Salafists Ascendant in the Arab World

Khalil al-Anani
Khalil al-Anani Senior Fellow - Arab Center Washington DC

June 12, 2008

In Kuwait, followers of the Salafi current won a majority of parliamentary seats in the 17 May elections. In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood elected a conservative, Hammam Said, to be their general guide. He is the first Jordanian of Palestinian origin to lead the group since it was founded in 1946. In Egypt, conservatives running the Muslim Brotherhood show no intention of allowing a new generation of younger reformists to take over. In Palestine, Hamas’s hawks have been consolidating their position since the movement seized Gaza a year ago, while “pragmatists” are being increasingly sidelined. Wherever you look in the Arab world, Islamist conservatism of the brand known as “Salafist” is gaining ground while moderates seem to be running out of steam. Even regional satellite television stations seem more interested in conservatives than in the mainstream or opposition moderates. Also, many social institutions have fallen into the hands of the Salafis.

Recently, the Salafist trend has widened its appeal to the Arab public. No longer confining themselves to their conventional preaching places, such as the mosque and home gatherings, conservatives are using hi-tech methods, including blogging and Facebook. I have met a few Salafist young men who haven’t the slightest interest in updating the content of their beliefs, but nonetheless are computer savvy and networking online all the time. The moment has come for their brand of Salafist discourse, they believe. And they are using the latest technology to connect with thousands of their generation.

As an ideal or a scholarly pursuit, Salafism as such is not a problem, especially if it focuses on safeguarding religious tradition and keeping it pure and alive. But Salafi discourse is full of pitfalls. First, it sublimates a message of “isolation” amongst Arab society. Followers of this current tend to focus solely on the afterlife, rather than on today’s issues. In other words, they are willing to “accommodate” hardships rather than turn things around. Second, it is politically “anti-social”, for its followers often turn their back on political involvement and public debate. Instead of recognising and analysing reality, they come up with “mystical” interpretations for deteriorating economic and social conditions in the Arab world. Third, it is a culturally isolationist, for its followers view the world in terms of “godly and sinful” or “love and hate”. In doing so, they end up alienating anyone with a different faith or mind.

So why is the public lapping it all up? In my opinion, a major part of the blame rests with Arab regimes that have been clamping down on other relatively moderate political and Islamist options. The “scorched earth” policies of Arab regimes played a major part in the growth of the Salafi trend in the Arab world. Arab regimes have consistently repressed moderate Islamists, especially those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, in countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Jordan. For the past year or so, moderate Islamists have been relegated to a minor role in public life at best. The moderates are becoming marginalised, both intellectually and organisationally, and they seem to have lost all hope in ever becoming influential again.

The regimes tolerated Salafis, sometimes even encouraged them, at the expense of other politically active religious currents. This is true in Jordan, Egypt and Kuwait, among other places. Some regimes are actually fine with the rise of conservative Islam. For one thing, conservatives are not politically active, and therefore less of a threat to authorities. Also, ruling regimes hope to use conservatives to undermine moderate Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. The attitude of the Egyptian regime to the Muslim Brotherhood reminds me of the way president Anwar El-Sadat encouraged Islamists in order to undermine leftists, a course that turned out disastrous in hindsight.

More alarming is the possibility that the ascendance of conservative Salafis would polarise the Arab world. Even if they don’t pose an immediate threat to governments, Salafis are bound to alienate all other religious and political groups. Should this happen, violent conservatism, or jihad-based Salafism, may follow. The “literal” interpretations of religion, which Salafis seem quite skilled at, could combine with the militant zeal of well-organised jihad groups, and the mixture could be lethal. This may already be happening in countries such as Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where “conventional” Salafi groups are starting to dabble in political and controversial issues, including the hijab (veil), the mixing of sexes, and the rules of political succession. Salafis were also quite impressed by Hizbullah’s recent show of force in Beirut.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other moderate groups are losing their appeal before the Arab public, perhaps because they are focussing on politics and neglecting religion. And mainstream religious organisations, such as Al-Azhar and Muslim youth societies, are not doing so well either. No wonder Salafis are sidling up to centre stage. If anything, this is a moment of truth for moderates. Either they connect once again with the public, or they embrace irrelevance.

Another version of this opinion was published in Daily News Egypt.