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Thou Shall Fear Salafis

Next time you read one on Salafis, read it with a grain of salt

Mustafa Salama

Don’t fear all Islamists, fear Salafis, was the title of a dubious recent op-ed written in a prominent American online news-paper. While many Islamists have thought that finally silly accusations and sweeping generalizations about them will be dropped after the Arab spring; still every now and then, we get prejudice wrapped with pseudo-intellectualism to explain the ultimate truth about Islamists and especially Salafis.

Salafis have been severely oppressed and restricted under the Mubarak regime as most forms of religiously devout social Islamic movements; today, this is no longer the case. Al-Noor Party against all expectations gained 25% of the seats in the parliament; this is despite the fact that they have never been organised (simply were never allowed to be) and only did so in a matter of months. Today, one of four assistants to President Morsy is the current head of Al-Noor party. Yes many pundits may tell you Salafis are totalitarian and hate freedom but Al-Noor party will soon be having internal elections.

Sure Mubarak openly slandered Salafis in some of his final speeches before the revolution, however, today it is no longer acceptable to do that. Salafis are not only prominent and influential in Egypt but have strong footholds in several Arab countries in the form of social movement organizations and political parties or blocs.

Salafis are a widely misunderstood movement, often discussed synonymously with extremism, backwardness and sometimes violence. While many speak of Salafis with authority and portrayed confidence, very little academic research has actually been conducted on the movement[1]. The reality of the movement is that it is fragmented, not uniform, within Salafis there are various ideologies and discourses. Furthermore being a Salafi does not boil down to a set of specific political preferences.

In general, Salafis will tell you that ad-dawa Salafiyya (the call/invitation to Salafism) is understanding Islam or deriving the creed and beliefs of Islam through understanding the Quran and Sunnah (Sayings, Actions or Condoned acts by the Prophet, peace be upon him), the way it was understood by the Salaf (predecessors) of Islam. That is, the first predecessors, the companions who were taught Islam by the Prophet Muhammad himself, and who best understood the message.

To Salafis, Islam should not fall off this understanding otherwise it would be just like changing it. There are fundamentals of Islam that are nonnegotiable however there are parts of the religion which can be debated and account for acceptable difference of opinion. To Salafis the Quran did not just drop out of heaven for people to flick through it and interpret it according to personal understandings, each verse has a specific intention and meaning that was comprehended by the first Muslims as it was taught by its first propagator.

All self proclaimed Salafis will emphasize this basic definition put above, however it does not mean that it is only Salafis that will talk about the need to stick to the first understanding of Islam, it is very common that you may hear in Egypt: “we are all Salafis” by someone who is not part of the movement or deeply engaged in Islamic activities, what you may call a “typical Egyptian.” Furthermore the Muslim Brotherhood has many members who have strong Salafi tendencies, if not outright self proclaimed Salafis, thus to even try to make a clear cut distinction is misleading. Khayrat al Shater is said to have Salafi tendencies; a reason why he is good in mediating between his organization and Salafis.

In the op-ed I mentioned earlier it was said that Salafis have different values to the west. Well so as the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslims in general, have different values to the west. Does it mean they do not espouse values like: freedom, justice and equality? No. They do support such values and there are overarching generalities that both support and obviously there are many differences as well.

Salafis generally have bad media coverage, this is not to say that the movement does not have any bad apples, however they are just like any other movement or social strata. During the revolution, it was widely reported that they were protecting Churches in Sinai and elsewhere from vandalism and theft, risking their lives while doing so. It was reported in Egyptian media but maybe most of the western media has no interest in reporting it.

It is not sufficient to explain the movement in a small op-ed, however next time you read one on Salafis, read it with a grain of salt.

[1] Meijer, Roel ed. Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

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