There are worrying signs that Salafist jihadism movements in the Arab world are suddenly regrouping and relaunching themselves on the scene in the wake of popular uprisings that have been sweeping the region.
The execution of Italian peace activist, Vittorio Arrigoni, in Gaza last week by a Palestinian jihadist group has dealt a heavy blow to Hamas' rule and authority. The killing of Mr. Arrigoni has focused attention on the rise of Salafist jihadist groups in Gaza and elsewhere.
Gaza Premier Ismail Haniyeh ordered a criminal investigation into the killing and vowed to hunt down the perpetrators. "This is an unprecedented case and it won't be repeated,” he said. But it is not the first time that Hamas has had to crack down on such groups.
In the Jordanian city of Zerqa on Friday, hundreds of militant Salafists confronted police and other protesters using bats, knives and daggers. More than 80 people were injured, some of them seriously, the majority of them members of the public security. It was the bloodiest confrontation after weeks of mostly peaceful protests by Jordanians from all walks of life who were demanding political reforms and an end to corruption.
Jordan's Interior Minister Saad Srour said the attack on the police by the jihadists was tantamount to an act of terrorism. Jordan's Prime Minister Marouf Al-Bakhait warned that the government would use harsh measures to confront these dark forces.
Political observers have warned that Salafists have become active in Egypt in the aftermath of the popular revolution which deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last February. There are signs that Egyptian Salafists are changing their ways by becoming more active politically. When the Higher Military Council in Egypt appointed a Coptic governor in Qinna last week, thousands took to the street in protest. It is believed that militant Salafists were behind the protests.
Moderate Salafists have been around for centuries. They follow the teachings of conservative Muslim scholars, such as Ahmad ibn Hanbal and ibn Taymiyyah. Basically Salafists follow the strict commands of the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah, the ways and traditions of the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions.
But in the last decades a school of Salafists, who support jihad and consider other Muslims — moderates, liberals, secular — as apostates has emerged. It evolved in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the late 1970s and later spread to the rest of the region, including the Arabian Peninsula, North and East Africa and even to Europe as volunteers returned home.
Moderate Salafists were generally tolerated by Arab governments since they were perceived as innocuous groups focused on their religious practices while shunning politics. Most Salafists believe in obeying rulers and prohibit rising against them. Regimes allowed them to survive as a counterweight to the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and to ward off Shiite proselytizing. But the rise of Al-Qaeda in the 1990s under Osama Bin Laden has changed the inner workings of some Salafist groups. After 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by America and its Western allies, jihadists began to grow in numbers as ultraorthodox dogma appealed to young and disenfranchised Arabs and Muslims across the world.
The war on terror has seen many battles being waged against Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups of Salafist jihadists. Local leaders were rounded up in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Algeria and other countries. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the showdown continues and in Somalia a military standoff and chaos have kept the jihadists in control of vast areas of the war-torn country including the capital.
Meanwhile, various jihadist groups have emerged in places like Lebanon and Gaza, often clashing with the sitting government. Even in Europe, some of these groups have become active claiming to be defending their faith or vowing to fight the "infidels" in faraway countries such as Afghanistan. Jihadist groups are active in Pakistan, India, Indonesia and others. These radical movements have managed to spread their dogma effectively and are still able to attract new recruits.
Overall and according to scholars, Salafists, both moderates and militant, make up a small percentage of Muslims around the world. In Jordan it is believed that only a few thousands belong to both, in Gaza their numbers are in the hundreds. Some Gulf countries have reportedly been successful in reindoctrinating thousands who recanted Al-Qaeda and its ways.
But the eruption of popular uprisings in the Arab world is changing the rules. In Libya, the West is worried that arming the anti-Qaddafi rebels may boost Al-Qaeda combatants who may infiltrate the country from neighboring Sudan, Mali, Algeria and Chad. In Egypt, there are worries that the Salafists may push to radicalize the country and ignite Muslim-Copt frictions through poisonous fawas, as they call for the imposition of Shariah law.
The problem, for liberal and pro-Western individuals and governments, is that it is difficult to draw a line between moderate and jihadi Salafists in the long run and as the Arab world is being transformed. It is an issue of strict doctrine and rigid discourse and how they may contradict the values of democracy and pluralism as the basic tenets of reform — the common demand of millions of Arabs who have taken to the streets. The same fears surround the Muslim Brotherhood, which is about to play a major role in Egypt's future, as it does now in Jordan. Can these movements be trusted to adhere to democratic values once they have a taste of power?
While moderate Salafist figures have denounced the jihadists and their violent ways, the issue of fundamentalist Islam is once again on the table. It is now a matter of confrontation between forces of democratic change through peaceful means in the Arab world and a conservative religious movement that is making its presence felt on the political scene.
Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Article written for Arab news