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Just How Significant are the Salafis in Egypt?

April 1, 2011

Salafis believe that Muslims must return to the Islam practiced by the first three generations of Muslims (as they understand it).

My post on the Washington Post article about Salafi movements brought me a lot of responses (few people post comments on my blog, for some reason; most e-mail me or post to Facebook)

Salafis are “fundamentalists” in the American sense of the word–they seek to restore the religion of Islam to the doctrinal purity of the first three generations of Muslims, which they believe they can reconstruct from limiting their theology to the Qur’an and a limited set of hadith (tales describing the sayings and actions of the prophet and his early converts).

Most people in the US, of course, find Salafis terrifying, as their words and activities feed into American fears that these Middle Eastern revolutions will all end in Islamic theocracies (and that all Islamic theocracies will resemble Iran).

Many of my Egyptian friends warned me about exaggerating the Salafi movement’s influence in Egypt. They are a small movement with no real organizational structure, led by networks of like-minded clerics, many of whom received educations in Wahhabi schools in Saudi Arabia.

Historically, Salafis eschewed politics, arguing that democracy was incompatible with Islam. The revolution thus left them in an awkward position–either they engage in politics or they risk becoming irrelevant.

Their ultimate goal, though, is cultural, not political: to make Salafi ideology the dominant faith practice in Egypt ultimately to the exclusion of other Islamic practices, not to mention Christianity. To this end, groups of Salafis engage in public protest,  distribute pamphlets, commit acts of violence and other activities that call attention to themselves and their ideas. The media is complicit in this, one of my friends argued, because it brings them exactly the kind of attention they want.

Some of my friends are using a figure of 5 percent as the number of active Salafis in Egypt, and insist that their influence would be almost nil if not for articles like that in the Post and local media that draws attention to them, their activities and their ideas.

To explain more fully, I found this great column by Ashraf Sherif in Al-Masry Al-Youm that addresses both the Salafi movement and the “fear industry in the Egyptian media” in the wake of the revolution.

Salafis’ popularity in Egypt has been evident over the past decades. They are a fairly well-entrenched religious tendency that has been quite present on the Egyptian street. However, their potential for impact should not be exaggerated. In my view, Salafis are politically confined to “trouble-maker” status but nothing more. They lack the organization, political expertise and mindset to translate their doctrinal intransigence into meaningful political gains on the ground, even within the Islamist camp.

The revolution has changed things for the Salafis:

The success of Egypt’s uprising has caused Salafis to rethink their position in Egypt’s political order. They had no option but to support the revolution, or else risk becoming irrelevant. Now they are trying to reap its fruits and justify their own reactive politics in religious terms. This course of action is unusual for a group that is traditionally unbending in its doctrine. But the prospects of Salafi success are limited. Salafists barely have any experience with electoral politics (in terms of cadre building, resource mobilization and interest-aggregation techniques).  Their mobilizing capacities are overrated and past successes have relied less on good organizational structures and more on exploiting public emotions and prejudices. Egypt’s new political atmosphere is pushing Salafis into unfamiliar territory. But the hegemony they so eagerly seek over Egypt’s Islamic public sphere may be undercut by the Salafis’ political incompetence.

If this topic interests you, read the column, it’s very good.

(I think this is the same Ashraf Sherif who was an undergraduate in political science at AUC back when I still taught there, and who just got a PhD at Boston University. If so, mabrouk Ashraf!).

One Comment leave one →
  1. potatoskins permalink
    April 3, 2011 3:22 am

    On April 4th Al-Masry al-Youm English reported that Salafi groups have damaged or destroyed some 20 Sufi shrines, drawing condemnation from Egypt’s Grand Mufti. Two have been arrested. And the Arabic edition of the newspaper interviewed a lawyer for a number of leaders from Gama’a al-Islamyia and Egyptian Islamic Jihad are petitioning to re-enter Egypt. The lawyer, Ibrahim Ali, said as many as three thousand will be seeking to return to Egypt from from Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Somalia, Kenya, Iran and London.

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