Egypt: The Rise of Firebrand Cleric Abdullah Rushdy

Mohamad Jebril
Egyptian Writer and Journalist
Published on 07.11.2022
Reading time: 11 minutes

Populist preacher Abdullah Rushdy stands accused of rape. Mohamed Jebril reconstructs his rise to power, against the backdrop of the radical changes Egypt has witnessed since the 2011 revolution, and his apparent fall from grace.

Abdullah Rushdy’s rise to power started in April 2015 when the young cleric appeared on the Al-Kahera 360 TV show for a fiery debate with writer Islam El-Behairy, known for his call for reforming of Islam and publicly criticizing Islamic fatwa’s and scholars.

Born in Cairo in 1982, Rushdy had studied at Al-Azhar University, the world’s most prestigious institution for Islamic learning. Yet, when TV host Osama Kamal introduced the then 33-year-old as an Al-Azhar official representative, the latter repeatedly asserted he represented only himself.

As soon as the debate started, however, Rushdy talked about Al-Azhar’s monopoly in the religious arena and its vision of Islam. At the time, Rushdy came across as superficially confident. It seemed as if he was trying to hide his stress. 

He often burst into sarcastic laughter, unusual for a serious Azari sheikh. Yet, this sarcastic laughter would become a trademark weapon with which Rushdy, the “modern sheikh” with his athletic build and elegant dress code, would silence opponents.

The debate with El-Behairy became Rushdy’s most famous. It helped create the image of the sheikh that would later dominate his social media and public profile – a teacher, sitting on a sofa facing a “troubled student.” He regularly interrupted El-Behairy to ask him about matters of faith, and every time his opponent trembled responding, the sheikh’s smile would widen.  

Like any other sheikh believing “the populace” has limits not to be crossed when talking about Sharia law, this is how Rushdy obtained his religious credibility. When looking at Rushdy’s social media pages, one immediately notices a sense of “professorship” prevails between him and his followers. 

Keeping Calm

Rushdy appeared in the public arena by hosting a religious TV show shortly after the January 25 Revolution in 2011. The years following the popular uprising 2011 were dominated by bloody conflict between the authorities and the Muslim Brotherhood. The atmosphere in the country was tense.

After 40 years of Islamic awakening [since the late President Anwar Sadat had opened door for political Islam], the mood in Egypt had changed forever. But the country never turned secular, as there was an eagerness, even in liberal and supposedly liberal circles, to protect the “essence of Islam” from any secular assault.  

But let me return to Rushdy’s debate with El-Behairy, which set the foundations for his power and influence over the minds of many. During the debate Rushdy kept his calm and spoke in proper Arabic, while his opponent spoke angrily and nervously in Egyptian slang.

As the secular and confrontational nature of Behairy’s discourse was beyond the ability of most viewers,  Rushdy’s demeanor was comforting and acceptable for a public that saw Al-Azhar as a last refuge amidst the country’s many ideological and political fluctuations.

As a result, Rushdy became a frequent guest in other debates. The tension that characterized him during his first appearance disappeared completely. He was confident, filled with the theological certainty of a man who has never made a mistake in his life. His supporters put together a widely circulated compilation video of him “smashing” his opponents. 

The sheikh kept up his calm demeanor, modern clothes, and athletic body. And he chose his battles wisely. At first, he did not discuss women’s place in society, which earned him the support of a wide segment of Egyptian women.

Mastering the Ideological Game

After the political clash that followed the 2011 revolution, the general public was in need of populist figures, which is precisely why the outspoken Brotherhood candidate Hazem Abu Ismail swept the political scene in the post-revolutionary years

A lawyer and popular TV preacher, Abu Ismail was one of the frontrunners in the country’s first presidential elections following the 2011 revolution that brought an end to late President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old reign. 

In fact, it is widely believed that, had the military not resorted to some very sophisticated legal tricks, Abu Ismail would have become Egypt’s president and not the later-ousted Mohamed Morsi. Later it would become clear how proud Rushdy is of Abu Ismail, who was arrested after the 2013 military coup and has been imprisoned ever since. 

Following his now-famous TV debate with El-Behairy, the whole of Egypt knew that someone named Abdullah Rushdy had managed to stop a critic who had openly dared to attack Islamic figures and preachers respected and revered by Al-Azhar for centuries. 

However, at that point, Rushdy only had support from loyal Azharites. His volatile political past, which varied from supporting the radical Abu Ismail to supporting general Ahmed Shafiq and the Sisi regime, played a big role in alienating the public of the Islamic awakening at first.

