Prior to the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the voices of young revolutionaries in Egypt accused the Salafis of supporting Mubarak and the West, but then their ranks were blamed for the attack on the US Embassy.
In Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the ruling Ennahda movement, has previously praised the Salafis but has since begun to criticize them. Now he is calling on confronting them by force, with the former security forces of ousted President Ben Ali – now the forces of the Ennahda movement - pursuing them and surrounded their mosques, headquarters and leaders under the pretext that they were the ones who attacked the vicinity of the American Embassy and two American schools. In Libya, the Salafis face an even greater predicament having been expelled from the city of Benghazi with their political headquarters burned down, after being accused of the attack on the US Consulate and the killing of the US Ambassador.
Before we come to that, who exactly are the Salafis?
In my opinion, such terminology and names no longer really express the truth of the matter. The Salafis now represent the raw state of the Muslim Brotherhood; they are not like the old, traditional Salafis known for their hardline stances on social issues such as women’s clothing, beard shaving, the length of a man’s thobe, music and so on. The traditional Salafi did not have an opinion politically speaking, because they believed in the Wali al-Amr, i.e. absolute obedience to the governor or the state, who, as long as they did not prevent the application of God’s law, were responsible for the management of political affairs. This notion is now almost extinct. As for the new Salafis, they are the Brotherhood in its rudimentary form, i.e. they are the hardliners. The notions of Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood have been intermingled in Afghanistan, and hence today we see the emergence of what are called the “Salafi jihadists” – militant religious groups, like the traditional Salafis, but with a political project, like the Muslim Brotherhood.
My opinion is that there is no such thing as an “Islamist” who is politically engaged or ascribes to a political ideology from the outset. Rather, what happens is that they encounter the discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood and slowly become more politically active under its influence, participating with money, votes or in person. Therefore I think it is perhaps partly correct to label extremist groups with terms such as political or jihadist Salafi, but the fact is that they are all Muslim Brotherhood entities in a rudimentary phase. After such groups mature ideologically, they will be labeled as Brotherhood affiliates or offshoots. In my opinion, this raw state is the most dangerous phase, even more so when the Muslim Brotherhood was an underground movement working outside of the spotlight. Now however, operating in broad daylight, the Brotherhood is a political party exercising its right in a legitimate manner like any other party. Of course, this theory is still doubted by many, and perhaps it is too early to confirm or disprove it until we see the performance of the Muslim Brotherhood over the next three years.
All Islamists are affiliated with the Brotherhood in some respect, whether they go by the name “Freedom and Justice”, “Salafis”, the “Ennahda movement” or even “al-Qaeda”. However, there are differing degrees within the Brotherhood, from the moderates such as Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh to the extremists such as Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Salafis in the Gulf have criticized the Muslim Brotherhood in order to distance themselves from them or in order to side with the traditional Salafis. Yet in the end, all of them are affiliated politically, and they all suffer the defect of those who resort to arms, denounce others as infidels – which can be even more dangerous, or exploit their position in the pulpit. Because of this, many demand a separation between men of religion and men of politics.
(The writer is the General Manager of Al Arabiya. This article was published in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on Sept. 23, 2012)