Increasing religious conservatism, a trend in Egypt over the past two decades, is taking on a new dimension; over the past several years, Egypt has witnessed a striking increase in Salafism, a fundamentalist Sunni movement that seeks to emulate the Islam practiced during the time of the Prophet Mohammed, and whose adherents disavow "modern" activities such as politics. Although there are no reliable statistics available to measure this shift, Salafis are increasingly visible among Egypt's lower and middle classes, in universities and on city streets. Their rising appeal as a "major societal shift," and assert that Salafi preachers have more influence with Egyptians than the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), a group which Salafists criticize due to its engagement in politics.
While there are several Salafi groups in Egypt, there appears to be no centralized leadership or infrastructure, and the various organizations seem focused on activities promoting their philosophical approach to Islam. The 10-12 Salafi-themed satellite TV channels broadcasting from Egypt have been key in its spread, as has alleged Saudi funding. Other factors cited in the Salafi upsurge include widespread popular frustration with governmental religious institutions, and a largely passive Government of Egypt approach towards burgeoning Salafi ideology. Increasingly, Egyptian political elites are uneasy about the rising popular resonance of Salafis, concerned that, although the Egyptian groups do not currently advocate violence, their extreme interpretation of Islam creates an environment where susceptibility to radicalism and jihadi ideas is heightened. As one contact opined, citing the experiences of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, both of whom attended Salafi mosques in Cairo, Salafism "is a bridge to extremism."
Strolling through Cairo and Alexandria's lower and middle-class neighborhoods, one cannot help but notice the proliferation of niqabs (full facial veils, exposing only the eyes) on women, and the mid-calf galabiyah robe and untrimmed beards favored by male Salafis, who believe such an appearance emulates the dress of the Prophet Mohammed and his wives. Only ten years ago, the niqab was virtually absent from Cairo's streets; today, an Egyptian woman wearing a headscarf riding on Cairo's metro will often be harassed by her peers for not sporting a niqab, and an unveiled woman will be the target of either derision, or earnest proselytizing as to why she must take on the facial cover. Egypt's famed annual Book Fair, once a hotbed of liberal thought, has taken a distinct conservative turn in recent years, with Salafi literature competing with the other books available. Ask a Cairo taxi driver or street vendor about Salafi preachers Mohamed Yaqoub or Mohamed Hassan, and you will be treated to a paean about the men, and how superior they are to "corrupt" and "slavish government employees" at Al Azhar, the ten-century old Sunni religious institution generally revered by most Egyptians.
There is consensus among a wide array of Egyptians - politicians, academics, analysts, and "ordinary" people - that Salafism is on the rise, with some characterizing it as "a wave sweeping the country" and "nothing short of a major societal shift." While there are no formal statistics available to support this contention, anecdotally, it does seem that Salafis are experiencing an upsurge. Salafis are not a majority among Cairo's population, but do constitute a noticeable minority. Some opine that leading Salafi preachers now have more sway with Egyptians than the influential Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
College professors in Cairo and Ismailiya have complained that many of their female students will no longer shake their hands; the academics wring their own hands over what they see as "a Salafi wave of intolerance that is chipping away at our traditional Egyptian identity." A recent op-ed in the independent newspaper "Al Masry Al Yom" discussed the "transformation" of western Cairo; the article was titled "Monaqabat Street" (the street of the niqab-wearing women), and highlighted the increased number of niqab-clad women, men in short galabeyas, and numerous Salafi books for sale in the area. The author wrote, "(The neighborhood) has many Islamic bookstores, but readers there do not buy the writings of Al Azhar sheikhs ... They criticize revered Muslim scholars, and instead prefer preachers like Mahmoud Al Masry, Mohamed Hussein Yaqoub, and Mohamed Hassan, all stars on the satellite channels these days. (Moderate) Muslim preacher Amr Khaled has no place here, perhaps because of his modern appearance. In addition, his books, people there say, are just stories, not suitable for those who want to read religious tomes."
In addition to the regularly cited factors behind an overall increased piety among Egyptians - poverty, and the conservative influences that the millions of Egyptians working in the Gulf bring back to Egypt with them - most observers also point to "the total lack of credibility of the leaders of the Al Azhar religious establishment" as creating a vacuum of religious leadership that Salafi preachers are filling. One hears repeatedly that "Al Azhar has no legitimacy" and "it is viewed as just doing the government's bidding, issuing pro-regime fatwas whenever Hosni Mubarak wants it." While the institution is respected for its illustrious history, the Al Azhar leadership now has little street credibility, and is tarred as being a government agent. Thus many Egyptians, disenchanted with the regime, shy away from Al Azhar, and seek religious guidance elsewhere.
