Friday, 7 June 2013

You Say Potato and I Say Muslim Brotherhood

Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood: what is the difference? blog  

For western lay people, it can be hard to distinguish one radical Muslim from another.  What is the difference between Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood?  Are they really all that different?  And why do Western governments seem to favour and even partner with Brotherhood-backed groups, but denigrate Salafis?

The 2011 People’s Assembly elections in Egypt focused the world’s attention on the Salafis when they proved to be the ‘dark horse’ of that poll, winning 25% of the seats.  This, together with the Muslim Brotherhood’s 47%, gave Islamists  almost three quarters of the seats in the Assembly. How do these two powerful Islamic groups compare?

Today the Brotherhood and Salafis also figure prominently in reports from Syria.  Both brands of Islamists field rebel forces in Syria, and Brotherhood leaders dominate the Syrian National Council, which has been recognized by the Arab League and some UN states as the legitimate representative of Syria.

Often in the past Western politicians have made the mistake of dismissing the Salafis as marginal extremists, while being all too willing to lap up the Brotherhood’s propaganda about their democratic credentials.  A good example was David Cameron’s statement in Parliament this past weekconcerning the Syrian National Council, as he sought to downplay any suggestion  that the conflict in Syria had a religious basis:

“When I see the official Syrian opposition I do not see purely a religious grouping; I see a group of people who have declared that they are in favour of democracy, human rights and a future for minorities, including Christians, in Syria. That is the fact of the matter.”
As troubling as Cameron’s ignorance about Brotherhood ideology appears to be, even more disturbing is his intent to forward military support to rebel groups, at the very time that a report has come from Syrian refugees ofethnic cleansing measures being enacted by Islamist rebels against the Syrian Christian minority.

This past week evidence has also emerged that among the insurgents who attacked the American Embassy in Benghazi in September 2012 were Egyptians, captured on video saying that ‘Dr Morsi sent us’.  Yet Dr Morsi, the Brotherhood President of Egypt, is claimed by the US as an ally, and Brotherhood operatives have had long-standing high-level access to and support from the US Government.


Salafism is a movement which emphasizes close adherence to the model of the Salaf or ‘predecessors’.  These were the first few generations of Muslims. To understand Salafism, one needs to grasp why the model of the Salafs is important to Muslims.

In normative Islam it is an article of faith that Muhammad is the ‘best example’ for other human beings to follow (Sura 33:21).  As a result a great many features of Islamic practice go back to what Muhammad did and said.  For example, conservative Muslim men grow beards precisely because Muhammad commanded this again and again: for example he stated that he would have nothing to do with men who shaved their beards; he gave specific instructions to men to let their beard grow; and he commanded his followers to be different from non-Muslims precisely in this, that they should not shave their beards.
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What is called Wahhabism — the official religious ideology of the Saudi state — is a form of Salafism. Strictly speaking, ‘Wahhabism’ is not a movement, but  a label used mainly by non-Muslims to refer to Saudi Salafism, referencing the name of an influential 18th century Salafi teacher, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

Salafis themselves do not like being called Wahhabis, because to them it smacks of idolatry to name their movement after a recent leader.  Instead they they prefer to call themselves Ahl al-Sunnah “People of the Sunna”.
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The Muslim Brotherhood has stated on its own website that it is a Salafi movement. Although this self-description would not be accepted by others, like the Salafis themselves, the Brotherhood is also a reform movement, which shares the agenda of strict adherence to the example and teaching of Muhammad.

This agenda is reflected in a speech given by President Morsi of Egypt where he emphasizes that “the Koran is our constitution, the Prophet Muhammad is our leader, jihad is our path, and death for the sake of Allah is our most lofty aspiration...sharia, sharia, and then finally sharia.  This nation will enjoy blessing and revival only through the Islamic sharia.”

Where the Brotherhood differs is in its strategy for facing the challenge of modernity.  Influenced by the teaching of Sayyid Qutb, it adopted a strategy for reform which engages strategically with the modern world and develops policies which engage with modernity in every dimension of life.

The Brotherhood is more deceptive in language and appearance than Salafis.  Salafis tend to be separatist and can give the impression of being focused upon personal religious piety, which separates them from those who do not share their beliefs.  Salafis also tend to speak using pious religious jargon, making few concessions to the communicative norms of others.  This is mirrored in their manner of dress, which concedes nothing to secular fashion sense.
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