With the defeat of political Islam in 2013, the Islamists lost the ability to produce any meaningful political practice. While the Egyptian regime was able to strengthen its foundations with monetary support from the Gulf, the Islamist opposition fragmented. They remained united only through very general premises and memories of victory and suffering.

The gradual fragmentation which took place from 2013 to 2016, during the years of the conflict with the state, resulted in the Islamist cadres turning into “political orphans” in the real sense of the word. They were lost and in need of a father and a shepherd to protect them in those volatile times. 

Charlie Hebdo

By then, Rushdy, still the “politically subdued” Azhari preacher, was not able to attract them. Instead, they arose themselves to address their issues and engage in a Don Quixote-like attack on “the West” under the pretext of defending the Prophet of Islam. 

After all, deep in the convolutions of the Islamic mind lies the idea of victimhood. This is a magic wand whose user gains sympathy and avoids attack. The publishing of the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo’s Mohamed caricatures was the perfect trigger. Here [in the Muslim reaction] we see the fuel of Islamism: “They attack our symbols, we are persecuted, let us unite.”

Yet, after 2016, as Egypt’s political system was able to reestablish itself, the “orphans” of the Islamic awakening were at their weakest, while the idea of ​​attacking the West no longer attracted much sympathy. Hence, it was necessary to find another “near and easy” common enemy: the secularists.  

As Rushdy too had opted for the secularists to top his list of enemies, the country’s fundamentalist passions finally converged. The “orphans,” however, were to be seated in the second row, as the first row remained reserved for the Azharites of the countryside.

Rushdy managed to master the ideology game without much effort. The most important thing regarding any ideological phenomenon is to create “a knot” in the web of ideas. Once the recipient accepts the knot, he or she will accept all the nonsense, naivety, and irrationality that comes along with it.   

For the ordinary Muslim to accept the intellectual nonsense promoted by Rushdy, he has to accept the idea there is a conspiracy organized by the secularists and feminists against society and its main foundation: the family. That is the reason the ordinary Muslim will stand behind the “Lion Sheikh.” He conquers the enemies of religion and the destroyers of the family.

This secular-feminist conspiracy is Abdullah Rushdy’s knot. He once compared the secularist plot to a crusader conspiracy against Islam, and claims feminism according targets the traditional family. Once a Muslim is convinced of this knot, he will accept all details of Rushdy’s discourse, no matter how irrational. 

War against “insubordinate women”

Rushdy was able to win over the Islamists hostile to women’s liberation. Angry at the rising feminist discourse, they were ready to go to the war against what the religious right called “insubordinate women and home breakers.” 

Before the 2011 revolution, feminism was an isolated phenomenon limited to circles with little influence. And so there were no “modern” preachers [like Rushdy], and no religious versions of Lebanese crooner Fadel Chaker, who were provoked by the discourse on women’s liberation. 

The neoliberal order prevailing under Mubarak’s son Gamal and the new business elite around him saw the transformation and commodification of religion into a means for personal growth – a kind of spiritual supplement  suitable for consumption by the younger generation.

Yet, Rushdy witnessed the end of the young Mubarak’s era and perceived how the situation had changed once again. He asked himself: why would he be a “Sheikh Hareem” (a religious scholar supporting women’s rights), accused of female subordination and “worship of the female genitals” by the (male) Islamic public, without any support or protection from the liberals, while he could win over an orphan audience in need of a symbol to unite?

Following the Muslim Brotherhood’s 2013 defeat, Rushdy realized there was a void just waiting to be filled. And so he decided to build his kingdom on the shoulders of those who had been reared by the Islamic awakening [since the 1970s] and had seen its decline [following the 2011 revolution]. 

However, at first he was mistaken in thinking that Al-Azhar could fill the void. Al-Azhar, like other traditional institutions, such as the military and the judiciary, is relatively isolated from the whims of public opinion. When he realized his mistake, Rushdy stopped tagging his publications with #Al-Azhar_rising, as he had done for years. 

The decision to float the Egyptian currency in November 2016 shook the foundations of the middle class. As a result, the country witnessed a “topsy-turvy” change of class stratification, alongside a social upheaval represented by the threat of atheism and consensual sexual relations. 

Thus the fundamentalist movement headed by Rushdy gained legitimacy and the sheikh, backed by massive crowds, tried to control a public sphere becoming increasingly secular. 

