What’s a Salafi?

Cairo, Egypt

Last night there was an altercation in Mokattam, aka Garbage City, a largely Christian suburb of Cairo. It was reported in the paper that a mob of Salafi Muslims attacked some Christians. When Andrew mentioned this headline in our class on Islamist political movements, it changed the course of the whole lesson.

Our teacher was adamant that it couldn’t have been Salafis who attacked those Copts, and I found myself convinced by his arguments and what I know about Salafis. They’re academics, scholars of Islam and followers of a literal interpretation of the Quran and the Prophet Mohammad. They’re men who know not only exactly what the Quran and the Prophet say, but also understand the context in which those things were said. They understand that Islam is an Abrahamic religion that protects Christians and Jews, that advocates peace whenever possible, and abhors violence except in self defense. They are pacifists to a broad extent.

Moreover, they do not participate as a group in Egyptian politics. That is to say, they are not a united voting block behind any one party. A few vote with the Muslim Brotherhood, some with the National Party, some with the Wafd Party. Others don’t participate at all in the corrupt, immoral, un-Islamic government that has made a practice of oppressing Egypt.

The common explanation for this week’s violence is that the state newspapers’ use of the term “Salafism” is a smoke screen. Nearly everyone I’ve asked is of the same opinion: the so-called “Salafis” attacking Christians could only be thugs of the old security apparatus. This conclusion is fueled by the evidence uncovered during the days of the revolution that the church bombing in Alexandria was, in fact, orchestrated by the former head of State Security. It became evident during the revolution that reports of a “sectarian conflict” between Muslims in Christians in Egypt was not a reality on the ground, but rather a divide-and-conquer tactic of the Mubarak regime.

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