Salafism: Why ultra-conservative Islam is finding support in post-revolution Egypt

Salafist protesters in Cairo Salafist protesters take to the street in Cairo: Salafists have previously seen political involvement as un-Islamic but have found growing support post-Arab Spring

The ultra-conservative Salafist movement has spearheaded many of the recent violent protests over the controversial anti-Muslim film which appeared on the internet. The most significant sign of support for Salafism has been in Egypt where adherents made major gains in the recent election.

To feed her family of 15, Rabiah Rahim has to bake 120 loaves every week - but with rising prices she cannot afford to pay the 20 Egyptian pounds ($3) she needs for a new bottle of gas.

As her daughter tosses the rounds of dough in flour and puts them in the blazing stove, Rabiah says no-one in government listens to the needs of the poor.

Rabiah Rahim's daughter bakes loaves to feed the family Egyptian Salafist groups have helped struggling families to buy basic amenities such as gas

The narrow unpaved streets of al-Kom al-Ahmar bear witness to years of neglect - this farming community, an hour's drive from the Egyptian capital, Cairo, lacks the most basic amenities.

The older generation are mostly illiterate and the main form of transport is donkey and cart. Egypt's economic crisis is leading to a wave of protest on the streets of Cairo but here people look to God to provide.

And for the Rahim family, help is at hand. A group of Salafists, in plain, ankle-length robes and sandals arrive at the front door with coupons that can be exchanged for gas at a subsidised price.

Start Quote

The changes we seek are to apply the Islamic Sharia, the Islamic Law to achieve social justice”

End Quote Mohammed Gom'ah Salafi community organiser

They are popular members of the community, known for their charitable deeds. During holidays they kill camel, sheep and buffalo and distribute the meat to the poor.

They also pay for school books and medicines and contribute to the gift of household goods required for young brides.

Mohammed Gomah, who is in charge of social activities, explains that Salafists are following the instructions of Islam.

"We must help our people," he says, speaking to Radio 4's File on 4 programme.

"We do it for Allah but the people don't forget this for us. They respect us."

Salafism's 'true faith'

The aim of Salafism is to bring Muslims back to what they see as the true faith practised by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers.

What is Salafism?

  • An intellectual current in Sunni Islam, rather than a distinct party or organisation
  • Salafists call for a return to the political and moral practice of the first Muslims, in particular the "righteous ancestors" known as "al-Salaf al-Salih"
  • Early popularisers of Salafist ideas, such as the 19th Century thinkers Mohammed Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, argued that the regeneration of Islam would prepare Muslims to face the challenge posed by the spread of Western values and culture
  • They argued for Islamic reform and campaigned against many rituals which had become traditional in parts of the Islamic world, such as the worship of saints
  • During the second half of the 20th Century Salafist ideas inspired large movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, which have concentrated on campaigns for social and political reform. However, Salafists have also formed militant groups aiming to establish an Islamic state by force

Their influence is being felt not only in Egypt, but also in Libya and Tunisia where militant Salafists have been blamed for the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi and the embassy in Tunis. In both countries there has also been tension between Salafists and more moderate Muslims.

In Egypt, I visit the town of Awsim to find out more. I meet Sheikh Hassan Ghidan, a scholar and preacher who graduated from Cairo's influential Islamic university, al-Alzhar.

Speaking to me after Friday prayers, he explains that he believes in changing society by teaching people at grass roots level rather than through the violent jihad espoused by some other Salafists - but his long term aims are the same.

"The changes we seek are to apply the Islamic Sharia - the Islamic law to achieve social justice," he says.

"And to establish an Islamic Caliphate, to liberate the occupied lands - lands occupied by non-Muslims, the lands which were originally Muslim."

His list of lands that need to be re-taken includes Palestine, Iraq, Burma, Chechnya and Andalucia in Spain.

Asked about his vision of Sharia law for Egypt, he tells me that unmarried women involved in adultery would be sentenced to 100 lashes while a married woman would be stoned to death.

Anyone caught drinking alcohol would be sentenced to 80 lashes, he tells me.

Fears of a new theocracy

Traditionally, Salafists have distanced themselves from politics on the grounds that it is impure, but since the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak's regime in February 2011, they have formed their own political parties.

Find out more

Listen to the full report on File on 4 on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 16 October at 20:00 BST and Sunday, 21 October at 17:00 BST

Winning over 20% of votes at the election, they are in a position to influence the current debate about the constitution, pushing for Sharia to be the main source of legislation rather than the guiding principle as it is now.

The interpretation of Sharia would be decided at al-Alzhar where, in the meantime, they are trying to oust its moderate clerics and replace them with hard-liners.

The prospect alarms Heba Morayaf, director of Human Rights Watch, who says it could lead to an Iranian-style theocracy.

Start Quote

To have an unelected body run by religious conservatives interpreting what legislation is consistent or inconsistent with Sharia would be really disastrous for Egypt”

End Quote Heba Morayaf Director, Human Rights Watch

"To have an unelected body run by religious conservatives interpreting what legislation is consistent or inconsistent with Sharia would be really disastrous for Egypt," she says.

"It would turn into a religious state controlled by an unelected minority and it would be a direct threat to a lot of the basic human rights that were articulated during the January 2011 uprising."

The lower house of parliament, the People's Assembly, is currently dissolved while Egypt's courts consider a legal challenge to the electoral process which could force a return to the polls.

Nobody expects the Salafists to gain power but secular and liberal Egyptians fear their influence over the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, envisaging a shift to a more conservative Islamism.

If there is to be a new election it is likely to be the economy - not religion - that determines the outcome.

However, the villagers of al-Kom al-Ahmar will vote for whichever party can provide their community with things like proper drainage and a gas supply.

As her daughter takes the piping-hot flatbread from the oven, Rabiah Rashim beams happily.

In her hand is a coupon stamped with the words "Salafist Youth". Tomorrow she will take it to the Salafist warehouse and bring back a full gas canister.

As I leave I ask her who she would vote for in the next election and she replies "the Salafist candidate" without any hesitation.

Listen to the full report on File on 4 on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 16 October at 20:00 BST and Sunday 21 October at 17:00 BST.

Listen again via the Radio 4 website or download the File on 4 podcast.

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