The sheikh’s main audience thereby are the less well-off in society, which can easily be seen by examining their social media accounts. Most are from governorates that have long been neglected by the state, marginalized regions such as El-Fayoum, Beni Suef and Minya, which have long been strongholds of political Islam.

For them, adopting religious opinions and criticizing secularists and feminists, who often have degrees from foreign universities, work as intellectuals, and live in affluent neighborhoods, gives them a sense of importance and even superiority.

This is nothing new. Ever since the 1930s, educated people from rural areas have fueled Islamic activism. Today they represent the backbone of the “articulate” sheikh’s audience. 

With his powerful religious discourse, he has succeeded in attracting the middle class’ skeptical segments, ambivalent about the complexities of life of to the liberal model, and desperately in need of simple, straightforward and decisive answers. 

From Preaching to Blustering

“In the late 1980s, sheikh Mohammed al-Ghazali was praying in a mosque. Next to him stood a religious enthusiast who had just finished praying. The young man noticed the sheikh’s finger moving while praying during the Tashahhud. So the zealous man grabbed the distinguished sheikh’s finger and put it down violently. Having finished praying, Al-Ghazali turned to the young man and asked: ‘My son, why did you put my finger down like that?’ The bearded young man responded: ‘Don’t you know that moving a finger during prayer is heresy?’ Al-Ghazali replied: ‘Is it obligatory to break it?’”

We heard this story repeatedly during the four years we studied religion and sharia law at Al-Azhar University. It was supposed to teach us two things. First, tolerate those who are different, no matter how much they may offend us. Second, maintain respect despite the inevitable disagreements we will face. 

Rushdy always had a keen intelligence. He foresaw how maintaining a reputation like the highly respected sheikh Ghazali in a “blustering” environment would likely diminish his visibility in society and allow other “thugs” to ascend. 

It would be far better to be the “hooligan of preaching” (as his opponents call him) than become part of an isolated group of polite people.

“Hooliganism” has an important connotation here. In Egypt, it is a term normally used to describe marginalized youth in urban slums, who wear knock-off brands, speak in a violent way, and taunt their opponents in the manner of Trap artist Wegz.  

Rushdy is a replica of such anti-secular sheikhs as Mohammad Imara or Mohammed al-Ghazali. But his interpretation and manner appeals to educated rural and lower-class people, as well as the religious establishment. They appreciate him “smashing” his enemies without a shred of pity.

The original sheikhs were different. Their endless debates with secularists were not intended to “prove others wrong,” but rather to show the legitimacy of Islam as the foundation of civilization and replace “importing the European renaissance” with what the Algerian writer and philosopher Malek Bennabi called “renovation in Islam,” that is, adopting European culture in accordance with the ideological framework of Islam.

On the ruins of this “renaissance/reconciliation construct,” destroyed by the demise of political Islam, Rushdy established his kingdom. His followers do not hesitate to say why they support him, despite the intellectual and moral decline his ideas signify. 

Their main argument is that we live in a corrupt world and therefore need someone to push back even more vigorously. “Our religion is not a religion of weakness, we are the most revered, above all others, and everyone below us is vile.” This sense of superiority is a core trait of fundamentalism. 

Meanwhile, the Rushdy-style bravado has spread. Even those who do not care about him or what he represents praise his method of rebutting opponents on Twitter, just as they praise Messi’s flashy play with his French league rivals. 

Although this may seem quite amusing, behind the “game,” which receives widespread support on social media, lurks an element of intimidation that cannot be disregarded. 

As soon as the sheikh picks an adversary, the right-wing mob will consider him a legitimate target who can no longer lead a regular life. This was for example the case with author Johnny William Arthur, who was physically assaulted by the sheikh’s adherents. 

And such mobs are not content with attacking only intellectual adversaries. When Egyptian news outlets published a statement by a Mrs. Jihan, who accused Rushdy of raping her, claiming the assault lasted for 15 minutes, his fans used it to glorify him by describing him as “a lion even in bed.” 

They never even considered Jihan might be a victim and that the assault reflects a tragic experience rather than evidence of virility. The most significant linguistic term in the dictionary of the sheikh’s followers is the word “دَشْمِل,” which means “to smash.” They believe their perspectives on life are as Allah intended and everyone must bow to them or be “smashed” – even if they are victims of rape. 

Mohamad Jebril
Egyptian Writer and Journalist
Published on 07.11.2022
Reading time: 11 minutes

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