Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Evangelical-Islamist Encounters, Part II: Dialogue with Islamists and Salafis

Chris Seiple


October 12, 2012

By Chris Seiple

This is the second in a series of articles examining the political challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa.

In Part I, I argued that American foreign policy in the MENA region must allow for constructive dialogue with both Islamists and Salafis as they seek to participate in their own emerging democracies. 

In the West we tend to group Islamists and Salafis together. Certainly, both groups are present throughout MENA, and both seek an “Islamist” state—which is open to a broad range of interpretations, from the potentially good (see Tunisia, to be explored in greater detail in Part III) to the bad (see Benghazi attack). Yet, while all Salafists are Islamists, not all Islamists are Salafist.

The first distinction is theological: Salafis are focused on how to live the applied Islam of Mohammed and his companions during the first century of Islam. Theirs is a strict Puritanism that is particularly appealing to the more rural and less educated, if only because their day-to-day experience is most similar to Islam’s origins in the 7th century.

For example, when the Institute for Global Engagement’s small delegation met last month with 19 Salafis from Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Qatar, with the exception of one, none of them had ever discussed issues like political participation; they had never met Christians, let alone evangelicals; and they had never met Americans, let alone a Muslim from America. In almost every comment they made, well-intentioned or otherwise, it was evident that they had but one point of reference for engaging the world: their understanding of Islam. 

The second difference is political. For example, in Egypt, although Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) fought and were imprisoned by the dictatorial regime of the past 60 years, they increasingly found ways to work with it—e.g., MB members served in the Egyptian Parliament during the Mubarak era. When the revolution came, MB helped lead the way, taking advantage of the deep organizational capacity it has had in Egypt since its 1928 founding.

On the other hand, Salafi groups across the region had foresworn politics and political organization throughout the time of dictators, seeking to remain theologically pure by not working with the governments in any manner. (Many paid a high price and were jailed and tortured.)

When the Arab Spring came, the Salafis had no political organization and did not participate in the regional revolutions. Threatened with the loss of credibility as other Islamists like the MB began to shape the political arena, Salafists formed several political parties across MENA in the aftermath of the revolutions. Most prominent among them is the al-Nour party in Egypt, which won 24 percent of the vote during Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections. 

In this context, and despite some ad hominem vitriol regarding American policy in the MENA region, the Salafis whom we met last month asked some great questions, including:

• How do you engage your own government without compromising your theological values?

• When you do engage, do you seek to make your government more religious?

• How do evangelicals engage politics without becoming corrupted by them?

• How is faith used to legitimize politicians?

• How do you build political coalitions?

We had traveled quite a bit, geographically, just to get there; given their context, however, the Salafis traveled a bit more, conceptually, to even meet us. And I applaud them for it.

So how do “we” talk to “them”? I am no expert, but I’ve learned two things in talking with Islamists/Salafis. Don’t use the word “secular.” It often gets translated as “godless,” a state of being that is absolutely and utterly inconceivable to the Islamist mind. Second, understand that Islamists inherently have difficulty with “democracy” because it is often defined as the sovereignty of the people. Again, such an idea is to insult the sovereignty of God. So how to walk in their shoes while being unabashed about “our” values?  

In my experience with Islamists in Pakistan, Syria, and now the MENA region, I have found it both imperative and ironic that if one speaks from the core of his/her faith tradition, the more likely it is that a practical bridge of dialogue can be built. For example, I stress that I am not a theological “moderate”: I believe in one God and one way to heaven…a different way than theirs.

That said, I am politically mainstreamed as a believer—accepted and integrated into both society and state—because our model of democracy, to my mind, is based on the sovereignty of God. Only God gives freedom, I explained, and it is the choice of those He has created to provide a governance structure that protects freedom, especially the freedom of those who hold different theological and political opinions than the mainstream. (Invariably, I also give a brief American history lesson, explaining the difference between 17th century Massachusetts and Roger Williams’ Rhode Island.) While many questions ensue, understanding democracy as part of God’s will can be a useful starting point.

In short, if we live out our beliefs—even across irreconcilable differences—we will be respected for them, creating a space for constructive conversation. Such an approach is not a panacea, but without it, there is no chance for peace.

—Chris Seiple is the President of the Institute for Global Engagement

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