Don’t Fear All Islamists, Fear Salafis

By Robin Wright .in New York Times, August 19, 2012

Washington: ...For years, many Salafis – “salaf” means predecessors – had avoided politics and embraced autocrats as long as they were Muslims. But over the past eight months, clusters of worshipers across the Middle East have morphed into powerful Salafi movements that are tapping into the disillusionment and disorder of transitions.

A new Salafi Crescent, radiating from the Persian Gulf sheikdoms into the Levant and North Africa, is one of the most underappreciated and disturbing by products of the Arab revolts. In varying degrees, these populist puritans are moving into the political space once occupied by jihadi militants, who are now less in vogue. Both are fundamentalists who favour a new order modelled on early Islam. Salafis are not necessarily fighters, however. Many disavow violence.

...In Egypt, Salafis emerged last year from obscurity, hastily formed parties, and in January won 25 percent of the seats in parliament - second only to the 84-year-old Muslim Brotherhood. Salafis are a growing influence in Syria’s rebellion. And they have parties or factions in Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Yemen and among Palestinians...

A common denominator among disparate Salafi groups is inspiration and support from Wahhabis, a puritanical strain of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia. Not all Saudis are Wahhabis. Not all Salafis are Wahhabis, either. But Wahhabis are basically all Salafis. And many Arabs, particularly outside the sparsely populated Gulf, suspect that Wahhabis are trying to seize the future by aiding and abetting the region’s newly politicized Salafis - as they did 30 years ago by funding the South Asian madrassas that produced Afghanistan’s Taliban.

Salafis go much further in restricting political and personal life than the larger and more modern Islamist parties that have won electoral pluralities in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco since October. For most Arabs, the rallying cry is justice, both economic and political. For Salafis, it is also about a virtue that is inflexible and enforceable.

“You have two choices: heaven or hellfire,” Sheikh Muhammad el-Kurdi instructed me after his election to Egypt’s parliament as a member of Al Nour, a Salafi party. It favours gender segregation in schools and offices, he told me, so that men can concentrate. “It’s O.K. for you to be in the room,” he explained. “You are our guest, and we know why you’re here. But you are one woman and we are three men - and we all want to marry you.”...

Salafis are deepening the divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and challenging the “Shiite Crescent,” a term coined by Jordan’s King Abdullah in 2004, during the Iraq war, to describe an arc of influence from Shiite-dominated Iran to its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Today, these rival crescents risk turning countries in transition into battlefields over the region’s future.

The Salafis represent a painful long-term conundrum for the West. Their goals are the most anti-Western of any Islamist parties. They are trying to push both secularists and other Islamists into the not-always-virtuous past....(New York Times, August 19, 2012)

MG Comment: The observation of this writer is correct as far as the current situation in some Arab countries is concerned. But he fails to appreciate that West, and America in particular, is responsible for the current scenario. They blindly supported dictators and did not allow sane and educated “Islamists” to function even as a legal political party. Wherever they won elections (Algeria, Palestine), they were not allowed to rule. At the same time they allied with people like Osama Ben Laden in Afghanistan, who were Salafis to the core, and allowed them to become heroes of the Muslim World. In the meantime Gulf money poured into these once sleepy groups which enjoyed no influence in their societies and were happy to get permission to operate a small society or to publish a rag of a magazine. I saw this with my own eyes in Cairo in late 1960s and early 1970s.

Over the last four decades, these marginal groups have grown big, have big assets, and utilising these assets they filled the vacuum that existed due to the forced banishment of the “Islamists” from the political arena. Given freedom, during these past four decade the Muslim Brotherhood could have won same kind of seats in the Egyptian parliament in any election, as it won finally this year, while “Salafis” could not dream to even win a single seat, that is if they contested at all.

The situation is different today. As a result of the wrong western policies, Salafis have grown into a force to reckon with and now enjoy a position to compete with real, educated, cultured and responsible “Islamists” like Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia’s interior minister Prince Nayef had openly attacked MB a few years back and had considered it a source of the problems in Saudi Arabia and beyond. Very recently, Dubai’s Police chief, Dhahi Khalfan, attacked Egypt’s President Mursi by name and told him bluntly that he will work to make him fail.

The belligerent Salafis are extremely soft on the Gulf rulers who might be thinking that Salafis in position of power in places like Egypt will help prolong their monarchies. An expedient West will once again ally with the Salafis to frustrate MB and in the process will repent at leisure as it did in the case of Osama Ben Laden. (Zafarul-Islam Khan)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 September 2012 on page no. 20

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