Marc Lynch

The New Salafi Politics

The New Salafi Politics

Few developments associated with the Arab uprisings have generated as much concern of late as the rapid emergence of Salafi movements into the public arena. The performance of al-Nour Party in Egypt’s parliamentary elections stunned many observers. Waves of attacks on Sufi shrines in Tunisia and Libya, denunciations of secular citizens, and loud calls for the imposition of sharia have raised fears at home and abroad. The violent protests over the anti-Islam YouTube film, the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and the emergence of Salafi-jihadist trends within the Syrian opposition have made these political concerns ever more urgent.

Who are these new Salafi movements? How should we interpret their rise? I am pleased to announce the publication of our new POMEPS Brief, available as a free PDF download, which collects more than a dozen recent ForeignPolicy.com essays on Salafis across the Arab world, including a detailed look at Salafi politics in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The picture that emerges is troubling — but also unexpectedly reassuring. These well-funded and well-entrenched subcultures will likely continue to thrive in the open, contentious new Arab political realm. But how they will behave, the response they will generate from other political trends and societal sectors, and how they will approach political institutions remains very much in question.

The "troubling part" of their ascent doesn’t require a great deal of elaboration. While many Salafis are simply religious individuals comfortable when surrounded by the like-minded, the more assertive of them have advanced a hard-edged, intolerant agenda that has driven a sharp polarization around religion in several Arab countries. Their attacks on movie theaters, Sufi shrines, and Western culture have frightened and angered secular trends in these countries, particularly religious minorities and women who fear for their place in the emerging societies. Attacks on U.S. embassies by Salafi-jihadist groups have frightened and angered the United States, and prompted concerns about a resurgence of al Qaeda. 

But there are also reasons for some optimism. As several of the essays in this collection point out, Salafism is not a unified trend. Its adherents belong to a wide range of movements with very different orientations toward politics, many of which push toward political quiescence and an inward-looking focus on the cohesion of their own communities. Because Salafi subcultures generally lack the kind of disciplined organization that characterizes the Muslim Brotherhood, they struggle to act in any sort of organized fashion. 

Blaming the Arab uprisings for Salafism is misguided. It is not as if these trends did not exist before their eruption into the public realm. Salafi movements were increasingly prominent in Egypt in the years prior to the revolution, with television stations and prominent public faces. Salafi subcultures across the region were fueled by funding streams from the conservative Gulf states. In some countries, such as Egypt, they were also often tacitly (or openly) supported by intelligence services keen to promote competitors to the Muslim Brotherhood and — to the conspiracy minded — to drum up communal tensions with attacks on churches or outrageous statements when this served the interests of the ruling regimes. The financial flows from the Gulf show few signs of abating, but it is intriguing to consider the possible impact of a decrease of this latter sort of support from the "deep state" — or their continuation as a way to undermine and challenge the Brotherhood from within. 

It is easy to understand the alarm over high profile public arguments over outrageously reactionary comments by Salafi figures, but public clashes over issues advanced by the Salafis are also not necessarily a bad sign. It seems better to have these brought out into the public realm than hidden in shadows. It is actually reassuring to see their public advances increasingly beaten back by competing movements, an outraged and controversy-minded press, and calculating politicians. The backlash against the outrageous statements by popular Salafi television preachers reveals as much as their initial comments — and indeed tells us far more than the bland reassurances of the designated spokesmen for the movements. These public battles reveal the limits of their influence and the real radicalism of some of their ideas relative even to their own societies. They may also sometimes reveal real pools of popular support for their ideas in conservative societies such as Egypt’s, which is important to recognize rather than turn away from. 

Open politics challenges the Salafis as much as empowers them. Since its electoral coming out party, Egypt’s al-Nour Party has fragmented and faced serious internal tensions. Its decision to approve of an IMF loan on grounds of extreme contingency seems sure to anger the faithful, and suggests that for better or for worse ultimately even these most ideological of Islamists will prove pragmatic in their pursuit of self-interest. They will likely face increasing challenges as their members grow disenchanted with the benefits of the democratic process and perhaps return to demands for greater doctrinal purity. In short, as much as the leaders of these movements may have enjoyed their public profile it also poses severe challenges.

