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Laurent Bonnefoy, Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity

London, Hurst & Company, 2011, 336 pages
Nathalie Peutz
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Laurent Bonnefoy, Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity, London, Hurst & Company, 2011, 336 pages

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1Nearly ten years ago, in her opening chapter to the edited volume Counter-Narratives: History, Contemporary Society, and Politics in Saudi Arabia and Yemen (eds. Madawi al‑Rasheed and Robert Vitalis), Sheila Carapico issued an “invitation to Arabian Peninsula Studies”: a research agenda that would bridge the conventional divide between Yemeni and Gulf Studies to focus on the interconnections between the inhabitants and nations of the Peninsula as a whole. Although several scholars, research collaborations and academic journals, including this one, have taken up this call — whether in direct response to Carapico’s invitation or as a reaction to the region’s most recent and emblematic transnational phenomena, such as the Global War on Terror, the emergence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the spread of the Arab revolts —few publications exemplify this (transnational) Peninsular perspective as does Laurent Bonnefoy’s work on Salafism.

2In his book, Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity, Bonnefoy presents a carefully nuanced critique of the dominant narratives of Salafism as a Saudi state export directly serving its national interests by demonstrating instead Salafism’s autonomy, normalization, and embeddedness within Yemen and its continual adaptation to local contexts. To the extent that Yemeni Salafism is shaped by its relationship(s) with Saudi Arabia, these influences are determined less by any top-down state intervention or funding than they are by the grassroots transnational migratory experiences that link these societies. Writing largely in response to and yet critical of an international relations theory framework, Bonnefoy thus argues against a state-centered approach to transnational relations which obscures not only the relevance of individual actors but also the very interpenetration and diversity of transnational religious and political movements. While this counter-narrative may seem quite evident to the anthropologists and historians upon whose work and methodologies Bonnefoy draws, it appears to remain a necessary corrective with regard to a much-maligned movement like Salafism and a much-stereotyped region like the Arabian Peninsula.

3Salafism in Yemen is divided into three distinct sections. Part One, “Doctrine and Practice,” examines Salafism as one of two Islamist “ideal types” based on its founding principles as drawn from its central figures’ publications, recorded sermons, and biographies. If the one type of reformist movement represented by the Muslim Brotherhood seeks social justice and thus contextualized political intervention, the mainstream missionary or “quietist” Salafism (salafiyya da‘wiyya) that is the focus of Bonnefoy’s research — in contrast also to the more violent-prone jihadi Salafism (salafiyya jihādiyya) and the more politicized activist Salafism (salafiyya munazzama or harakiyya) — is characterized by its aspirationally apolitical and universalist nature. Chapter 1 discusses these differences and the “minor behaviors” and “distinctive practices” that distinguishes the quietist branch in Yemen. Focusing on the figure and life trajectory of Muqbil Bin Hādī al-Wādi’ī, founder of Yemeni Salafism, Bonnefoy demonstrates how this branch, originating in the 1980s, was as much influenced by al-Wādi’ī’s personal experiences of social stratification and stigmatization in Yemen and of imprisonment in and expulsion from Saudi Arabia, as it was by Yemen’s political and historical context: the relative plurality of religious groups and doctrines against which Salafis sought to distinguish themselves (e.g., Zaydism in the North and Sufism in the South); the post-unification turn to multiparty politics and free elections denounced by Salafis for their alleged role in fostering hizbiyya (factionalism); the fall of socialism and the emergence of the South as a territory ripe for proselytization. Indeed, it was the very “embeddedness” of quietist Salafism in Yemen, Bonnefoy argues, that shaped its distinctive and central critique of hizbiyya, its allegiance to the President (and its rejection of khurūj, the Zaydi concept of the right to revolt against an oppressive ruler), and the internal schisms that occurred prior to and in the wake of al-Wādi’ī’s death. Chapter Two continues to explore principles unique to Yemeni Salafism, but now through a focus on specific social practices (e.g., the Salafis’ rejection of qat, television, urban corruption, and tribalism). Bonnefoy examines here the paradoxes that occur as Salafi actors aim to eschew all politics and worldly matters and yet are treated as “moral entrepreneurs”, becoming de facto if reluctant political actors. Similarly, despite their allegiance to the ruling authority and their condemnation of violence, quietist Salafis have at times engaged in violent episodes (often, as in the case of the “Hūthī” rebellion, as allies of the government). Quietist Salafism in Yemen is thus in practice neither apolitical nor decontextualized, but rather a flexible and adaptive movement shaped not only by its national environment but also by the transnational recompositions that exceed such borders.

