Feldman Discusses Salafi Movement

At the head of an intimate round table at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman conversed with professors and community members about the transforming cultural politics of the Salafi movement in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Feldman highlighted that a deeply unconventional form of Salafism has become a common mode of expression for rebellious middle class youth, who are coupling traditional Salafi customs to unorthodox practices.

The new Tunisian Salafis, Feldman noted, wear traditional attire alongside non-traditional clothing. For example, a woman might wear a head scarf with a mini-skirt.

“Nobody dressed this way in urban areas of Tunisia [before the Arab Spring],” Feldman said. “It would have been culturally unthinkable.”

The cultural aspects of this new Salafism intertwine with political motives. The new Salafis are covering the whole spectrum of political action, from peaceful reactionary protests to violent actions.

“It looks like a youth movement...but there is something even noble about it,” Feldman said.

Feldman underscored that between naiveté and religious belief, the Tunisian Salafis are attempting to change the world around them.

Sarah C. Plana ’12, a research assistant in the government department who attended the seminar, said Feldman’s discussion captured the complicated nature of the Tunisian Salafi movement and its potential repercussions onto area politics.

Feldman elaborated on the potential impact of the Tunisian Salafi movement in the broader Arab world.

“[The Salafi movement] jumps across borders incredibly effectively,” Feldman argued, citing the rapid spread of this cultural trend in countries other than Tunisia.

Feldman argued that the split between moderate Islamists and the Salafis may become an issue of central significance to the politics of the Arab world in the near future, especially if it were to erupt into violence.

“It would not take many Salafis to make a general turn to violence,” Feldman said.

—Staff writer Antonio Coppola can be reached Follow him @AntonioCoppolaC.