Democracy Lab

The Salafi Moment

As the death of a U.S. ambassador in Libya demonstrates, the ultraconservative Salafi movement is pushing to the forefront in the politics of the Middle East. The West should be careful how it reacts.

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.

Indeed, if the history of revolutions shows us anything, it's that transformative social upheavals of the kind we've seen in the Arab Spring don't necessarily favor the moderates. On the day that the Shah left Iran in 1979, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the radical forces around Ayatollah Khomeini, who followed his innovative theory of clerical rule, would end up running the country. Secular socialists, communists, liberal democrats, democratic nationalists, moderate Islamists, and even other rival Shiite clerics were all vying for power. But Khomeini ultimately triumphed because he offered forceful, uncorrupted leadership with a simple message -- "Islamic government" -- that cut through the mayhem with the authority of faith. Lenin understood the same political dynamic: Hence his ruthlessly straightforward slogan "Bread, Peace, Land," which was perfectly calculated to appeal to Russians wearied by anarchy, war, and social injustice.

The Salafi notion of returning to the purity of 7th-century Islam can have the same kind of draw for some Muslims exasperated by everyday corruption and abusive rule. Syria offers a good example. If you're going up against Bashar al-Assad's helicopter gunships armed with an antique rifle and a few rusty bullets, you'll probably prefer to go into battle with a simple slogan on your lips. "Power sharing for all ethnic groups in a liberal parliamentary democracy" might not cut it -- especially if you happen to be a Sunni who's seen your relatives cut down by Assad's murderous militias. This isn't to say that the opposition is now dominated by Salafis; far from it. But it's safe to assume that the longer the war goes on, the more pronounced the extremes will become.

At the same time, the Sunni Salafis are a major factor in the growing global polarization of the Islamic community between Shiites and Sunnis. (The French scholar of Islam Olivier Roy argues that the intra-Muslim rivalry between the two groups has now become even more important than the presumed confrontation between Islam and the West.) The fact that many Salafis in various parts of the world get their financing from similarly conservative elements in Saudi Arabia doesn't help. Perversely enough, Iranian propaganda is already trying to portray the West as backers of Salafi extremism in order to destabilize Tehran and its allies. We'll be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing in the future, I'm afraid.

In short, no one should count on the Salafis to go away any time soon. So how should the outside world deal with them -- especially if they're going to go around storming foreign embassies?

I think the answer is two-pronged. First, don't generalize. Not all Salafis should be treated as beyond the pale. Salafis who are willing to stand by the rules of democracy and acknowledge the rights of religious and cultural minorities should be encouraged to participate in the system. With time, voters in the new democracies of the region will discriminate between the demagogues and the people who can actually deliver a better society.

Second, don't allow radicals to dictate the rules for everyone else. This is why the outcome of the current political conflicts in Tunisia and Libya are extremely important for the region as a whole. In both countries, voters have now had the opportunity to declare their political preferences in free elections, and they have delivered pretty clear messages. Libyans voted overwhelmingly for secular politicians, while Tunisians chose a mix of moderate Islamists and secularists. But the Salafis in both places don't seem content to leave it at that, and are trying to foment instability by instigating a culture war.

What's encouraging is that we're beginning to see some pushback from ordinary Libyans and Tunisians who don't want to submit to the logic of radicalization -- not to mention scholars at the Arab world's most prestigious university, also in Cairo. Don't be fooled by the rabble-rousers. The story in the Middle East is still more interesting than the stereotypes.

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Democracy Lab

Local Bloodshed, Global Headache

Sectarian conflict in Burma is once again spurring talk of a “global war against Islam.”

Let's face it: Not too many people outside of Southeast Asia have been paying attention to the sectarian conflict in Burma. For much of the world, Burma (also known as Myanmar) is a remote and somewhat mysterious country, and it's been prey to internecine squabbles for about as long as anyone can remember. (As a matter of fact, its people have been at war with themselves for even longer than the Afghans.)

So it's possible to understand, if not to excuse, the world's relative ignorance of the bitter feud in Arakan state, where the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine have been at each other's throats since a Buddhist woman was raped and killed there on May 28. The Rakhine blamed it on the Rohingya, triggering violence that subsequently prompted the government to declare martial law. Dozens of people have been killed, and some 90,000 have been transformed into refugees.

