The Middle East Channel

A new Salafi politics

Salafis, or Sunni puritans, have been much in the news since they sparked riots at U.S. embassies throughout the Arab world protesting film clips lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. A television personality on a Saudi Arabian-funded Salafi satellite channel in Egypt first fanned the flames, and Salafis ranging from the militant Mohamed al-Zawahiri (the brother of al Qaeda's chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri) to the mainstream Salafi political party al-Nour fueled the blaze when they blamed the U.S. government and called for protests against U.S. embassies. Salafis in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere took up the torch, resulting in attacks on U.S. and other Western diplomatic installations across the Middle East.

Others were involved, of course, and the protests were small compared to the protests over the Muhammad cartoons several years ago. Nevertheless, the Salafi-driven protests are one more sign the ultra-religious right is asserting itself as the guardian of the moral order in Sunni-majority countries revolting against the ancien régime. Their noisy performance on the public stage poses a major challenge to emerging democratic systems, fueling polarization inside and fears abroad. But the new political realm also poses challenges to the Salafis who are on unfamiliar ground politically and ideologically.

To understand the political behavior of Salafis today, keep four things in mind: their religious beliefs do not predict their political behavior; they are a minority in almost every Middle Eastern country; the countries where they are a majority are incredibly wealthy; and their appeal and power arises from their commitment to an ultraconservative creed that is out of step with the mainstream.

Salafis were not always so politically active (publicly criticizing government policies or working to change them). From the movement's beginning in the 1920s until the late 1970s, Salafis preferred scholasticism, political quietism, and social programs to pressure groups and vocal dissent. They frowned on criticizing Muslim rulers and participating in parliamentary systems of government, which they believed usurped God's role as law-giver. Things changed in the 1980s for some Salafis. In Saudi Arabia, a new generation of Salafis began to agitate against the royal family, pushing for a more Islamic foreign policy and conservative social reforms. In Kuwait, Salafis formed political groups and stood for elections. More ominously, some Salafis picked up arms against Muslim rulers in a jihad against "apostates" and their Western masters. All of these Salafis shared roughly the same puritanical beliefs and a desire for a state that reflects their ultraconservative values, but they differed on how to achieve it.

Significantly, despite the emergence of political parties such as Egypt's al-Nour Party, many Salafis still stay out of politics. They find it distasteful due to its entanglements, preferring instead to change society by changing people's minds. That does not mean their proselytizing has no political impact. Supporters can mobilize to change policies they do not like. Salafi-controlled mosques and charitable institutions can step in to provide public goods when the state fails. This retreat from formal politics may regain appeal among the Salafi mainstream if they fail to reap significant  rewards for political engagement.

Also noteworthy is that the strength of Salafi trends varies wildly across countries. Most Sunni-majority countries have some Salafi streams, but the strength of the stream is limited by the regime's policies and the volume of Salafis. For example, small communities will not view parliamentary politics as a way to advance their agenda because their base of support is so small. In Morocco (estimated at 17,000), Tunisia (estimated at 10,000), and Jordan (estimated 7,000), other forms of activism are more effective. (By way of comparison, there are between 15,000 to 17,000 in France and no more than 5,000 in Germany.) In contrast, a large community like the one in Egypt (3 to 5 million) can mobilize far more people and resources to compete for elected office, making it an attractive choice when a government makes it available.

As the last point suggests, a regime's response to Salafi political mobilization matters too. Regimes with an effective security apparatus can curtail violent dissent. But if the regime indiscriminately cracks down on Salafis in response to the violence of a few or if it denies them political access after granting it, the regime risks pushing more of the community to revolt, as happened in Algeria. Conversely, regimes that allow Salafis political access can siphon support away from violent groups. And even when a regime does not allow political access, many Salafis remain politically neutral when the state leaves them alone to run their religious institutions. The more institutions Salafis have, the more likely they will protect them by remaining politically quiet or engaging peacefully. Again, size matters.

Money matters, too. Wealthy Salafis in the Gulf amplify the political influence of Salafis abroad by bankrolling their religious institutions. Kuwaiti Salafis fund a number of the charitable institutions in Egypt; the Egyptian al-Nour party drew political support from these charities in the recent parliamentary elections. Kuwaiti Salafis finance one of the major Salafi militias fighting in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham. And as mentioned earlier, it was a Saudi-funded Salafi satellite channel in Egypt that first drew attention to the Muhammad film clips.

