A protester holds empty tear gas canisters near Tahrir Square (Photo illustration by Foreign Affairs, image courtesy Reuters)
If the Arab Spring uprisings were an earthquake in Middle Eastern politics, last week was a major aftershock. The rumbling began in Cairo, where a satellite TV station run by Salafis played clips of an inflammatory film about the Prophet Muhammad. Soon after, Salafi religious leaders called for protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, blaming Washington for not censoring a film made in the United States. The pattern was repeated in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere. Although much has been made of the riots as a response to the film, they are more fundamentally about the nature of the post-Arab Spring regimes, and specifically about who gets to police public morality. Salafis across the region see themselves as the rightful guardians of the public sphere -- and are acting to ensure that others see them that way, too.
Although Salafis do not make up a majority of the population in any of these countries, they were able to set the political agendas there for the past week for several reasons. They punch above their weight because of the vast funding they receive from fellow travelers in the wealthy Gulf monarchies, particularly in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Each year, millions of dollars flow out of the Gulf and into Salafi charities and satellite channels like the one that touched off the riots. (By comparison, liberal NGOs receive far less support from the wealthy countries in the region.) Salafi leaders spend this money on social programs and proselytizing, handy tools with which to gin up votes or whip up anger at perceived slights to Salafism or Islam.
Indeed, most of the Salafi groups do not aspire to take over the state through violence or even elections -- their numbers are too small. Instead, they seek to use public anger to pull these states to the right. Where they have strong political and cultural institutions behind them, as in Egypt, they can do so through political pressure and shows of strength in the street. Where such institutions are lacking, Salafis instead use vigilantism or preaching to challenge the powers that be...