Just a few hours after an angry mob of ultraconservative Muslims stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo Tuesday evening, the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed during a protest in the city of Benghazi. Both riots were provoked by news an anti-Muslim group in the United States released a film that insults the Prophet Muhammad. In Egypt, the protesters hauled down the U.S. flag and replaced it with the same black banner sometimes used by al Qaida. Shades of Iran, 1979. Scary stuff.
Both attacks are outrageous. But perhaps the United States shouldn't have been caught completely off guard. The rioters in both cases come from the region's burgeoning Salafi movement, and the Salafis have been in the headlines a lot lately. In Libya, over the past few months, they've been challenging the recently elected government by demolishing ancient Sufi shrines, which they deem to be insufficiently Islamic. In Tunisia, they've been attacking businesses that sell alcohol and instigating nasty social-media campaigns about the country's female competitors in the Olympics. In Syria's civil war, there are increasing reports the opposition's wealthy Gulf financiers have been channeling cash to Salafi groups, whose strict interpretation of Islam is considered close to the puritanical Wahhabism of the Saudis and others. Lately, Salafi groups have been gaining fresh prominence in parts of the Islamic world -- from Mali to Lebanon, from Kashmir to Russia's North Caucasus.
Some -- such as journalist Robin Wright, who recently wrote a New York Times op-ed on the subject -- say this means we should be really, really worried. Painting a picture of a new "Salafi crescent" ranging from the Persian Gulf to North Africa, she says this bodes ill for newly won freedoms after the revolutions of 2011. Calling the rise of the new Salafi groups "one of the most underappreciated and disturbing byproducts of the Arab revolts," Wright says they're now "moving into the political space once occupied by jihadi militants, who are now less in vogue. "Some Islamists are more hazardous to western interests and values than others," she writes. "The Salafis are most averse to minority and women's rights."
Others, such as Egyptian journalist Mustafa Salama, dismiss this as hysteria. "The reality of the movement is that it is fragmented, not uniform. Within Salafis there are various ideologies and discourses," Salama writes. "Furthermore, being a Salafi does not boil down to a set of specific political preferences." The only thing that unites them, he argues, is their interest in returning to the beliefs and practices of the original Islamic community founded by the Prophet Muhammad -- a desire that, in itself, is shared by quite a few mainstream Muslims. (The Arabic word salaf, meaning "predecessors" or "ancestors," refers to the original companions of the Prophet.) This doesn't mean they're necessarily opposed to freedom and democracy. During the revolution in Egypt, he says, some Salafis were "protecting churches in Sinai and elsewhere from vandalism and theft" at considerable risk to themselves, though the fact wasn't reported in the western media.
If the first death of an American ambassador in two decades is any indication, it's probably time the world starts paying attention to this debate. I think there are several points worth mentioning.
First of all, however we define them, these new "populist puritans" (as Wright aptly refers to them) are enjoying an extraordinary boom. Though solid numbers are tough to come by, they're routinely described as the fastest-growing movement in modern-day Islam. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's Salafis barely figured in the political landscape during the Mubarak years -- then stormed onto the scene to capture a quarter of the vote in the country's first democratic election last year. Their share of the vote could well increase, given the new Brotherhood-led government is likely to have problems making good on the ambitious promises it's made to Egyptian voters over the past year. Their rapid rise in Tunisia is especially startling, given that country's relatively relaxed atmosphere toward religion.
Indeed, if the history of revolutions shows us anything, it's that transformative social upheavals of the kind we've seen in the Arab Spring don't necessarily favour the moderates. On the day the Shah left Iran in 1979, it was by no means a foregone conclusion the radical forces around Ayatollah Khomeini, who followed his innovative theory of clerical rule, would end up running the country. Secular socialists, communists, liberal democrats, democratic nationalists, moderate Islamists and even other rival Shiite clerics were all vying for power. But Khomeini ultimately triumphed because he offered forceful, uncorrupted leadership with a simple message -- "Islamic government" -- that cut through the mayhem with the authority of faith.
Lenin understood the same political dynamic: Hence his ruthlessly straightforward slogan "Bread, Peace, Land," which was perfectly calculated to appeal to Russians wearied by anarchy, war and social injustice.
The Salafi notion of returning to the purity of seventh-century Islam can have the same kind of draw for some Muslims exasperated by everyday corruption and abusive rule.
Syria offers a good example. If you're going up against Bashar Assad's helicopter gunships armed with an antique rifle and a few rusty bullets, you'll probably prefer to go into battle with a simple slogan on your lips. "Power sharing for all ethnic groups in a liberal parliamentary democracy" might not cut it -- especially if you happen to be a Sunni who's seen your relatives cut down by Assad's murderous militias. This isn't to say the opposition is now dominated by Salafis; far from it. But it's safe to assume the longer the war goes on, the more pronounced the extremes will become.
At the same time, the Sunni Salafis are a major factor in the growing global polarization of the Islamic community between Shiites and Sunnis. (The French scholar of Islam, Olivier Roy, argues the intra-Muslim rivalry between the two groups has now become even more important than the presumed confrontation between Islam and the west.) The fact that many Salafis in various parts of the world get their financing from similarly conservative elements in Saudi Arabia doesn't help. Perversely enough, Iranian propaganda is already trying to portray the west as backers of Salafi extremism in order to destabilize Tehran and its allies. We'll be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing in the future, I'm afraid.
In short, no one should count on the Salafis to go away. So how should the outside world deal with them -- especially if they're going to go around storming foreign embassies?
I think the answer is two-pronged. First, don't generalize. Not all Salafis should be treated as beyond the pale. Salafis who are willing to stand by the rules of democracy and acknowledge the rights of religious and cultural minorities should be encouraged to participate in the system. With time, voters in the new democracies of the region will discriminate between the demagogues and the people who can actually deliver a better society.
Second, don't allow radicals to dictate the rules for everyone else. This is why the outcome of the current political conflicts in Tunisia and Libya are extremely important for the region as a whole. In both countries, voters have now had the opportunity to declare their political preferences in free elections, and they have delivered pretty clear messages. Libyans voted overwhelmingly for secular politicians, while Tunisians chose a mix of moderate Islamists and secularists. But the Salafis in both places don't seem content to leave it at that and are trying to foment instability by instigating a culture war.
What's encouraging is that we're beginning to see some push back from ordinary Libyans and Tunisians who don't want to submit to the logic of radicalization -- not to mention scholars at the Arab world's most prestigious university, also in Cairo. Don't be fooled by the rabble-rousers. The story in the Middle East is still more interesting than the stereotypes.
Christian Caryl is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies.