The Global Salafi Phenomenon

Dec 22, 2011 Written by 
Shaykh Muhammad Hasan, a prominent Egyptian Salafi preacher Shaykh Muhammad Hasan, a prominent Egyptian Salafi preacher http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/06/02/151576.html

[This is the last of 4 blogs on the sociology of religion] So you read the news: in the first round of post-revolutionary elections in Cairo and Alexandria – the only places where secular parties have a chance to do well – the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party raked in 37% of the vote, while the brand new Salafi party, Al-Nour (“Light”) got 24%.

Political Islam is definitely not over, but as it enters the push and shove of democratic politics and is held responsible for solving pressing socioeconomic problems, its leaders will have to compromise their ideals, both in policies they will promote and in the alliances they will be forced to make. Then too, the army is still very much in charge and will not put up with an Islamic state. When at the helm, by necessity, pragmatism trumps idealism.

Yet, these days the Salafis pop up as you read about Egypt, Indonesia, and even France. It’s a movement with global reach, certainly, but at the same time very diverse – from apolitical, world-refusing born-agains, to al-Qaeda-emulating Jihadi-Salafis. In “Whence the Salafis?” I explained the cyclical nature of conservative revivalism in Islamic history. Now it’s time to look at the sociology of Salafism. This will also lead me to remark on how sacred texts are read – a theme that runs throughout my work.

Just a reminder from blog 2 on the sociology of religion (“Is fundamentalism still relevant?”): globalization has created new hybrid cultures and religious movements that become divorced from their original cultural context and focus on a “pure” version of the faith. In recent years, thanks in large part to Saudi petro-dollars, the ultra-conservative brand of Saudi Islam (Wahhabism) has dovetailed with a prevailing literalism in interpreting the Islamic texts and produced a movement now labeled “Salafism.”

 

Salafism and the fundamentalist enclave

Salafism is textbook “fundamentalism.” In their book Strong Religion, Scott Appleby, Gabriel Almond, and Emmanuel Sivan reexamine 75 case studies from different religions on five continents in the five-volume Fundamentalism Project. Their list nicely dovetails with Olivier Roy’s characteristics of “neofundamentalism” (see my fundamentalism blog):


        a) Leaders, typically from a conservative background, are charismatic and authoritarian, and strongly patriarchal in their outlook

        b) They infuse in the community a strong sense of self-righteousness and embattlement, i.e., they are the “true believers” in the “pure version” of their faith, in opposition to the lukewarm, the heretics and the non-believers, with a discourse often laced with conspiracy theories

        c) This in turn creates a strong division between insiders and outsiders, as they define their mission in spiritual terms, usually with “apocalyptic urgency,” and always with practices that set them apart from mainstream culture (regimented lifestyle, rigorous norms of clothing and moral purity)

 

The book Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement offers marvelous case studies on Salafis in Sudan, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Yemen, Palestine, the Netherlands, Britain and France. Let me just illustrate the appeal of Salafism as a religion of enclave from the French context.

Mohamed-Ali Adraoui is a French political scientist whose research on Salafi youth reads much more like sociology. Don’t be surprised: add anthropology to the mix and you will find three social science disciplines that greatly overlap in their research methods.

Adraoui starts by pointing out that even before 9/11 discussions about the resurgence of Islam dominated public debate. This is because so many French Muslims define themselves as Muslims first and foremost, and hardly at all as French. Another reason is that the religious market for Islam in France is thriving. There are dozens of organizations and currents to choose from, and all compete vigorously for potential recruits – though none so energetically as the Salafis, advocates of “absolute” or “pure” Islam.

Finally, though maybe only one out of five French Muslims actually practices his or her faith, Salafis are the best at recruiting from the young underclass – the youth who live in the poor suburbs of the big cities (the banlieus), who are for the most part unemployed and often on the wrong side of the law. Why are the Salafis so attractive? Adraoui explains:


“Salafi Puritanism exerts a strong attraction on Muslims who feel alienated and who contest the dominant national ideology of republicanism and laïcité [an extreme gulf between religion and state] that requires assimilation. The appeal of Salafi Puritanism lies in its ability to provide a way of not only opting out of society but of creating an alternative, superior community based on the unity of God (tawhid)” (p. 366).


So you become a true believer, you submit to God and your leader, and you fight all forms of heresy, which includes the beliefs and practices of just about all the other Muslims. This pays off psychologically for someone on the margins of society: “Salafism empowers these ‘dropouts’ by providing them with a transcendental dimension, a holy identity, and the belief that they are chosen.” It also involves a veritable revolution in their lives. Adraoui goes on,

 

“Instead of being passive ‘followers,’ they have become active ‘models’ for others. Where before the migrant lived on the fringe of society (mentally rather than effectively), as a Salafi he now stands at the centre of the world and embodies a sacred history. Morally and symbolically the migrant has climbed up the social ladder and is able to look down on the rest of society” (p. 367).

