Originially published at majalla.com, July 11 2011
The sheikh sat in a slick office on the ninth floor of a tower block and twiddled with his mobile phone. Bathed in bright light from the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Nile, he outlined what kind of punishments Egyptians could expect under his ideal judicial system.
“In Shari’a law we have sharp sentences for every crime,” he said. “Whipping the back, cutting off hands. Shari’a involves big punishments for any people who do wrong things.”
Sheikh Abdel Moneim El-Shahat, a preacher who follows the increasingly high-profile strand of fundamentalist Salafi Islam, continued by saying that most people in post-revolutionary Egypt agree with his vision—they just don’t know it yet.
“In the end, Salafis will not oblige communities to use Shari’a if they don’t understand it,” he said. “But with explanation, all the Muslim people will accept it.”
Sheikh Abdel Moneim, a podgy, roly-poly preacher with the kind of Fidel Castro-style beard sported by many of his followers, is a prominent spokesman for the Salafi movement in Egypt.
Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, which engaged in underground political activity despite being banned for more than half a century, the Salafist movement—which first emerged in the mid-1800s from an intellectual base at Cairo’s long-established Al-Azhar University—has traditionally shied away from politics.
Yet, during the race to grab a toehold in the chaotic post-Mubarak period, some Salafis are abandoning their previous aversion to the political limelight. The Political Parties Affairs Committee gave the Al-Nour party permission to form on 13 June 2011, while a second fledgling party, Al-Fadila, is also scrambling around for support. A number of others are said to be in the pipelines.
This comes at a time of heightened tension between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, which many have blamed on the supposedly baleful influence of Salafism.
A total of 12 people were killed this month when violent clashes broke out in the Cairo slum of Imbaba. The riots were triggered by rumors that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam was being held captive in a church, and most reports the following day focused on the large group of Salafi men who were present during the trouble.
The incident came after a flurry of other Salafist scare stories hit Egyptian newsstands, with reports about off-licenses being closed following demonstrations by Salafis, and protests over other alleged kidnappings or killings of female Muslim converts. After one incident, the Associated Press even went so far as to say that Salafism was “a few shades away” from Al-Qaeda—a sloppy comparison at best.
There is no doubt that some of Egypt’s liberals and secularists are not particularly fond of Salafism. As Ramy El-Swissy, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement, put it: “I like religion but I don’t like that kind of religion. There is a difference between Islam and extremism.”
Moreover, it seems understandable that Christians might be concerned about their influence given the intransigence many Salafis have often shown to accommodating them. Speaking recently, another Salafi preacher, by the name of Sheikh Khalid Abdullah, explained how he thought that Egypt’s Copts were guilty of treason for establishing contacts with the West.
“It’s very sad when the Christians here go to the US and Europe and say, ‘Come to us and save our souls.’ They are betraying us. They don’t understand what the US did in Iraq and Pakistan.
“The Christians are against the Muslims now. They don’t want Egypt to be Islamic.”
But others believe that the Egyptian media and political elite are guilty of scare mongering. In March, Egyptian voters decided overwhelmingly to approve a referendum on constitutional amendments—a result that paved the way for parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.
The result was a blow to many liberals who wanted a longer transitional period to help develop a more robust body politic. Many blamed the Salafis.
Gamal Sultan, editor of the Al-Masryoon news website and himself a Salafi, said: “It was probably during the referendum on the constitutional amendments when the political forces realized the huge ability of Salafis to mobilize and vote yes.
“That’s what got to the other political parties in Egypt. They got really mad at the Salafis when they realized their political abilities.”
According to Professor Stephane Lacroix of Sciences Po, who has spent many years studying fundamentalist Islamic movements, the main Egyptian sheikhs have publicly denounced the violence between Muslims and Christians that took place after the fall of Mubarak.
He said: “If you look at the statements from the majority of sheikhs, they have all condemned the violence. They have said it is to the detriment of Salafism.”
