The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged salafis
The Future of Egypt's Opposition

Bassem Sabry writes, in long piece on NSF travails, that Salafi-NSF made increasingly likely by shared hostility to MB:

Moreover, expanding the common ground with Al-Nour, the largest Salafi party, is a surprisingly possible undertaking at the moment, and the ground is fertile for that matter on nearly everything except the most profound: the amendment of the constitution. The opposition also needs to experiment with new strategies for exercising legitimate political pressure, with the target of bringing Morsi and the Brotherhood as realistically as possible back into a more inclusive democratic process. 


That Yasser Borhami video

As I'm clearing old tabs I didn't get around to reading/posting in December when I was traveling, this Jadaliyya piece on Salafi Sheikh Yasser Borhami's take on the constitution — and his explanation of why the text of Article 219 in particular is a triumph for hardliners — is worth reading. They've also translated a video that made the rounds last month and earned a rebuke from al-Azhar itself. Worth watching to catch up on this issue, and read this and this for context on al-Azhar.

The most dangerous 18 minutes that Borhami said about the Eg from nahdaproject1 on Vimeo.

Note also that Borhami uses the word "Nasareen" — "Nazarinthians" — to refer to Christians, which in Egypt is considered quite rude.

On Tunisia's Salafis

Last week, before the war in Gaza broke out, I wrote an op-ed on Tunisia's Salafis for The National. It looks at how the Islamist perception of the legacy of Habib Bourguiba's authoritarian secularism fuels much of the rage of the Salafi movement, and explains why they attract so much attention in the media. 

In conversations with Tunisian Islamists over the last two years, I came to understand their view of the history of their country. Their problem was not just with the former Ben Ali regime, but with the legacy of Bourguiba: not just the repression, torture and prohibition from political life, but a disdain for religion in public life.

For Bourguiba, this went beyond bans of veiled women on state television and other measures to curtail visible appearances of religiosity. It was also state intimidation of religious people, the domestication of traditional religious authorities, and sometimes gratuitous insults on religious sentiment. Bourguiba, for instance, was in the habit of appearing on state television during Ramadan drinking during daytime, and urged others to do the same.

The capital crime of the Bourguiba regime in the Islamists' eyes was to estrange people from their religion, drive them away from their traditions and usurp their identity for something borrowed from Europe.

A lot of this, in other words, is about a sentiment that Bourguiba and his successor uprooted Tunisian society from its roots, as well as all the other causes: the spread of fundamentalism, foreign funding, etc. I think that this is a special aspect of Tunisian Salafism, and more generally Islamism, that is worth taking note of in understanding Tunisia's culture wars. Read the rest here.

Also, here are a few links on this subject to stories from the past month or so.

✚ Don't celebrate the fall of the Caliphate!

Don't celebrate the fall of the Caliphate!

Says Yasser Burhami to Emad Abdel Ghaffour, reviving the very recently buried split between the spiritual and secular leader of the Salafi Nour party:

The deputy head of the Salafi Dawah movement strongly criticized the chairman of the Salafi Nour Party, Emad Abdel Ghafour, for attending the Turkish Embassy’s celebration of the 89th anniversary of the foundation of the Turkish republic Wednesday.

“We are not pleased with that participation and were not informed about it in advance,” said Sheikh Yasser Borhamy, the Salafi Dawah leader, answering questions from visitors of his website,

“A Muslim should not partake in a celebration marking the end of the Islamic Caliphate, which was the symbol of the nation’s unity and was brought down by enemies of Islam,” the sheikh said.

Because things were going so great for Muslim countries under the Caliphate...

"Everywhere the Salafis are pushing"

"Everywhere the Salafis are pushing"

Good comments by Tarek Ramadan on the struggle for who's going to be the biggest defender of Islam:

And the second thing that we have to say—and this is important because you were talking about Mohamed Morsi and people, the Islamists in Muslim-majority countries—there is something which is going to be one of the main challenges in the Muslim world today, in the Muslim-majority countries in the Arab world, is the religious credibility. How are you going to react to what is said about Islam? So, by touching the prophet of Islam, the reaction should be, who is going to be the guardian? And you can see today that the Muslim Brotherhood are in a situation where the Salafis, then the literalists, are pushing. And they were in Libya, they were in Egypt, they are now in Yemen. So, everywhere the Salafi are pushing by saying, "We are the guardian, and we are resisting any kind of relationship to the West or provocation coming from the West."

In Fayoum, the Salafis are the moderates

I often think some of the articles in English-language newspapers in Egypt are too riddled with academic jargon. But here's a fantastic example of an article by an academic — an anthropologist — that sheds light on politics rather than obscure it. It's by Yasmine Moataz Ahmed, and looks at why Salafists gave the Muslim Brothers real competition in mostly rural Fayoum:

Despite the common perception that Salafis are strict followers of Sharia compared to the Muslim Brotherhood, many of my research participants often talked about Salafis as religiously less strict than the Ikhwan. From the work of Ikwani leaders in the village, the villagers have noticed the strict hierarchy that informs the work of the Brotherhood members on the ground. In other words, the villagers understood the Brotherhood’s adherence to the dictates of the Guidance Bureau, or the Murshid, as an orthodoxy that made the Brotherhood stricter than the Salafis. They often said to me: “How come Ikhwan grassroot leaders all agree on the same things?” An incident that they often referred to is the insistence of Muslim Brotherhood members to force people to pray outside of a mosque, not build by the Brotherhood, during the Eid al-Fitr prayer last September.

Salafis, on the other hand, are seen as religiously flexible. “Aren’t we all Salafis?” many Nour supporters often repeated to me. For them, Salafis represent a religious understanding that seeks to closely follow the times of the Prophet and his followers — the Prophet was married to a Coptic woman, his neighbors were Jews, he dealt with each situation on a case-by-case basis, hence the perception that Salafis are, believe it or not, lenient. This was reflected on the ground; Salafis, at least in the village where I worked, appear to be more laid-back compared to the Ikhwan, and hence, more sensitive and open to the local context.

Class was also a factor that often worked against the Brotherhood’s candidates. Due to being the most educated cluster, Ikhwani leaders are strongly present in professional occupations in village-level bureaucracies; they are the teachers, the lawyers, the engineers, and more importantly the personnel of the most funded NGO: Al-Jam’eya al-Shar’eya. Ikhwan leaders often use their positions, particularly in the NGO, to promote the Freedom and Justice party through coercing the poorest of the village into long-term charity and debt relations; they fund kidney dialysis operations, pay monthly stipends for orphan children, and distribute money and goods for ad-hoc lists that they prepare once they get orders from their leaders in Cairo.

In Translation: Hamlet Abu Ismail

I am myself indifferent honest;
but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
all; believe none of us.

Hamlet, act III

Yesterday’s ruling by the Cairo administrative court that it has insufficient evidence has been prematurely heralded as victory for the campaign of nutty-but-scary Islamist-populist Hazem Abu Ismail. It’s not hard to understand that the judge presiding the case, surrounded by a hyper-excited crowd of Hazemoon (as Abu Ismail supporters are called) chanting about jihad, may have decided on a cop-out judgement to protect his own life and that of other court staff. The victory lap the Hazemoon carried out in Cairo and subsequent respite in their activism may then provide the time for the judge to obtain more conclusive evidence from the Ministry of Interior, as he has requested, even though he had pretty conclusive proof from the Ministry of Interior. (Funny how so much of Egypt’s bonkers transition is in the details of obscures laws, regulations and their implementation — a perfect environment for lawfare-as-politics.) And if on some technicality, Abu Ismail’s clearly American mother does not prevent him from being a candidate, it will be just one more incongruity of a legal landscape that has been nonsensical since last March, when a constitutional declaration that no one got to vote on was promulgated by SCAF.

There are many ironies to what’s called in Egypt the “Mama Amreeka” scandal — a term usually used to highlight Egypt’s clientelistic relationship with the US — and these have made good fodder for columnists. This week, we chose a piece by Amr Ezzat in which he focuses on the Abu Ismail mindset — jingoistic, conspirational, xenophobic and insular — being precisely the underpinning of the provisions that bar candidates with dual-national parents from being eligible to be president of Egypt. For once there’s an article in the Egyptian press that praises America…

Translation is, as always, provided by the good folks at Industry Arabic, who rock. One hears they know Hans Wehr personally.

Hamlet Abu Ismail: When is an American Mother not American?

By Amr Ezzat, al-Masri al-Youm, 4 April 2011

I wondered: Who had the imagination to start a rumor that Hazem Salah Abu Ismail’s mother was an American citizen?

That was a few days ago before it became apparent that the rumor may have true. As inquiries into the matter near completion, the outcome is likely to determine whether or not the most controversial candidate will participate in the presidential race. If his mother did obtain American citizenship, his candidacy will be barred.

In the first article I wrote here for Al-Masry Al-Youm, I said that what is happening in the revolution – in all simplicity, and complication – is that imagination is overthrowing reality and dragging it through Cairo’s streets. And here in the citizenship dispute, we see fantasy continuing its course.

What I said sometimes seems to me like romantic praise for the revolution, but now I think maybe it was a key to seriously understand what is going on, if we allow that in revolutions and decisive moments, the diseased imagination breaks free of reason and sets out for its own destination.

The Abu Ismail campaign and those in it are the most devoted to “the popular Islamic imagination” in its many ambitions and ailments. I don’t deny that I greatly esteem their rhetoric as it appear in the best slogan for a presidential campaign: “We will live with dignity!” in addition to “realize the decisive moment.” They are slogans that are not devoid of revolutionary imagination, and it’s unfortunate that behind them lay different fantasies that almost threaten to turn dignity and the decisive moment into a disaster and misfortune for many. Abu Ismail‘s project threatens to make them educational captives to Abu Ismail’s “respectable” state and its mazes, which are torn between the revolutionary imagination and the sordid authoritarian imagination steeped in conspiracy theories.

Their conspiratorial imagination is the most fertile. Hazem Abu Ismail’s family took refuge, like many families of Islamists, in the United States, due to its degree of respect for human rights, even though he may have insulted them concerning other matters. The US and certain European countries served as refuges for Islamists, who were escaping the oppressive governments of their home countries. Nevertheless, this fact did not lead many of them to appreciate the human achievement to be found in this respect for the human rights of a group that includes — at least from the perspective of the Western conspirators — “mujahideen” fighting to establish a system of government that does not respect human rights!

In place of the conspiratorial imagination, a different sort of imagination is required in order to see that these countries, like our own, have different groups, some of which truly seek domination, while others aspire to freedom and think that the road to freedom is difficult, and might involve solidarity with its enemies when they are under attack or oppressed.

For Abu Ismail and his supporters, the conspiratorial imagination wins the day. They use these countries‘ lands and freedom against them, and consider the human rights granted to them in these countries as meaningless license given by a foolish Western enemy, in whom they see nothing but an conspirator obsessively hostile to Islam.

The Western enemy obsessively hostile to Islam was toying with this diseased imagination, which figured that the constitutional amendments, which include restrictions on presidential candidates, aim to protect Egypt from the foreign hands that were undoubtedly behind those “secularists” and youth groups who occupied squares and were in the vanguard of marches during the revolution. It does not make sense that all those people hit the streets to protest because they imagined they were participating in a revolution. It is necessary, then, to have restrictions protecting Egypt from those candidates who are agents of the West.

Neither the diseased imagination of those who lend credence to conspiracy theories nor the wisdom of Sheikh Hazem Shoman could believe that ElBaradei’s mother wears hijab, for example. This is despite the fact that “Liberalism means that your mom doesn’t wear hijab,” as Shoman put it to ElBaradei.

“Secularists” opposed the arbitrary stipulations that make it possible for the mother or father of a candidate to torpedo their child‘s candidacy merely by seeking foreign citizenship. The Islamists, however, caught up in their vision of a battle against secularism and the West, agreed to these conditions, and brought their constituency along with them, rather than join in imagining that the revolution is a battle against the authoritarianism and restrictions that shackle people’s freedom and their right to political participation.

“The ballot boxes said ‘yes’ to religion,” as Sheikh Yacoub put it. But this ‘yes’ now threatens the Islamist candidate who is without equivocation or apology the most revolutionary and devoted to the Islamist project – to an extent which scares the Muslim Brotherhood, which is fond of gradual reform. It appears that this was part of the reason Khairat al-Shater decided to run: we should not leave the project of moderate Islamism vulnerable to the ambitions of candidates associated with the military or the former regime, or to Abu Ismail’s revolutionary bravado and braggadocio.

When news first broke that Hazem Abu Ismail’s mother may have obtained American citizenship, the ironic thing was that the diseased populist imagination that imagined itself engaged in a battle with the West, secularism, and liberalism when it voted for these constitutional amendments ended up standing in its own way in the presidential contest.

Rather than recognizing this, the diseased imagination has set off to its furthest limits. Some of Abu Ismail’s supporters imagine that mere discussion of his mother is bad manners, as if her name, nationality or an official procedure regarding her were a sort of awrah we are exposing in the media or on the internet. Then Abu Ismail’s campaign officials declare that if official documents show up proving her naturalization as an American citizen, this would be an American conspiracy against Islam!

