Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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Why Egypt’s Salafis Are Not the Amish

by Ed Husain
December 1, 2011

Parliamentary candidate Abo El-Maty of the Salafi party Al-Nour greets supporters outside a polling station during the parliamentary elections in Cairo (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

Here on the streets of Cairo, I sense a new pride today among Egyptian Salafis. Reports of their electoral success in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections have injected them with confidence in their religious agenda and struck fear in the hearts of millions of Egyptians. Those who denied that Egypt had a problem with Muslim radicalism were sharply awoken from their sleep.

Now, while many in Egypt are terrified at the prospect of Salafis in parliament, left-leaning policymakers in Washington, DC, will be arguing that Salafis are harmless, pious, and orthodox Muslims. Wrong.

Most Salafis aim to emulate the “first century” of Islam, the first three generations of Muslims (as understood by Salafi literature published in Saudi Arabia). This emphasis on the “first century,” and scriptural literalism—wearing long beards without mustaches, donning short robes, practicing social separatism, and mandating a “homemaker” role for women may—seems similar to the attitudes of Christian Amish communities in the United States. This spin is useful for several officials at the U.S. and British embassies in Riyadh—but betrays the reality of the threat posed by extreme Salafism.

First, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and every other major Islamist terrorist came directly from the Salafist or Wahhabi school of the thought. They are motivated by a Salafi creedal concept named hakimiyyah, the idea that God is ruler and sovereign over man, the ultimate source of government. Jihadis and al-Qaeda wish to create this hakimiyyah, or caliphate, by force in the form of violent jihad. Egypt’s Salafis are trying to create the caliphate via the ballot box, while the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to tone down the “Islamic state” aspect,  emphasizing the civil state. Almost all Salafis wish to adopt their understanding of sharia as state law, or tatbiq al-sharia about which I have written here and here and here. Some Salafis will moderate their views as they interact with the real world in pursuit of the “Islamic state,” some will persist, others will become disenchanted and walk the path of jihad.

Second, while extreme Salafis advocate hakimiyyah, almost all Salafis believe and constantly remind each other of the need to be loyal only to Muslims, and to hate, be suspicious of, not work in alliance with, and ensure only minimal/necessary interaction with non-Muslims. This attitude is underpinned by the Salafi creedal belief in al-wala wa al-bara, broadly translated as fidelity to Muslims and hatred for non-Muslims. Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote extensively about alwala wa albara and speaks about it often in his video messages.

Third, combined with dogged beliefs about the caliphate and the disavowal of non-Muslims comes the Salafi tendency to engage in takfeer, the excommunication of other Muslims. Once a Muslim has been labeled a kafir then Salafis may justify violence against the newly declared apostate. These are not abstract ideas. Takfeer was used to kill Anwar al-Sadat, and Salafi extremists have used takfeer to justify killings in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere.

As Egypt’s election results unfold in the coming weeks, it would be naive to write off the rise of Salafis as Egypt’s Amish. The above three ideas of literalist sharia as state law (hakimiyyah), manifest hatred of non-Muslims (alwala wa albara), and excommunicating Muslims (takfeer), when underwritten by jihad, leads to violent extremism. Without jihad, it is plain and simple non-violent extremism. Either way, the rise of Islamist radicalism in the short term in Egypt is now a fact. In due course, I will write about ways in which this can be countered within a human rights framework, and without depriving Salafis of their legitimate success at the ballot box. Democracy can be bitter.


  • Posted by kunhi mohammed

    you are opinion very correct. this what we are afrid. islamic world will suffer very lot.

  • Posted by Mahmoud

    I have only one comment here that al-bara doesn’t mean hatred for non-Muslims.
    It rather mean “freeing or distancing our selves from the evil deeds committed by non Muslims”

  • Posted by Hamzi Yazbeck

    The weak complain…what good does a framework of human rights frame work can do if the one in charge will not allow the complaint from even reaching the radar screen…the tribal and religious zealots will empty any law or human right of its meaning and deprive it of any force…with there sinister hidden hand no doubt…it will not be a bitter democracy it will be a theocracy in time….no doubt.

  • Posted by Roger Wren

    It will be interesting to see how this works out over a period of years. Hope I can keep chugging long enough to see (72 now).

    Egypt exports little and imports much. I don’t see the Republican Congress continuing to funnel several billion a year in aid to an Egypt run by the Muslim Brotherhood. Likewise the European countries. Egypt will have to rely on the Arab oil countries continuing to be generous. The combination of the Brotherhood and the Salifis is going to have a hard time building the tourist trade back up, especially if they do like the Taliban and start blowing up Egypt’s past.

    So we are left with a country that can not feed itself, has no significant oil production, has an exploding population, will probably drive most of the Copts out, and is about to be run by religious fruitcakes whose great mission is to return to the good old days of 650 A.D.

    Does anyone think that once in power the Brotherhood and the Salifis will ever allow themselves to be voted out? Does anyone really think this is going to end well for the people of Egypt?

  • Posted by Mary Wilbur

    I fear for the Copts. I’ve read that almost 200,000 have already left. I hope the US will allow them in as religious refugees.