 

Naturally, this attitude will not likely endear him to his neighbors. In the Salafi worldview all the pride of Paris – its history, culture, wealth and values – is nothing more than kufr (“unbelief,” but stronger: already blazing in the flames of hell!). In fact, he is no longer supposed to interact with them. Culturally, he is now aligned with the Arabian Gulf. Wearing his long white robe (qamis) and his baggy trousers that stop at half his calves, he also becomes a hard worker and usually manages to make a good living – mostly in business, and never in banks (because of the ban on interest). Some even travel to Dubai, Qatar and Saudi Arabia through their Salafi contacts and come back with money to invest in other businesses.

Much more could be said, of course, but I would like go back to the issue of Salafis in Egypt. Adraoui sees three main divisions of Salafis: the purists (which his chapter focuses on), the Jihadi-Salafis like Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda, or the political Salafis, the ultraconservative version of the Muslim Brothers (but with no political experience). Some have been known to move back and forth along this scale. In fact, people’s theology and practice evolve with a changing context, as the next section illustrates.

 

The Salafis and the Arab Spring

Egypt’s Salafi movement, holed up for years in its Alexandria fortress and active in Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods, remained fiercely apolitical. For Salafis traditionally, there was to be no political involvement unless the state adopts Sharia wholesale or a global Islamic caliphate is in the wings. This kind of unbending, take-all-or-nothing mentality, coupled with an unforgiving focus on dress codes, male dominance, and silent submission to leadership in all matters – all this was fine under the ironclad dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. So the Salafis were singularly unprepared for the January 25 Revolution of 2011.

In its wake, the strict enclave mentality with its rigorous policing of community boundaries took a big hit. First, some of the young leaders joined the protests in Tahrir Square, drawing lots of younger men with them. This happened with both the Brotherhood and the Salafis. Second, they realized that Egyptians were elated about the revolution toppling Hosni Mubarak. If they didn’t get on the political bandwagon, leaders were thinking, they might lose their chance to counter the secularist tide and the second amendment to the previous constitution might be deleted (“Sharia is the main source of legislation”).

Though some Salafi groups remain opposed to any contact with democratic politics (the “purists” want no part of the devil incarnate), many preachers have taken to the streets, haranguing crowds under tents and offering amenities to their followers. The airwaves, both radio and TV, have opened up to lots of new channels, most of which are religious. And now three Salafi political parties have formed, with Al-Nour in the lead.

All this flurry of activity both preceded and followed the turning point of the spring, the March 19 referendum. This is when people came to the polls to decide on whether to hold early elections in 2011 or not. A hotly debated issue, everybody knew it was about religion in Egypt’s political arena. The Muslim Brotherhood, by far the most organized opposition group, stood to gain handsomely. But the other Islamic parties – and the Salafis in particular – were not going to cede the ground to these liberal Muslims who play fast and fancy with the established dogma, at least as they see it.

The referendum drew large crowds of enthusiastic supporters for the early elections, which have now begun. Egypt is, after all, a very religious country. And though the ultraconservative Salafis will probably never beat the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood in any election, they are not far behind, and they represent more than any other group the secularists’ biggest fear. Regarding their views on women and for the literal application of Sharia penalties (see “Severe Punishments”), I can understand. But as for the use of violence and their willingness to play by the democratic rules, think again.

Take Abboud al-Zomor, for example. A young intelligence officer in Anwar As-Sadat’s army, he had taken part in the conspiracy to assassinate him. One of many in the military who were secret members of the Gama’a al-Islamiyya (the “Islamic Group”) whose aim was to overthrow the regime by force, he spent nearly thirty years for this act. Now this spring he was among the many political prisoners released after Mubarak’s fall. Some rumors have it that the army is hereby using a scare tactic, so that with the ensuing chaos of the transitional period, they will be called in to rule for the long haul.

If Abboud al-Zomor is any indication, there will be no such chaos. Out of prison, he now identifies with the Salafis who are running for office. In an April interview with the New York Times, he asserts confidently,

 

“The ballot boxes will decide who will win at the end of the day. There is no longer any need for me to use violence against those who gave us our freedom and allowed us to be part of political life.”

 

No wonder he and many other Salafi leaders are engaged politically these days. These elections will determine who will sit and write the new constitution. A lot is at stake. So al-Nour leaders, faced with the run-off elections, are doing everything they can to rein in the preachers who have issued some of the more “outrageous” fatwas (legal rulings), from the forbidding of high heels for women (even if they are all covered up), to virulent statements about Christians, to a ban on voting for anyone who is not a practicing Muslim.