Finally, the Salafi challenge has been forcing Muslim Brotherhood-style groups in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia into open confrontation. Egyptian and Tunisian Salafis have been biting at the heels of the ruling Islamists. In Egypt some Salafis are gearing up to mobilize against a constitutional draft pushed by the Muslim Brotherhood, while Tunisian Salafis are none to happy about Ennahda’s decision to drop its heavily promoted "anti-blasphemy" constitutional clause. From their positions of power such Islamists no longer have the luxury of empty posturing or of ignoring real challenges to stability or national interests. While Salafis and Brothers have been tussling over supporters for many years, the stakes have never been higher nor the electoral sorting mechanism more direct. The Muslim Brotherhood can no longer take its Islamic flank for granted, forcing it to shed its carefully calculated ambiguity maintained over decades. 

A recent video of Tunisian Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi meeting with Salafis has been widely taken as a scandal, revealing secret collaboration between the two trends, for instance. But his comments could also be read as a warning to impatient Salafis — to back off, avoid confrontational moves, and be more patient. It is unclear whether they have any intention of taking this advice.  With a significant proportion of Brothers harboring Salafi sympathies and Salafis moving into the political realm once identified with the Brothers, we can expect those political battles over the Islamic vote to only intensify. Islam may be ever more the coin of public rhetoric in transitional Arab societies, but there is no unified Islamist movement able to take advantage. Indeed, the fragmentation and battling of competing Islamist groups, along with the alarming rhetoric from some of those quarters, which may frighten mainstream voters, should be a blessing for liberal and secular groups, if only they can take advantage. 

The same can be said of the emergence of the Salafi-jihadist groups. While much remains unclear, there appears to be a new al Qaeda strategy focused on building ties with local jihadist movements, including the various Ansar al-Sharia factions. This is clearly a climb-down from the post-9/11 period for al Qaeda Central, and a more localized and disaggregated threat varying widely across arenas. Combined with the magnet of a radicalized Syrian insurgency (see below), it could represent the next adaptation of a resilient, if still very small, jihadist movement. That jihadist movement looks more like the localized campaigns of the 1990s than the exaggerated ambitions of a unified Islamist movement under Salafi-jihadist tutelage imagined in the years after 9/11. We should avoid the temptation to inflate the threat of these disparate movements or to conflate radically different events and trends into a single narrative of Islamist or al Qaeda resurgence.

One crucial difference in these new localized jihadist groups is that whereas before they targeted secular, pro-American leaders such as Mubarak, now their violence and extremism poses a direct threat to the political interests of Islamist leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. From a U.S. perspective, having the Muslim Brotherhood take the lead in combatting Salafi-jihadists on their own turf, for their own interests, would be a major success in the broader campaign against such groups. The Brotherhood also finds itself in the very uncomfortable position of taking a lead role in cracking down on "Islamic extremists." It has not been so long since they were the targets of such repression. This competition is one major reason why it is wrong to conflate all signs of Islamist political success into a narrative of a supposedly resurgent al Qaeda. 

And then, there is Syria. As a recent ICG report made clear, initially marginal Salafi-Jihadist groups have made significant inroads into the Syrian opposition. They appear to have benefited disproportionately from financial and arms flows from the Gulf, and to have adapted many of the military and communication innovations of al Qaeda in Iraq. For the jihadist community it does appear that Syria is the new Iraq, both operationally and as a propaganda frame for advancing a narrative, which had fallen into deep disrepute over the last few years (I’ll be writing more on this soon). They will likely continue to bring sectarianism, extremist views, and Iraq-style tactics into Syria regardless of whether or how Western countries intervene, and to enjoy ready access to cash and foreign fighters regardless of whether or how Western countries attempt to control such flows.

In short, the emergence of the Salafi trend into the public life of many Arab countries is an important recent development. But it would be a mistake to exaggerate the unity of the Salafi trend or its place within these transitional societies. They are a vital part of the emerging public landscape. Their participation in electoral politics and public life should be encouraged — even as their stances should be condemned and their opponents supported in the effort to build tolerant, inclusive Arab societies. A contentious political battle over Islamic symbols will likely continue to be a prominent feature of Arab politics in coming years. Hopefully, the essays in this POMEPS Briefing collection will be a useful guide to the current state of play.