Tag Archives: Salafism
Even while pro-democracy demonstrators still gather in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian electorate are set to commence voting tomorrow in the country’s first free elections since the beginning of the 1950s: the destiny of 498 seats in the lower house of the People’s Assembly of Egypt will be decided by this process, with those in the remaining ten seats being subject to the curious anomaly of being placements by the much-criticised Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (‘SCAF’). Despite the dizzying number of parties competing for office – movements that represent a huge cross-section of ideological and social strands – much of the attention of the international media has focused on the role that the al-ʾIhwān al-Muslimūn or Muslim Brotherhood (‘MB’) may have to play in a post-Mubarak and ultimately post-SCAF Egypt.
Some have posited that, given a good showing in the forthcoming elections, the MB is poised to transform Egypt into Saudi Arabia on the Nile; others point to a supremely pragmatic and politically cautious bloc that is far more comfortable with the established order in Egypt than they would publicly admit. But such evaluations, while interesting, perhaps miss the most essential points about the Muslim Brotherhood, which include the following:
1. Complexity. The MB is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon. It is not, as much of the coverage appears to be suggesting, limited to the Freedom and Justice Party (‘FJP’), a socially conservative political force that appears likely to win a considerable slice of the vote; conversely, it does not have any official or semi-official affiliation to many other parties bearing the ‘Islamist’ label, including the Salafist, ideologically extreme Al-Nour. Additionally, political parties that are in many ways as ‘mainstream’ as they come and which are rarely identified by observers as being anything to do with the MB – the liberal New Centre Party comes to mind – are actually founded by those with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood.
2. Dynamism. Only a relatively short time ago, the Muslim Brotherhood was characterised by an anti-Western narrative which fused various elements of religious fundamentalism, economic nationalism and revolutionary violence. However, in recent years these trends have ceded ground to newer trends to such a point that in a recent interview with Al Jazeera English’s Mike Hanna, Mohamed Saad Katatni, the secretary-general of the FJP, went out of his way to characterise his party not even as a religious party, but rather a civil one with religious reference points. Moreover, there are huge differences between the MB’s older generation and those aged 30 and under: the latter arguably have far more in common with their contemporaries in ostensibly ‘secular’ parties in terms of their views on democracy, human rights and gender, than with the senior figures in their own movement.
Soon after the stupefying pair of terrorist attacks that took place in Norway on 22nd July 2011 – at the time of writing, these had claimed no fewer than 93 lives, with 96 persons injured – the international reactions to the atrocities started pouring in. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen – a former Danish Prime Minister – affirmed that ‘NATO countries stand united in the battle against these acts of violence.’ Carl Bildt, Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and one of Scandinavia’s most eminent statesmen, echoed the famous post-9/11 Le Monde headline with the empathetic statement ‘We are all Norwegians.’ And William Hague, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, went yet further in referencing Tony Blair, his country’s Prime Minister for a decade from 1997: the UK, he stated, stood ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with Norway.
Yet these statements all seemed to have been scripted on the basis of one crucial assumption: that the attacks had been carried out not by a ‘right-wing’ terrorist in the mould of Anders Behring Breivik, but by an Islamist extremist group such as Al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates. And perhaps this is understandable insofar as it fits in with much contemporary cultural programming, part of which is shaped by popular knowledge of previous terrorist atrocities during the last decade in locations as diverse as Madrid, Istanbul and Bali.
But is this presumption actually justified by the facts? If one takes a broader perspective of the phenomenon of radical Islamist terrorism and terrorism more generally, the answer may be more complex than it first appears. For virtually all intents and purposes, Islamist (or to be more accurate, Salafist) terrorism was all but unknown outside of the Muslim world until Q3 2001. It then assumed an instant, gargantuan profile courtesy of the September 11th, 2001 attacks; a series of other comparatively smaller but still highly significant incidents followed.