What matters to others in the political realm may not be of the most importance to the Salafis. As Sunni puritans, Salafis see themselves as the guardians of public morality, which not only involves sexual matters and dress but also putting religious minorities and "unorthodox" Muslims in their place. Where the state fails to police others' morals, Salafis respond with criticism, demonstrations, and even vigilantism. Again, the mix of responses in a given country is influenced by the size of the Salafi community and the regime's response.

One major complicating factor for predicting Salafi political behavior is the nature of the new regimes. Before the Arab uprisings, Islamists did not run the governments of the Arab world (Sudan being the exception), and moderate Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood spoke for the opposition on the religious right. Now that they are in power, the voice of the dissenting right is Salafi, which gives the Salafis leverage they never had before. But it also changes the nature of their political critique and puts them at odds with others claiming the same mantle of religion. Peaceful political engagement is unlikely to moderate Salafis' social views. Their appeal derives from their unwillingness to compromise their ultraconservative values. Besides, well-organized groups like the Muslim Brotherhood already occupy the middle ground, so Salafis stand to gain little politically by moderating. On economic matters there is more wiggle room. Thus, Yassir al-Burhami, the deputy head of the Salafi Call organization that founded Egypt's largest Salafi political party, approved an interest-bearing loan to Egypt from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But it is telling that many in the party have harshly criticized his decision as un-Islamic because usury is forbidden in Islam. Pragmatism comes at high cost when it involves Islamic matters Salafis hold dear.

Although politically active Salafis will be bad for social and perhaps some civil liberties like free speech, Salafis are not necessarily hostile to U.S national security interests in the Middle East. The political platforms of the various Salafi political parties in Egypt, for example, did not include anti-American rhetoric, and the head of Egypt's largest Salafi political party affirmed his support for the Camp David Accords. It is true that Salafi terrorists are one of the great threats to U.S. security and there is an unsettling respect for al Qaeda among many Salafis, but creed alone cannot explain why some Salafis turn to violence while others repudiate it. Those Salafis who turn to violence do not stand apart from non-violent Salafis. They often attend the same mosques, follow many of the same scholars, go to the same universities. Today's Salafi vigilantes and terrorists in Libya are not socially distinct from yesterday's Salafi terrorists who have embraced mainstream politics -- they move in the same circles. What has changed is the political context, which forces Salafis to reevaluate their methods. Holding Salafis to account for their past associations while ignoring their current behavior risks negatively influencing their choice.

The Arab uprisings are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to refashion the Arab world. Like others across the political spectrum, Salafis are seizing the opportunity to press the new regimes to craft states in the Salafis' own image. Whether the outcome is hideous or beautiful depends on how the new regimes respond.

Will McCants is a Middle East specialist at CNA and adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins. He is the author of Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam.


The Middle East Channel

Hezbollah claims responsibility for drone downed over Israel

Sheikh Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, head of Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah, claimed responsibility for a drone that was shot down over Israel on Saturday. Speaking to Hezbollah's al-Manar television, Nasrallah said, "A sophisticated reconnaissance aircraft was sent from Lebanese territory and traveled hundreds of kilometers over the sea before crossing enemy lines and into occupied Palestine." It is believed to have been launched near the southern Lebanese city of Sidon and was shot down about 35 miles inland to the north of Israel's Negev desert. Nasrallah stated the aircraft flew over "sensitive sites" which likely included Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor. In a rare reference to the movement's links to Iran, Nasrallah said that the drone was designed by Iran and assembled in Lebanon. The move has come after heightened concerns of a preemptive strike by Israel over Iran's controversial nuclear development program. Also, it has increased fears that Hezbollah might instigate fighting with Israel to distract attention from the civil war in Syria. Hezbollah has additionally been accused of assisting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the conflict. Nasrallah denied sending fighters to Syria. He said the group maintains the right to join the conflict in the future.


