I went to a conference yesterday hosted by the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies on the Salafi movements and political participation in the Middle East and Jordan. It was an impressive regional conference featuring both scholars of Salafism and Salafis themselves on multiple panels addressing the intellectual framework and diversity within the movement, Salafism and democracy, Salafis and minority rights, and a number of other related issues.
For a really good and short analysis of Salafists in Jordan, read this. And on the emergent prevalence of Islamists (a much larger category than the Salafi trend by itself) in Jordanian society more generally, take a look here.
The conference was particularly important because frank, intellectual, and practical discussions of Salafist political trends are rare in the region. It was enlightening to “hear from them, not about them.” Here and Here are a couple of news items about the conference (in Arabic). It was also really good for Arabic practice because the whole conference was in Arabic. There were headphones with live translation, but it was helpful to just listen to the Arabic and deal with a less precise understanding.
With that said, I was disappointed, perhaps expectedly, in the way the Salafists responded to direct questions about their views on very practical issues of politics and society. They repeated the importance of distinguishing between Jihadi Salafists (the violent ones) and the Quietists (of which they were self-ascribed). They called the Jihadis the biggest threat to Salafism itself and denounced their approach. Nonetheless, I heard a lot more about what these Salafis are not than what they are, as they took a rather defensive stance from the beginning.
Many people during the discussion period asked direct questions about the Salafis’ positions on women’s roles, human and minority rights, laws governing society, and other questions that invited clear responses on political and social vision; unfortunately, the responses were highly defensive (“Why are we required to provide details when liberals and socialists can give a general vision with stating details?”) or conversely offensive against liberal and secular programs (that ironically tends to produce many of the lawyers responsible for advocating the release of Salafis from prisons as prisoners of conscience). Ultimately, I think this inability or unwillingness to provide clear answers to important questions is a function of the Salafists moving from a state of thought to a state of practice under new political realities in the Middle East that allow their direct participation.
I also appreciated the format that allowed for a lot of audience participation and discussion, especially because the audience (seated in a U in a large banquet room) was composed of very knowledgeable people from academia, civil society groups, rights organizations, media, etc. I find that intellectual discussions here, while very professional and cordial, are also very honest with little “mincing words.” People are direct and I appreciate that.