The year 1979—when Iranian student revolutionaries stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took dozens of American diplomats hostage, and Muslim radicals in Saudi Arabia, a staunch US ally, brazenly laid siege to the Grand Mosque in Mecca—marked the debut of a new political phenomenon known as “Islamism.” To be sure, the theorists and advocates of political Islam had been around for a while, and there was an extraordinary explosion of Islamic activism around the Muslim world in the 1970s; in some countries there was even talk of a sahwa, an “awakening” of Islamic political consciousness. But few people outside of the ummah, the global community of Muslim believers, were paying any attention, and the US was caught flatfooted as Ayatollah Khomeini proceeded to transform his theory of “Islamic government” into reality. “Political Islam” was no longer a theory. It had become an active, practical force in global politics.
Perhaps it’s helpful to recall the events of 1979 as we contemplate the tragic death of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and the storming of American diplomatic buildings in Cairo, Sanaa, Tunis, and elsewhere in the Muslim world. (Curiously, that same year was also the last time—until Stevens’ death—that a serving ambassador was killed overseas. The unlucky diplomat in 1979 was Adolph Dubs, killed in a Kabul hotel in a hostage-taking gone wrong.) The events this week appear at least in part to have been set off by an inflammatory anti-Muslim film. But they have been dominated by groups that were little known before the recent Arab uprisings: Salafi Islamists. Once again, a growing political force from within the Islamic world—one of which Westerners were only dimly aware—has dramatically and violently demonstrated its capacity to shape global politics.
Like the Islamists of 1979, the Salafis—advocates of a return to the unsullied Islam of the Prophet and his original core of followers, stripped of all modern accretions and compromises—are not newcomers. In Libya, the Salafi group that is now claiming responsibility for the killing of Ambassador Stevens is known as Ansar al-Sharia (“the Advocates of Sharia”), an extremist group that has emerged since the fall of Qaddafi and is believed to have thousands of supporters. It is well-known to Libyans for its habit of destroying Sufi shrines, which Salafis consider to be symbols of unorthodox belief. (Some Sufis venerate certain deceased holy men as saints, a practice deemed idolatrous by the Salafis, who stick to the Islamic creed that “there is no god but God.”)
In Egypt, the Salafi political party Al-Nour shocked virtually all Western observers by winning a quarter of the votes in the country’s first genuinely democratic election last year; Egyptian Salafis also appear to have been among the primary instigators of the storming of the US Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday. And in Tunisia, which in so many other respects has earned a reputation as one of the most tolerant countries in the region, the Salafis have made headlines by tearing down the national flag (which they have replaced with the black banner of purist Islam), attacking businesses that sell alcohol, and criticizing female Tunisian athletes participating in the Olympics. Tunisian Salafis have played a prominent role in the protests at US diplomatic missions there.
As illustrated by these three countries, the Arab Spring has been good to the Salafis, allowing them to emerge into prominence in societies where, during the old dictatorships, they shied away from open participation in politics. (Many Egyptians, indeed, view Salafis with suspicion precisely because of their reputation for collaboration with Mubarak’s secret police back in the old days.) But the Salafis, who are sometimes described—without much of a clear statistical basis—as the fastest-growing group within Islam, have also registered a stark growth of influence in places as far afield as Kashmir, the North Caucasus, Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq.
The Salafi movement—if one can even speak of a coherent movement—is fragmented, diverse, and bereft of clear leadership. The reasons for its rapid rise are correspondingly complex. But it’s easy to imagine that one of the biggest drivers is the appeal of simple answers in a time of rapid and radical change. The call of “back to the roots” offers a clarity and straightforwardness that stands in stark contrast to the policies of corrupt and incompetent authoritarian governments as well as cautious and compromising moderate democrats.
This is not to say that all Muslims necessarily embrace the purists. The template for many Salafis is the rigid and puritanical Islam of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a version of the faith that has never really caught on in a big way elsewhere in the Islamic world—despite Saudi efforts to bankroll its spread. (Generous Saudi financing of Salafi groups around the world is certainly one factor in their rapid growth, though Saudi Arabia has been aggressive in repressing its own Salafis when they become too political active at home.) So we should beware lazy generalizations. Some Salafis are peaceful or relatively apolitical, while others overtly sympathize with jihadist organizations. But here, too, it’s vital to discriminate. Ansar al-Sharia is already being described by some Western news outlets as a virtual al-Qaeda offshoot, though any direct organizational links between the groups remain unproven. It’s just as possible, indeed, that the new generation of Salafi extremists might decide to define themselves in contrast to the bumbling old al-Qaeda brand, which has not exactly been a recipe for success when it comes to establishing sharia-friendly governments.
Still, given their rising prominence, the Salafi involvement in this recent spate of violent protests certainly does not bode well. It is good to see that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the countries affected have little appetite for joining such actions, and there are even some hopeful signs that the violence in Libya (where the radicals succeeded in killing, of all people, a diplomat who played a vital role in the struggle against Qaddafi) may discredit the extremist cause.
But the real danger of the Salafis lies less in their ability to capture majorities than in their capacity to polarize. In countries with large religious minorities (such as Egypt, with its large population of Coptic Christians), the Salafis are often at the forefront of efforts to marginalize non-Islamic groups. In Libya and Tunisia Salafi groups have been working hard to discredit democratically elected governments. Perhaps even more ominously, the growing influence of Salafis—who, as ultra-orthodox Sunnis, tend to view all Shiites as heretics—is likely to exacerbate sectarian tensions at a moment when geopolitics in the Middle East is increasingly shaped by the divide within Islam.
Its worth remembering that, in 1979, few anticipated that Iran would set up a flourishing Islamic Republic that would still be in power more than three decades later. No one, in short, should expect the Salafis—and all the complexities they bring to US relations with the new Middle East—to go away any time soon.