Flirting with Extremism: Egypt’s Nostalgia for Salafism

Ahmad Hassan- Egyptian journalist

The North Coast Religious Convoy decision recalls the Ministry’s similarly controversial “fatwa booths,” planted two years ago in metro stations where 3 million Egyptians commute every day. Such debasement of religion into superficial kiosks, pamphlets, and convoys has had the opposite effect: it further repelled people.

Young men and women relax in their swimming suits and drink alcohol, which is what people here on the Egyptian North Coast normally do. Through the loudspeakers, carnival songs are blasting. Then, arrives a young preacher from Al-Azhar in Cairo, in a speckless caftan and a turban around his head. He takes over the PA system and exhorts the girls to cover their heads and their “‘Awra” (Body parts that are considered intimate.) 

This is the scene we imagined when Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments – Awqaf- said it was preparing to send a preaching mission to the North Coast and El-Alamein. The announcement came only a few days after the American singer Jennifer Lopez gave a huge concert in El-Alamein.

The role of these convoys, according to the ministry’s brief and ambiguous statement, is to answer all religion-related questions and concerns that people in the North may have. But the ministry— specifically created by the Egyptian President himself to rekindle the religious discourse― has lost the north by choosing this audience for its proselytizing mission. People who come to these beaches are absolutely uninterested in so-called religious guidance and counseling.

The North Coast is a summer destination for affluent Egyptians. High-end living and a private atmosphere have always attracted businessmen, famous artists and athletes. Nothing hampers the freedom of the elite here. Girls can wear shorts, drink on the beach, and dance in loud nightclubs. So when they got wind of religious convoys heading their way, they responded with an avalanche of deriding comments on social media. “Islam is coming to the North Coast,” some jeered, posting mocking, photoshopped pictures of the beach, filled with covered girls who have converted after the mission’s visit. 

Sheikh Yasser Borhamy

Booths for Inquiries and Fatwa

The North Coast Religious Convoy decision recalls the Ministry’s similarly controversial “fatwa booths,” planted two years ago in metro stations where 3 million Egyptians commute every day. Such debasement of religion into superficial kiosks, pamphlets, and convoys has had the opposite effect: it further repelled people. 

The “convoy decision” betrays a Salafist mindset at the Ministry, and what seems like a desire to exert control over a free-minded group of people, instead of combating the intellectual darkness prevailing in Upper Egypt and its countryside, where extreme poverty and illiteracy have made people susceptible to Salafi and Jihadi propaganda, and the resulting acts of violence across the country. 

Amina Khairy, a journalist and writer, says the Ministry’s move is a huge mistake: “People up there are the least likely to head to a kiosk and ask about the fatwa (ruling) for the right use of eye drops, or whether one should enter the bathroom with the right foot first or the left,” she says. And if President Sissi has been calling for the renewal of religious discourse on every occasion, Khairi reminds us that the North Coast is not the jihadists’ land, where religion is used to further political goals. No one will buy into any kind of brainwashing there.” 

Salafism returned to the city of Alexandria, in the person of Sheikh Yasser Al-Borhamy, the founder and vice-president of Al-Da’wa Al-Salafiya Movement (The Salafist Call.) He is now preaching at Al Kholafa’ Al Rashideen Mosque in Abu Sulayman area, the stronghold of Da’wah. Having been suspended for 4 years, Al Borhamy’s reappearance was seen as part of the Ministry’s efforts to revive the Salafi ideology. An ideology Egyptians clearly reject. A war was waged against it over the past years.  

The Ministry justifies its allowing the extremist sheikh to come back into the picture and preach in mosques again, by the list of restrictions it says it imposed on his mode of operation. The Ministry’s guidelines urge the sheikh to avoid promoting any political ideas or issuing controversial jurisprudence, especially fatwas concerning women and Christians. The sheikh is equally warned not to veer off from the highly regarded Al-Azhari Mosque’s moderate approach to teaching. 

