Amid all the considerable political and media noise about foreign NGOs in Egypt and excitable discourse of interference in Egypt’s affairs, there is rather less attention to the arguably far greater foreign intervention represented by Salafism.
This is not an original observation on my part. Secular and liberal-minded Egyptians say it. But their voices are not loud in parliamentary debate or the state-dominated media. Salafism is largely alien to Egyptian society, long a minority tendency but recently grown more significant due to funding by Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar, by means of support for radical preachers including airtime on transnational and local television channels.
Similar processes are underway, although with a much more recent history and more limited social reach, in Tunisia. This has been thrown into relief by the visit to Tunisia of Egyptian Salafist preacher Wagdy Ghoneim. Many in Tunisia have reacted strongly and negatively to his visit and message. In particular, his advocacy of female genital mutilation (FGM), a dangerous practice unfortunately widespread in Egypt and some other parts of northeastern Africa (among people of all religions), but hitherto unknown in the northwest (Maghreb) has produced outrage. Protests have disrupted his preaching events in various parts of Tunisia. The Tunisian Ministry of Health has publicly warned against FGM. At least one legal case is reportedly underway to shut down his activities.
In an interview this morning on the business-focused Express FM radio station, Mustafa Ben Jaafar, President of the Constituent Assembly responsible for drafting Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution, responded to a question about Ghoneim briefly and rather dismissively: (I paraphrase) Tunisia is a diverse society and open to all sorts of influences, and Ghoneim is free to come and say what he will. But one must recognize this for what it is – alien interference.
Salafism may be too widespread now in parts of Egypt, and (at least temporarily) too politically powerful for leading political figures to call it out in this way. Criticism of Saudi Arabia has long been a red line for much of the media there due to its financial as well as political clout. But one can hope that if Egyptians feel empowered by their revolution to question the political forces that have been shaping their society, such as questioning the costs of accepting US and other western aid, that they will begin in larger numbers to question also the decades-old attempt to Salafize them.
(I recognize that ‘Salafize’ is almost certainly not a real word. It should be. It is now.)