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Salafis and Sufis

January 17, 2012

Last month Carnegie published a useful primer on the recent political involvement of some of the less studied Islamist groups in Egypt: Salafis and Sufis in Egypt, by Jonathan Brown.

While Sufi groups are only dipping their toes in the political scene – and as the report notes, seem unlikely to participate vigorously in the future – the previously quietist Salafi movement did not take long to make an about-turn and delve into the newly-opened political scene. There are now several Salafi parties, of which Al-Nour is the largest, which entered the 2011-2012 elections in an alliance and have been winning an unexpectedly large percentage of the vote – around 25% at the latest estimate (although final results after the third round are yet to be determined).

Jonathan Brown makes very interesting points about the increasing centralisation and discipline of the Salafi movement and its relatively rapid coalescing into parties. He also highlights what appears to be a pragmatic inclination:

The al-Nour party’s website is a model of pragmatism. It is—noticeably and indeed bizarrely—free of Islamist language and effectively accepts the existing structure of the Egyptian state and law. It highlights how social justice and political transparency are essential for preventing a return of the systematic corruption of the Mubarak era. The party calls for a civil state where all Egyptians live together without discrimination, “far from a theocracy that claims the government rules by God’s will.” It calls for the separation of legislative, judicial, and executive powers, with the justice system protected from political interference. The party seeks to guarantee a long list of freedoms and rights, including freedom of expression, the right to choose a leader and hold him accountable, and free health care and education. The party does insist in a somewhat vague way, however, that these rights exist within a basic Sharia framework.

However his analysis regarding the move from quietism to the formation of political parties is quite brief, and I would be interested to read more.

[The Salafis justify] this sudden departure from Salafi quietism by invoking the Sharia principle of “public interest.” Their argument was that an Islamic state is the ideal, but in its absence it is imperative to participate in a secular system in order to prevent the return of an oppressive and corrupt government.

I find this debate particularly interesting after reading Laurent Bonnefoy’s new book on Salafism in Yemen, as he describes the trenchant opposition to hizbiyya – and therefore to organised political involvement – as a defining characteristic of the Salafi movement in Yemen under Muqbil al-Wadi’i. However some Salafi groups in Yemen have already (over the last 10+ years) started moving towards a less extreme position regarding organised political or social activity, and although the political context in Yemen is certainly very different from Egypt, it might be the case that political changes in Yemen feed the activist tendency in the Yemeni Salafi scene.

Also worth reading is this post on The Arabist blog: Salafis: Why the surprise?

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