Russia is pushing for more information on Wednesday's forced landing of a jetliner in Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan maintains there were munitions in the plane's cargo that were being sent to the Syrian defense ministry. The recent events show a greater regional involvement in what has become an 18-month conflict in Syria. A representative from Moscow's Vnukovo International Airport asserted that everything on the plane had cleared customs and security checks. Syrian Arab Airlines head Ghaida Abdulatif said the plane had been carrying civilian electrical equipment. Turkey said it would prevent the use of its airspace for weapons transfers and deployed 25 fighter planes on Monday to protect its southeastern region from cross border violence. Meanwhile, opposition forces in Syria reportedly attacked an army base on the strategic highway connecting Damascus and Aleppo. The assault came after the opposition took over the town of Maarat al-Nuaman, on the same integral supply route. Additionally, al Arabiya has released classified documents showing the use of Red Cross vehicles by Syrian government forces to commit many crimes against humanity.


  • Protests are planned for Friday and President Mohamed Morsi is calling for the removal of Egypt's general prosecutor over the acquittal of 24 men accused of an attack on protesters during the 2011 uprising.
  • The White House has appointed Laurence Pope, retired Foreign Service member, as the senior U.S. envoy to Libya, after the September 11 killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced new parliamentary elections for January 22, 2013.
  • Iraq's al Qaeda branch said it led last month's prison break, which resulted in the deaths of several security forces.

Arguments and Analysis

Violence that dishonours Judaism and threatens Israel' (Adam Ognall, The Jewish Chronicle)

"The Price Tag phenomenon has forced Israel to ask hard truths, not least in August after a mob of Jewish teenagers attacked Arabs in Jerusalem, and when three 12-year-olds were arrested following a firebombing that left six Palestinians injured. After these incidents, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said it was "a microcosm of a national problem that could endanger Israeli democracy. The time has come for us to stop covering up... This is a shared responsibility."

...But the responsibility does not lie solely with the state. Questions need to be asked about how Jewish children have been taught to hate. Where are the authorities and moral voices in their lives? Have their parents, teachers and rabbis done enough? While some settler leaders have spoken out, others have remain conspicuously silent. Indeed, a number of rabbis and community leaders have been caught inciting violence."

As Benghazi Attack Controversy Simmers, Some Diplomats Say Security Is Already Too Tight' (Joshua Hersh, The Huffington Post)

"But while there are indeed indications that the State Department failed to take sufficient precautions to protect its diplomats in Benghazi, many active and recently-retired foreign service officers are watching the brewing controversy for another reason.

As disturbed as they are by the attacks, the wary foreign service officers say they fear that the controversy could cause the State Department or Congress to go too far in the other direction: further tightening the noose of security restrictions at diplomatic outposts that has already impeded their jobs, with only limited gains in security.

"Many of us still want less security, not more," said one active American diplomat who has served in several conflict zones and was not authorized to speak about current State Department regulations."

Gaza 2020: A Looming, Avoidable Catastrophe' (Robert Turner, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs)

"With the recent publication of the report, "Gaza in 2020: a liveable place?", it would be hard to level these accusations at the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory. The report is a trend analysis based on data from authoritative sources, such as the UN's Specialized Agencies, the World Bank and the IMF, which sets out where Gaza will be in less than eight years time. This is early warning writ large.

By 2020 the population of the tiny Gaza Strip will grow by half a million people: 500,000 more to be fed, housed, educated, and employed. More than half of the population will be under the age of 18, with one of the highest youth populations as a proportion anywhere in the world.

The lack of safe drinking water is the most urgent concern in Gaza today and it will only get worse in the years to come..."

Egypt's opposition drifts aimlessly in a sea of contradictions' (HA Hellyer, The National)

"In fact, much of contemporary Islamist political discourse appears to be based (knowingly or not) on European political thought, adorned with Islamic vocabulary. This is more identity than politics: or, to put it another way, more identity politics.

What all these groupings have in common is that they are absent from the field of real politics; they do not proclaim comprehensive policy platforms based on the real issues facing Egyptians. Education, health service, job creation, taxation, social benefits: all these matters, and others, seems to have been swept under the rug, leaving only the polarising issues of identity as the battleground in the struggle for power.

There is another option. When citizens in next-door Libya finally had free elections, it wasn't the Islamists who won. Those who did win were not liberal, not secularist, not Islamists. Their model may be particular to Libya, but one aspect of it can be seen as universal: the idea of coming up with something new."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey 

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