The outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 brought significant attention to groups -- known as Islamists -- seeking to establish Islamic states in countries once ruled by secular autocrats. The bulk of this attention went to already established political groups such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which caused consternation in the West when its Freedom and Justice Party won control of both Egypt's parliament and its presidency.
Much less attention was paid to the Brotherhood's principal Islamist competitors, members of the ultraconservative Salafist movement, despite their second-place finish in Egypt's parliamentary elections. This changed in late September when certain Salafists played a key role in the unrest in reaction to an anti-Islamic video posted on the Internet.
Since then, Salafism has become the subject of much public discourse -- though as is often the case with unfamiliar subjects, questions are vastly more numerous than answers. This is compounded by the rapidity of its rise from a relatively minor, apolitical movement to an influential Islamist phenomenon.
Origins and Goals of Salafism
Modern Salafism is based on an austere reinterpretation of Islam, calling for Muslims to return to the original teachings outlined in the Koran and the practices of the Prophet Mohammed as understood by the earliest generation, i.e., the Companions of the Prophet. From the Salafist perspective, non-Islamic thought has contaminated the message of "true" Islam for centuries, and this excess must be jettisoned from the Islamic way of life.
Salafists are a minority among the global Muslim population and even among Islamists. Unlike members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists do not belong to a singular organization. Instead, the movement comprises a diffuse agglomeration of neighborhood preachers, societal groups and -- only very recently -- political parties, none of which are necessarily united in ideology.
In many ways, Salafism can be seen as a rejection of the political ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. For most of the movement's existence, it shunned politics -- and thus Islamism -- in favor of a focus on personal morality and individual piety, arguing that an Islamic state could not exist without Muslims first returning to the tenets of "true" Islam. This means Salafism also was at odds with the concept of jihadism -- itself a violent offshoot of Salafism -- as practiced by groups such as al Qaeda that sought to use force to manifest their Islamist ideology.
The Salafist movement could also afford to stay away from political activism in large part because it had a political backer in the government of Saudi Arabia. While many Salafists didn't agree with some of Riyadh's policies, its historical role as the birthplace of Salafism and role as the patron underwriting the global spread of Salafist thought kept the movement within the Saudi orbit.
This remained the case until the 1991 Gulf War, in which Saudi Arabia was forced to allow some 500,000 U.S. troops into the kingdom to protect itself from Baathist Iraq, after the latter's brief occupation of Kuwait. The move caused an uproar over the religious legitimacy of allowing non-Muslim soldiers on what many consider to be holy grounds, and it also gave way to a wider debate about the political state of affairs of the Saudi kingdom. Prominent scholars began publicly calling for reform, which led to Salafists in general engaging in political discourse and, eventually, to the concept of Salafism as an Islamist philosophy.
Nevertheless, Salafists would not become a political force for another two decades, simply because it takes time for an apolitical religious movement to develop a political philosophy. At the same time, the Saudi leadership was rallying the country's religious establishment to contain these newly politicized Salafists. The 9/11 attacks and subsequent U.S. actions against jihadism further advanced Salafist thought as the sect tried to hold on to its core values amid U.S.-led international pressure for reform, distinguish itself from jihadists and come up with a viable political alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood.