in collaboration with Narayan Ramachandran
During a meeting at the Takshashila office last week, senior advisor to Takshashila Narayan Ramachandran pointed out what he thought was a change in language over the years in describing Islamists. “In the aftermath of 9/11”, Narayan said, “the dominant word used was wahhabi. However, over the years its use has waned and has been instead replaced by salafi“. As good quants, we decided it would be best if we could back up this hypothesis with data before trying to understand the shift.
Now, not-so-recently, Google started this service called “google trends” which gives a measure of the popularity of a particular word or phrase over the years, and allows us to compare the usage of various phrases. We used Google Trends to compare the usage of Wahhabi and Salafi and found this:
This graph clearly shows that by 2004 the word “Wahhabi” was already out of fashion and “Salafi” was much more widely used.
If you look at only the US, however, the situation is different. Though there was significant fluctuation, till about 2006, the usage of Wahhabi and Salafi was comparable. Then from 2006-07 onwards, the usage of “Salafi” pulled away much ahead of that of Wahhabi, and it has remained that way, in accordance with worldwide trends.
It would be interesting to analyze, however, the reasons for this shift in nomenclature.
Pavan Srinath weighs in that “Wahhabi” can also be spelt as “Wahabi”. And that spelling is actually on the upswing:
In the US, though, both Wahhabi and Wahabi are on the decline:
So it appears that what is on the decline is the spelling “Wahhabi” more than the word itself.