What is Salafism and should we be worried by it?

Jan 19, 2015

Salafi violence is on the rise across the Arab world - and may be gaining a dangerous foothold in Europe

In the days after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris, attention has focused on the rise of Salafism in Europe.

Salafism is described as "the fastest-growing Islamic movement in Europe" by Soren Kern of the New York Daily News. He accuses European leaders of failing to confront the rise of a dangerous ideology on their own turf. 

Germany's intelligence chief, Hans-George Maassen, says the number of active Salafists in his country has grown from 3,800 to 6,300 in three years, according to Deutsche Welle. 

Maassen says that most recruits are men aged from 18 to 30, with families from migrant backgrounds who have struggled to adjust to their new home. Salafism provides them with a sense of belonging and purpose, he said, "giving the impression that they will go from being underdogs to top dogs".

What is Salfism?

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.

What about the rest of the Middle East?

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Salafis received an unusual amount of press due to their growing involvement in politics. Following the toppling of president Hosni Mubarak, Salafi groups in Egypt have been responsible for a number of violent attacks on Coptic Christians. They burnt two Coptic Christian churches in 2011 and were 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. 

At about the same time in Jordan, during protests in Zarqa around 350 hardline Salafis took to the streets to demand the imposition of Sharia law. Violent clashes led to 83 police offers being injured. And 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".

Where else is Salafism growing?

Ouside Europe and the Middle East, Salafism is also on the rise in China. "Among China’s Hui ethnic group, Saudi-influenced Salafism has been present for nearly a century," reports The Diplomat. Salafism is confined to small pockets of the Northwest and Yunnan provinces, but in recent years the Chinese government has begun to keep closer checks on the group.

"Since the 1990s, and particularly following 9/11, the Chinese state has placed the Salafi community under close surveillance," The Diplomat says. The government fears that Salafism's "close connections with Saudi Arabia as well as presumed Uighur Salafi networks … might herald political and religious violence in the future"

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."

Sign up for our daily newsletter