Abu Anon is a young Muslim from Toronto, and in just over a year, he’s exploded in popularity online for his endless stream of memes and commentary. His posts shine a light on the excesses of the Western world, shaming progressive Muslims and championing fundamentalist Islamic practices as the righteous path.
What’s strange, then, is that Abu Anon is fond of the iconography of the American far-right. His famous avatar image is a “Groyper,” a bulbous cartoon frog used online by white nationalist and alt-right trolls (as well as fans of the white supremacist leader Nick Fuentes), but dressed up in a traditional dishdasha. He remixes right-wing memes to apply to a Muslim context, using familiar faces like Yes Chad and Wojak.
It’s a new wrinkle in the evolution of Salafism, a subset of Sunni Islam that advocates a return to the traditions of the “original,” unadultered form of Islam practiced by the first three generations of believers. Salafism is both a cultural and religious phenomenon, with many nuances and debates over what makes a “true” Salafi, and it’s continued to gain traction online across North America and Europe in the last decade.
Milo Comerford and Moustafa Ayad, researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, set out to analyze how Salafism has evolved under the pressures of online platforms and speech. What they found was a groundswell of Gen Z support, rooted in existential pondering and defined by inflammatory memes, spread from YouTube to Telegram and beyond. “In the 1990s and the noughties, Salafi influencers were online, where most imams were not,” Comerford says. “And since then, it’s just come to dominate, for whatever reason, the religious landscape online. It dominates the video ecosystem on YouTube. It dominates search engine results.”
This growth is fueled, in part, by a strange partnership with the energy and symbolism of the Western far-right. Whether it’s critizing queer advocacy, spreading anti-Semitic conspiracies or portraying feminism as a disorder, the parallels are hard to ignore — and so are the ways in which this reactionary culture can radicalize people to enact violence, both online and IRL. “While most of their narratives are innocuous, it’s clear that they’re waging a culture war where their most ardent allies are the alt-right,” the ISD’s executive summary states.
I recently spoke to Comerford and Ayad about their findings, why Gen Z is an important cohort for the future of Salafism and how shitposts lead to polarization over time.
What are the kinds of content and platforms that define Salafism’s influence online? Is there a particularly intriguing example that came up while you were researching this?
Ayad: Digital Salafism has existed for a very long time, since the foundation of the internet. Forums have always played a key role, whether they’re standalone or those Q&As with quote-unquote “Facebook sheikhs.” But I think a shift that’s happening with a younger generation is that Gen Z is highly visual and dynamic.
Remember, Salafism is dense. You can pick bits and pieces from this buffet of ideology, but it’s a lot of stuff. Gen Z has been able to take the best parts of that buffet and visualize it for their audience in ways that they can understand. The mentality is that there are templates you can use and reuse. It’s not just rehashing something like Pepe the Frog. It’s like, “How can I Salafize Drake?” So instead of “Hotline Bling,” you get “Hotline Salafi-Jihadi.” It’s silly. It’s resonant. It feels more relevant. It mainstreams the ideas.
The end goal is Da’wah [to spread the message of Islam], and new forms of innovative Da’wah are going to be ultimately trialed by new generations. But the internet we live with now is highly decentralized, and that decentralization creates more fringes within fringe communities — like the tassels at the end of a rug.
Why did you start looking at the intersection between Gen Z and “digital Salafism”?
Comerford: We’ve been looking at this for a long time. We were seeing this new generation of mobilization, and particularly the perception that this Salafi-Jihadi threat existed in the ISIS context — that this shadowy organization was able to come into the minds of young Muslims and radicalize them online and then pull them away to Iraq and Syria. Obviously, there’s still this hysteria around those kinds of dynamics, but what we were seeing was a much more nuanced spectrum of action.
On the one hand, very popular conservative religious influencers who had enormous sway were reaching Gen-Z Muslims, particularly in the West, Europe and North America, and giving them almost countercultural guidance about all elements of their life — from dress to sexuality to sports. And it’s infused with street savviness, and a very confrontational YouTuber-style, “call-out” activism.
We were just trying to piece together how it was manifesting across platforms. A lot of work had been done on how this looked on Facebook, but we found that more and more of this stuff is happening on TikTok, Telegram and Discord.
You mentioned the appeal of Salafism as Muslim “counterculture” — what elements of this belief system make it so?
Ayad: If I can just build off the question: Do you feel as if we’re living in an era of disorder, where things keep breaking down?
