Forged in the crucible of the 1980s Afghan war, the violent fundamentalism of Al Qaeda and its cheerleaders demands direct application of sharia, depicts Islam as under attack – including by some Muslim-world governments – and calls on Muslims to fight in its defense. Those who do so are often called Salafi jihadis.
Meanwhile in North Africa, the regimes of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak spent decades trampling dissent, letting unemployment skyrocket, and seeking to varying degrees to control religious life.
For some North Africans raised in the bleak landscape of authoritarianism, Islamic activism offers meaning, says Isabelle Werenfels, a specialist on the Middle East and Africa at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, in Berlin.
“Many of the people termed Salafi don’t really know much about Islam,” she says. “These are young people who don’t have many choices. They’re looking for a way to give sense to life.”