Khalil el-Anani, an Egyptian scholar currently resident at Brookings, has just published an interesting analysis in al-Ahram Weekly, entitled "Salafis Ascendent in the Arab World":
Wherever you look in the Arab world, Islamist conservatism of the brand known as "Salafist" is gaining ground while moderates seem to be running out of steam. Even regional satellite television stations seem more interested in conservatives than in the mainstream or opposition moderates. Also, many social institutions have fallen into the hands of the Salafis.
Recently, the Salafist trend has widened its appeal to the Arab public. No longer confining themselves to their conventional preaching places, such as the mosque and home gatherings, conservatives are using hi-tech methods, including blogging and Facebook....
So why is the public lapping it all up? In my opinion, a major part of the blame rests with Arab regimes that have been clamping down on other relatively moderate political and Islamist options. The "scorched earth" policies of Arab regimes played a major part in the growth of the Salafi trend in the Arab world. Arab regimes have consistently repressed moderate Islamists, especially those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, in countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Jordan. For the past year or so, moderate Islamists have been relegated to a minor role in pubic life at best. The moderates are becoming marginalised, both intellectually and organisationally, and they seem to have lost all hope in ever becoming influential again.
The regimes tolerated Salafis, sometimes even encouraged them, at the expense of other politically active religious currents. This is true in Jordan, Egypt and Kuwait, among other places. Some regimes are actually fine with the rise of conservative Islam. For one thing, conservatives are not politically active, and therefore less of a threat to authorities. Also, ruling regimes hope to use conservatives to undermine moderate Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. The attitude of the Egyptian regime to the Muslim Brotherhood reminds me of the way president Anwar El-Sadat encouraged Islamists in order to undermine leftists, a course that turned out disastrous in hindsight.
I'm not sure why he includes the elevation of Himmam Said as guide of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood as an example - Said's a hawk, to be sure, but not exactly a salafi. At any rate, very interesting and worth the read.
I would pair Anani's article with a recent Islam Online article asking whether Yemeni Salafis would form a political party (written by a Yemeni author I don't know, Ahmed Mohammed al-Doghshi). Most discussion that I've seen of the rising salafi trend in Yemen has focused on extremism. This article describes a surging salafi trend fueled by the return of several old leaders and by changing internal dynamics, including some serious internal doctrinal and strategic debates. As in Kuwait, the possible move by salafis into the field of electoral politics would be quite an interesting ideological and political development. The article quotes several Yemeni salafist leaders who express deep skepticism about organized political work, in keeping with their usual norms, but also shows signs of rethinking on the part of others within the leadership.
So is Yemen another case of an Arab country with a declining Muslim Brotherhood-style movement (the Islah party) and a rising salafi trend? How would this matter, if it were? After all, Islah has long been a complex, internally divided movement which balanced a range of Islamist discourses - for instance, that of Abd al-Majid Zindani, who the US government thinks is an al-Qaeda supporter. I would love to hear from the Yemen followers out there what they make of this article, and of its description of the relative balance between Islah and the salafis. And everyone else feel free to weigh in on Khalil el-Anani's wider assessment.