The inevitable decline of Salafism
All fundamentalists follow the same path of internal development in thought and action, leading either to their retreat and irrelevance, or their destruction, writes Said Okasha*
Undoubtedly many in Egypt and across the world are irritated by intense Salafist media, political and popular activities. Different groups and sects of Salafis openly express their ideas and convictions and sometimes take action, violating the rights of other Egyptians.
Contrary to what many observers hail as worrisome, I regard that the Salafis' openness in expressing and forcing their views limits any potential for the spread of their ideas, unlike the Muslim Brothers who are able to manoeuvre by hiding their real convictions, which are no different than that of Salafis, behind modern rhetoric and terminology.
Salafis are fundamentalists by definition who share similar convictions across different societies, regardless of the extent to which a society is hailed as "civilised" and regardless of the specific religious affiliations of fundamentalists. Fundamentalism preserves and accepts extremists' ideas and excludes moderation or deconstructing complicated realties. Indeed, there is a unified conceptual methodology to fundamentalism, despite the different religious affiliations of specific fundamentalists, which asserts that there is one possible absolute truth that explains abstract realities and also paves the way for guiding man to avoid the horrors of the day of judgement. This methodology leads to three main stages that Salafis and fundamentalists all go through.
The first of these stages is described as peaceful and the starting point of Salafis' preaching is strengthened by a general lack of theological knowledge in society, accordingly preaching becomes the main activity of Salafis or fundamentalists at this stage with an objective to broaden the masses of followers. The success of this expansionary objective paves the way for the second stage where Salafis or fundamentalists justify the lack of expansionary potential with convicting the population of failing to comprehend true theology and that the devil took over their minds and souls. Also they blame existing political regimes for protecting the status quo of society. At this stage, they start to isolate themselves gradually from society by either making themselves aloof from their surroundings or by migrating to isolated landscapes such as forests and deserts, creating an aloof community protected from exposure to society amongst which the devil is strongly present.
Lastly, there is a third stage where Salafis or fundamentalists are fed up with their choice of isolation and decide to change the status quo of society, explained earlier, by force. This is the stage at which Salafis or fundamentalists are most active. It is a prime stage where they confront the ruling regime or society itself. Nevertheless, such confrontations are characterised by naivety and by the overuse of force and violence and also by a lack of specific goals and objectives. The violence that these groups employ is to achieve a basic objective and assumption of theirs, which is that stratifying society according to religious beliefs and/or ethnicities in a violent framework against each other will lead to the victory of the pure elements in society -- ie, Salafis or fundamentalists. Usually these groups undertake criminal acts that aim to trigger civil war, which puts these groups under the jurisprudence of criminal law and not emergency law, given that the latter is only in place to fight political and not criminal elements in authoritarian states.
Upon the realisation of criminal acts spurring civil war -- as assumed by Salafi or fundamentalist groups -- governing authorities bring Salafi organisations to trial. Usually trying these groups has a popular base due to feelings of insecurity and terror that society has experienced when exposed to strange fundamentalist ideas leading to the killing of innocent and unarmed civilians, a peaceful religious or ethnic sect, and/or popular public figures.
At this point, Salafis or fundamentalists are destined to be labelled and judged as extremists whose ideas lead armed individuals to commit crimes. They are hence hailed as merely criminal groups and not as political activists or freedom fighters. Nevertheless, this does not bring Salafi or fundamentalist thought and its stages of activity to an end. Salafi or fundamentalist thought generally is produced in societies due to a number of factors that may never become extinct, such as: the failings of civilisation to contain basic fears of isolation that sometimes leads to the adoption of extreme ideologies in search of peace of mind. Also, some people's adoption of these ideas comes as a result of dire social circumstances, such as poverty, ignorance, marginalisation, and oppression that leads to loss of integrity; also it can be due to an individual or a community's feeling of incompetence in confronting worldly constraints.
Therefore, Salafism or fundamentalism, generally, is a social-human phenomenon that will continue to exist, renewing itself generation after generation, in any society. Nevertheless, the dangers of these fundamentalist trends are limited because its capacity to crystallise a coherent ideology and a line of organised political action is limited, and moreover no fundamentalist group has been able to reach to government or power in any society in contemporary history except in one country, which is Afghanistan in the 1990s. What resulted from the Taliban being in power in impoverished Afghanistan was a harsh confrontation with the United States after the events of 9/11. This confrontation led to the ouster of the Taliban, the occupation of Afghanistan, and the death of Al-Qaeda's leader who cooperated with Taliban, Osama Bin Laden. These results indicates that Salafism or fundamentalism is degrading and limiting itself gradually, at least in its violent capacity and potential in the foreseeable future. In Egypt, the situation witnessed a wider space for criminal acts on the part of Salafis since the 25 January Revolution. As a result, a wide popular force has formed demanding that Salafis be held accountable and punished in accordance to law. This makes possible that the fundamentalist movement in Egypt regresses to the first and second stages of fundamentalist activity -- explained above -- shortly.