However, since 2005 – the year of the 7th July London bombings, which resulted in the violent death of 52 commuters – Salafist terrorism does not appear to be occurring with anything like the same frequency or intensity, at least in the West; indeed, it is becoming increasingly discredited in the East, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the overwhelming majority of its victims (97.7%+ from 1990 to 2005) have been in the Islamic world. Moreover, recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have illustrated just how marginal figures such as the late Osama bin Laden – during his time, arguably the world’s most notorious terrorist and the ‘CEO’ of Al-Qaeda – have become.
The 2011 Europol TE-SAT 2011 EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report is particularly instructive in this regard: in 2010, a total of seven people died from terrorist attacks in the European Union; none of these fatalities were as a result of the three attacks (out of 249, or just over 1.2% of the total) carried out by radical Islamists. Yet this variant of terrorism assumes a high level of prominence in the report, while ‘right-wing’ terrorism of the kind so shockingly manifested in Norway receives cursory treatment.
It would be mistaken to claim that Salafist or radical Islamist terrorism is irrelevant or unworthy of global concern. But at the same time, it is important not to overstate its significance to the extent that adherents of ideologies that have caused death, pain and suffering on a scale that has wrecked entire continents are scarcely conceivable for what they are: an historically and presently significant element in the lexicon of terrorism that may well eclipse other sources of terrorist violence in the future.
With the 2nd May 2011 official demise of the world’s most infamous incendiary, it seems fairly clear that in at least one important sense, an era has come to a close. This blog has already outlined what we believe will be the three most salient consequences of the death of Osama bin Laden, but what of the lessons – for both American policymakers and the world at large – that can be drawn from the period 2001-2011, which in many respects represents a lost decade?
1. Don’t believe the hype. In their 1999 classic Funky Business: Talent Makes Capital Dance, Swedish authors Jonas Ridderstråle and Kjell Nordström presciently noted: ‘you never know where private terrorist Osama bin Laden will strike next’. The presence of bin Laden in this seminal management text illustrates that even before the tragic events of 11th September 2001, he had made some kind of imprint on the global public consciousness. With his pseudo-religious garb, remote hideouts and quasi-messianic language, bin Laden’s biggest asset was his image; in an epoch dominated by the visual, this amplified his significance.
However, the potency of bin Laden’s iconography was mirrored by the virtually negligible actual capabilities of his organisation, Al-Qaeda. Despite lavish funding and huge amounts of exposure, to date this entity has never come close to acquiring critical mass, with active membership numbering perhaps in the hundreds of people. While this does not mean that counterterrorism measures against Al-Qaeda should cease, or that this group’s threat to the global public should be ignored, it does indicate that good intelligence and reasonable precautions should be more than sufficient to address the danger that Al-Qaeda poses.
2. React proportionately and intelligently. The 2nd May 2011 operation in Abbottabad has been widely regarded as a success, with bin Laden’s death being recognised as perhaps the most significant blow to Al-Qaeda yet and the very future of the group now being debated. While this is a development of great import, it underscores the reservations that many hold about the war in Afghanistan, a conflict explicitly prosecuted with the aim of dismantling Al-Qaeda and neutralising its networks in the troubled South Asian republic but which has yielded results which do not seem to match those attained by one relatively simple US operation in Pakistan; Afghanistan itself has suffered – at the very least – tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Actions costing hundreds of billions of dollars and engendering human misery on an epic scale must be evaluated by their efficacy.
3. Develop new analytical frameworks. The causes and consequences of the events of 11th September 2001 were far too often seen in binary terms – good versus evil, the West against the Islamic world, civilisation against barbarism – which were at best often unhelpful and simplistic; at their worst, these presented a decade of incredible bloodshed in a way that normalised aggression and polarisation. A framework that recognised that – like so many other matters – Islamist, or to be precise, extremist Salafist violence is at the very least an issue of shared concern would have done much to provide a solid analytical base from which adequate solutions could be devised. A 2005 report by Rik Coolsaet, Professor of International Relations at the University of Ghent, is particularly instructive: from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s, of an estimated 179,000 victims of this variant of terrorism, approximately 175,000 (97.7%+) were located in the Muslim world.