A lot has been said in the past few weeks regarding the relative success of the Salafist parties in the elections. Among the roughly five million articles written, there are the torrent of those reiterating the mild surprise story, as well as those reminding us that this isn’t actually surprising at all. On the implication of their electoral wins, there are those taking a broad view, laughing at Western fears by pointing out that this isn’t going to meaningfully change very much, and then those which, well, aim to do precisely the opposite, bludgeoning us over the head with the fear stick, careful to even throw in a few gratuitous terrorist references for good measure. And then perhaps my favorite, those that have narrowed the discussion only to the most pressing of questions regarding Salafist success.
A few days ago I got the chance to attend a Salafist conference held at Mansoura University. On display was Hazem Shoman, one of the more popular (or unpopular, depending on your view) Salafist public figures. Many outside of Egypt got to know Shoman’s name from an incident last month, when the preacher crashed a concert held at a Mansoura public school to inform students that such celebrations were in fact haram, or forbidden. And this wasn’t the first time Shoman did this. In October I was on my way out to another such concert at Mansoura University when a friend called to tell me not to come, Shoman had broken it up. Quite naturally, the guy has some detractors.
Stories like this of Shoman reinforce the image of stone cold sheikhs, condemning all forms of fun (as I would define the word at least) and focused on the singular goal of resurrecting an Islamic state of old. And given their success in the elections, the next implication is that Egyptians, or a sizable minority, must be of the same ideological bend, and thus must largely be voting in a referendum of sorts, approving this vision.
But what reading about Salafists exclusively from media reports pointing out their excessiveness leaves out, is the other side of people like Shoman, who are highly charismatic, engaging speakers that can light up large crowds, delivering speeches that resonate with audience members on both religious and moral grounds, and which don’t meander into the peripheral points about alcohol and bikinis that western journalists often try to trip them up with. Below is the beginning of Shoman’s speech from a few days ago, more or less his introductory remarks. I’m sharing it simply to show how seemingly likeable the man can be in public forums, and to draw a contrast to the Shoman we most often read about, the one that spends his days brewing over which concert he can break up next. Here, he essentially wishes marriage for everyone in the crowd, before launching into a speech about making the correct moral decisions in daily life. His energy never seems to abate.
Somewhat speculative takeaway: the larger point here is that many likely vote for Salafists for reasons other than simply pure ideology. For one, there’s the above mentioned star power of some of their ranks, and then there’s also the Islamic alternative vote. As in, there are many who, for one reason or another, simply don’t like the Muslim Brotherhood (which would seem quite natural given the fact that the organization has exposed themselves to public opinion for quite some time) and decide that they want Islamists, but not them. A Shoman speech later and they might decide that Hezb Al-Nour, the main Salafist party, has their vote. Be afraid, Ed Husain.