Today’s LATimes reports that American “officials” fear that “radical Islamists could take root in Syria.” Their concern has been piqued by the Al Nusra Front, a militant Islamic group allied with al-Qaida that seeks to replace the Assad government with an Islamic state.
Almost two weeks ago, the Jerusalem Post reported a similar story. According to an Israeli think tank, “the Nusra Front presented a significant strategic threat” that would in two years secure a stronghold in Syria comparable to the one it took al-Qaida ten years to build in Afghanistan.
The Jerusalem Post says Al-Nusra Front is a Salafi group, the LA Times refers to it as “radical Islamicist group.” Are the differing formulations significant or is this a difference without distinction?
In a 2012 New York Times op-ed, Robin Wright, a longtime Middle Eastern correspondent, warned “Don’t Fear All Islamicists, Fear Salafis.” Wright noted Salafis, “ultraconservative Sunni” Muslims have made significant inroads since the Arab spring. Supporters of Islamic governance—not unlike Puritan colonists who looked to the Bible for political models—Salafis seek to establish societies that conform to shariah. In some countries, they’ve organized political parties; in others they lead military campaigns.
Like many religious purists, Salafis are opposed to most modern mores, including gender equality and GLBT rights. But they’re equally disinterested in human rights, democracy and personal liberty. Wright notes, “A common denominator among disparate Salafi groups is inspiration and support from Wahhabis, a puritanical strain of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia. Not all Saudis are Wahhabis. Not all Salafis are Wahhabis, either. But Wahhabis are basically all Salafis.”
Understanding the difference between Muslim traditions leads to awareness of the sociopolitical cleavages that are rending the Middle East. And knowing that the Saudi government has supported Salafis throughout the region makes a difference when thinking about geopolitics, diplomacy and American allies.