Salafism has become a terrifying bogeyman which is being used to frighten everybody during this tumultuous stage in Arab history.
The latest innovation in this respect is what the Syrian authorities have claimed about the Salafists, namely that they intend to establish an Islamic Salafist emirate in the southern city of Daraa. This means that the Syrian regime is now directing its tools of suppression at these “savage” Salafists.
In Egypt, the chief subject of discussion by the revolutions new intellectuals is the threat of Salafism, and whether the Salafists are tools of the counter-revolutions or whether they are remnants of the former regime. In other words, people are now wondering whether these Salafists are an invention, or whether they are a genuine Egyptian phenomenon?
Such questions and concerns increased following the strong presence of Salafists throughout Egyptian towns and cities, as well as their strong influence during the constitutional referendum. In addition to this, there has been a strong response to the Friday sermons of one of the top Salafist preachers in Cairo, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Yaqoub, as well as the Salafist trend adopting the case of “Camillia”, the young Egyptian Coptic woman who converted to Islam and was allegedly kidnapped by the [Coptic] Church. This resulted in reprisals which saw one Copt being assaulted and having his ear cut off, in addition to a campaign to remove Qena governorate’s Coptic governor, as well as a number of unveiled women being attacked.
Before going any further, we must clarify and confirm that the phenomenon known as Salafism, which I like to describe as the strict fundamentalist Sunni trend, is a real phenomenon and trend that exists in Arab societies. This is not a government “invention” as many non-religious Arab intellectuals describe it. These intellectuals are, naturally, less aware of the nature of religion and the power of religion in Arab societies, which can be seen in long-bearded sheikhs preaching about the after-life, hell, paradise, as well as what is Halal [lawful] and Haram [unlawful] in simple and easy to understand language. Arab society seeks sanctuary from the trials and temptations of this life, and from the dangers of angering God, and the religious Sheiks and their rhetoric is a response to these genuine feelings that are embedded in Arab and Muslim societies. Arab societies are strongly in touch with their religious dimensions, and there has never been a practical shift in the nature of this relationship. Looking at and dealing with this relationship critically and scientifically remains the monopoly of secular Arab elites, who are a minority.
This is an indisputable and consummate fact. It is impossible to argue that the Arab regimes, those which have been toppled or are on the verge of collapse, have created this phenomenon. No regime is capable of such a feat even if it could do the impossible. Religious beliefs and convictions are deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of people in the Arab world. Regimes may try to benefit or exploit this religious belief, but this belief has always existed, whether the political authority is present or not.
This is a point that must be stressed, as many are attempting to spread lies about former Arab regimes, saying they are solely responsible for creating this phenomenon of social religion, in addition to [being responsible for the creation of] organizations of religious violence like Al Qaeda. However such talk is not believable!
There can be no doubt that Salafist and fundamentalist [religious] trends, in general, are forces that resist modernization and development. Arab societies have suffered as a result of this resistance [to modernization], especially with regards to issues relating to women and sectarian tolerance. However it is still important to investigate the nature of these religious trends to try to understand them and how to deal with them.
Does this rush to blame everything on the Salafists mean that the Muslim Brotherhood is completely innocent, and is not trying to politicize religion? Aren’t the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood both fish swimming in the same stream? In this case, why are the fishing hooks of criticism exclusively targeting the Salafist fish at this current stage?
There can be no doubt that this is a situation that the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world did not expect, namely to see their image being cleaned up and polished whilst the darts of criticism are passing them by and are instead being directed at the Salafists. This is a situation that particularly applies to Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is experiencing a golden age, enjoying a clear alliance with the new military rulers of the country. Therefore a new “[religious] fundamentalist scapegoat” needed to be found to be blamed for backwardness and fanaticism, and the Salafists were chosen to fulfil this role, after decades and decades of the Muslim Brotherhood being portrayed as the “devil.” In an article published last week [24/4/2011] by the Al-Hayat newspaper, Hani Darwish described the Muslim Brotherhood’s delight at no longer being the subject of criticism, with this criticism now being aimed at the Salafists, as well as the Salafists disagreements with the Sufis and the Al-Azhar University. Darwish wrote that “the Muslim Brotherhood is patiently feeding this blazing fire with a smile of revenge. Salafists are preparing the ground for the forthcoming parliamentary elections battle in the interests of religious polarization that will best serve their candidates. Hundreds of thousands of Salafists and millions of Sufis will quickly overcome their juristic differences in order to ensure the victory of Islam, as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political candidates, in opposition to democratic, liberal, security, Coptic, or women candidates, not to mention the remnants of the former governing party and the enemies of the revolution.”
