The Salafists: the Latest in Islamist Politics

The Salafists: the Latest in Islamist Politics

Arab politics has revolved around three different Muslim positions since the 1970s: the Sufis, who have tended to vote for the ruling parties; the Muslim Brotherhood, which mostly urged people to vote against these parties; and the Salafists who regard elections as producing division within the community and would rather not get involved.

But these positions have evolved: some Salafists have gone down the electoral route (notably in Saudi Arabia’s 2005 municipal elections); the Sufis of Iraq and Pakistan have shifted towards active opposition, sometimes armed; and the Muslim Brotherhood has managed to organise electorally and little by little to act within the parliamentary system, with increasing success.

That generation of the Muslim Brotherhood (ikhwan muslimin, founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna) who represented the first wave of Islamists in contemporary politics — and who continue to occupy a central place within the opposition spectrum, particularly in Palestine, Egypt and North Africa — now finds itself up against Salafist competition. For what distinguishes those who call themselves Salafists is the need to distance themselves from the legacy of the Brotherhood (whom they refer to as the ikhwan muflisin or failed brothers).

The ideology of these recent converts to Islamist political involvement isn’t new, even if they express themselves in a new way in the Arab world or in the West. It isn’t accurate to describe the Salafists as the generation succeeding the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Algerian FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) or Morocco’s al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Charity). For they pre-date the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But the Brotherhood, because of its political activism, stood out from the Islamist mainstream in the 1930s and, with its continuing political visibility and popularity, eclipsed its Salafist competitors right up to the 1990s.

To have any chance of gaining power, the Muslim Brotherhood had to make profound doctrinal changes and apply concepts foreign to a literal reading of classical Islam — such as a constitution and, gradually, democracy. Unsurprisingly, these reforms caused tensions and internal divisions, leaving the way open for further contention. The more important the Brotherhood became, and with it its legal interpretations, the more the Salafists denounced its “modernisations” as concessions.

The most Salafists credited the ageing generation of the Muslim Brotherhood with was forcing the supposedly secular regimes it challenged — such as Egypt and Syria — to accept the need for a symbolic “re-Islamisation”; and providing a gauge by which to measure the extent to which religious political movements had taken root in the region. For most of the regimes in the Arab world took on board these deep societal demands for change as long as they did not overstep limits, particularly on censorship.

Salafists resent the Muslim Brotherhood’s monopoly on change all the more because of its failure to deal with a broad coalition of authoritarian Arab regimes and the international community, or to win many political rewards. But at the same time, by denouncing the Brotherhood’s “concessions” to “secularism and democracy,” Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s principal ideologue, demonstrated most clearly that the Brotherhood had indeed been a vehicle for modernising political thought. Or at least it had overseen a transformation more socially and culturally acceptable than that which the so-called “secular” elite had aimed at.

The Salafists’ split from the Muslim Brotherhood tradition is, in part, because they reject some aspects of western political thought that the Brothers had “Islamised,” such as the formation of parties and organisational structures, participation in elections, and women entering professional and even political life.

All Salafists stress the importance of Islam’s primary sources: the Qur’an and the Sunna. But Salafist scholars assert the right to break with the theological practice of the Sunni schools of law (Hanafi, Maleki, Hanbali, Shafi’i). It is not so much that they want to prohibit particular interpretations that apply to social or political aspects of daily life; what they want is the right to make their own interpretations, and have them recognised as such.

Salafists insist on the principle of divine oneness, and reject the sanctification of human intermediaries between believers and their creator, which they see as a vain attempt to “compete” with God. Their constant recourse to the detailed Hadiths (sayings) of the Prophet, which are supposed to provide readers of the Qur’an with all the clarifications they need, is meant to protect the faithful against any interference between them and God. The worship of saints, the veneration of Sufi sheiks or Shia imams reputed to be infallible, even the respect given to some scholars “mixing their voices with that of God,” are all denounced as attacks on the principle of the oneness of God.

Most Salafists fill the ranks of groups called “pietist” or “quietist,” who preach obedience to any government, however corrupt or autocratic, as long as it calls itself Muslim. The aim is to avoid that worst of states: fitna or calling into question the unity of the community of the faithful. At the request of legal scholars close to the Saudi regime, many Salafists have distanced themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood by removing any form of contestation from their religious activity. Regimes that claim to be modernising, from Yemen to Egypt and Morocco, have favoured the Salafists (in many regards less modern than the Brotherhood) because they see in the Salafists’ electoral abstinence a tool to weaken their own opponents.

But whenever Salafists suffer repression, as happens in some Arab states, or social and religious stigmatisation in the West, they are also able to muster their quota of jihadis to the fight against national elites or the masters of the new world order, following the example of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb who radicalised the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s. In Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and even in hidden corners of Europe, their pietists have joined other camps like that of Juhaiman al-Utaibi, who carried out the attack against the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, or the jihadi school originally inspired by Sayyid Qutb and now by Ayman al-Zawahiri.

But although they claim to reject any new reading of Islam, Salafists are not immune to change. They are more naturally inclined to a plurality of political views (as in the vision of the role of women in society, which has reverted to a strict insistence on segregation) because Salafism has a much looser form of organisation than the Muslim Brotherhood. But despite their fervent reassertion of the need to return to the sources free of human mediation, the Salafists are no more able to produce a unified doctrinal response than their predecessors. Nor does their reading of the Qur’an provide any greater safeguards against differences of interpretation. And once the mechanics of interpretation have been set in motion, they are no more able than their predecessors to protect the believer against the influence of temporal powers.

Even groups that clearly distinguish themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood support the kind of evolution Hassan al-Banna’s followers underwent in regard to elections. Salafists have agreed to put up candidates in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The movement is now characterised by the same “modernising” attitude for which it once condemned the Muslim Brotherhood.

The “modernising” Muslim Brothers acted in some way as a foil for the Salafist electoral breakthrough of this decade, playing the same role that the westernised elites had earlier played for the Brotherhood to fight against. The Brotherhood argue in public for more inclusion. In contrast, the Salafists adopt the discourse and behaviour of exclusion as a response to their persistent feelings of rejection, which the Brotherhood had earlier failed to redress.

The Salafist surge is more about continuity than change. This continuity can be seen even in the symbolic status granted it by the western media. For the “Salafist threat” has allowed Muslims to be stigmatised once again, just as they were in the 1970s when the Islamists first erupted onto the scene. And that removes the need for rational journalistic investigation or political dealing. — translated by Stephanie Irvine

François Burgat is a political scientist and author of Face to Face with Political Islam, IB Tauris, London, 2003 and Islamism in the Shadow of Al-Qaeda, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2008.