Saturday, October 25, 2008

Salafism in Egypt

Paul Schemm writes about the rise of Salafism as a social movement in Egypt:
"The Muslim call to prayer fills the halls of a Cairo computer shopping center, followed immediately by the click of locking doors as the young, bearded tech salesmen close shop and line up in rows to pray.

"Business grinding to a halt for daily prayers is not unusual in conservative Saudi Arabia, but until recently it was rare in the Egyptian capital, especially in affluent commercial districts like Mohandiseen, where the mall is located.

"But nearly the entire three-story mall is made up of computer stores run by Salafis, an ultraconservative Islamic movement that has grown dramatically across the Middle East in recent years...

"In the broad spectrum of Islamic thought, Salafism is on the extreme conservative end. Saudi Arabia's puritanical Wahhabi interpretation is considered its forerunner, and Saudi preachers on satellite TV and the Internet have been key to its Salafism's spread.

"Salafist groups are gaining in numbers and influence across the Middle East. In Jordan, a Salafist was chosen as head of the old-guard opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. In Kuwait, Salafists were elected to parliament and are leading the resistance to any change they believe threatens traditional Islamic values.

"The gains for Salafists are part of a trend of turning back to conservatism and religion after nationalism and democratic reform failed to fulfill promises to improve people's lives. Egypt has been at the forefront of change in both directions, toward liberalization in the 1950s and '60s and back to conservatism more recently."

As noted below, saying the Wahhabis were a forerunner of modern Salafism is problematic. The Salafi intellectual lineage actually goes back through Rashid Rida to figures such as Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani who were inspired by community religious revivalist movements in India. The Wahhabis came in during the early 20th century when intellectuals sympathetic to Arab nationalism used Saudi Arabia as an example of strict Islamic law being practiced in part of the Arab nation, which not coincidentally, in their minds, was not occupied by France or Britain. The point that religious warfare can only be authorized by a head of state is also of Wahhabi origin, part of Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Wahhab's deal with the Saudis.

While the vast majority of Salafis will practice it peacefully, however, it is worth some concern that the spread of these ideas will give rise to a small yet dangerous number of militants. In a point I often make to my students, it's hard to make pronouncements about what constitutes true Islam because there is no controlling legal authority, and that's doubly true when you get to a lot of these movements. As I said, almost all will practice the mainstream interpretations of Salafism. A few, however, will decide they agree with those in the tradition of Sayyid Qutb who hold that the current government is too un-Islamic to regard as legitimate, and that violence against it is warranted. Given some of Egypt's social pressures, as illustrated in the novel The Yaqoubian Building, this could definitely cause problems for the regime and Egyptian society down the road.

(Hat tip: Arabist)

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