  • Posted by Abu Rafi El-Shaheed

    In response to comments by Roger Wren who asks the question, “Does anyone really think this is going to end well for the people of Egypt?” In record numbers the voters of Egypt are answering that question at the ballot box. Egyptians freely are saying no to devilish Western imperialism, no to racist Zionism, no to capitalism, no to hedonistic materialism, no to corruption, no to avarice, no to liberalism, no to homosexuality, no to liquor, no to immodesty and yes to Islam. The Occidental West and Zionist Israel do not truly want democracy in the nations of Islam. As the flags of secularism are lowered (or torn down) the banners of Islam shall rise. In the words the the great Egpytian martyr, Col. Khalid Islamboli, “Islam for the world!” Allah is The Greatest!

  • Posted by Jane

    Egypt is lost to civilisation. Write it off and forget about it.

  • Posted by No Jizya

    Living in the Middle East right now must be like living in Adolf Huxley’s “Brave New World”. You stand there shaking the hand of a man who, in your heart, you know is evil but yet live in a society where speaking out against him can get you killed as an apostate from a belief system that can not even be questioned openly except under pain of death. Thanks God for the Western world.

  • Posted by No Jizya

    Abu Rafi El-Shaheed is practicing our favorite past time – Islamic deception. We can debate all the social ills that you list and I may agree with you on many of them. What I will never agree with you on is the Islamic mandate of Sharia to IMPOSE Islamic beliefs on non-Muslims by force. Islamic doctrine had been translated to English and we are thankful for it. Study the life of the prophet Muhammad and the entire Middle East will become crystal clear to the non-Muslim. At first the message of Allah came by revelation, then debate, then by force. There can be no compromise with Islam or the Sharia – only cold war style containment until it colapses under its own dead, morally corrupt weight.

  • Posted by Erik

    “I have only one comment here that al-bara doesn’t mean hatred for non-Muslims.
    It rather mean “freeing or distancing our selves from the evil deeds committed by non Muslims”…”


    “‘Indeed there has been an excellent example for you in Ibrahim (Abraham) and those with him, when they said to their people, ‘Verily, we are free from you and whatever you worship besides Allah, we have rejected you, and there has started between us and you, hostility and hatred for ever, until you believe in Allah Alone.'” [60:4]

  • Posted by Newspaniard

    @Abu Rafi El-Shaheed. If the population of Egypt agree with you, then you really are off back to the 7th Century. Good luck with that. Do you know a good tent maker? You’ll need one.

  • Posted by Heik

    @No Jizya

    You’re obviously prejudiced against the faith, well deservedly so, but, still not excusable.

    People may feel free to throw verses out of the Islamic scriptures to ‘justify’ their claims against the religion of Islam, but you cannot deny that the entire book was written in a particular historical context; hence, every verse will have a context and varying interpretations (also considering any texts infallibility). So, no thanks to your English language, it makes solving politico-religious problems even tougher when you adhere to the same religious literalism to understand our ‘situation’ that Muslim hardliners do. The faith that is causing so much havoc and chaos in the 21st century ME is the same faith that brought the Islamic Golden Age centuries ago. So, read a better book next time.

    For people actually living in the Middle East, there is a tenacious resolve to be governed as Muslims and be allowed to have our own sense of religious identity. The reason we revolt against religious fanatics, US-backed dictatorships and hardliners is because we KNOW our faith better than a man in his ‘civilised and modern country’ with an internet connection and access to ‘English translations of the life of the Prophet and Islam’, allowing him to ‘understand’ the Middle East crystal clear.

    What’s happening in the Middle East is a slow and painful progression towards what we hope will be a better future for our grandchildren and their grandchildren (irrespective of their religious, ethnic or cultural identities), if not for us. There are no gains without toil. We also pray for a better Islam – one that ushers a new Golden Age for our ‘Persian-Arab’ community, not just Muslims. There is much inter-religious strife, suspicion, hatred, paranoia and pessimism that we need to overcome to achieve this cause which is just as much Islamic as it is humanistic.

    Next time, try to avoid looking at us, as a religious community, from the end of your own nose, and also consider the possibility that the media you hold so dear to you isn’t interested in the religious, political and social lives of the billions of Muslims living outside the Middle East that represents Muslim plurality.

    And, there is no Shariah mandate that IMPOSES Islam on non-Muslims, and the idea that the religion was spread by the ‘sword’ is a historical fabrication thrown around by those who couldn’t handle the fast-paced and far-reaching growth of the religion. There has been as much ‘bloodshed’ in the name of Islam as there has been in the name of Christianity. In fact, more so with Christianity if you were ever taught real history. So, unless you’re declaring yourself an internet-taught Sharia expert, I will excuse your indelible stupidity for American-style ignorance on your part. Please don’t insult your already sub-normal intelligence by throwing around biased half-baked knowledge.

    All religions have their merits and demerits, and Islam is subject to that simple logic, too (though, a hardliner or even a moderate may not tolerate such a view, I admit). However, for every misconception/half-truth you have about Sharia or Islam, I can give you 10 merits that will put your English-speaking well-endowed, fancy, evolved, civilised, and democratically free societies to shame.

  • Posted by Sally

    Round 2 of the elections here in Egypt and the Salafists are out in full force. Sadly the egyptian people cannot differentiate between religion and politics and are confused. They see these guys that are giving them sugar and meat as somehow saviours. What is the plan though, nothing that we know of yet. It appears that they believe the salvation of the nations souls will be the answer to the current economic disaster or maybe they are unaware of the impending gloom about to descend onto Egypt. However many many people just say ‘God will protect Egypt’ ‘God loves Egypt’ and carry on with a vague hope of ‘something’ happening thought they do not know what.