However, there remains a threat of Salafis resorting to making an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, especially since the political scene in Egypt remains complicated at the moment. This alliance would act to protect Salafis from fierce popular opposition to their actions, moreover it would guarantee that Salafis gain some benefits in case that the Muslim Brotherhood wins a significant proportion of seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, this danger might not be probable for two reasons. The first is that most of the existing Salafist movements are originally made up of those who split from the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s due to significant ideological differences between the two groups; hence many disagreements would surface shortly upon the creation of any alliance. Second, it is not necessarily probable that the Muslim Brotherhood gains a majority of parliamentary seats. Moreover, if in fact the Muslim Brotherhood won the majority of parliamentary seats, it does not mean that it is the sole political entity in power, especially since the political system in Egypt is going to be more complicated from now, to integrate many political entities distributing overlapping powers between the army, parliament and the president.
Generally, there are three case studies from different societies to analyse when it comes to confirming that Salafis or fundamentalists are destined to commit criminal atrocities that are not necessarily strategically hazardous.
The first case study relates to the United States in 1969 when the Manson Family, led by Charles Manson, committed murders and crimes pertaining to an apocalyptic race war of a "Purifying Nature", as claimed by Manson. When there was no popular support for his claims, he plotted the murder of American actress Sharon Tate under the naive presumption that killing a "white" person will actually make people think that "black" individuals murdered her and hence spark a civil war between whites and blacks that will eventually lead to the destruction of society, leaving the mission of rebuilding a new society in accordance to God's preferences as defined by the Manson Family. No civil war erupted and the Manson Family and Charles Manson were tried, with Charles Manson sentenced to death, though the sentence was commuted.
A second case study relates to the Egyptian political scene in the 1970s when a group entitled "Atonement and Holy Immigration" (or Al-Takfeer wal-Hijra ), led by Shokri Mustafa, emerged. This group espoused rhetoric similar to Charles Manson's. Mustafa called on Muslims to trace the pure Muslim ancestors' teachings (or Al-Salaf Al-Saleh ) -- a programme similar to that of Manson's "Purifying Nature." He also claimed to be the Awaited for Righteous Man (or Al-Mahdi ), which is similar to Manson's claim to divinity. At a later stage, Mustafa called on his followers to immigrate from infidel societies. His ideas were not popular or widely accepted. Therefore, Mustafa's rhetoric entered stage three of the development of fundamentalist thought and action aforementioned, which pertains to committing criminal acts. His group murdered Sheikh Al-Thahabi who was the Egyptian minister of endowments at the time in June 1976. The presumption was that this incident would trigger a war between the ruling regime and Islamists who cooperated with this regime (ie, the Muslim Brotherhood). He thought that this war would cripple society. Nevertheless, no such war took place and Mustafa was captured and sentenced to death.
The third case study relates to Japan in the late 1980s when the religious cult/movement entitled "Aum shinri kyo" -- who claimed to be of "Supreme Truth" -- committed notorious crimes in Japan. The leader of this cult/movement was Shoko Ashara who claimed to be the only enlightened master in Japan, calling himself the "Lamb of God" and claiming that he was the Hindu Goddess Shiva incarnate. He promised to lead his followers to salvation. At first, he attempted to integrate his cult/movement peacefully in society by running for parliamentary elections in 1990. However, the attempt was a significant failure and hence the cult resorted to the third stage of fundamentalist development, inflicted several terrorist attacks of which the most infamous was the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 which killed and injured hundreds of people. Shoko was arrested and sentenced to death in 2004.
These three case studies highlight the stages through which fundamentalist groups develop a framework of action and thought. Across the three cases, the mechanism is identical, despite religious and sociological differences, and the cultural specify of the societies corresponding to the three examples. Therefore, one deduction is that the probability of similar groups reaching power, in developed or developing countries, is limited. Another deduction is that the criminal atrocities inflicted by Salafis in Egypt lately, with the most recent criminal act being the brutal events in Cairo's Imbaba district, is going to result in a decline in their popularity, even amongst the poor classes of Egyptians. This gives Salafis one of two options: first, to regress to stages one and two and stick to peaceful preaching rather than developing a political rhetoric; second, to continue committing more crimes that will eventually push them towards oblivion, especially after their leaders are convicted and punished for their criminal acts.
* The writer is associate researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.