Salafism and Arab Democratization

The outbreak of the Arab Spring in  2011brought significant attention to groups — known as Islamists  — seeking to establish Islamic states in countries once ruled by secular  autocrats. The bulk of this attention went to already established political  groups such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which caused consternation in  the West when its Freedom and Justice Party won control of both Egypt’s  parliament and its presidency.

Much less attention was paid to the Brotherhood’s  principal Islamist competitors, members of the ultraconservative Salafist  movement, despite their second-place finish in Egypt’s parliamentary  elections. This changed in late September when certain Salafists played a key  role in the unrest in  reaction to an anti-Islamic videoposted on the Internet.

Since then, Salafism has become the subject of much public discourse —  though as is often the case with unfamiliar subjects, questions are vastly more  numerous than answers. This is compounded by the rapidity of its rise from a  relatively minor, apolitical movement to an influential Islamist phenomenon.

Modern Salafism is based on an austere reinterpretation of Islam, calling for  Muslims to return to the original teachings outlined in the Koran and the  practices of the Prophet Mohammed as understood by the earliest generation,  i.e., the Companions of the Prophet. From the Salafist perspective, non-Islamic  thought has contaminated the message of “true” Islam for centuries, and this  excess must be jettisoned from the Islamic way of life.

Salafists are a minority among the global Muslim population and even among  Islamists. Unlike members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists do not belong to  a singular organization. Instead, the movement comprises a diffuse agglomeration  of neighborhood preachers, societal groups and — only very recently —  political parties, none of which are necessarily united in ideology.

The Salafist movement could also afford to stay away from political activism  in large part because it had a political  backer in the government of Saudi Arabia. While many Salafists didn’t agree  with some of Riyadh’s policies, its historical role as the birthplace of  Salafism and role as the patron underwriting the global spread of Salafist  thought kept the movement within  the Saudi orbit.

This remained the case until the 1991 Gulf War, in which Saudi Arabia was  forced to allow some 500,000 U.S. troops into the kingdom to protect itself from  Baathist Iraq, after the latter’s brief occupation of Kuwait. The move caused an  uproar over the religious legitimacy of allowing non-Muslim soldiers on what  many consider to be holy grounds, and it also gave way to a wider debate about  the political state of affairs of the Saudi kingdom. Prominent scholars began  publicly calling for reform, which led to Salafists in general engaging in  political discourse and, eventually, to the concept of Salafism as an Islamist  philosophy.

Nevertheless, Salafists would not become a political force for another two  decades, simply because it takes time for an apolitical religious movement to  develop a political philosophy. At the same time, the Saudi leadership was  rallying the country’s religious establishment to contain these newly  politicized Salafists. The 9/11 attacks and subsequent U.S. actions against  jihadism further advanced Salafist thought as the sect tried to hold on to its  core values amid U.S.-led international pressure for reform, distinguish itself  from jihadists and come up with a viable political alternative to the Muslim  Brotherhood.

By the end of the 2000s, Salafism had spread across the Arab world, most  notably to Egypt and Tunisia, expanding both the number of its adherents and its  institutional scope, which now included social organizations engaged in charity,  relief and community work. They stopped short of formal political groups,  largely because of the autocratic regimes under which they lived, but they  quietly developed the infrastructure for such groups. It was under these  circumstances that the Salafists found themselves at the beginning of the Arab  Spring.

The case of Egypt’s Salafists is the most telling. Like the Muslim  Brotherhood, they were caught unprepared when the popular agitation largely led  by liberal youth groups broke out and began to consume decades-old secular  autocratic regimes. While they eventually were able to overshadow the largely  non-Islamist forces that played a key role in forcing the ouster of  then-President Hosni Mubarak, they lacked the political machine that the  Brotherhood had developed over the course of some 80 years. The result was the  rise of various Salafist forces haphazardly trying to assert themselves in a  post-authoritarian Egypt.

Several Egyptian Salafist groups applied for licenses to form political  parties. Two prominent parties — al-Nour and al-Asala — emerged along with a  host of individuals, such as Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who ran as an independent  candidate for president. The two Salafist parties banded together with the newly  formed political wing of the former jihadist group Gamaa al-Islamiya — the  Building and Development Party — to form the Islamist Bloc. The alliance was  able to garner more than a quarter of ballots cast in the parliamentary polls  late last year, coming in second place behind the Brotherhood.

