The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Saudi Arabia is trying to contain the spread of Salafism. It won’t work.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is acting too late to stop the most radical ideas in Salafism from spreading abroad. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
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Months before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his anticorruption drive against billionaires, he first silenced, detained and, in some cases, imprisoned, members of the kingdom’s religious elite: Salafi clerics who have vast numbers of adherents throughout the Middle East and North Africa for their media campaigns against Shiite Muslims and their determination to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unseated. The prince banned their television programs and censored the Twitter accounts they use to reach millions of followers. One reason for this campaign is that many Salafists oppose his reform agenda, which is both highly nationalistic and socially liberal. Another reason is that as the crown prince exerts more control over how Islam is interpreted, he wants to dial back inflammatory rhetoric, particularly about Syria, that helps to spread extremism.

But the horses have long since left the barn. While the crown prince may be able to change the tone inside the kingdom, the imams’ view of Shiites is now copied by followers throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds who do not see Shiites as real Muslims; it is now far too widespread to undo. From Egypt to Lebanon to Jordan and Tunisia, many orthodox Sunni Muslims believe that Shiites are determined to convert Sunni societies to Shiism. Sectarian discourse, in fact, has become the chief mobilizing factor in the Middle East, thanks in large part to Iranian expansionism in Syria and Iraq. Without Saudi Salafists driving the argument, others around the world will surely step up in their stead.

One silenced Saudi, Mohammad Arefe, who has nearly 21 million followers on Twitter, is revered by Salafists and other types of Islamists throughout the region. In June 2013, he tweeted: “The relationship between Hezbollah [the main Shiite force in Lebanon, funded by Iran] and Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei is to spread Shiism in the [Sunni] Arab world.” Earlier, he said that Shiites murdered Sunnis in Iraq in terrible ways: “They would use the most severe torture methods against them. They would kidnap a child, boil him in water, skin him like a sheep, and then, they would bring him on a platter, wrapped in a cloth, and when his family uncovered the platter, they would see this . . . boy.” Arefe was detained and questioned in September, then freed. Perhaps he is considered too powerful to penalize permanently. But he is no longer speaking online on Shiites, the war in Syria or politics in general.

Another famous Salafist whom the Saudi crown prince censored is Adnan al-Arour, who is from Hama, Syria, but who moved to Saudi Arabia about 20 years ago to join the campaign against Assad. He has sharply curtailed his media and digital presence since March 2017, and his Saudi TV program was taken off the air. He has more than 3 million Twitter followers.

In the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where one of the authors of this article interviewed Salafist leaders between 2013 and 2016, many looked to Arefe and Arour as mentors; they retweeted the men’s animosity toward the Shiites and said the funding for rebuilding some Salafi mosques in Lebanon came from Saudi sources. Some even went to fight in Syria along the rebels on the basis of the ideas of Arefe and Arour.

Salafism in the region has been growing more popular for decades and appears to have adherents well into the millions. It has multiple branches, varying from jihadi Salafism (its adherents advocate violence) all the way to Taqlidi (scholarly and educational) Salafism.

The most common strain is the salafiyya dawwiyya, or evangelizing Salafists, who are divided between those who believe in participating in politics and those believe they should abstain. After the Arab uprisings, the number of “politicos” significantly increased; they want a say in their countries’ futures.

Over time, beginning in the 1980s, Salafism went beyond being just a religious school of thought. In countries such as Egypt, Salafists leveraged a vast network of mosques and nonprofit organizations to provide social services to the public. Social and philanthropic work is what allowed one Salafi political group, the Nour Party, to win approximately one-quarter of the seats in the 2011-2012 Egyptian parliamentary elections.

In Tunisia, Salafists became involved in politics and established two political parties in 2012. In Libya, a Madkhaly Salafist group came to life in 2014 — identified with Saudi Sheikh Rabie al-Madkhali — to provide religious justification for the policies of Gen. Khalifa Hifter, the commander of the Libyan national army whose forces control large parts of the country.

Politically, Salafism became a mobilizing force for people to counter authoritarian regimes as well as Iranian revolutionary expansionism. And Iran appears more expansionist than ever. Even if influential Saudi Salafists are silenced for the foreseeable future, the conditions responsible for their power and influence will continue to be relevant.

The most important thing about Salafism may be the durability of its main concerns: The conflict in Syria shows no signs of resolution. Sunni-Shiite tensions in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq and Syria are escalating. And the democratization of the Sunni clergy over the past 30 years — anyone who declares himself to be an imam can be considered an authority on the faith and attract his own local or digital following — means that it will be almost impossible for the kingdom to control Salafi clerics beyond its borders.

Inside Saudi Arabia, the crown prince is likely to overcome any serious opposition to his maneuver from the religious establishment. But one thing is certain: Even if the silencing severs the relationships between the Saudi mentors and their clerical proteges in the region, Salafism, particularly political Salafism, will continue

Whether Madkhalya (known as part of the nonviolent Saudi Salafi school), Harakya (active Salafism), or even members of Alexandria’s Salafist Call (a nongovernmental organization that offers social services and religious education), Salafists in countries such as Egypt have strong and extensive relationships with their Saudi counterparts. Money and logistics are part of this relationship, but academic and religious guidance accounts for most of it.

Measuring the ripple effect of the new censorship is not an exact science. Scholarly Salafism does not generally encourage confrontation with Sunni rulers, which explains the relatively mute domestic response to the crackdown. Saudi Salafists may become apolitical as a result of the crackdown. Elsewhere, though, Salafist organizations have bridled. The president of the Turkish Endowment of Dawa and Brotherhood described the Saudi arrests of the Salafists “as a service to the Western project,” a reference to a supposed plot by the West to undermine Islam. The group demanded the immediate release of those detained.

Salafism took decades to develop, and while the Saudi moves may briefly hobble its progress, they cannot stop a transnational ideology that already has its own momentum.