Still, you have to wonder at how radically and quickly these movements changed their minds. As journalist Neil MacFarquhar writes,

 

“But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Islamist campaign was the energy invested by religious organizations that once damned the democratic process as a Western, infidel innovation masterminded to undermine God’s laws.”

 

A revolution just took place that, as everyone could see, would have momentous implications for the future of the country.

 

Ideologies evolve, as do the readings of sacred texts

The “New Salafism,” as Khalil al-Anani recently put it (in a discussion on the sociology of Islam listserv), “is a mere ‘bubble’ and shallow phenomenon in Egyptian politics, whether in terms of ideological or religious rhetoric or their structural and organizational settings.” A political scientist at the University of Durham, al-Anani writes on these topics for the Egyptian press and elsewhere. With precious little political experience, they’re still part of the much wider islamist spectrum; yet because of their ultraconservative lifestyles and rhetoric, they grab the headlines.

All of the groups loosely belonging to “political Islam” have evolved their way of imagining a “truly Islamic society” – what it looks like, and what it might take to bring it about. On the other end of the spectrum you would have to include the ruling AKP party of Turkey, and in Egypt, the Wasat party, formed in the mid-1990s by a group of young, disillusioned Muslim Brothers. Following the ideology of the Brotherhood’s second General Guide, Hasan al-Hudaybi (see my blog, “Seek the Peace of the City”), they elected a Coptic Christian as their head and advocate building an Egypt that reflects the best in human values as found in both Muslim and Christian texts.

The authors Almond, Appleby and Sivan in Strong Religion (2003) speak of how islamist leaders have continually “ransacked the tradition’s past, retrieving and restoring politically useful doctrines and practices and creating others in an effort to construct a religiopolitical ideology capable of mobilizing disgruntled youth into militant cadres or into grassroots political organizations” (p. 10). I call this “doing theology” – what people of faith (and especially leaders) do all the time. Here it’s about recruiting young people to the cause. As everywhere, they are the ones most likely to join and commit.

Think again about the Egyptian Brotherhood under Mubarak. As they attempted “to provide a compelling alternative religious alternative to the state,” “they found themselves participating in a common discourse about modernization, development, political structures, and economic planning” (p. 12). As groups like this got more directly involved in politics – as islamists and Salafis are doing just now in Egypt – with time they realized that “[p]olitical involvement . . . tends to alter the exclusivist, dogmatic, confrontational mode of the fundamentalist to such a degree that the word fundamentalism or its cognates is no longer appropriate” (12).

Simply put, when people of faith dive into politics, ideals get trimmed down to what actually can be done right now. Pragmatism sets in and in discussing issues with others one’s horizons begin to widen. Think too about the US Religious Right that exploded under Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the early 1980s. By the mid 2000s it had lost much of its steam, and in 2008 young evangelicals were voting for Obama in droves. [I have a blog coming up showing how evangelicals concerned about the environment have the ear of the younger generation – with all kinds of implications both theologically and politically].

An Arab journalist for the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya (the same TV network on which Barack Obama was interviewed) perused the Al-Nour Party platform and scratched his head. These Egyptian Salafis, he writes, are sending shock waves throughout the global Salafi movement. They contravene at least four basic tenets shared by various factions worldwide:

 

        1. Full obedience is owed to the Muslim ruler and democracy is an evil invention of the west – yet Al-Nour is a political party

        2. The Sharia is the only acceptable constitution – yet their charter echoes the present constitution by only stating that “the higher reference will be for the Islamic Sharia”

        3. Classical Islamic law classified Christians as a “protected minority” (dhimmi) – but they declare that Egyptian Copts should enjoy exactly the same rights as their Muslim compatriots (citizens of a civil state)

        4. Salafis despised and castigated the prestigious Al-Azhar University as a pawn of the Mubarak regime – now they are calling for its independence from the state and for transparent elections among its scholars so as to designate its next Grand Shaykh

 

Granted, Al-Nour is the most moderate of the three Salafi-leaning parties formed this last summer. But it’s also by far the most influential and its platform is nothing short of revolutionary.

So where might the Salafis be headed? I would venture to guess that, as happened to other religious groups who dove into politics, their ideology will moderate the nearer they get to power. But because of their lack of political experience and their own internal divisions, they are not likely to get very far. Still, many of them have already started to read their texts in more inclusive ways – and even recognize that some legal norms of the past need to be revisited in the light of changing sociopolitical conditions. Maybe revolutions do shed new light on our sacred texts and traditions . . .

blog comments powered by Disqus

Recent Blog Entries