Violent protests across the Arab world triggered by a film insulting Islam could reflect the growing strength of Salafist groups that benefit from a widening freedom in Arab Spring countries, analysts say.
The Salafists, a group of Sunni Muslims who promote a strict lifestyle based on the traditions of early “pious ancestors”, have made a surprising surge in their influence, mainly in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
Although the majority of the Salafists are not violent, some groups now tend to believe in using force.
They have the “desire to create a balance of power in the street using the excuse of fighting the ‘violations of the sacred’,” said Jean-Pierre Filiu, a lecturer at Paris’ Science Po university.
Religious television channels broadcasting from Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Salafism, are seen as the force behind augmenting the numbers of Salafists across the Arab World over the past 20 years.
But although they have been kept under tight control in many Arab countries, some states have encouraged them in secret to “divide Islamists” and weaken mainly the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Basheer Nafi, senior researcher at Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies.
Other regimes, such as Syria, use the Salafist “scarecrow” and exaggerate their influence among armed groups as propaganda against popular uprisings demanding regime change in entrenched autocracies.
Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, a well-structured organisation that is very political, the Salafists assemble in small groups around influential clerics and are focused on defending the beliefs, according to experts.
“Their political discourse remains in a state of infancy, and socio-religious reforms remain their main priority,” according to Stephane Lacroix, the author of “Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia.”
Filiu argued that the term Salafists is widely used to “distinguish Islamists backed by Saudi Arabia from the Muslim Brotherhood,” adding that Qatar, which played a pivotal role in supporting Arab uprisings “is now more engaged with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Salafists are becoming more present in Arab countries where dictators who ruled with an iron fist have been removed by unprecedented uprisings.
In Libya, Salafists dared to destroy Muslim shrines, which they consider in violation of Islamic teachings, after strongman Moamer Kadhafi was toppled and killed last year.
Many of them have organised themselves in armed groups.
But a Salafist armed group named Ansar al-Sharia Brigade denied this week that it was involved in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, which killed four, including the American ambassador.
The attack took place as protesters targeted the US mission, angered by a film titled the “Innocence of Muslims,” excerpts of which were posted online, sending thousands across Muslim countries into the streets in protest.
In Tunisia, four protesters were killed and 49 injured as police clashed Friday with protesters, who appeared to be Salafists, attacked the US embassy.
Salafists were banned under the regime of ousted Tunisia president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who fled the country in January last year, bowing to the first uprising that triggered the Arab Spring wave of protest.
They are now divided into two branches: preachers who reject violence, and a jihadist line responsible for recent attacks on cultural events deemed in violation of Islam.
“A majority of Arab Salafists continue to reject meddling in politics” said Filiu, adding that they remain “ready to move violently” against an act they deem to be in violation of Islamic teaching.
And, they are more likely to indulge in excessive acts “in countries where they are not assimilated in politics,” such as Libya and Tunisia, according to Lacroix.
But in Egypt where the Salafist Al-Nour party is now deeply involved in politics, the group has opted to “moderate its discourse,” he added.
Salafists made a spectacular burst onto the political scene in Egypt, grabbing 25 percent of parliament seats in the first legislatives after the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak. They came second to the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to Nafi, the phenomenon will not last.
“The rise of the Salafists is a transitional phenomenon. Freedom and democracy will push them back to their real size,” he said.