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Egypt’s Other Extremists

While the Muslim Brotherhood gets all the ink, the Salafists go on a rampage.

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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Salafists are also attacking other Muslims. On March 30, one killed a Muslim colleague for not praying at the requisite time. They also target Sufi mosques and shrines, because Salafists regard veneration of saints as heretical. Since Mubarak stepped down, dozens of shrines on the outskirts of Cairo have been burned or have simply disappeared, and there have been attacks throughout Alexandria and in Beheira and Monufiya. In turn, leaders of Sufi orders have threatened to attack those destroying shrines, especially the shrines belonging to the prophet’s family. Sheikh Gaber Kasem al-Kholy, the highest-ranking Sufi in Alexandria, declared in early April, “I don’t underestimate people’s fears concerning Salafists. Of course, Coptic Christians are a main target for those extremists, but we need to speak out about the suffering of the Sufi people.”

Egypt’s small Shiite community is another target. Shiite leader Mohamed al-Derini has denounced the attacks, and some Shiites believe that the Saudis also bear responsibility for the violence. During the demonstrations in Qena, some demonstrators waved Saudi flags. It is also rumored that the Saudis fund the Salafists, and this, coming on top of the Saudis’ support for Mubarak and their condemnations of Shiites, Sufis, and shrines, has increased tensions. On April 9, Shiites protested at the Saudi embassy in Cairo and waved banners denouncing Saudi fatwas that condemn Shiites and permit the demolition of shrines, as well as the kingdom’s rejection of calls to prosecute ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. One banner read: “You defended Mubarak, pushed Salafis to sow sedition, and pressed for not trying the tyrant.”

Some Salafists joined the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, and others have said they will enter politics—in many cases by supporting the Brotherhood. Often the two groups have been opposed to one another, with the Salafists accusing the Brotherhood of compromise, but in the March 19 constitutional referendum, Salafi clerics urged their followers to support the Brotherhood in campaigning for a “yes” vote.

Perhaps thinking that these more extreme Islamist currents make it appear relatively moderate, the Brother-hood condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden. Already before that, it had become more outspoken about its own desire for an Islamic state. 

On April 14, at a forum in Cairo, the Brotherhood’s deputy supreme guide, Mahmoud Ezzat, said his group wanted to establish an Islamic state when they achieved sufficient support through their Freedom and Justice party. At the same forum, another Brotherhood leader, Saad al-Husseiny, stated that they aimed to apply Islamic law and establish Islamic rule. On April 22, a senior spokesman, Sobhi Saleh, said the Brotherhood wished to apply “Islamic legislation.” 

There is some ambiguity in these remarks, and, after an outcry from other parties, one leading Brotherhood figure, Hamdi Hassan, said the statements were nothing new and that reaction had been inflamed by inaccurate press reports. Ezzat filed a complaint with the attorney general, accusing the media of twisting his remarks.

These newer statements about Islam and law by senior leaders of the Brotherhood have alarmed democracy activists and many -others. In response, the Coptic Orthodox Church suspended its dialogue with the Brotherhood and dropped its plans to invite the group’s leaders to attend Easter celebrations. The state-run daily Rose Al-Youssef, meanwhile, under the headline “A state of terror follows Salafi threats,” reported Salafists’ warnings that they will attack women who do not wear the full face covering called the niqab, while schools have had high absence rates and have sometimes closed because of fears of sectarian violence. The combination of these Islamist currents poses a growing threat to a free Egypt.

On April 28, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for the first time recommended to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Egypt be labeled a “Country of Particular Concern (CPC).” This designation refers, as commission chair Leonard Leo noted, to “the world’s worst religious freedom violators and human rights abusers.” He added, 

Severe religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government [of Egypt] have increased dramatically since the release of last year’s report, with violence, including murder, escalating against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities. Since President Mubarak’s resignation from office in February, such violence continues unabated without the government’s bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and coauthor, with Nina Shea, of the forthcoming Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide.

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