a Salafization of social ties is as interesting as it is problematic. Indeed, the analysis of quietist Salafism communities and that of Jihadist profiles (whether in prison or non-violent sympathizers) reveals a dynamic that can seem contradictory, but which is understandable in reality if we don’t focus on the paradigm of linearity. Quietist Salafism contains an undeniable part of symbolic and even social violence while rejecting the use of violence in terms of doctrine and preaching in favor of a strategy of a psychological separation (but not necessarily economic given what we know about the emphasis on entrepreneurial and commercial careers within these puritan communities). This leads to the question of the impact of the sociological separation, which, as we saw earlier, doesn’t lead to Jihadist-style violent engagement, but also that of a type of social break that can facilitate violent strategies despite the ideological opposition to them contained in the principles of quietist Salafism.

Thus, based on these various empirical findings, an additional disconnection must be mentioned in the analysis of Jihadist profiles (which naturally deserve a number of additional and more diverse studies). The religious quest takes the form, primarily and above all, of a struggle to bring down what can be seen as a paradigm of insecurity. Muslims are considered to be a religious and political nation that is in danger and can only be helped by a violent and transnational movement (with of course some local ramifications). Religious purification through education and classic preaching are not included (at least not as a priority) in the Jihadist prerogative and imaginary. This is another instance of the emancipation of this religious branch, which is increasingly oriented towards combat for the safety and dignity of the Umma notwithstanding the need for orthodoxy which is still at the heart of the Salafist ethic. In this sense, there is no social homology between quietist Salafism and Jihadism. The concepts mobilized may certainly be close, even identical, but what matters is the understanding and the meaning of a discourse in a given context.

Moreover, the proximity and even the identity of doctrinal themes addressed both in quietist Salafism and in Jihadism cannot hide the diversity of practices; in sum, the sociology of religious principles put into practice. In this respect, considering the ideological infrastructure as primary seems a faulty way of understanding violent engagement and specifically the violent careers that define contemporary Jihadism (in France or elsewhere). Violence seems to be an independent and disconnected element of orthodoxy which replaces the latter. Salvation through a strategy of purification over the long term seems to be a major contradiction with the Jihadist principles of permanent revolution and continuous combat in the name of defending oppressed co-religionists. The Jihadist paradigm is indeed one of the Umma in danger, namely a consideration of security and in fine politics (in the modern sense of the word). Within quietist Salafist communities, politics is not theorized other than as a call to good mores in a limited framework, that of stability and the preservation of social order. It is therefore not surprising that even if the doctrinal matrix seems to be the same, Jihadism is an ideology of urgency where quietist Salafism is de facto content with the existing social structures. Violence is thus in this case a profoundly political category as it relates to the arsenal of solutions enabling Jihadists to restore the security and dignity of Muslims worldwide, whereas the aim is largely different within quietist Salafism (ensuring the Islamness of their faith, belief and practice).

A final question remains: why are Jihadists, despite their lack of alacrity for orthodoxy and orthopraxy (shown in my interviews, both among those I met in prison as well as those sympathizing with these theses without being engaged in violent acts), choosing a fundamentalist, radical, vehement and revolutionary religious narrative? Specifically, how can one explain the appeal of an ideological offer historically rooted in Salafism, without any common lifestyle and social trajectory with forms of contemporary Salafist practice (absence of linearity between religious socialization and violent engagement as seen above)? In cultural terms, it thus seems that there exists a form of domination, and even within certain social groups (primarily young generations of Muslims) a kind of hegemony, of Islamic radicalism. The most revivalist branches, but also those which are the most at odds with the social order in the name of Islam, are experiencing a form of real but diffuse success, which although difficult to question from the macro-sociological point of view, is impossible to interpret in a linear way from a micro-sociological perspective. Thus, a kind of primacy of Salafist narratives exists, although it is difficult to see a rigorous ideological connection, but rather a sort of re-appropriation by certain social groups of the potential for opposition contained in this religious matrix (which, moreover, cannot summarize it since it also contains a strong conservative potential). It seems, therefore, more than ever, that ideological offers must be subject to in-depth sociological inquiry. The issue of a social construction of Salafism seems like it should be put back into center stage. The conditions and factors of identification with one form of identity rather than another must therefore replace more normative questions about the essence of a religious imaginary whose imitators often do more for its interpretation and definition than the fundamental sources.

[1] I am borrowing the concept of career from the symbolic interactionism within sociology and particularly Ervin Goffman for whom the career is both the reflection of an actor’s official situation and a moral itinerary by which she assimilates a given personality. See Ervin Goffman, Asiles, 1968, Paris, Ed. de Minuit, Le Sens commun, [1963] 1975, p.179.

[2] Mohamed-Ali Adraoui, Salafism in France: Local and Transnational Movements, Oxford University Press, 2019.

[3] This second field owes a lot to several interviews I conducted in prison for several years, as well as to sociological research done by myself and my colleagues specialized in the study of Salafism and Jihadism as part of the International Panel on ways out of violence implemented by the Fondation maison des sciences de l’homme with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New-York:

[4] Bernard Godard, La question musulmane en France. Un état des lieux sans concessions, Fayard, 2015.

[5] Farhad Khosrokhavar, Le nouveau jihad en Occident, Robert Laffont, 2018.