“Just Admit it Man, You’re a Spy!”

Fieldwork Explorations into the Notion of Salafi “Oppositionality”


  • Richard Gauvain The British University in Egypt




Salafism, ethnography, oppositionality, Egypt, da‘wa, al-wala’ wa’l-bara’, maslaha


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.


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Author Biography

Richard Gauvain, The British University in Egypt

Richard Gauvain is Associate Professor of Political Science at the British University in Egypt. He is the author of Salafi Ritual Purity: In the Presence of God (2013) and, since 2002, has divided his time living and working between Egypt and the UAE.


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How to Cite

Gauvain, R. (2018). “Just Admit it Man, You’re a Spy!” : Fieldwork Explorations into the Notion of Salafi “Oppositionality”. Fieldwork in Religion, 13(2), 203–230. https://doi.org/10.1558/firn.37640