Salafists and sectarianism: Twitter and communal conflict in the Middle East

Geneive Abdo writes: The widening divide between Shi‘a and Sunni believers has become one of the most important factors in destabilizing the Middle East, and there seems to be no end in sight. The blossoming of the Syrian war into a full-scale sectarian conflict between Shi‘a and Sunni Muslims and its spillover into parts of Iraq and Lebanon has re-ignited a debate among U.S. policymakers and Western analysts over whether fundamental doctrinal differences or political rivalry and socio-economic grievances lie behind the conflict.

Although actors on both sides are driving this conflict, it is today’s Salafists who are proving to be the dominant standard-bearers of anti-Shi‘a discourse — not taking into account the violent jihadists, whose popular appeal and staying power have yet to be demonstrated despite some spectacular and headline-grabbing territorial gains and terrorist acts. The Salafist movement has shown itself adroit at exploiting opportunities to advance its rhetorical and theological positions amid the religious re-examination and outright contestation among religious subgroups sparked by the recent Arab uprisings and their successful challenge to existing institutions of power in the region.

At the heart of the resurgent Salafist movement is the seemingly sudden emergence of a compelling message of a return to the ideas and morals of the era of the Prophet Mohammad at the expense of Islam’s subsequent rich tradition of religious interpretation. Given that the uprisings occurred on the heels of a surge in Shi‘a power in both Iraq and Lebanon, the Sunnis were predisposed to feel threatened. The sectarian war in Syria has been pivotal in providing a narrative for both sides in answering the fundamental questions within the world of Islam: Who is a Muslim, and who gets to decide? Although these are age-old questions within Islam, the violence that has ensued since the Arab uprisings over these very issues threatens to redraw the map of the Middle East and create instability for years to come.

The conflict over resolving these two questions is both a Shi‘a-Sunni debate as well as an internal conflict among the different strands of Sunni thought. While some scholars and specialists argue that the root of the conflict is the result of weakening or collapsed states in the aftermath of the Arab rebellions, this study will open a much-needed window on one of the fundamental causes — if not the fundamental cause — of today’s violence: Islam itself is being revised in the midst of political upheaval in the Middle East. Jihadists, Salafists, Shi’a militias, and other non-state actors are actively trying to redefine Islam as they see it.

The following study focuses on rising Salafist players who are intimately engaged in the public debate — not the radical jihadists who are fighting in Syria and Iraq but the non-violent Salafists who are successfully using social media and other such platforms to express their negative views of the Shi‘a and, by association, the Alawites and Iran. They are using social media to take advantage of conflicts throughout the region in order to raise their public profiles and influence public opinion. Although much media focus and attention is devoted to the radical jihadists, those Salafists who do not condone violence also have an important role in the future of destabilizing the Middle East. Uncovering and understanding their subculture, and in particular their public discourse, is vital to prudent and responsible policy formulation.

Penetrating and engaging with the world of contemporary Salafism presents a number of challenges to the researcher. However, as this study will show, new social media technologies taking hold around the world, in particular Twitter feeds, can offer valuable insight into Salafist ideas and practice and help identify leading personalities, uncover important relationships, and reveal significant discursive trends. “Social media has revolutionized the way that the world has understood the Syrian conflict and how that conflict has been waged,” asserted a study published by the United States Institute of Peace. “Syria has been at the cutting edge of the evolution of new uses of social media and the Internet by political actors, insurgent groups, journalists and researchers.” As skeptics of the power of social media have noted, Twitter cannot inspire revolutions and did not create the Arab uprisings, for example. The political and social conditions for revolution or violence must be present and do not emerge from cyberspace. These same critics argue that individuals are responsible for creating the Arab uprisings, not the tools available to them.

Nonetheless, Twitter and other forms of social media have proven to be valuable tools in influencing events on the ground once they are already underway, creating an interactive discussion between those in cyberspace and the foot soldiers on the ground.

In her new paper “Salafists and Sectarianism: Twitter and Communal Conflict in the Middle East,” Geneive Abdo shows that chief among the central threads of Salafist discourse in Arabic is an abiding belief that the Shi‘a are not real Muslims, and are out to extinguish Sunni believers who, in the Salafist view, are the only true Muslims. [Continue reading…]

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