Just Admit it Man, You're a Spy!

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 9-1-2018


This article addresses two related problems in the current ethnographic study of Salafism. First, it draws attention to the lack of positionality exhibited by many commentators on Salafism; second, and more crucially, it highlights the reluctance of scholars to engage with what is here labelled Salafi "oppositionality". By oppositionality, I refer to a set of attitudes (non-compliance, defiance, hatred) which are formally prescribed to, and informally generated by, Salafis in their dealings with non-Muslims and very often with lapsed and/or errant Muslims. Through two case studies in pre-Arab Spring Cairo, I explore the workings of Salafi oppositionality in practice. By so doing, I highlight the often fragile and ephemeral nature of relationships that can be formed between a Western-trained ethnographer and his/her Salafi respondents, and demonstrate the ways in which instances of opposition are mutually constituted. Both the researcher and the Salafi, I argue, present each other with a dilemma. In my experience, Salafis have no problem identifying the essence of this dilemma; it is time for Western ethnographers to exhibit a similar degree of transparency.