Cosmo-Salafists in Europe and the Middle East

Salafism can be seen as a transnational movement; originating in the Middle East it has acquired a more global outlook with local characteristics in Africa, Asia, America’s and Europe. This of course fuels the discourse of the Middle East as a hotbed for radicals but less well known is that there is a reverse influence as well. Salafis from other continents travelling to the Middle East, usually for two main reasons:

  1. Study
  2. Hijra

Young men and women travel to the Middle East for Arab language courses and/or Islamic courses. The University of Medina in Saudi Arabia is a popular venue but not always easy to get in. Other countries also offer a variety of courses. In the past Syria has been very popular for such courses; it was relatively easy to get into the country and the course fees were low or in some case the courses were almost for free. People have different motivations for attending these courses: acquiring more knowledge about Arabic language and Islam, sometimes for personal use and within their family only but also sometimes in order to become one of the ‘daiya’ (one who practices da’wa) in their country of residence. Others use their time abroad as a period of time in which they can reflect on their current existence and contemplate on how they want to lead a more fulfilling and pious life. And probably other motives exist as well. Their stay abroad in this case is always temporarily; usually after a year (those studying in Saudi Arabia will stay longer) they return to their country of residence.

Hijra is the wish, or for some the command of God to Muslims, to return to the world of Muslims and to leave the home of the infidels. It is part of Islamic tradition but the interpretation of this command differs. Are there truly Islamic countries? Is the West in some ways not more Islamic than the countries in the Middle East? Nevertheless talk about the wish to migrate to a Muslim country is abundant but few really make the step. Popular venues in this case are, for Moroccan-Dutch Muslims, Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia although the latter is almost impossible. People expect life in those countries is easier for Muslims because Islam is embedded in daily life: one can hear the call for prayer, during the month of fasting many shops and restaurants are closed during the day and one expects they have to explain less about their lifestyle than they experience in the West. In some cases migration to the UK (in particular Birmingham, Leeds and Leicester) is seen as an alternative for or a first step towards ‘real’ hijra. Of those people who do make hijra to the Middle East, some of them return after a while. There are different reasons but often their experience in the Middle East is that they face a lot of difficulties adjusting to the culture of the country; they are more ‘Dutch’ than previously imagined or they did not prepare well enough. Other people develop some sort of ‘betwixt and between’ relationship with the West and the Middle East and travel back and forth several times a year. And of course there is a group who is perfectly happy in their new found residence and probably will stay.

As has been reported over the years there is a group of young Muslims who (try to) go to the Middle East to receive training for engaging in a violent jihad such as in Iraq. In almost all of the cases this proves to be much more difficult than they had anticipated and many of these travels fail or do not even begin. In a few cases however people succeed to reach the battleground and really engage in, what they see as, a fight for justice. Some of them die doing so, others may return after a while.

Now it is difficult to determine what and how exactly their influence substantiates but a recent article by Dutch journalist Alexander Weissink for NRC/Handelsblad newspaper (in DUTCH and in ENGLISH) provides with some clues, also about the response of the local authorities in the Middle East who usually keep an eye on these euro-salafists. – International – Features – Egypt suspicious of European language students

Young men with downy beards, caps, kneelength galabeyas and sandals sat chatting in a MacDonald’s restaurant in Nasr City, a large middle class district in the eastern part of Cairo. Women wearing concealing black garments and veils over their faces scurried around the small dusty streets between their apartments and the neighbourhood shops. They were not from here and they barely spoke any Arabic. Asking around revealed that every one of them came from Europe and most of them have North African roots.
Amidst the neighbourhood Egyptians, the European Salafists – Sunni religious fundamentalists – are outsiders. Ashraf (26), a Dutchman of Moroccan descent, came to Cairo a year ago. “To learn Arabic,” he said, “the language of my religion.” He had just visited the mosque, where many kindred spirits go to pray five times a day. A not-so-secret agent of the security service stood outside the mosque. The house of prayer is under surveillance. “We aren’t hurting anyone,” said Ashraf, whose apartment was recently searched. “We only come to study and pray.”

Apparently their is a risk of these import-salafists to become involved in illegal or even terrorist activities: – International – Features – Egypt suspicious of European language students

Most students are mainly centred on themselves and their faith, but some come here with firm opinions about Islam and call anyone who sees it differently an infidel,” the director said. “We try to teach them the language so they learn to understand the true message of the Koran, but they often look for trouble. They get in with a bad crowd, visit the wrong mosque and listen to the wrong sheik.

But let’s also not forget Egypt is not a very democratic country and has in the past had major crackdowns aimed against particular Muslim groups (often related to the Muslim Brotherhood). And it indeed is probably not a coincidence that the latest crackdown occurred just before president Obama’s visit to Egypt. – International – Features – Egypt suspicious of European language students

A number of students from France, Belgium and the United Kingdom for instance are suspected of involvement in a bomb attack in Cairo in February which killed a French tourist. The chief suspects – Dodi Hoxha, a French woman of Albanian descent, and Farouk Taher Ibn Abbas, a Belgian of Tunisian origin – have been subjected to heavy-handed interrogation since April, a diplomatic source reported on condition of remaining anonymous. Both studied at Al-Fajr, director Al-Gohari confirmed when asked.

The Belgian chief suspect reportedly confessed that he had been ordered to return to Belgium to prepare a bomb attack in Paris. Questions from this reporter about evidence were not answered. But an informal source in the Egyptian public prosecution department said the suspects had travelled from Egypt to the Gaza strip and became involved with extremist groups there.

Also in the past (as stated by Weissink) Egypt witnessed similar crackdowns in which European students (including one Dutch) were arrested and interrogated. One can only wonder about the role of the European intelligence and security services.

Egypt is important in this case since it seems to have replaced Syria as the most popular venue for studying Arab language and Islamic traditions. There are many schools, although the credentials are not always very clear, and certainly Cairo has a positive image as an easy to live in city. Most people I know who went there or are thinking about it, do not seem to have any violent intentions whatsoever. It would be interesting to record how these people experience their daily (religious) life over there, what they have learned from the whole experience when they return and what role (if any) they play in community life over there. Weissink’s article provides some clues but more research needs to be done about these transnational or even cosmopolitan citizens.

5 thoughts on “Cosmo-Salafists in Europe and the Middle East

  1. I think the recent shift from Syria to Egypt has to do with the current problems the Syrian government (says to have) experienced with these transnational students. The car bomb that exploded at the Mukhabarat-building September 2008 was also blamed on them, bringing ‘foreign’ terrorist ideas to Syria. Since then, Syria is totally closed for foreign students.

  2. About the fact that Syria is supposed to be closed for foreign students, than that is not in totality true. For I personally know some people who go for study there and are studying there.

    The second point I would like to add is, that Salafiyyah is a term that is used very unscientifically by most “researchers”, and they stick it to everyone who is claiming it, even some say that Osama bin Laden is a Salafi ?!

    The term is being used like the term “wahhabi” was being used in the past, so it is very saddening that researchers don’t learn from their mistakes, and keep coming up with cheap research. Maybe the deadlines are causing them to become hasty and unscientifically.

    • Abu Hudayfa,

      Needless to say I like to hear more about the people studying in Syria…;)
      Of course you have a point about the term Salafiyyah. There is an awareness that the term cannot be taken for granted and that one cannot just accept every claim. Nevertheless the distinction between groups applying this label is made but usually they tend to become self-evident. Indeed like the term wahhabi, or fundamentalists or radicals. I will write something about this in the future, not to decide who is a true Salafi and who is not (because that is not up to me) but to try to have some sort of working definition and working tool.

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