As we observe political developments in both West and North Africa as well as in the Middle East, it is critical to take full account of the “Salafist equation”, which may well prove to be one of the most significant religious and political challenges of the coming years. One year after the Arab awakening, Salafist organisations and political parties are playing an increasingly active role throughout the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region. The Saudi and Qatari Salafist organisations are very active domestically and internationally. They support other Salafist groups around the world, in West Africa (Senegal, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, etc.), in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) as well as across the Middle East and Asia (Egypt, Lebanon, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.) up to and including the European and American countries.
Their support is primarily ideological and financial, aimed at spreading a specific message of Islam with books, brochures, lectures and the building of mosques and institutions.
All Salafist organisations share a highly literalist approach to the scriptural sources, generally focusing on the visible dimensions of the Islamic references (rules and jurisprudence or fiqh) in daily life: licit or illicit behaviour (halal and haram), dress codes, rituals, etc. The literalist Salafist approach is gaining ground in many countries (even in the West) and among young people as it promotes a simple black-and-white (halal-haram) understanding of Islam. Muslims, they argue, must isolate themselves from the corrupt surrounding societies, and avoid involvement in politics.
This binary vision of the world (Muslims versus the others, the good versus the bad, protected religious purity versus corrupting political involvement) has over the years shaped a religious mindset based on isolation, defensiveness and sharp judgements (who is within Islam and who is a dangerous innovator, or even outside the faith). The great majority of Salafists have gone no further and a very tiny minority (in closed and marginalised networks), with the same binary mindset, has transformed the defensive attitude into aggressive and sometimes violent political activity, styling themselves as jihadist Salafists (Al Salafistyya Al jihadiyya). There are clearly no ideological and organisational links between the literalist Salafists and the jihadist Salafists but the latter have carried into the activist political realm the same mindset found among the literalists with regard to questions of behaviour (adding to it the justification of violence towards non-Islamic and “corrupt” regimes).
But in recent years and months we have seen a change in Salafist literalist political involvement. Having for decades refused political participation — equating democracy with kufr (rejection of Islam) — they are now slowly engaging in politics. Afghanistan, in the nineties, was a crucial laboratory where the future Taliban (traditionalists who were first opposed to political participation) became the main force of resistance to Russian domination, supported by both the Saudi and the US governments. Now we see, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, the rise of active and quite efficient literalist Salafist organisations and political parties which are playing a substantial role in structuring debates and reshaping the political balance within the respective countries.
The United States as well as the European countries have no problem in dealing with the type of Islamism promoted by the literalist Salafism found in some Muslim countries: these regimes might oppose democracy and pluralism, but they do not hinder the western economic and geostrategic interests in the region and internationally. They even rely on western support to survive: this useful dependency is enough for the West to justify an objective alliance — with or without democracy.
The US administration and other European countries are fully aware that Salafist organisations, based in Saudi Arabia, in Qatar or elsewhere in the Middle East, are pouring millions into ‘liberated countries’ and especially recently in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt (a RAND report has mentioned an impressive figure: $80 million (Dh294 million) invested before the elections for Egypt alone). Why, one wonders, do the western countries lend direct and indirect support to Islamist ideologies that are so obviously at odds with their own? After almost a century of active presence in the Middle East, and especially after the First World War, successive American administrations and their European counterparts have better understood how they can manage and take advantage of their relationships with both — the oil-rich states and the Salafist ideology they produce and propagate. The benefits are threefold:
1. These countries and their Salafist ideology are first and foremost concerned with political power and religious credibility. They focus — in a conservative and rigid way — on political appearances and social and juridical details; but from an economic standpoint they are liberals, capitalists who care little about the Islamic ethical reference within the neo-liberal world economic order. Indeed, they are pushing it even further.
2. Promoting the Salafist trends within Muslim majority societies helps both to create divisions from within these societies and to prevent the potential reformist trends and movements critical of western policies (reformist Islamists, leftists or even some traditional Sufi circles) from gaining immediate and natural religious credibility, and even a strong majority within their societies. Instead of being confrontational (which, on the contrary, would unite the Muslims), the most efficient strategy for the West is to divide the Muslims on religious grounds: in other words to transform the natural diversity among Muslims into an effective and useful tool for division.
3. The Salafist resurgence is creating trouble and tension within the Sunni tradition and between Sunni and Shiite Muslims as well, as the latter are considered as deviant by the literalists. The Sunni-Shiite fracture in the Middle East is a critical factor in the region especially in light of western and Israeli threats against Iran and the ongoing repression in Syria. The divide is deep even with regard to the Palestinian resistance, which for years had been a unifying legitimate struggle among Muslims. Now division is the rule, within and without, as Salafist activism (which does not care so much about the Palestinian cause) deepens among the Sunnis as well as between Sunnis and the Shiites.
This strategic alliance with the Salafist literalists, on both religious and political grounds, is critical for the West as it is the most efficient way to keep the Middle East under control. Protecting some oil-rich states as well as their religious ideology while dividing any potential unifying political forces (such as alliances between secular and reformist Islamists or a popular front against Israeli policy) necessitates undermining the Muslim majority countries from within.
The countries of the new Middle East, as well as those of North and West Africa, are facing serious dangers. The religious factor is becoming a critical one and if the Muslims, the scholars, the religious and political leaders, are not working for more mutual respect, unity and accepted diversity, it is quite clear there will be no successful Arab or African spring. The Muslims and their internal mismanagement and weaknesses will be exploited to protect Israel on the one hand and to compete with China and India on the other. Muslim majority countries should seek to exist as independent societies that no longer serve cynical concealed objectives. Muslims must decide, lest they end up divided by the very religion that calls upon them to unite.
Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is the author of Islam and the Arab Awakening.