In addition to this, Abu Ismail remarked that the “Imam from a Brooklyn mosque” who confirmed to the press that his mother obtained US citizenship is a young Shi’ite man working for Iran.

Such is the American-Iranian conspiracy against Sunni Islam, which has returned to the fore once again after having supported the Tahrir sit-in leading up to Mubarak’s ouster. And this conspiracy in particular is the diseased imagination‘s finest product.

The conspiracies do not stop there. Many of Abu Ismail’s supporters believe that Khairat al-Shater’s candidacy also constitutes a conspiracy against the Islamist project – this time by the Muslim Brotherhood – by trying to split the Islamist vote.

Nothing stops the imagination of Abu Ismail’s supporters from believing in conspiracies hidden behind words and polticial positions. And the idea of decisive revolutionary moments drives them to imagine that even the Muslim Brotherhood is conspiring against Islam! So what could others possibly say?

How could one of Abu Ismail’s supporters believe me now if I said that I still oppose the text of the amendment that bars Abu Ismail from running, and how could he believe me when I say that I’m very upset that the fantasies of his popular campaign – which I explicitly insulted and cursed in my first article – will not be tested in the democratic arena. Instead, they will retreat to quench their thirst for vengeance in the realm of conspiracy, rather than recognize that their diseased conspiratorial imaginings are what made their date with destiny, and placed them in a Hamlet-like Shakespearean tragedy. The mother of that Shakespearian hero, one may recall, caused her son to reevaluate his existential situation: “To be or not to be.” And now, in the end, we find a popular candidate sitting with his supporters in a tense moment of anticipation – one that almost threatens the fate of the entire Islamist project –as he waits to find out the truth of his mother’s nationality!

The Salafi who called the azan in parliament

The above footage is from a surreal moment in yesterday's session of the Egyptian parliament (where you can be guaranteed a surreal moment at least twice a day) during which Salafi MP Mamdouh Ismail suddenly decided to call the azan, the call to prayer. Never mind that it actually did not seem to be prayer time, or that parliament was in the middle of discussion (of the Interior Ministry clashes I believe). Ismail is a very nasty type of Salafi, the litigious kind. He has brought countless morality lawsuits against prominent people, the latest of which is the ongoing one against Naguib Sawiris for putting a cartoon of Salafi Mickey and Minnie Mouse on Twitter.

A wonderfully forceful reaction by Speaker Saad al-Katatny, who told him that if he wanted to pray he could go to the nearby mosque and that he was not any more Muslim than anyone else. Good to hear that from a Muslim Brothers, who have been known to act like they're more Muslim than some. A lot of people among the Twittorevolutionaries are making disparaging sounds about Katatni but I think he's generally been a very effective, stern speaker – whatever his biases are.

Salafis in Damietta

I spent a few days in the northern port city of Damietta earlier this week, for the run-offs. Damietta being the country's most-Islamist district (I think 90% of the votes went to Islamist parties), the main competition there was between Salafis and Muslim Brothers. I wrote a piece about inter-Islamist dynamics and the emergence of the ultra-conservative Salafis for The Daily Beast. 

Damietta is a pleasant, calm, friendly town and it was a strange, fascinating, enervating experience to sit for hours in various party offices there with 1) Muslim Brothers disparaging Salafis as politically unqualified "preachers" and cooperators with the former regime now manipulating simple people through religion 2) Salafis disparaging Muslim Brothers as arrogant, sneaky and self-interested and insisting that they themselves are not extremists because (despite the fact that they can't bring themselves to print a niqabed woman's face on a poster and that they don't support democracy "if by that you mean rule of the people") they plan on gradually, "gently" persuading all of Egypt to become Saudi Arabia, without the use of physical force. 

It's really easy to get freaked out by Salafis. There is something truly disturbing about the fact that these religious fundamentalists have entered electoral politics while withholding their support for basic democratic principles and human rights. I think it was probably a mistake to legalize these extremist parties (and a contradiction with Egyptian law, which forbids parties based on religion); it was also a mistake to hold elections before writing the constitution and establishing the framework of the future state and the rules of the game. 

That said, Salafis have a real presence in society (they are much better implanted in mosques than the Muslim Brotherhood) and their ideology needs to be understood and confronted. Their rising to the surface of society, as it were, seems like a natural post-revolution process. And one encouraging sign is that most Salafis lost their run-offs (to Muslim Brothers). In think the negative media attention to some of their most ridiculous and odious statements may have had an impact on public opinion.