What is truly regrettable is that some sober-minded intellectuals in Egypt have contributed to creating this false image and have organized a campaign whose sole purpose is to improve the reputation of the Muslim Brotherhood, whilst demonizing the Salafists. Prominent Egyptian intellectual Gaber Asfour, who dealt with the recent developments in the country in a volatile and unpredictable manner, wrote an article on the issue of Salafism in Egypt’s “Akhbar El-Yom” newspaper last week [23/4/2011] claiming that the Salafists were responsible for bringing backwardness and religious fundamentalism in Egypt, in addition to Islamizing the economy and medicine. In this article, Asfour wrote that “[this was] away from the Islamization of science which we imported from the Wahabi school of thought, and the religious sheikhs that operate in the manner of the sheikhs under the rule of [former president of Pakistan] Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.”
Here I would like to comment on the words of the “researcher and intellectual” [Gaber Asfour]. His view that Salafism, as we know it today, is extremely strict is indisputable, at least from my point of view, however his allegation that “Wahabi” Salafist led to the “Islamization of science” and the invention of an Islamic economy is a falsification of history and reality. We all know that Salafist has nothing to do with any of this. It was the Muslim Brotherhood who were interested in such issues, according to the belief that “Islam is the religion and the state” according to the slogan of [Muslim Brotherhood founder] Hassan al-Bana. It was the Muslim Brotherhood, and those within their orbit, namely the International Institute of Islamic Thought [IIIT], who were responsible for this. This was the birth-place of the idea of the Islamization of science and knowledge, as well as the creation of an Islamic economy, it is also worth mentioning that those that sponsored the idea mentioned above were not of the Wahabi Salafist trend. Muslim Brotherhood Islamist intellectuals in Egypt made a major contribution to the creation of this Islamic economy, but now is not the time to tackle this issue in detail.
The Muslim Brotherhood was responsible for showing the Salafists how to modernize and engage in politics.
Moroccan researcher Mohammed Nabil Malin, in his important book “Islamic Scholars” about the religious class in Saudi Arabia, describes the clash that took place between the Saudi religious establishment and the active Islamic “Sahwa” movement during Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. He writes “Saudi Islamists were shocked, in much of their ideology a section of this group relied on a blend between 19th century Wahabi Hanbali ideology and anti-imperial positions, in addition to the Muslim Brotherhood’s conspiracy theory towards the political authority and religious establishment.” However this contravenes my own knowledge of the existence of Saudi reservations regarding the definition of Wahabism.
Malin went on to talk about the Al Qaeda organization, stressing that despite it employing the Islamic al-Walaa and al-Baraa doctrine [Allegiance and Disownment] “the Al Qaeda organization do not favour any precise doctrine in the juristic field.” He added “in the field of politics, whether consciously or subconsciously, Al Qaeda adopted the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, especially those followed by the [Sayyid] Qutb trend. Osama Bin Laden practically grew up following the Muslim Brotherhood.”
In essence, Osama Bin Laden is a Muslim Brotherhood / Qutbist product with Salafist garnish. Abu Muhammad Asem al-Maqdisi utilized Salafism to establish a heritage based upon the Muslim Brotherhood Qutbist idea of “guardianship.” This is the focus of Sayyid Qutb’s rhetoric.
I would like to conclude by saying that it is scientifically and morally shameful to suddenly switch from one direction to another, with regards to all the criticisms we have heard from these people who are today “exclusively” criticizing Salafism and Salafists, whilst previously they criticized the Muslim Brotherhood as being the mother of all contemporary [religious] fundamentalist movements, simply because the Muslim Brotherhood has now gained political leverage. They have turned their attack on the Salafist trend, despite the fact that the term Salafism itself includes huge historical and methodological ambiguities, as Mohammed Nabil Malin pointed out.
If those criticizing Salafism were truly fair, they would loudly and clearly admit that the only difference between Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood is one of degree, not of nature. I personally believe that the defects within the Muslim Brotherhood ideology are grater than those within Salafism, despite the fact that the Salafists are now suffering more…