Ayad: [Young Muslims] feel that disorder acutely, and Salafism is about order. It’s about restoring practice and principle. If you’ve seen South Park, it’s like Cartman demanding that everyone “Respect mah authoritah!” That’s what we’re dealing with. Order is a nice thing — people like it because there are boundaries, and we know not to cross them. There’s no fuzzy gray area.
Comerford: Salafis see themselves as waging this culture war against who they see as liberal Muslims, who are seen as adopting Western tendencies and being Muslims in name only. For Salafis, they are the greater enemy. It’s not Western people or Western Hollywood influences corrupting you, per se; it’s people convincing you that you can be both at once — that you can be a true Muslim and a true liberal Western. That’s the thing they push back against and they see as the biggest threat to the ideology.
Ayad: It’s hip now to do that. Within these communities, that’s the counterculture: “We have principles, unlike you, who has no such understanding of boundaries, much less a code.” This cross-platform ecosystem of activist Salafis who see themselves as based and call themselves “Islamogram” — they believe in a culture of just going back to your first principles, and being unashamedly yourself about it.
Does the broader Muslim diaspora sense this tension? How does Salafism fit in?
Ayad: Post-September 11th, Salafism took a dramatic branding hit. It’s been talked about in national security circles, but really, it’s a religious practice. You’ve got Orthodox Christians. You’ve got Orthodox Jews. You’ve got a lot of people that have strict moral codes that are based on their own understanding of their religious practice. But it’s viewed, I think, with disdain by progressive Muslims.
Listen, I’m going to be clear here: I hate these terms. I hate these distinctions between mainstream Muslims and progressive Muslims, which creates dividing lines and this great competition within the religion, like: “Whose side are you on?”
Any religion is conflicted amongst worshipers because you have people who are “fundamentalists,” and you have people who are just born into it and think, “Whatever. These teachings are stories. They help guide your life, so on and so forth…”
But by the way, this is the argument that the young Salafis have a problem with: “You guys think this is just a story? This is what we govern everything by.”
So why do you think there’s an overlap in the aesthetic and rhetoric of young Salafi and the Gen Z alt-right? How will this continue to evolve?
Comerford: The two have definitely coexisted and existed in their own online universes with very little reason to come together. This is something that’s happened in a big way in the last few years, and it does slightly come after the real mainstreaming of the alt-right and the way that taps into broader internet cultures — the way that the world of Wojaks, Pepe the Frog and GigaChads has become part of the parlance of the internet.
I can’t help but come back to this Jordan Peterson kind of comparison — he’s become an incredibly powerful figure just by despairing at the “loss” of good moral fiber. That’s a big part of these online Salafi spaces: The total feeling of a world left behind. A lot of it is particularly about masculinity and this perceived sense that feminism and liberalism are at the gates.
But really, the Salafi culture war is a microcosm of this broader Western culture war between perceived traditionalists and progressives. It’s just a religious version of it. You have exactly the same things playing out against gay rights, against trans issues, against all these other things, but against the ex-Muslim community, against gay Muslims, against feminist Muslims, etc. It still uses the same reference points.
What is the most problematic part about this rise in digital Salafism, given that Salafism itself is quite varied?
Comerford: When you looked at Pizzagate and mobilization around early QAnon stuff, people looked at this in total bemusement and couldn’t wrap their heads around it as something that had any real-world significance. Then, at its most extreme four years later, you see QAnon flags flying at the capitol, and you see the offline ramifications of this radicalization.
This isn’t to say that the entire spectrum of digital Salafism is radicalizing, but there are elements that are radicalizing along very familiar lines. You’ve got to think about it in terms of accelerationism, when people are despairing of their inability to affect change through normal means, whether it’s democratic change, activism, whatever. Then you get to that point of essentially needing to take action and to do something — whatever it is.
Beyond that violent threat, there’s also the mainstreaming of it all. It can become part and parcel of Gen Z Muslim culture to just be incredibly misogynistic or dismiss democracy as sinful because of the power of these kind of Salafi influencers and what they say.
And what do you think they feel about being criticized?
Ayad: What I tracked as part of this series is they’re acutely aware that you’re going to call them extremists. This is a post-September 11th generation. As Muslims, we all feel somewhat under attack at all times. They’re aware of that, and they’re relishing a little bit of that. It’s Tony Montana saying, “Say goodnight to the bad guy.”
But they actually think they’re the good guy amid all these global conflicts. A lot of these kids are in the West, and they’re the sons or daughters of immigrants, or they’re converts, and they’re dealing with a lot of different things. The Salafism helps them. It helps them understand.
Again, I go back to the order thing. The threat isn’t necessarily one of immediate violence, but the problem is that it creates dividing lines, and that ultimately pushes polarization.