- Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity
Salafism is not a single phenomenon, although it is often treated as a unified movement with branches emerging in many countries. As scholars and policymakers have gained interest in Salafi groups, particularly since the beginning of the Arab uprisings and Salafi participation in elections in Egypt and Tunisia, papers and policy studies have emerged that draw heavily on a small number of published sources but seldom expand our knowledge. Most, in fact, rehearse the narrative that Salafism (in the singular) has spread its extremist ideas from Saudi Arabia, where it originated, throughout the Muslim world. In many instances, this diffusion of the movement is directly linked with efforts of the Saudi state to spread “its” brand of Islamism, particularly to combat the supposed spread of Shi‘ism’s strength in places like Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. Substantive scholarly work, however, has been in short supply, particularly given that the movements associated with Salafism do not have the sophisticated public relations machine of so many branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. Laurent Bonnefoy’s path-breaking Salafism in Yemen is the work of four years of field research, including careful review of hundreds of publications and sermons by and about Salafis in Yemen. The work is remarkable for its depth of knowledge about various strands of the movement in Yemen, but it also draws out important patterns concerning the interaction of state and non-state actors, the diffusion of ideas, and how perceptions of the local and the foreign can play out politically in diverse locales and transnational discourses.
Dr. Bonnefoy was trained in international relations, so his point of departure concerns questions about transnational flows and the relationship of national and foreign governments to local politics. This is a refreshing start for a book on Islamist movements, as most studies engage either social movement theory or debates about the effects of political inclusion or exclusion on specific Islamist groups. Bonnefoy starts, instead, by describing the history and geographic dynamics of the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. He provides a rich background against which the “spread” of Wahhabi Salafism from Saudi Arabia emerges not as a case of an exported ideology, but rather as a tapestry of local norms and practices shaping and being reshaped [End Page 750] by engagement in transnational religious discourses. Across Yemen, various locales are characterized by their own rich histories of religion and politics. People engage with neighboring regions, traders passing through, and national governments (as well as the various efforts to challenge them) in a range of social and religious fields. Bonnefoy’s rich detail about precisely these multiple encounters demonstrates that models of foreign ideologies being aggressively exported — the supposed explanation for the spread of al-Qa‘ida influence in parts of Yemen — are wrong. Such models deny local actors a role in responding to the flow of ideas, shaping them and interacting with them in ways that defy simple characterization as “local” or “foreign.” What is particularly exciting about this book is not that it provides us with a new model for understanding what Salafism is, but that it reveals that efforts to characterize Salafism as an ideology that has spread like a disease entirely miss the mark.
While the theoretical framework is innovative and very promising for comparative studies, the book’s careful empirical detail of Salafi movements and ideas in Yemen is unmatched in any language. This book is essential reading for those interested in Yemeni politics or Salafi movements more generally, but it should also find a place in broader debates about Islamist movements, discourses, and ideas.
Dr. Jillian Schwedler is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.