Despite the earnest wishes of Western commentators, who were excited early on for the Tahrir Square Twitterati and other liberal Arab Springers, one of the biggest winners to emerge from the turmoil in the Middle East over the past two years has been the Salafi tendency. These ultraconservatives used to keep a low profile, writes Roula Khalaf for the Financial Times, but from Syria to Morocco they are now much more prominent, supporting rebellion against autocracies, starting political movements, joining governments, and becoming far more vocal advocates for conservative society.
Most importantly, Salafism is moving moderate Islamists in its direction, pulling the political spectrum towards more reactionary politics:
The Salafi surge is seen by secular-minded Arabs as the biggest threat to democratisation in the region, with the Islamists’ Saudi-style vision particularly damaging for the development of women’s rights. But the Salafis are also a significant complicating factor in the more moderate Islamists’ early experiments in governing.
Mainstream groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood find themselves pulled towards more hardline views by the Salafis while also facing pressure for greater moderation by the liberal opposition.
Salafism doesn’t overlap entirely with radical Jihadi movements (although in places like Syria, the distinction is blurry). Prior to the Arab Spring, many regimes kept Salafis on a tight leash, but the chaos that followed in its wake gave them more freedom to express their views and influence their countries. In Egypt, Salafi parties won as much as 25 percent of the popular vote, while in Morocco several important Salafi clerics have secured release from prison.
But Salafism is an ideological current, not a coherent movement. While Salafis have strong views on many subjects that would bring them into conflict with liberals and secularists at home and in the West (on women’s and minority rights, for instance), Salafism does not have a coherent approach to economic, development, or foreign policy. As a result, many secular Arabs, diplomats in the field and western policy experts hope that, as Salafis enter the political arena and fail to deliver on their utopian promises, they will be discredited.
There are some ground for this hope. No one, whether nationalist, socialist, or secularist, has been able to solve the deep economic and political problems of the Arab world, and Salafism is unlikely to succeed where these others have failed. But the future of the Arab world looks bleak precisely because poverty, youth unemployment, and deep political and social frustration will continue to eat away at the foundations of order, causing a rot that neither liberals nor radicals know how to stop. What we are seeing in the Arab Spring so far is a classic revolutionary dynamic in which deep social problems bring down rigid governments and the failure of relatively liberal regimes then opens the door to increasingly radical successors until—usually after some very distressing and brutal excesses—society grows tired of anarchy and accepts a new strongman in place of the old one.
If that dynamic continues in the Middle East, Salafism could become an even bigger factor than it now is — just as more radical groups like the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks gained ground when past revolutions ran into tough times. Ambitious strongmen could and quite possibly will use Salafi ideology to build their power base and in an atmosphere of failure and want a strong and simple ideology under the leadership of a powerful ruler could have a lot of appeal.
We have seen this picture before, and it doesn’t end well.