What is Salafism and should we be worried?
Briefing: Salafi violence is on the rise across the Arab world, but who are these fundamentalists?
The burning of two Coptic Christian churches in Cairo, and recent events in Syria and Gaza, have drawn attention to Salafism – a little known branch of Islam. Salafis appear to be both dangerous and extremist. But what do they actually believe in, and should we be worried?
WHAT IS SALAFISM?Salafis are fundamentalists who believe in a return to the original ways of Islam. The word 'Salafi' comes from the Arabic phrase, 'as-salaf as-saliheen', which refers to the first three generations of Muslims (starting with the Companions of the Prophet), otherwise known as the Pious Predecessors.
WHAT DO SALAFIS BELIEVE?The 100-year-old Sunni-based Salafi school of thought aspires to emulate the ways of the Prophet Mohammed. Recognisable from their distinctive long white robes, long beards and flowing head scarf, Salafis are socially and religiously conservative.
Although they believe in a unified Islamic state and Sharia law, they are not always politically radical, because they regard political involvement as un-Islamic.
That said, Salafism encompasses a huge range of beliefs - extending from non-violent religious devotion at one extreme, to Salafi Jihadism at the other.
HOW POPULAR IS SALAFISM AROUND THE WORLD?Salafism offers what many see as a purer form of Islam, stripped of cultural and national associations. This, coupled with its traditional lack of political involvement, makes it especially popular with new converts.
It is the predominant form of Sunni Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, where most people are Wahabis, subscribing to a far-right interpretation of Salafism. In Egypt, around 5-6 million of the 82 million population are believed to be Salafis. It can also be found in Britain, where Salafism is apparently increasingly popular in universities.
WHY ARE WE SUDDENLY HEARING ABOUT SALAFISM NOW?
In the last few months, Salafis have been receiving an unusual amount of press due to their growing involvement in politics. Usually opponents of the regimes they live under (but for different reasons than those of the pro-democracy protesters), they are slowly beginning to use the Arab Spring to their advantage.
Following the toppling of president Hosni Mubarak, Salafi groups in Egypt have been responsible for a number of violent attacks on Coptic Christians.
Before the burning two churches at ther weekend, Salafis have been responsible for a death during a clash with a Christian alcohol shop owner, while another fight with a Coptic Christian led to his ear being cut off.
In Jordan, recent protests in Zarqa saw around 350 hardline Salafis take to the streets to demand the imposition of Sharia law. Violent clashes led to 83 police offers being injured.
In Gaza, a Salafi group called Tawheed and Jihad claimed responsibility for the brutal kidnapping and murder of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni, claiming he had spread "corruption".
how organised are the salafis?They have no coherent policy or ideology and there is no governing body to control various Salafist elements either in Egypt or elsewhere. As a result, there is a wide range of Salafist movements pursuing various agendas, and they are accountable to no-one. It is this that makes them potentially dangerous.
A recent documentary on Muslims extremists in Britain, Muslim Resistance, looked at a Salafi group in Luton. The film-maker Masood Khan insists that most Salafis have spent the last 20 years "trying to persuade Muslims not to get involved with [extremist] groups".
But Dr Ghayas Saddiqui from the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain told The First Post that there was "no moderation in [the Salafis'] approach". He added: "It is a very strict interpretation of Islam, and their attitude to both non-Muslims and Muslims who are not with them is very harsh." ·