Economist offers rare insights into Salafists

I have a friend who once worked for Time (actually, several people fit under that umbrella) who once made a very interesting observation about the state of foreign news in that newsweekly, which was once famous for its excellent, sweeping coverage of world affairs.

This correspondent noted that for several years, as Time coverage of foreign news declined, it was rather easy to chart a corresponding rise in the subscription totals over at The Economist. In other words, if you subtract this form of serious news in THIS publication, then it is highly likely that you add people who are seeking that form of news to the subscription rolls over HERE.

This equation, alas, doesn’t work very well for religion news because, well, nobody in the news-magazine world is blazing a bright religion-news trail, at the moment.

Still I wanted to note a recent Economist article (yes, after several decades I recently cancelled Time and subscribed to you know what) that offered a few paragraphs of real, life, informative material about the doctrinal and lifestyle implications of one of the major conflicts that is shaping modern Islam. As frequent GetReligion readers know, this is something that this blog has been pleading for journalists to do for the eight-plus years we have been in business.

The goal, in this typically crisp and newsy Economist piece, was to describe some of the conflicts between the old Islamist guard (think the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) and the rising tide of fervent believers who are being called the new “Salafists.” As is often the case, the Economist team opens with an essay-form, summary lede that sets the scene:

TO SELL an idea it helps to keep it simple. This explains the appeal of Salafism, an increasingly wide, bold-coloured stripe on the very broad spectrum of modern Islamism. Its most garish manifestation has been painted in blood by the jihadist brand of Salafists, most notoriously by the holy terrorists of al-Qaeda. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan have deep Salafist roots, as do the rowdy gangs in Tunisia that have lately trashed bars, cinemas and the American embassy. Yet while Saudi Arabia’s dour Salafist version of Islam, Wahhabism, shuns political life and abhors democracy, the Salafists’ Nour Party in Egypt has played politics eagerly and effectively, capturing a quarter of the votes in last year’s general elections.

What links these groups is a belief that Islam has been weakened by centuries of accumulated intellectual baggage. Muslims should dump most of it, the Salafists say, and revert to the ways of their salaf, or forebears.

So here we are: What are “the ways” of the past?

God is in the details. Thus, what do the old ways look like in practical terms? This one-page article offers an short, clear, summary of how the 5,000 or so sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad are being interpreted by these strict believers:

In some matters this makes life easy. One should obviously eat with the right hand only, as Muhammad reportedly did. Men should grow beards. Women should cover up. And one should abhor such “innovations” in Islam as Shiism and also Sufism, with—in Salafist eyes — its silly rituals and unhealthy adulation of sainted leaders. Yet choosing which 1,400-year-old saying to apply, or which venerable act to follow, is not always easy. This is particularly so when it comes to the ever-changing intricacies of politics.

For instance, whereas one of al-Qaeda’s better-known tactics has been suicide-attacks, plenty of Salafist scholars condemn the act of suicide itself as an abomination. Some rejected the uprisings that overthrew the “infidel” rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, just because they were sparked by the suicide of Muhammad Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor. Other Salafist preachers agreed with Saudi Wahhabists that it is a sin to go against the wishes of any ruler. But more pragmatic Salafists embraced the Arab spring as a God-given opportunity.

The experience of Egypt’s Nour Party is telling. Though educated, city-dwelling Egyptians were shocked by the success of a party founded only last year, Nour has built on a tradition of Salafist sermonising and mosque-building that goes back a century. Long popular among the poor for their uncompromising views, Salafist preachers had lately been boosted by a surge in private cash from the Gulf. This financed not only fancy websites and some two dozen satellite TV channels, but also a network of charities rivalling that of the milder-mannered Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, Economist readers will not be surprised at this tide of information — backed with few if any specific attributions from sources. That’s a problem, from my point of view, but the publication speaks with this kind of authoritative voice and its readers accept that.

Clearly, if would be easy for other newsrooms to back up this kind of reporting with a wide, balanced array of sources linked to names and titles. The American model of the press is a plus, when doing that kind of work.

The article goes on to show, in practical terms, what Salafist faith looks like today. There are glimpses of Salafist hypocrisy as well.

It’s very basic, informative material. It’s also the kind of reporting that one rarely sees about the divisions and complexities that exist inside the Muslim world. Non-Muslims need to know more about this complex reality, in order to make sense of some of the world’s conflicts. This is what journalism is supposed to do.


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