Nathan Brown: do the salafis really want to party?
After I stole his best line this morning, my suitemate Nathan Brown volunteered this comment on the performance of the Salafi movement in the Kuwaiti elections, which he spent last week observing:
Do the Salafis Really Want to Party?
As Marc noted today, one of the most interesting developments in last Saturday’s Kuwaiti elections was the success of the salafis and the decline (probably temporary but still striking) of the Islamic Constitutional Movement (known as Hadas the acronym for the movement in Arabic, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood). I’ll be posting an analysis of what happened to Hadas on the Carnegie website next week.
Let me note for now what is so interesting about the Kuwaiti salafis. Not only do they participate in elections, unlike most of their counterparts in other Arab politics that disdain such political activity, but some of them are actually forming a political party. Quintan Wiktorowicz’s book on salafis and the Ikhwan in Jordan shows how salafis there eschew formal and organized politics, and that’s the normal pattern elsewhere in the region.
The new Kuwaiti electoral law was supposed to favor parties and ideological movements, but for the most part it was sectarian and especially tribal identities that proved the real winners. The exception was a salafi party that ran five candidates, four of whom won seats (some media reports gave the number of their deputies as ten, but that is based on counting their allies and like-minded independents). They are far less of an impressive organization than Hadas in many ways. They have thought less about their agenda and they remain dominated by specific personalities (especially their leader, Khalid Sultan).
But salafi movements have generally regarded the Ikhwan as more of a political than a religious organization, and the Kuwaiti salafis are no different. There remain strong ideological and personal differences between Hadas and the salafis—deep enough to have prevented the two from going into an electoral alliance despite long and tortured negotiations. But the Kuwaiti salafis, as much as they look down upon Hadas as dedicated to what they might term “Islamism light,” now seem to be taking a page out of their book. Those interested in the party can view its website at http://www.al-islami.org/
The salafi party will now have to wrestle with the same issues that Hadas has since it was formed in 1991: how and when to cooperate with liberals and Shi‘a, whether to accept ministerial portfolios (if offered), when to make compromises, and how to prioritize among various elements of its program. I met on Monday with Salim Al-Nashi, their media spokesperson (and the older brother of Hadas secretary-general Badr Al-Nashi) and pressed him on these issues. He insisted that unlike the Brotherhood, the salafis remain concerned with far more than politics and that they would not compromise but only pursue the Islamic way. But since the Islamic shari‘a gives little guidance on parliamentary maneuvering, we’ll have to see what happens to them in practice.