By now you've probably heard. Just a few hours after an angry mob of ultraconservative Muslims stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed during a protest in the city of Benghazi. Both riots were provoked by the news that an anti-Muslim group in the United States has released a film that insults the Prophet Mohammed. In Egypt, the protestors hauled down the U.S. flag and replaced it with the same black banner sometimes used by Al Qaeda. Shades of Iran, 1979. Scary stuff.
Both attacks are utterly outrageous. But perhaps the United States shouldn't have been caught completely off guard. The rioters in both cases come from the region's burgeoning Salafi movement, and the Salafis have been in the headlines a lot lately. In Libya, over the past few months, they've been challenging the recently elected government by demolishing ancient Sufi shrines, which they deem to be insufficiently Islamic. In Tunisia, they've been attacking businesses that sell alcohol and instigating nasty social media campaigns about the country's female competitors in the Olympics. In Syria's civil war, there are increasing reports that the opposition's wealthy Gulf financiers have been channeling cash to Salafi groups, whose strict interpretation of Islam is considered close to the puritanical Wahhabism of the Saudis and others. Lately Salafi groups have been gaining fresh prominence in parts of the Islamic world -- from Mali to Lebanon, from Kashmir to Russia's North Caucasus.
Some -- like journalist Robin Wright, who recently wrote a New York Times op-ed on the subject -- say that this means we should be really, really worried. Painting a picture of a new "Salafi crescent" ranging from the Persian Gulf to North Africa, she worries that this bodes ill for newly won freedoms after the revolutions of 2011. Calling the rise of the new Salafi groups "one of the most underappreciated and disturbing byproducts of the Arab revolts," Wright says that they're now "moving into the political space once occupied by jihadi militants, who are now less in vogue." "[S]ome Islamists are more hazardous to Western interests and values than others," she writes. "The Salafis are most averse to minority and women's rights."
Others, like Egyptian journalist Mustafa Salama, dismiss this as hysteria. "The reality of the movement is that it is fragmented, not uniform, within Salafis there are various ideologies and discourses," Salama writes. "Furthermore being a Salafi does not boil down to a set of specific political preferences." The only thing that unites them, he argues, is their interest in returning to the beliefs and practices of the original Islamic community founded by the Prophet Mohammed -- a desire that, in itself, is shared by quite a few mainstream Muslims. (The Arabic word salaf, meaning "predecessors" or "ancestors," refers to the original companions of the Prophet.) This doesn't mean that they're necessarily opposed to freedom and democracy. During the revolution in Egypt, he says, some Salafis were "protecting Churches in Sinai and elsewhere from vandalism and theft" at considerable risk to themselves, though the fact wasn't reported in the Western media.
If the first death of a U.S. ambassador in two decades is any indication, it's probably time that the world starts paying attention to this debate. I think there are several points worth mentioning.
First of all, however we define them, these new "populist puritans" (as Wright aptly refers to them) are enjoying an extraordinary boom. Though solid numbers are hard to come by, they're routinely described as the fastest-growing movement in modern-day Islam. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's Salafis barely figured in the political landscape during the Mubarak years -- then stormed onto the scene to capture a quarter of the vote in the country's first democratic election last year. Their share of the vote could well increase, given that the new Brotherhood-led government is likely to have problems making good on the ambitious promises it's made to Egyptian voters over the past year. Their rapid rise in Tunisia is especially startling, given that country's relatively relaxed atmosphere toward religion.