News You Really Need To See: “Salafism: Politics and the Puritanical”

“Salafism: Politics and the Puritanical”

The Economist, June 27-July 3, 2015, pp.38-39

Were it not for his bushy beard and trim moustache, Nader Bakkar could be mistaken for one of Egypt’s secular liberal politicians.  The young spokesman for the Nour party is tolerant, reasonable and smart—he is about to begin a fellowship at Harvard. … But his facial hair conveys a different message.  Mr Bakkar and his party adhere to the ultra-conservative brand of Sunni Islam known as Salafism. … [S]ome think Salafism is the fastest-growing Islamic movement.  It is also growing more diverse.  All Salafists take a fundamentalist approach to Islam, emulating the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers—al-salaf al-salih, the ‘pious forefathers’—right down to their facial hair.  They reject religious innovation, or bida, and support the implementation of sharia (Islamic law).  Salafist scholars, though, are far from homogeneous, expressing different views on everything from apostasy to activism.  Most notably, many Salafists now engage in politics despite a tradition of quiescence.  But with little to show for their efforts, they must decide whether to push on, withdraw or pursue politics by other means, such as war or terrorism. … But most Salafists shunned politics.  The movement is often broken down into three categories.  The most infamous are the jihadists, who are but a tiny minority.  The most numerous are the purists (or quietists), who believe that politics undercuts the sovereignty of God and is therefore best avoided.  Like the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, most bend a knee to Muslim heads of state, no matter how awful, in order to avoid creating fitna, or chaos.  Activist Salafists, those involved in politics, make up the third group.  Their number swelled in the aftermath of the Arab spring, when the boundaries between politics and religion blurred… The Nour party, which grew out of the Salafist Call, the country’s main Salafist organisation based in Alexandria, won over 20% of the seats in parliament in the [Egypt’s] first free election. … The purists can also find support for their rejection of political engagement in Tunisia, the only democracy to emerge from the Arab spring. … Unhappy with the secular direction of the country, and with little voice in politics, many Salafists have turned to protests and violence, at home and abroad.  The perceived failure of political engagement by Salafists risks benefiting the jihadists.  Tunisia is now the largest source of foreign fighters for IS.”

Quickie analysis:  A fascinating look at the ebb and flow of Salafism in politics throughout the Middle East.

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