June 28, 2015
Politics and the Puritanical
Islam’s most conservative adherents are finding that politics is hard. But it beats the alternative
WERE it not for his bushy beard and trim moustache, Nader Bakkar (above) 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. “We are reformers, not revolutionaries,” Mr Bakkar says of his party. “Compromise is not a bad word.” 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.
In the West that brand is most associated with extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), whose members are sometimes called Salafist-jihadists; or the intolerance of Saudi Arabia, where adherents are called Wahhabis. The Saudis have used their oil wealth to spread the influence of Salafism across the Muslim world, funding Wahhabi-inspired mosques and madrassas—and, at times, extremist groups. As a result, some 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.
Prior to the Arab spring some Salafists had been members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s main Islamist movement, with a long tradition of political activism. 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.
Rise and fall of the activists
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, writes Jacob Olidort of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank. “Giving definition and structure to the changing events became a question of necessity rather than choice, especially as Salafists faced pressure from media and other Islamist groups to comment on these events.”
Relatively few Salafists participated in the protests, but some saw opportunity in the opening they created, arguing that sharia could now be enacted via politics. Encouraged by their brethren in Kuwait, where political Salafism was already well-established, Egypt’s Salafists took advantage. 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 country’s first free election. It then ensured that the country’s new constitution (now abandoned) had an Islamist tint.
At the same time, the stature of the purists fell owing to their support for the old guard and their opposition to the protests. Saudi Arabia’s top clerics issued a decree stating that “reform should not be by demonstrations and other means and methods that give rise to unrest and divide the community.” In a lecture in 2011 Ali al-Halabi, a prominent Jordanian cleric, said the protests were “far from the law of God” and motivated by materialism. But at the time, the purists were often ignored. They now feel vindicated. “The countries of the Arab spring did not gain anything but destruction, corruption and the loss of security,” says Mr Halabi.
In Egypt the Salafists’ conservative influence contributed to the fall of Muhammad Morsi, the president and a Muslim Brother. The Nour party’s decision to support his removal and the coup of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi alienated many of its former supporters. But it also made it unlikely that the Salafists would suffer a fate like that of the Brotherhood, which Mr Sisi has crushed. “The party has reinforced the idea among quietists that you have to sell out or make deals with the devil in order to be in politics,” says Will McCants of the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The purists can also find support for their rejection of political engagement in Tunisia, the only democracy to emerge from the Arab spring. Many activist Salafists invested their hopes in the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Nahda party, which came first in Tunisia’s elections in 2011. Nahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, even claims to be a Salafist himself. But while the party has embraced conservative Muslims, it has also taken steps to curb their influence. Its decision to renounce sharia as the main source of legislation in its draft constitution left Salafists outraged, as did its promise not to impose the veil on women or ban alcohol and interest payments. 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. The group has also attracted large numbers from other countries where Salafists have little political sway, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco—but not so many from Kuwait, where they still have a strong voice. Governments nervous that the militants may turn on them have enlisted the help of Salafist leaders. Some see the purists as a counter to jihadism, due to their inward-looking focus. Morocco has tried to bring more Salafists into the political fold. Abdelkarim Chadli, a prominent Salafist convicted of terrorism in 2003, recently joined the Democratic and Social Movement, a regime-friendly political party, and vowed to bring other Salafists with him.
Salafists, though, may no longer see the point of political engagement. “Many people say we betrayed the revolution, that we approve of the regime and authority,” admits Mr Bakkar. He sees his party’s survival as its main accomplishment. But activist Salafists have made little progress towards their goal of creating an Islamic state. The appeal of IS across much of the Middle East is that it has done just that.