What was most important about these Salafists participating in mainstream  politics is that they embraced  the electoral processafter decades of having denounced democracy as  un-Islamic. In other words, they ultimately adopted the approach of the Muslim  Brotherhood, which they had hitherto vehemently rejected. This transformation  has been more a rushed affair stemming from expediency rather than a natural  ideological evolution.

There is an expectation that radical forces joining the political mainstream  could, over time, lead to their de-radicalization. That may be true in the case  of states with strong democratic systems, but in most Arab countries — which  are just now beginning their journey away from authoritarianism — the Salafist  embrace of electoral politics is likely to delay and perhaps even disrupt the  democratization process and destabilize Egypt and by extension the region.

Much of this chaos will stem from the fact that the move to accept democratic  politics has led to further fragmentation of the Salafist landscape. Many  Salafists still are not comfortable with democracy, and those who have  cautiously adopted it are divided into many factions. The result is that no one  Salafist entity can speak for the bulk of the sect.

Clearly, the Salafists are bereft of any tradition of civil dissent. That  said, they have exhibited a strong sense of urgency to exercise their nascent  freedom and engage in political activism. The outcome of this was the rioting  that took place in reaction to the anti-Islamic film.

The Salafists are not just suffering from arrested political development;  they face an intellectual discrepancy. On one hand, they wish to be part of the  new democratic order and a mainstream player. On the other, they subscribe to a  radical agenda that dictates the imposition of their stern interpretation of  Islamic law across the Arab and Muslim world.

Their envisioned order is not just a problem for secularists, Christians,  Jews and other minorities but also for more moderate Islamists such as the  Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood lost its monopoly on Islamism close to four  decades ago but back then it didn’t matter because the Brotherhood was an  opposition movement. Now that the group has won political power in Egypt, the  Salafists represent a threat to its political interests.

Some of the more politically savvy Salafists, especially the political  parties, are willing to work with the Muslim Brotherhood toward the common goals  of furthering the democratic transition and containing radical and militant  tendencies. Ultimately, however, they seek to exploit the Brotherhood’s  pragmatism in order to undermine the mainstream Islamist movement’s support  among religious voters. Additionally, the Salafists are also trying to make use  of their role as mediators between the Brotherhood-led government and the jihadists  active in the Sinai regionto enhance their bargaining power and lessen the  Brotherhood’s.

Salafists — whether they operate through legal means or through raw street  power — can be expected to create problems for Egypt’s new government led by  President Mohammed Morsi, especially when it comes to foreign  policy matters. A prime example is the recent case of the film-related  violence, during which Morsi had a difficult time balancing the need to placate  the masses at home and maintain a working relationship with the United  States, upon which Egypt relies for its economic well-being. While the anger  over the film is a passing phenomenon, the  underlying dynamic persists.

There is also no shortage of issues for right-wing Islamists to exploit. U.S.  imperatives in the region will continue to place the Morsi government in a tight  spot and provide reasons for the Salafists to oppose Cairo’s policies. Even more  volatile than the dealings between the Morsi administration and Washington will  be Israeli-Egyptian relations.

So far, Morsi has managed to avoid dealing too directly with Israel. But the  Egyptian president and the Brotherhood cannot avoid this for too long. They know  that they will face situations where they could be caught between the need to  maintain peaceful relations with Israel and deal with Salafists taking advantage  of the widespread anti-Israeli  sentiment among Egyptians. This is one of the reasons Morsi and his  associates have been speaking of revising  the peace treaty with Israel, which is an attempt to manage the inevitable  backlash on the home front.

Egypt’s difficulties are particularly pronounced given the country’s status  as the leader of the Arab world, but Salafists of various stripes are slowly  emerging as political stakeholders across the region, especially in Libya,  Tunisia, Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Democratization  by its very nature is a messy affair in any context, but in the case of the  Arab spring, Salafist entities can be expected to complicate political  transitions and undermine stability and security in the Middle East.

The major challenge to stability in the Arab world thus lies only  partially in the transition to democracy from autocracy. Greater than that  is the challenge mainstream Islamists face from a complex and divided Salafist  movement.


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