There are 10-12 Salafi-themed TV channels broadcasting from Egypt on Nilesat, most of which started-up since 2003. The most popular are Al Nas ("The People"), Al Rahma ("The Mercy"), and Al Fajr ("The Dawn"). All feature religious programming, focused on the sermonizing of prominent Salafi preachers, and some programs on social issues. The role of these channels in furthering Salafi appeal in Egypt is substantial. One expert in Islamist movements at Egypt's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies describes Egypt's experience as "satellite Salafism": "These channels are reaching people in ways that mosques and local preachers never could, and furthering Salafi thought, as well as the popularity of particular shaykhs."
Analysts also point to Salafist charity work as another key factor in their growth. Taking a page out of the MB's playbook, Salafis have focused on providing social services, such as funding medical treatment or educational assistance for lower-income Egyptians. The two largest Salafi organizations in Egypt - Gamey'ah Shar'iah and Ansar al Sunna - are registered NGO's with the Ministry of Social Solidarity. According to their own descriptions, they offer health-care services and literacy classes, in addition to preaching and Quran recitation classes. Conventional wisdom is that funding for both groups comes from Saudi Arabia, and from wealthy Egyptians living in the Gulf. The Minister of Islamic Endowments ("Awqaf") Hamdy Zakzouk, was recently quoted in the press as stating that both organizations, as well as Al Sunna Al Mohammedeya, another Egypt-based Salafi NGO, "receive significant funding from Saudi Arabia."
Perhaps one of the most potent factors in facilitating the spread of Salafism has been the Government of Egypt's largely passive approach to it. The government was consumed with the political threat posed by the MB. In contrast, while not encouraging non-violent Salafi groups, it is not actively opposing them. The oppressive limitations imposed on the MB and opposition political parties contrast with the relatively free operating environment that Salafists enjoy. A frustrated leader of the opposition Tagammu party complained that "Salafis are allowed to broadcast programming on over ten channels in Egypt, but I and my opposition colleagues are not allowed to run a TV station, or produce political party programming!" Some oppositionists speculate that the Government of Egypt is happy to allow the unfettered spread of Salafi ideology, viewing it as drawing popular support away from the MB. Two analysts on Islamist movements caution that the regime "is playing a very dangerous and foolhardy game": by allowing numerous Salafi TV channels to broadcast, and not restraining the activities of Salafi groups, they fear the Government of Egypt is making the same mistake Sadat did in the 1970's when he encouraged the activities of Islamist groups as a counter-balance to the then-powerful leftist opposition, and ended up opening a Pandora's box of violent Islamism that resulted in his assassination.
Some experts on political Islam lament the Government of Egypt's "huge mistake" in fighting the MB, "which espouses moderate Islam, political participation, and gradual political change through democratic means," rather than challenging Salafis, "who view democracy as an infidel idea, do not believe in gradual change or political participation, but rather a wholesale shift in political systems and religious attitudes." The Salafi creed of "obedience to the ruler" resonates more with the Government of Egypt than the MB's message of political change. Some fret that the Government of Egypt's decreasing tolerance for the MB, an organization which they view as serving as a "fairly responsible, non-violent, and organized" release valve for some of the societal and political pressures in Egypt, will back-fire, driving frustrated MB members towards the less centralized, and therefore less controllable, and more extreme Salafis, and also possibly accelerating the rise of a Salafi-wing of the MB.
The MB-Salafi dynamic is far from warm, fueled by the inherent tension between the two movements' worldviews, with the MB embracing political participation and a less extreme form of Islam, and the Salafists adhering to a more fundamentalist belief system and rejecting politics. MB leaders and prominent Salafis routinely denounce each other in the press for being agents of the security services. According to our contacts who regularly meet with the MB, the "moderate" leadership of the organization is aggressively anti-Salafi, and concerned by "Salafi creep" in Egyptian society. More conservative MB leaders are allegedly more agnostic towards the Salafists, asserting that there is no conflict between the two groups, and "applauding all Muslims practicing their faiths." Increasing the discomfort of some MB leaders is the reported trend, most often in rural areas, of younger MB members becoming increasingly Salafi-oriented.
The different approaches of the two movements to the election of President Obama are a useful comparison of their two worldviews. MB Supreme Guide Mehdi Akef publicly lauded the election of the President, saying that "Obama has awakened the dreams and resurrected the hopes of not just the American people, but in the peoples of the entire world." Hassan Abu Al Ashbal, a popular Salafi preacher on the "Al Nas" channel, did not comment on the elections, but rather focused on calling on President Obama to convert to Islam: "If you refuse to return to your (Islamic) origins ... and to withdraw your huge armies and military bases from the lands of the Muslims ... Know, Obama, that in the lands of Islam, there are people who seek death, and are eager for it, even more than you and your people are eager for life."
