The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Translation: Fahmy Howeidy on Salafis

The electoral success of the Salafis has alarmed many in secular circles, but not only. Fahmy Howeidy, an Islamist writer considered to be one of the most-read commentators in the Arab world, wrote last week of his relief in seeing a prominent Salafi personality defeated in Alexandria. The article was translated courtesy of Industry Arabic, which is sponsoring our In Translation series.

Society Has Issued Its Verdict

By Fahmy Howeidy, al-Shorouk, 8 December 2011.

I cannot conceal my feelings of relief at the defeat of Eng. Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, one of the representatives of the Salafi movement, in the run-off election.1 I consider this defeat a message sent to him by society, which should be taken in by him and his ilk of fanatical Salafis, who incessantly terrify people with their abuse of both the sacred and the secular. When I heard the results, I said that the issue here is not a question of who won, but rather the real story is that this man failed and did not succeed.

I do not know Eng. al-Shahat personally, but whenever I heard him or followed him speaking in the media, I felt like he was launching a personal insult at me in my capacity as a researcher concerned with Islamic issues. When I learned of the final tally in the second round of elections in the al-Nuzha electoral district in Alexandria, I said that voters’ aversion to him was a sort of punishment vote against him for the statements he keeps spewing, especially as of late.  This is a story that deserves to be told.

In the first round of the election, Eng. al-Shahat captured about 191,675 votes, while his opponent, the independent lawyer Hosny Duwiedar — who received support from the Muslim Brotherhood — won 144,296 votes. He was known as an extremist ever since his days as a university student. We discovered him when he started appearing on satellite channels, and some newspapers vied with each other to shed light on him due to his perverse views that were considered rich game for those who like to hunt and provoke.

This was most evident when the host of a populist TV show invited him on and barraged him with questions that all focused on his views on people’s private lives, states of dress and undress, the hijab and the niqab, bathing suits, cabarets, alcohol, gambling, entertainment, etc. Our friend responded to all these questions in the negative, to the extent that it seemed like he wanted to overturn everything in society without any gradualism, moderation or compassion. The show’s host did not ask him about anything that concerns the masses like unemployment, education, health or development, but rather confined him to the problems of the elite and the interests of the upper class — which are the interests that most of the media still focuses on at the present time. The man subsequently attacked democracy and declared it to be bid’a2, and he went back to talking about growing out beards, closing down banks, and banning bathing suits. We didn’t hear a word from him about what he could accomplish to benefit God’s creation. It was as if he didn’t want to leave the realm of bans and prohibitions, and give people hope in permissible and recommended acts (those which are encouraged or desirable).3

One of his colleagues who graduated with him from the computer department in the University of Alexandria told me that the media tripped him up, and that the man — who is still in his 40s — is not good at expressing himself. I didn’t rule this out, but I replied that no one forced him to say what he said: he went along with the trick and didn’t disappoint those who laid the trap for him. In politics, speakers have no excuses; rather, they’re held to account for what they utter, and they may even be held to account for what they remain silent on.

Eng. al-Shahat’s views caused a negative impact once he declared them in public. The result of this was that in the run-off election, he lost more than 50,000 votes, as he got 144,296 votes this time, compared to 191,675 votes in the first round.  His opponent, on the other hand, who received around 170,000 votes in the first round, captured more than 28,000 additional votes in the second round for a total of 198,000 votes – and won the district as well.

I have heard from some people that the drop in turnout in the second round came at the expense of Eng. Al-Shahat, but I noted that this drop could have affected his opponent as well. However, those who went to the polls firmly rejected al-Shahat and voted for his rival after al-Shahat painted himself in a negative light, an image the media helped circulate among people.

Society has punished the man by rejecting him, I said, pointing out that this was not a rejection of the person as much as it was an aversion to extremism and an inclination toward moderation. I also said that I felt relieved that he didn’t win. I have another reason for relief, which is that the climate of relative openness that Egypt is now experiencing has allowed society to listen to in public what extremists were saying to their followers in secret. Although it may be considered an appropriate punishment if people turn away from them, such a rejection could lead them to reconsider their views and rein in their discourse. If this rejection takes place, then society will have averted a minor disaster; but if extremists rein in their discourse, then society will have gained a major advantage. In the first case, we would reap a reward; in the second case, we would reap a double reward. But God knows best.

  1. For more on this election, see al-Masri al-Youm.  ↩

  2. A religious term literally meaning “innovation,” bid’a has largely a negative connotation and refers to the sort of innovations in religious matters that constitute a deviation from the Qur’an and the Sunnah. ↩

  3. “Permissible” and “recommended” are terms from Islamic law here. “Permissible” (mubah) refers to acts that are considered morally neutral, i.e. one is neither recommended nor discouraged from performing them. “Recommended” (mandub) acts are those that are encouraged but not mandatory. ↩