Can a Salafist movement be democratic?

According to Terje Østebø,“[a]s an ideology, it [Salafism] originated in the province of Najd, present-day Saudi Arabia. It is ascribed to the teaching of Muhammed ibn Abd al- Wahab (1703-1792), who by forming an alliance with a tribal leader, Muhammed ibn Saud, managed to utilise his ideas as the ideological force for the unification of the local tribes and the establishment of the Saudi monarchy. Since then, Salafism has been the guiding ideology of Saudi Arabia, the very heart of Salafi Islam” (ibid: 466:).

Similarly Manuel Castelles argued that “The interpretation of Islam by al-Qaeda’s main leaders, bin Laden and al-Zhawahiri, was influenced by the fact that they were both Salafis.” He continue claiming that “Salafism emphasizes the multi-ethnicity and multinational character of Islam. It is an integrist version of Islam that places accordance to the divine law, expressed in the Salafi Dawah (the Call of the Salafis) as the only guide for people’s behavior and for the organization of society”. The phrase only has to be noticed as it is always such strictly defined and prescribed orders that stood against the establishment of democratic society and their free expression.

According to Castelles the tendency of totalitarianism is the natural result of an attempt to actualize the aims of Salafism. He contends that for Salafists “the ultimate goal of all human actions must be the establishment of God’s law over the whole of humankind, thus ending the current opposition between Dar al-Islam (the Muslim world), and Dar al-Harb (the non-Muslim world)”. (Castelles, 2010: 16). The line between the secular state and religious establishment is absent if not blurred and there is no space for different perspectives and forms of identification insofar as the whole process is a road of totality in only one line of thought and practice.Photo - Salafist Protesters in Tunisia

Hassan al-Banna, the founder and leader of Muslim Brotherhood, who was killed in 1949, once declared that ‘‘The Quran is our constitution, the Prophet is our Guide; death for the glory of Allah is our greatest ambition.’’ This statement clearly shows the political aspiration of the Movement and justifies the final form of human commitment, which is of course death in this case. It may be argued that it is not the political nature which is the problem rather its exclusivist and totalitarian claim that it holds.

In such line of thought lies all the possible acts of mental and physical elimination of the non-Muslim world i.e. the Dar- al Harb, Muslim in this case if defined as only the Salafist one, are justified in supra-human level. I am arguing that the begging of any form of totalitarian practice is the claim of ideational totality coupled with violent determination to realize it. It may be argued that, from a democratic point of view totalitarian claim may not be a problematic insofar as the claimant is in a position to respect the right of others to have their own form of idea, whether totalitarian or any other form. Above and over all there must be a supreme law, in the form of constitution that must be respected by everybody so that all crazy ideas got limits and an umpire to watch.

Ideational totality and certainty in ones position as perfectly correct that deserves absolute power and denouncing any deviation, as a thing to be destroyed is the introductory section of human tragedy. This is what history of many genocides, ethnic cleansings and similar acts of madness had thought us. The least possible impact would be tyranny over the mind of others, of course least for the perpetuator but unimaginable, in any sense of the term, to the victim.

Apart from the communal dimension, according to Castelles (2010: 16) the Salafists believe that “Only in the Umma can the individual be fully himself/herself, as part of the confraternity of believers, a basic equalizing mechanism that provides mutual support, solidarity, and shared meaning. On the other hand, the nation-state itself must negate its identity: al-dawla islamiiyya (the Islamic state), based on the Shari’a, takes precedence over the nation-state (aldawla qawmiyya). Due to the Universalist nature of the interpretation the Islamic State itself seems to be only a transitional period till the realization of the Global Islamic Community. Other forms of identity be it social, political or economic have no place, it is only the religious element which defines everything including your right to exist as a human being.

There is yet one important question to ask, why Salafism has become so powerful at this period of time. Superficially it may simply seem as a “clash of civilization” between the Judeo-Christian and the Muslim world. Such understanding is not only simplistic but also irrelevant. It is rather important to look in to the geopolitics and the underlying ideologies of our time seriously. In this regard I found Tibi’s wonderful analysis worth quoting. According to Tibi:

‘‘the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East is inter-related with the exposure of this part of the world of Islam to the processes of globalization, to nationalism and the nation-state as globalized principles of organization.’ Indeed, the explosion of Islamic movements seems to be related to both the disruption of traditional societies… and to the failure of the nation-state, created by nationalist movements, to accomplish modernization, develop the economy, and/or to distribute the benefits of economic growth among the population at large.” (Tibi 17)

If we take Tibi’s claim, the role Islamic identity is playing in the post Cold War order is just as a weapon to fight against ‘all the failed and possibly failing ideologies’. The failed attempts by socialist (such as left inclined Baathist governments) regimes in the Arab world in the past and the contemporary unfair capitalist system created the conducive environment for radical elements of the society to resort to a powerful instrument of mobilization that can be mounted against any sort of real or perceived threat. In this process, past history of incapable civilian governments and hopelessness of the mass with all attempted forms of state organization opens the door for ideologies claiming absolute solution with divine source that can easily capture the heart and mind of the youth.

Yosief stated that fundamentalists are lazy persons who are not able to cope with the objective demands of change required by modernization. In similar fashion the sociologist and philosopher Slavoj Zizek argued that fundamentalism starts when people are afraid of too much freedom and they escape in to some old traditional firm value to get some meaning and stability in their life. The conservative fear of new forms of existences and social relationship, according to this line of argument is a possible source of urge to desire for the ‘orthodox’ and ‘organic’ way of life. The capacity of radical ideas in terms of providing the mass with easy and definitive answers can explain the argument that fundamentalists are those who, to use Yosief’s phrase, ‘outsource their thinking’ and relieved themselves from the ‘pain of thinking’ at the same time.

Whatever may be the instigating factor, it can be argued that Salafism due to its inherent totalitarian and imposing nature cannot be a source of democratic way of human organization, both theoretically and empirically, except for the Salafists! History has thought us that Totalitarian ideas are precursors of genocide, ethnic cleansing, gender violence and all sorts of undemocratic establishments. Therefore, linking democracy with Salafism is the gravest mistake one can ever made.

*The author, Nahusenay Belay, is a lecturer and PhD Candidate at Addis Ababa University. He is Political Scientist by profession and can be reached via



1. Manuel Castells (2010 )The Power of Identity The Information Age Economy, Society, and Culture Volume II. 2010. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

2. Terje Østebø, Localising Salafism: Religious Change among Oromo Muslims in Bale, Ethiopia. 2009

3. Yosief  Ghebrehiwet “The Eritrean Oblomov: Loving Asmara the Superfluous Way” Accessed from 03/24/2014


Nahusenay Belay
About Nahusenay Belay (5 Articles)
Nahusenay Belay is a lecturer and PhD Candidate at Addis Ababa University. He is Political Scientist by profession and can be reached via

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