Salafism is an ultra-conservative Sunni Islamic school of thought that exists on a broad spectrum – from politically passive quietists to jihadists. As a wider movement, however, and regardless of the alleged quietist nature of some of its followers, Salafism’s political players display traits that can also be found in other fringe political movements.
Many of the characteristics of an emerging movement known as the alt-right, or identitarianism in certain European countries, can be seen in contemporary Salafism. The alt-right is a collection of political views that typically reject mainstream or more centrist conservatism, making them significantly more radical conservatives. Ranging from right-wing populists to violent white racial supremacists, the movement has gained steam in both the United States and Europe. As this movement grows in influence, experiences in dealing with Salafism may also prove useful to dealing with the alt-right.
Both movements have their roots in previous thinkers and ideas. But critical thinkers that inspire both movements began to surface in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, both heavily influenced by colonialism. While thinkers such as Mohamed Ibn Abdul Wahab influenced the Salafis, thinkers such as Thomas Carlyle influence the alt-right movement. Both movements’ leading thinkers essentially came to exist in a time when relations between the West and the rest were characterised by a superiority-inferiority dynamic.
They’re also both at least partially opposed to Whig historiography, where the past is viewed as a part of a struggle towards ever-greater enlightenment and freedom. This is a core tenet of progressive, liberal thought.
Both groups also have strong reactionary elements, where identity is reinforced in response to a perceived attack on the identity or existence. The watershed “moments of attack” for both movements being the 1967 war and Arab nationalism for Salafism, and 21st century liberalism and the Syrian refugee crisis for the alt-right.
Both movements are distinguished by originating from what they viewed as oppressive political environments, and at times in which feelings prevailed in their respective societies that they were under external attack by a foreign power.
At the core of both ideas is a desire to return to an unattainable and historically false past. Salafis seek to return to one of religious purity, while the alt-right seeks a return to an ethnic or racial purity. Both groups would need nothing short of ethno-religious cleansing to realise their goals.
Control over women forms cornerstones for both movements, with both the alt-right and Salafists framing the woman as an object of power that must not fall into the opposing camp, and a collectivist asset for child production.
Conversely, many of both groups’ adherents engage in almost-identical sexualised attacks on feminist and/or leftist women on social media. The attacks that Salafis frequently engage in on social media against Saudi or other Gulf women’s rights activists, and attacks on feminist thinkers in the US are eerily similar. As emasculated movements at heart, they also frequently attempt to emasculate men who disagree with them on social media.
They both engage in fierce rhetoric against other religious groups and their symbols, such as Salafists opposing Christmas celebrations or alt-right supporters voicing opposition to mosque building.
But there are important differences. Both groups have differed in the scale of violence used. The alt-right has had far more of its members in the quietist than the jihadist camp, probably due to its ability to ascend via the ballot box rather than resorting to the gun. This may not be sustained, as a slowly growing jihadist camp is developing, with attacks such as Dylann Roof’s attack on a black church in the United States and increasing xenophobic attacks against Syrian refugees in Germany.
The political ascendancy of the alt-right also brings new risks, where the movement attempts to apply its ideas as it ascertains greater political control.
The experience with Salafism in Afghanistan and potentially Iraq suggests that should it gain control, the alt-right is likely to attempt to implement a radical agenda, fail, and resort to repression to justify and mitigate its failures. This is potentially the greatest risk that may arise from the movement, and perhaps the greatest lesson that our experience with Salafism can teach us.
Ahmed Al Attar is assistant director at the Delma Institute