The rise of Egypt’s fundamentalist Salafis

How a little-known group of ultra-orthodox Muslims are shaking up Mideast politics
Adnan R. Khan
Egypt --- A young girl, left, behind a curtain where women have to sit watches a boy hand out election material during a campaign event for Egypt’s Salafist al-Nour party prior to parliamentary elections in the Giza neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt. --- Image by © Shawn Baldwin/Corbis input 12/6/2011
Under the Islamist spell
Shawn Baldwin/Corbis

If 2011 was the year the Arab street rose up in defiance of dictatorship, 2012 is shaping up to be the year of the Islamist. That may sound scary. Over at least the past decade, the term has come to represent fanatics around the world obsessed with sharia law, Allah-bent on destroying Israel and the West in a frenzy of religiously inspired payback. Egypt is the latest former Western ally to fall under the so-called Islamist spell, and the most important one to date. At the end of its first free and open parliamentary elections that concluded on Jan. 11, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) stood atop a rubble heap of liberal secularist parties, winning a plurality of seats and poised to become the powerbroker in a country literally sitting at the nexus of the West’s interests in the Middle East.

In the aftermath, Western diplomats and right-leaning political pundits have been wringing their hands over possible futures: that Egypt will abrogate its peace treaty with Israel, that other Islamist movements will take inspiration from the MB example and increase their political activities, raising the spectre of Islamist politics threatening the world’s oil supply. Stoking the fears was who came second: a little-known group of ultra-orthodox Muslims, the Salafis. Their electoral success came as a shock to most observers, though not so much to Muslims themselves.

For years, moderate Muslims have been struggling against a rising wave of fundamentalist thought within their communities. Salafism is on the rise globally, posing a bigger threat to the West than groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who occupy a comparatively moderate zone in the Islamic spectrum. And the problem is not restricted to Muslim nations. In a series of interviews with Maclean’s in December 2010, Muslim leaders in Amsterdam complained of the rising influence of Salafism. “It’s the fundamentalists, the Salafis, who are the real problem,” Muhammad Sajjad Barkati, the imam at Amsterdam’s Ghoussia mosque, said at the time. “The Salafis are trying to convert everyone to their way of thinking. They are dividing the Muslim community.”

Barkati’s condemnation was telling: the Ghoussia mosque, in Slotevaart, a suburb approximately five kilometres southwest of Amsterdam’s city centre, catered primarily to Pakistanis who follow the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, the largest and most moderate of Islam’s four schools of Islamic law. The presence of Salafis actively proselytizing in the neighbourhood suggested a change of tactics for the usually cloistered and pious preachers. Even more revealing was how Barkati made his statements: in a timorous and reluctant whisper. It was clear that he feared the Salafis.

Nearby, in another of Amsterdam’s predominantly Muslim suburbs, Izmaray Arsala, the 25-year-old spokesperson for the Islamic College of Amsterdam, made a similar claim. “Fundamentalists like the Salafis are exploiting the divides among Dutch Muslims to their advantage,” he said. “And we lack strong moderate leadership to counter their influence.”

One of those leaders, Muhammad Cheppih, the 38-year-old force behind a failed attempt to set up a liberal mosque in Amsterdam, put it this way: “The battle is really going on within Islam. We have orthodox Muslims here who have a very isolationist ideology. They want Muslims to be strangers within the broader Dutch communities. I tried to fight that but I was fighting against a very powerful group of leaders, leaders entrenched in the Muslim communities and afraid of losing their power. These are the older generation who refuse to accept change. I know them and we disagree on many points, primarily on pluralism in Islam. In their world, there is only the Muslim and the non-Muslim.”

He was, of course, referring again to the Salafis. And over the intervening year, the revolutions in the Middle East have focused the spotlight on the struggles playing out within Muslim societies. In Tunisia, Salafist organizations, persecuted under the secular dictatorship of ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, have capitalized on a new era of freedom of expression to promote their vision for society. On Oct. 11, they clashed with police on the streets of Tunis to demand that a local television station be shut down after it had aired Persepolis, a controversial animated film by Iranian filmmaker Marjane Satrapi containing a representation of God. “This is a crime,” Mondher Abderrahman, a Salafist leader, told the Tunisian press, “and for a crime there must be a punishment.”

