Tellingly, Egypt is the first Muslim country, which has tamped down on radical Islamist activism in the country’s religious and educational centres. It has literally banned extremist thoughts from flourishing in the new Egyptian generation’s minds. Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutub, Maulana Maududi and almost all those who underpinned the political Islamist theologies in their books have been ousted from the universities and schools. In a recent piece in the Times of India, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi penetratingly claimed that Egypt has been at the forefront in the counter-terror mission.
The gruesome murder in the Rawda mosque, that too during the most sacred prayer of Friday (Juma’a), has raised two pertinent issues. First, the religious extremism remains a contagious threat in Egypt, despite the herculean efforts of Al-Azhar’s clerics directed at mitigating radical thoughts in society. Second, Egyptian President al-Sisi’s avowed counter-terror strategy has miserably failed.
Inevitably, the government officials and the counter-extremism analysts in Egypt are puzzling over the Egyptian strategy to tackle the ideology of terror and bloodshed, which went on the rampage in Sinai’s mosque. Mohammed Sabri, an Egyptian Arabic-language journalist who knows Sinai well opines that the anti-terrorist campaign has been mismanaged for years. “The campaign has been plagued by lack of indigenous support due to the Egyptian military’s brutality, extra-judicial shootings, and other violations of human rights”, he says.
In fact, a re-ideologisation of religion has been taking place in the global Muslim community (Ummah). This re-ideologisation seeks to run down the construct of Muslim society, which has historically been a pluralist, culture-friendly and secular polity in countries of rich cultures and ancient civilisations like Egypt. This idea is gradually being supplanted by a muscular extremist thought peddled by the tenets and philosophy of political Islam or Salafist-jihadism, which seeks to expunge Egypt’s past of “un-Islamic” accretions.
A student of Islamic world’s history will try to take an in-depth look at the interplay between religion and the politics of terror in Egypt. An age-old intellectual and theological centre for Sunnis of the various Sufi orders across the world, Egypt was rebuilt by the Fatimids—the direct descendents of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) through his daughter, Fatima, and her husband, Hazrat Ali, cousin of the Prophet. In 909 AD, Fatimids established themselves in Egypt and built the magnificent city of Cairo (popularly known in Arabic as Qahirah) as their new capital. In fact, the advent of the Fatimids marked a new era in Islamic history. They posed serious intellectual questions and geopolitical challenges to the existing Muslim order. More than their expansionist political and dynastic motives, they were inspired by a renewed intellectual and religious philosophy, which ushered in a revolution and revitalisation in the Islamic postulates. Basically, this historical background of the theological divergence in Egypt is the key reason why the puritanical Salafists often target the mainstream Egyptian people, including the Sufis and Shias, besides the religious minorities. But they particularly decry the Egyptian Sufi orders for their unique approach towards worship.
ISIS ideologues loathe the Egyptian Sufis for their belief in building closer personal relationship with God. The Salafist clerics hold an antithetical view, which relates to tajseem and tashbeeh (anthropomorphism) of Allah as the one existing in necessary separation from individuals on Earth. Ibn Taymiyya—the founder-ideologue of Salafism—writes in his book:”Whoever speaks with the tashbeeh (resemblance), which comprises tajseem (Anthropomorphism), makes Allah like the created bodies which are other than Him. This is manifest falsehood from both the rational and Shari’ah point of view. Such people are the Mushabbihah (Anthropomorphists) whom the Salaf criticize. The Mushabbih are indulged in the most obvious corruption” (Tahqeeq al-Hunaydee: 1/283).
Now, it is not difficult to see why the Sufi worshippers at the Sinai mosque suffered the jihadist atrocity. The Egyptian Sufi followers focused on achieving a state of ecstasy in the prayer, seeking to form individual communion with God. Therefore, the Salafist ideologues declared them “heretics”.
Much of Egyptian society is still imbued with Sufi precepts. Thus, the Salafists’ puritanical theological stance on Sufi practices is a major cause of the brutal attack in Sinai. Further, the Sufis’ closeness to the current Egyptian regime could be part of the reason, as Megan Specia points out in the New York Times. She viewed the attack from a geopolitical perspective: “Like its counterparts in several other Muslim-majority countries, Egypt’s government supports the Sufis because it sees them as members of a moderate, manageable faction who are unlikely to engage in political activity, because their priorities are oriented inwardly.”
Two more divergent opinions have emerged on this issue. One, that Sufis were attacked in Egypt because they are a threat to the extremist groups, as an Arab political commentator, Mohmmad Sabry noted in Al Arabiya: “The Sufis are succeeding in drawing hundreds of youths from the terrorist organization in a way the military hasn’t been able to do”. Two, Salafis by and large do not preach vigilante violence and militancy, and therefore, they should not be held accountable en masse for the atrocity, as Dr H.A. Hellyer avers in the Guardian. However, he has also cautioned that the rhetoric many puritanical Salafis are flogging off against Sufis, provides a certain type of background noise that more radical extremists quite happily exploit for a variety of nefarious purposes.
But the question still arises why a mosque? Why a Sufi mosque, to be precise? Many Indian Muslims, barring a few Sufi thinkers, conjectured that the Rawda mosque terror attack was an “Israeli-US” counter to the opening of Gaza Crossing and Palestinian refusal to accept the so-called Saudi Peace Plan. Tellingly, Egypt is now working closely with Israel to “combat terrorism” and control weapons and personnel flows through tunnels in the Sinai between Israel and Egypt. But one wonders why even the Israeli assistance has not managed to quash the growing Salafist insurgency in Sinai? This creates deeper questions and doubts on Sisi’s strongly-worded counter-terror strategy. Sisi had explicitly stated that one of the key concerns of his government is eliminating the extremists who have held the moderate Islam hostage in the country.
Even Al-Azhar— the largest Egyptian Sunni-Sufi centre—endorsed the government’s blackout ban on the writings and sermons of the extremist Islamist ideologues. Ashraf Fahmi, an official in the Egyptian religious ministry, stated that even small libraries in mosques were purged from books that call for extremism. “Any book, irrespective of its author or publishing house, that contradicts the teachings of Islam, will be confiscated”, he said. Consequently, many democratic countries like India viewed the new Egyptian regime as an ally interested in eliminating the extremist creed from its roots. In September 2016, India and Egypt agreed to enhance cooperation in security and counter-terror efforts during the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach to Egypt. Considering terrorism and radicalism “the gravest threats the two countries”, Modi stressed the need for an “action-oriented agenda” to drive the engagements in a range of sectors. He reportedly said, “President and I are of one view that growing radicalisation, increasing violence and spread of terror pose a real threat not just to our two countries, but, also to nations and communities across regions.” Recently, Al-Azhar has appointed senior imams and Islamic chaplains to purge the Egyptian mosques of all discourses inciting sectarian bigotry. The prime concern of Al-Azhar, as stated in its Arabic organ, is to nurture imams to preserve the essential message of Islam in Egypt, based on the predominant Shafi’ee school of thought, which castigates the violent takfirism. Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Shaikh Shauqi Allam, whom this writer met at India’s World Sufi Forum, said: “Takfirism is constantly invading the minds of our youths. Therefore, we must tackle the various forms of continued exploitation of religion, with an aim to root out Takfirist ideology at its core.” Even the former Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa declared the Takfirists as the “most misguided”.
Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is a scholar of Classical Arabic and Islamic sciences, cultural analyst and researcher in Media and Communication Studies. He tweets at @GRDehlvi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org