Outsiders didn't prompt this violence by meddling in Burma's internal affairs. As a matter of fact, lately other countries have been rewarding the government there for its efforts to allow a bit more democracy. The United States, for example, recently suspended financial sanctions it imposed on Burma's brutal military dictatorship years ago. By contrast, Western countries have had notably little to say on the bloodshed in Arakan.

They may not be able to afford the luxury of ignorance much longer. That's because the violence in Burma is already showing up on the radar screen of the world's Muslims. Indignant believers from Turkey to Indonesia have been taking to social media to denounce the treatment of the Rohingya. (The Pakistanis have been particularly zealous.) The reactions have ranged from mournful and relatively sober analysis to downright hysteria. (One astute Pakistani journalist, for example, has spotted photos from entirely different parts of the world being passed off as examples of "ethnic cleansing" in Burma.)

There is a big grain of truth to many of these stories, though. The Rohingyas have long suffered from their status as one of the most downtrodden groups in a benighted country. Many Burmese don't even acknowledge them as citizens; even members of the pro-democracy opposition have derided them as illegal immigrants (even though there's evidence that many of them have lived there for generations). In one of the ugliest recent manifestations of ethnic Burman chauvinism, Buddhist monks have called upon the population to shun association with the Rohingya. There have even been reports of monks blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid to Rohingya areas. 

A United Nations report published last December noted that the Burmese authorities have long curtailed Rohingyas' civil rights, up to and including freedom of movement. A few weeks ago, President Thein Sein suggested that the best "solution" to the Rohingya issue would be to deport all 800,000 of them: "We will send them away if any third country would accept them."

Akbar Ahmed, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., says that such talk by members of Burma's government justifies accusations that anti-Rohingya pogroms constitute "slow-motion genocide." Even though the number of Rohingya killed in the latest violence remains relatively small (with the total number of dead estimated at around 80), he cites the original U.N. definition of genocide that encompasses cultural and economic destruction as well as wholesale physical annihilation. A few years ago, a Burmese diplomat in Hong Kong referred to the Rohingya as "uglier than ogres" -- evidence, Ahmed says, of a "classic relationship between a powerful dominant ethnic group and a minority that is the focus of ethnic hatred." 

For many members of the global ummah, this latest story of the persecution of innocent Muslims slots neatly into earlier narratives about victimized Palestinians, Bosnians, Kashmiris, Iraqis, and Afghans. (Never mind, as Ahmed points out, that two of Burma's Muslim neighbors, Bangladesh and Malaysia, have also treated Rohingya boat people fleeing to their shores with casual viciousness.) The British-based Quilliam Foundation, a self-described counter-terrorism think tank, has already warned of the risk that "the Rohingya people and their cause could be exploited by extreme Islamists and nationalists to justify a violent response that would only escalate the crisis." All this, the group notes, is likely to fuel renewed talk of an alleged "global war on Islam."

Such warnings cannot be dismissed out of hand. On July 20, the Afghan Taliban issued a statement on the situation in Burma that began this way: "The Muslims of Burma have been facing such oppression and savagery for the past two months never previously witnessed in the history of mankind." On July 21, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blasted Western countries for ignoring the plight of the Rohingya: "The obvious manifestation of the false assertions of the West on ethics and human rights is its silence over killing of thousands of people in Myanmar." Hezbollah issued a statement defending the Rohingya two days later. The Tehrik-i-Taliban, one of Pakistan's leading jihadi groups, chimed in soon afterwards.

So far there are no serious indications that the Rohingya are connected with global extremist movements, and I, for one, find it highly unlikely that we can expect to see foreign terrorists flocking to Arakan anytime soon. But it's certainly true that the horrible treatment of this particular minority group gives Islamist radicals a perfect propaganda opportunity that they are already doing their best to exploit.

The countries of the West can hardly be expected to solve the Rohingya crisis from without. But it's time for the Americans, the Europeans, and the Australians to press the Burmese government much harder to behave according to international norms for the treatment of ethnic minorities. That goes for Burma's harsh treatment of other restive groups, such as the Kachin (many of whom are Christians). Yes, this is a human rights issue, not a religious one. And let's keep it that way.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/GettyImages