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reflections

Jun 14, 2011 | 04:31 GMT

4 mins read

Democratizing Salafists and the War Against Jihadism

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Egypt's provisional military authority on Sunday approved the application of the country's first Salafist party, Hizb al-Nour. Days earlier, the world's oldest — and Egypt's primary — Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, was licensed by the Political Parties Affairs Committee (which is appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces). According to Egyptian media reports, as many as four other parties of Salafist persuasion are in the making, following unprecedented popular unrest in the country, which led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak's government. The democratization of Salafism even in a limited form could have far-reaching geopolitical implications. Salafists considering democratic politics as a legitimate means of pursuing political objectives can have a moderating effect on ultra-conservative, extremist and radical forces. The establishment of Hizb al-Nour marks the first time a Salafist group has sought to enter relatively free electoral politics in the Arab world. Unlike the bulk of Islamists (of the Muslim Brotherhood persuasion), Salafists (also known as Wahhabists) have generally been ideologically opposed to democracy. From the point of view of Salafists/Wahhabists and other radical Islamists, as well as the jihadists, democracy is un-Islamic because they see it as a system that allows man to enact laws, which, in their opinion, is the right of God. With Hizb al-Nour as a legal political entity, it appears that at least some Egyptian Salafists seem to have moved past a major redline. As far as Egypt is concerned, they are looking at an intense intra-Islamist competition, which could allow the country's military to consolidate its position while it oversees the shift toward multiparty politics. From the ruling Egyptian council's perspective, the presence of Salafists in the electoral mix helps it check the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and vice versa. The case of Egypt notwithstanding, there will be a great many Salafist actors in the region who will continue to insist that Islam and democracy are incompatible. But the democratization of Salafism even in a limited form could have far-reaching geopolitical implications. Salafists considering democratic politics as a legitimate means of pursuing political objectives can have a moderating effect on ultra-conservative, extremist and radical forces. At the least, it provokes critical debate that could undermine them from within. There are already a significant number of Salafists who do not support the violent ideology of jihadism and consider it to be a deviation from Salafism. That said, jihadism gained ground due to the fact that mainstream Salafists traditionally have never articulated a political program. If Salafists in significant numbers embrace democratic politics, it could undermine jihadists in the long run. Mainstream politics could serve as an alternative means of pursuing religious goals — one that is less costly than the path of violence and offers a stake in the political system. Furthermore, it provides for a socialization process that could foster norms whereby Salafists can become comfortable with political pluralism. In the near term, however, Salafists participating in democratic politics can have a destabilizing effect in the region's most influential Arab state, Saudi Arabia, at a time when popular demands for political reforms have swept the Arab world. Thus far, the kingdom has remained immune to the mass agitation that has overwhelmed almost every other Arab country. In addition to their petroleum wealth, the Saudis have relied on the Salafist religious establishment to prevent the eruption of public unrest. The political debut of Egyptian Salafists could, however, encourage some among the Saudi Salafists to follow suit. Salafists in the Saudi kingdom could demand political reforms; in the 1990s, a significant current within Saudi Salafism did engage in such a campaign, albeit unsuccessfully. In the current climate, however, the outcome could differ. While there is concern in the United States and Israel regarding the entry of Islamists into the political mainstream in the Middle East, Salafists embracing democratic politics could actually help counter violent extremism. In the short term, though, it could destabilize the Arab world's powerhouse and the world's leading exporter of crude.

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