After years of largely looking the other way, parts of the Government of Egypt apparatus are slowly moving to address the Salafi wave. In December 2008, the Ministry of Islamic Endowments ("Awqaf") began distributing to mosque employees nationwide a book titled, "Our Forefathers and Salafism," which Minister Hamdi Zaqzouq said aims to correct "erroneous concepts" promulgated by Salafis, and argues that the real teachings of the Prophet Muhamed were to be "dynamic" and to "incorporate modern values." Also in December, the Awqaf ministry announced it is allocating 10 million LE (approximately 1.8 million USD) to fight the spread of the niqab in Egypt. The project entails training 45,000 imams and organizing 900 workshops nationwide to "educate Egyptians that the niqab is just a custom that is not mandated by Islam." The ministry is also distributing to mosques a book authored by Zaqzouq, titled, "The Niqab is a Custom, Not a Religious Requirement."
The Ministry of Health, which in 2007 published a statistic estimating that nearly 10,000 of Egypt's 90,000 nurses wear a niqab, mandated in October 2008 that nurses cannot wear the facial covering while at work. Implementation of the edict was initially spotty. Throughout 2008, the security services allegedly approached several of the Salafi satellite channels, encouraging them to diversify their programming from just hard-core religious sermons. The popular "Al Hikma" (The Wisdom) channel was shut-down in October 2008, its transmission suspended by the security services; "Al Nas" has started airing programs on "social issues," in response to pressure from State Security. Two planned new Salafi satellite channels were also not given a broadcasting permit in early 2008, and so never got on the air.
While the Government of Egypt is undertaking belated efforts to confront rising Salafist theology, the governmental religious establishment itself appears somewhat conflicted on the issue, in part because there is not much daylight between some conservative preachers and Salafis. For instance, the director of the Cairo directorate of the Awqaf Ministry was quoted in a January newspaper interview as saying that "Al Rahma" and "Al Nas" are "moderate Islamic channels," and that Salafi preacher Mohamed Hassan is "moderate and well-educated." During the 2008 Gaza crisis, Hassan delivered a sermon on the "Al Rahma" channel stating that, "The Jews are the real terrorists and extremists. They are blood suckers, and shedders of blood. Review the history of the Jews from beginning to end, from the very first moment to the last moment, which is now. They specialize in the shedding of blood, in crime, and in killing - even the killing of prophets."
Some Salafis have been appointed to serve in governmental religious institutions; one example is Shaykh Youssef Al Badry of the influential Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. Other members of such institutions do not self-identify as Salafis, but reportedly agree with many Salafi ideas. Some experts in the anthropology of Salafi movements fear that Salafis are "infiltrating" religious institutions, and that, "they are very smug about it. viewing it as part of a long-term plan to gain the dominant position in such organizations."
Egyptian political elites are uneasy about the rising resonance of Salafis with the population. Although current Egyptian Salafi groups do not advocate violence, their extreme interpretation of Islam creates an environment where susceptibility to radicalism and extremist ideas is heightened. The experiences of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, both of whom attended Salafi mosques in Cairo, suggest that Salafism "is a bridge to extremism." Eventual Salafi political involvement is "near inevitable." While Salafi groups in Egypt forswear politics, the line does seem to be getting blurred. During the 2008 Gaza crisis, Salafi clerics delivered some of Egypt's most fiery sermons and calls for violent action against Israel; and a debate was rumored to be ongoing in Salafi circles about the possibility of further political engagement. The popularity of some Salafi shaykhs also implies that they have potential influence over significant numbers of voters during elections. While taking pains to observe "red-lines" in public commentary, and never criticizing the Egyptian government, in private, many Salafists refer to the Mubarak regime as "kafir" (unbelievers). "Takfiris," those who declare current Muslim leaders as un-Islamic, provide the doctrinal foundation for Al Qaeda and the most extreme and dangerous of Islamic splinter groups.
Burgeoning Salafism will make Egypt less tolerant and more sectarian. Observers fear an increase in anti-Christian sentiments, anti-Shi'a rhetoric, and a chilling effect on Egypt's cultural scene. The upsurge in Salafism, and in overall religiosity among Egyptians, will necessarily have a political impact, on all political parties, including the NDP. How can politicians champion liberal values in an environment like this, when it will cost popular support?
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