4In Part Two, “Transnational Salafism,” Bonnefoy examines the development of Salafism in Yemen in relation to the transnational connections and migrations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia (and, to a lesser extent, beyond). Chapter Three provides a useful historical overview of Yemeni migration to Saudi Arabia and a much-needed discussion of the less-documented persistence of these migratory flows and connections following the 1990/1991 expulsions. This synopsis, which is followed by a cogent analysis of the “ambiguity” of the Yemeni migratory experience as both a rite of passage and corrupting process, could stand independently as a welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on migration within and to the Arabian Peninsula. Chapter Four returns to the transnationalization of Salafism influenced as it is, on the one hand, by the enduring effects of migration in Yemen (even on those who have not migrated) and, on the other hand, by its actors’ desire to transcend political powers and states. Bonnefoy rejects then the notion of a “Saudization” as opposed to “transnationalization” of (Yemeni) Salafism while still acknowledging its direct connections with and support from a range of Saudi organizations and actors. Returning also to the biography of Muqbil al-Wādi’ī, Bonnefoy demonstrates that, despite this external funding, Muqbilian Salafism developed in opposition to the Saudi regime — that is, until al-Wādi’ī’s gradual reconciliation with the government just prior to his death in 2000. Fleshing out his hypothesis that Yemeni Salafism’s connections to and transplantation from Saudi Arabia are indirect and ambiguous rather than mechanical and predictable, Bonnefoy introduces in Chapter Five an ethnographic case study of “ordinary” Salafi students attending the Faculty of Education in Lab‘ūs, a village in Yāfī‘ (in former South Yemen). Strikingly, the majority of these students had not spent any time in Saudi Arabia; their practice was a response rather to the pervasiveness and yet increasing unattainability of migratory success. Salafism for this generation was thus a form of “cultural capital” resulting from what Bonnefoy calls multiple “recompositions” within Yemeni society: a “fashion,” even, that some willingly tailored for pragmatic reasons once they graduated and sought social integration outside.

5Part Three, “An Integrated Salafism,” focuses on this adaptation of quietist Salafism to its environment and its eventual normalization within Yemen. Drawing on Edward Said’s “travelling theory” and the transformations that occur during relocation, Chapter Six makes a case for the “Yemenization” of quietist Salafism and its “ordinariness” in the Yemeni religious landscape. Indeed, Bonnefoy details how Salafi actors do the same as they reappropriate Yemeni historical figures and traditional practices in their competition with Zaydis and Sufis to be considered the most authentic and endogenous movement. This normalization of Salafism within Yemen is the subject of Bonnefoy’s final chapter in which he examines how the quietist Salafis’ rejection of violence and critique of hizbiyya was instrumentalized by the Yemeni government in its struggle against al-Qaeda and its war against the “Hūthī” rebels in Sa‘da. (This chapter, too, contains a useful overview of both of these crises, especially the war in Sa‘da and ensuing rivalry between Zaydi revivalists and rising Salafis, and thus provides a valuable contribution to the still nascent literature on this topic.). Here, as in chapters two and six, one encounters the limitations and paradoxical reversal of Salafism’s apolitical and universalist claims. Moreover, Yemeni Salafism, at one time “one of the most original departures seen in the Arabian Peninsula” (p. 280) has since 2000 achieved both increasing national and transnational normalization. Yet, concludes Bonnefoy, it is its very “double nature” as both localized and transnational that points to its capacity for ongoing adaptation and change.

6A thoroughly ambitious and wide-ranging book, Salafism in Yemen will appeal to readers interested not only in reformist religious movements and identities, but also in transnationalism and migration studies, more broadly, and in the recent history of Yemen and its embeddedness within the Arabian Peninsula more specifically. It is indeed Bonnefoy’s uncompromisingly nuanced approach to the various transformations and recompositions that occur at all these levels — local, transnational, and global — that provides one of the few flaws of this book; that is, in his continual efforts to tack back and forth between states, societies, and actors, his examples are at times redundant and his arguments repetitive. Yet, this is just a minor criticism of an impressive contribution to our knowledge of the religious landscapes of the Arabian Peninsula and a fine example of what such a Peninsular perspective can accomplish.

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Nathalie Peutz, « Laurent Bonnefoy, Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 10 mars 2013, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nathalie Peutz

New York University Abu Dhabi

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