Conservative Salafis Find Footing In Muslim World

As demonstrations continue through the Muslim world over the film mocking Mohammed, fingers have pointed at the Salafis and their role in the violence. The ultraconservative Muslim's influence has grown in recent years following the Arab Spring. Audie Cornish speaks with Robin Wright of the United States Institute of Peace.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Nearly a month before the latest protests erupted in some Muslim countries, Robin Wright published an op-ed in The New York Times under the headline: Don't Fear All Islamists, Fear Salafis. She described a new Salafi Crescent - as she wrote - one of the most underappreciated and disturbing byproducts of the Arab revolts referring to the Arab Spring. And Robin Wright, journalist, foreign policy analyst, joins us in the studio welcome.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Welcome to you.

CORNISH: So in the past week, Salafis have been connected to some of the protests, including violent ones in Libya and Egypt, and they've been described as extreme. But what's actually known about this group in terms of their ideology and the size?

WRIGHT: Well, the Salafis embrace a large spectrum of different groups. But the Salafis generally have been apolitical in the past. They were even willing to embrace the autocratic leaders who ruled in many countries, as long as they were Muslims. These are ultraconservative factions that want to take life - both political and personal life - back to the purity from the time of the Prophet Mohammed and the first three generations after his death in the seventh century.

And what makes them controversial is that when it comes to defining the new order in the Middle East, they want the greatest restrictions on the most sensitive issues, whether it's the role of Islamic law in a new constitution or the rights for women in 21st century society.

CORNISH: And you said that in the past, they might have been considered apolitical. How has that changed? Describe their influence now.

WRIGHT: Well, the Salafis really decided in the aftermath of the Arab revolts that they needed to be part of the political system. And they were very different from the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, in Egypt, which was 84 years old and had worked within the political system since really the end of the 1980s. They were a well-established political group.

The Salafis were really clusters of people organized around neighborhood sheikhs, and they mobilized into a party. Very kind of fragmented, not very organized when it came to a platform. But they did have an idea, and that attracted enough votes that the Salafis won 25 percent of the seats in Egypt's parliament.

CORNISH: So why are you describing it as a group to be feared?

WRIGHT: The Salafis are the most controversial because of their ideology which, in many ways, embraces some of the ideas of Al-Qaida in terms of the political goals: the attempt to take Islamic life back to the early years of the Prophet Mohammed, in wanting to rid many of their societies of any Western influence. The idea behind the democratic uprisings really was to empower. And many of the Salafis don't want to share power, whether it's with religious minorities or with women.

CORNISH: Now, other people writing about this have dismissed this idea as being alarmist and dispute the idea that is a force to be reckoned with. Others argue, even, that they're really a fringe group.

WRIGHT: Well, the Salafis in many countries are still a fringe group. In places like Tunisia, the numbers are comparatively small, but they are also disproportionately outspoken.

The Middle East is going through phase two of the transition. The first phase was ousting dictators. The second phase is defining the new order. And the Salafis, really, are becoming very outspoken in trying to determine what's next.

CORNISH: Robin Wright is a fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She's the author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World." Robin, thank you.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

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