Check out my new article at Foreign Policy: “Democracy, Salafi Style”

Foreign Policy

The Muslim Brotherhood has so far emerged as the clear political winner from the popular uprisings that have seized the Arab world. In Egypt and Tunisia, its affiliated political parties have either won power outright in democratic elections. But the Brotherhood isn’t the only movement mixing faith and politics in the new Middle East: Salafis — hardline conservatives who model their lives on Prophet Mohamed and the first three generation of Muslim leaders following his death — are setting aside years of theological opposition to democracy to participate in the political game.

This sea change was driven home earlier this week when Saudi Salafi heavyweight Sheikh Salman al-Awdah took to his Twitter feed and Facebook page to proclaim: “Democracy might not be an ideal system, but it is the least harmful, and it can be developed and adapted to respond to local needs and circumstances.” Although Awdah notably made his announcement on his English and not Arabic social media platforms, where his audience numbers in the millions rather than the tens of thousands, the sentiment is still positively Churchillian — echoing as it does the late British prime minister’s maxim: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

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Check out my new article in The CTC Sentinel: “The Rise of Salafists in Tunisia After the Fall of Ben Ali”

In the aftermath of the “Arab Spring,” many analysts proclaimed that it was the death knell of al-Qa`ida and its ideology, while others warned that it would open space for al-Qa`ida to exploit and even potentially take over a government similar to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. These two narratives miss the point. Indeed, jihadist ideology has been marginalized and has opened space for other schools of thought to counterbalance it. Yet, at the same time, in societies such as Tunisia where religion has been suppressed at the hands of a dictatorial government, it has created new opportunities for individuals to organize at the local level, including non-violent political Salafists who sympathize with intellectual aspects of jihadist ideology.

One such Salafist group is known as Ansar al-Shari`a in Tunisia (AST), and its media outlet al-Qayrawan Media Foundation (QMF). It is not clear whether AST was organized prior to the fall of former Tunisian President Ben Ali’s regime, but if it existed beforehand it would have been highly covert due to the repressive environment under the previous government. Regardless, since April 2011 the group’s activities are increasingly public, holding rallies and even creating Facebook pages. AST has garnered the attention of online jihadists at Ansar al-Mujahidin and al-Jahad al-`Alami, two of the most popular Arabic-language jihadist forums.

This article chronicles the rise of AST, showing how the group is a product of the new openness in Tunisian society as well as the liberation of the “public square” in the Arab world as a whole. This new commons has featured a rise in Salafist movements, creating challenges for Western states that want to establish diplomatic relations with new actors in transitioning Arab societies.

To navigate the maze of new actors, it is crucial for Western governments to go beyond understanding the old Islamist parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood (as well as the secular and liberal trends), but also the growing prominence and broader trend of Salafist movements in Tunisia and the Arab world.

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