The New Conservatives in the Arab World

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Salafis in Kuwait have won most of the National Assembly seats in the May 17 parliamentary elections. In Jordan the Muslim Brotherhood elected conservative Hammam Saeed as the new leader. He is the first Jordanian of Palestinian origin to hold such a high-profile position since the founding of the group in 1946.

In Egypt conservatism is still the dominant wing in the Muslim Brotherhood and it does not appear that there is a tendency to renew the group s blood and shake up the leadership in the top ranks or give an opportunity to the reformists.

In the Palestinian territories the hawks of Hamas are still dominating the movement, while the pragmatists remain outside the decision-making circle since the takeover of the Gaza Strip by the movement a year ago.

What does the rising conservatism in the Arab world reflect? Why does the popular mood in the Arab street seem to be tolerant to this trend?

There are many indications that the Arab world has entered into a new phase of neo-conservative thinking. One of these indications is the increasing growth of the Salafi discourse in the Arab world in form and content. Such growth is reflected in the popularity enjoyed by the icons of this trend in the Arab news media, as well as the social activity now practiced by some organizations and centers affiliated to the traditional Salafi trend.

Moreover, the Salafi trend has the capacity to develop its tools to communicate with the Arab street, away from the traditional means such as the mosque or in-house da wa (call and advocacy groups). They are making use of modern technology and electronic communication tools (blogs, Internet, Facebook).

I have met young Salafists straining every nerve to spread their ideas through the use of these tools. None of them, however, seemed inclined to change the content of these ideas, but they have a feeling that the time is right for the rise of the Salafi trend and that all tools must be utilized to permeate every section of society, to fill the vacuum and alter the feeling of frustration currently dominating the Arab street.

Perhaps there is no problem with the rise of the Scientific Salafi trend, especially since its role is limited to the revision and protection of religious heritage from distortion and misinterpretation. But the problem lies in the people s understanding of the Salafi discourse, which above all consolidates a sort of “subconscious isolation in Arab societies, and so that they become completely immersed in meeting the needs of the next life instead of taking interest in daily issues and problems. This is based on the conviction that we must surrender to tribulations that we must withstand until they disappear, rather than seek to change the status quo.

Secondly, it is a politically repugnant discourse since it rejects any social involvement in politics or public debate. It also gives metaphysical and short explanations of the devilish economic and social conditions burdening broad segments of many Arab societies.

Thirdly, it is a culturally obscure discourse that looks at the world from a perspective of faith vs. atheism, erecting a wall separating it from those it regards as intellectually and doctrinally wrong.

As for the second question, I think the reason behind the rise of neo-conservatives in the Arab world is the state of frustration dominating the Arab street because of the failure of the existing regimes to achieve political openness and giving an opportunity to other political trends to play an active role in the political arena.

Hence authoritarian regimes in the Arab world are benefiting from the traditional Salafi discourse that is opposed to any engagement in political action.

The last reason is the retreat of the role of reformists and moderate Islamists because of the repressive measures taken by Arab regimes against them as in the case in Egypt and Jordan, thereby reducing the chances of the spread of the reformist discourse to confront the Salafi one.

Khalil Al-Anani is an expert on Political Islam and is a Patkin Visiting Fellow at the Saban Center at Brookings Institution. E-mail: [email protected].

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