The Salafis got their way: Nabil Karoui, the station’s director, is now awaiting trial on charges of “defaming a religion.”

That success, as well as the success of the Salafis in Egypt’s elections, pose some uncomfortable questions, not only for Western countries grappling with Islamic fundamentalism, but for moderate Muslims like Barkati, Arsala, and Cheppih. Why is Salafism doing so well? And what can be done to counterbalance its appeal?

There are no simple answers. One of the strengths of Salafism is its ability to adapt to local realities. Salafis in Egypt have gone political, while Salafis in Tunisia have refused to join the political process. In Syria, the Assad regime accuses Salafist fundamentalists of the violence there, while the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia—a subgroup of Salafism—reject violence as a means of political change.

In Amsterdam and Paris, Salafis have adeptly read the mood on the streets, tapping into the perception that Islam is under attack to attract young adherents. In Egypt, Salafis have similarly tapped into the negative image of secularism created by years of corrupt secular dictatorship under Hosni Mubarak. Their election success, as well as the success of the Muslim Brotherhood, is intimately tied to that historical dynamic. “The people are sick and tired of the so-called liberal parties like the former National Democratic Party,” Gamal Hassan, the leader of the Salafist Al-Nour party, told Egypt’s Daily News. “They now want religion and the implementation of Islamic sharia.”

That may or may not be true. Certainly, the anger toward liberalism is potent in Egypt, as it is in many parts of the Muslim world where the term is equated with Western imperialism. Even secular liberals are shunning the term, opting instead for the more anodyne “civil society” label and desperately trying to prove their Islamic credentials. But their efforts have proved unsuccessful at the ballot box, largely because Egypt’s majority conservatives have suffered years of economic deprivation under a secular regime and believe a religious leadership can serve them better.

What’s encouraging, however, is that these same people say if the Islamists fail to deliver on their promises of improving their lives, they will vote them out of power in the next elections.

What’s also encouraging is the massive divide between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis. They agree on very little, outside of their Islamic roots. “It is easier for me to talk with a liberal or a socialist than a Salafi,” one MB activist told Al Jazeera. Leaders from both groups have disavowed each other, with MB leaders indicating they would rather form a ruling coalition with secularists than the Salafis.

Nonetheless, the Salafis will, at least for the foreseeable future, play an increasing role in Egypt and across the Muslim world, which some experts believe is a good thing. “The only way to counter violent radicalization within the Salafist community,” says Jean Tillie of the University of Amsterdam’s social and behavioural sciences department and the lead author of Holland’s first in-depth report on Salafism, “is to help Salafis engage with democratic institutions. By doing so, you change them. You help them prevent members from turning to violence.”

The logic is that in a mature, functioning democratic system based on consensus, all parties will tend to moderation. Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen, but the early signs are encouraging. In recent days, Egypt’s Salafis have reached out to liberal secularists, hoping to form a parliamentary coalition to balance out the power of the MB. This is the power of democracy: if a party wants to be successful, it must appeal to the broadest segment of society. Operating on the margins is a recipe for failure.

Pakistan offers up another example: the JUI-F, often cited as a pro-Taliban fundamentalist political organization, has never garnered more than 12 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections. Its appeal has been limited to a small segment of Pakistani society, largely Salafi-oriented. But now the JUI-F appears to be trying to broaden its appeal, recently condemning militant activities in Pakistan’s northwest.

That’s not to say political movements like the Muslim Brotherhood or the JUI-F are the best options for Muslim countries. And for moderate Muslims confronting the rise of more fundamentalist movements, the dilemma of leadership remains. Egypt’s example stands as a warning sign: the failure of liberal, secular Muslims in the parliamentary elections reflects a larger disconnect between the younger generation of moderate Muslim leaders and the people they purport to lead. Muhammad Cheppih, the Islamic reformer in Amsterdam, accepts the blame, but at the same time throws out a challenge to young Muslims. “Our failure was a failure of the young generation,” he says. “But it was a first attempt; it lacked the kind of leadership necessary to create alternatives, to show Muslims that it is possible to express Islam in a new way. Young people need to open their eyes to that reality. Maybe it’s a fight they can’t win. But it’s a fight someone has to fight.”