Mr. Lacroix added that Salafism has no over-arching structure or rigid top-down leadership, and that the Salafis who went to Imbaba were probably bad apples under the guidance of rogue “neighborhood sheikhs.” He also said that it would probably be a while before any of their political parties made a splash.
The modern history of Salafism in Egypt dates back to the 1970s—a time where campus activism was at its height and Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the EU, first made its appearance.
Initially there were tensions between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood, with both trying to attract followers and spread their message to a wider public. In an effort to co-ordinate more affectively, during the 1980s Egypt’s Salafis began to develop strong grassroots networks spreading across the country. With a base in Alexandria, the fundamentalist movement began to grow in popularity.
Analysts have divided the Salafi movement into a number of different sub-groups—most of which eschewed political participation up until the January 25 revolution.
One such group, sometimes referred to as the “activist Salafis,” trace their origins to the 1970s university movements and operated under the tutelage of sheikhs who preached that a ruler is heretical if he does not govern by divine decrees.
These Salafis have always refused to partake in democratic elections, viewing them as heretical and a departure from God’s law. Yet a number have since undergone a volte face, embracing the concept of democracy and using their vote to full effect when preachers called on their followers to go and vote in favor of constitutional amendments in the recent Egyptian referendum.
The establishment of Al-Nour is testament to this latest trend in Salafi thinking. As a result, and despite in the past being wholly opposed to any kind of political participation, the Salafis now have the first political party in their history.
There has, of course, been one particular brand of Salafism that has never shied away from making its political voice heard. Salafist jihadism, the strand of ultra-regressive Islam that counts Al-Qaeda members as some of its most strident adherents, holds that Muslims are duty-bound to fight any government s which do not apply Islamic law.
It came to the fore in the 1990s when the traditional Salafi aversion to politics morphed into the most absolute form of activist rejectionism. Yet this kind of “Semtex Salafism,” though adept at making headlines, never constituted more than a fraction of the overall movement’s followers.
You could make a similar case for Egypt’s Salafis when compared to the rest of the country’s Muslims today. Although Sheikh Abdel Moneim El-Shahat claimed that there were “millions” across the whole of the country, Stephane Lacroix said the number of is more likely to be around 200,000—though he conceded that the figure is not accurate , given how difficult it is to determine who exactly is a Salafi.
Yet, despite this, it seems clear that many Salafis have already permeated deep into Egyptian society. The movement is named after the al-salaf al-salih, or so-called pious predecessors of the early Muslim community.
Followers believe that only the early disciples of Mohammed practiced Islam correctly, and can often be identified by their short galabiyas, which are worn to comply with an early Islamic teaching that long clothing is a sign of vanity.
But such stereotypes are as unhelpful as they are misleading, according to Gamal Sultan. “The West is more concerned with looks: the beard, the clothes and the way they live,” he said. “But Salafism is a large phenomenon. You can see them in the poor neighborhoods, but it also reaches the higher classes. You see them as street vendors and professors or soccer players. They are everywhere.”
Mr Lacroix said that the movement has definitely grown in the past 10 years—in large part because of the Salafi televangelists who were licensed by the Mubarak regime in order to counter the Muslim Brotherhood. However, he added that Egypt was unlikely to see any kind of serious political Salafism for a while.
Many ordinary Egyptians seem to agree. If you speak to liberal voters—the kind of people who are meant to be tearing their hair out with anxiety over the supposed Salafi threat—most seem unperturbed, preferring to dismiss the movement at an irritating irrelevance rather than a sinister force to be reckoned with.
The real influence, as Stephane Lacroix points out, seems cultural more than electoral—though perhaps this should worry the liberal elite just as much. “If you take a taxi, very often the driver seems to think the niqab is the correct form of Islamic dress. He will say something like, ‘My wife doesn’t wear it. She should, but we’re weak.’ You never heard that in Egypt 50 years ago.”
If you believe the likes of Sheikh Abdel Moneim and Shekih Khalid Abdullah, every Muslim is a Salafi even if he or she thinks otherwise. The forthcoming elections will prove just how far this theory goes.