Borhamy’s Return

The Salafist doctor came into the limelight shortly after the revolution of 25 January, when a competition began between Salafists and the Muslim brotherhood for political presence. The Salafists established “Al Nour” party (“The Light”) and went on to win the second highest number of seats after the Brotherhood at the parliamentary elections. Those are the same Salafists who, just before the revolution, vehemently opposed “rebelling against the ruler,” called to prohibit elections because it is incompatible with sharia, and brandished the motto, “Democracy is for Infidels.”

Borhamy first shot to fame with his controversial fatwas, such as the one prohibiting sending greetings to Christians on their holidays, and threatening to charge “infidels” with jizya (a yearly taxation) should Borhamy become president. Another fatwa equates liberals with heretics because they reject sharia law. One fatwa commands women to wear two pairs of socks to cover their heels, which are considered ‘awrah. In another, if a wife refuses to sleep with her husband when he is on viagra, the sheikh instructs to discipline the woman. Women are to overcome their “mood swings” at all times, and unconditionally obey their husbands, the key to keeping families together, as he said in a statement. 

These extremist views notwithstanding, Borhamy has otherwise been loyal to the authorities, in keeping with the Salafist tradition. Being the only Islamic party officially recognized by the authorities, Al-Nour has demonstrated great pragmatism in preserving its political gains. When masses took to the streets on 30 June, 2013 and demanded the immediate resignation of President Mohammad Morsi, the Salafists turned their backs on the Brotherhood and stood with the army and the liberals. They then endorsed Al-Sisi in his two consecutive runs for the presidency. And Al-Nour’s positioning is consistent with the government’s and the parliamentary majority.

Endorsing Al Sisi was “a form of worship,” as Borhamy puts it, in the sense that, to him, it was a choice that would help preserve the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims, protect the unity of Egypt and prevent turmoil and chaos. 

Through the past few years, the party has stood firm in the face of media campaigns that sought to undermine its credibility, demanded its isolation, and called on the government to tame the crisis resulting from the ban on preaching. 

These extremist views notwithstanding, Borhamy has otherwise been loyal to the authorities, in keeping with the Salafist tradition.

Pragmatist Salafists

The Salafists own 300 mosques and prayer quarters around the country, where the movement’s prominent sheikhs used to preach Friday sermons and give religious council, until the Ministry of Endowments, with Muhammad Mukhtar Jumu’ah at its head, confiscated their mosques and properties in Alexandria, Matrouh and Beheita, and designated Azhari sheikhs in their stead, according to the law governing preaching practice. 

That, however, did not deter the pragmatist sheikhs from maintaining their alliance with the authorities. They preserved their twelve parliamentary seats, and were able to spare their supporters security crackdowns that befell other Islamists after the overthrow of President Morsi in 2013. All that left the door ajar for Borhamy and other Salafists to return to preach. 

“The state does not go after the Salafists because they are obedient to the political line it designated for them,” says Rabab Kamal, a researcher on religious thought. “The Salafists never objected to anything, except perhaps once against the inclusion of the word ‘civil’ in the recent constitutional amendments.”

In fact, Kamal sees the return of Borhamy, and before him the Salafist leader Muhammad Said Ruslan, as an attempt on part of the government to reward the Salafists for their obedience while, at the same time, “creating a legitimate framework for their operation by setting certain roles for them.” 

Egyptian secularists, on the other hand, are enraged by Borhamy’s reemergence, and by any form of acknowledgement for religious parties. Writer and journalist Hamdi Rizk dreads the presence of “Salafi sympathizers at the Ministry of Endowments, those who could not bear to see their sheikh relegated to silence, and yearned to see him back on the pulpit and the Salafi presence reasserted on the Egyptian scene.” 

Khaled Muntassir, a prominent critic of Salafism, is suspicious of the Ministry’s motives for bringing back Borhamy who is most famous for his attack on women and Copts. “Believing that Borhamy will abide by the rules is a lost bet. The man had previously bragged about how he deluded the constitution committee into passing an amendment that would allow Salafists to establish a religious state.” Muntassir asks, “why would the Ministry court such a man who adopts takfiri dogmas, the same dogmas that gave birth to groups like Isis?” 

The Ministry’s “nostalgia” for salafist sermons is coupled with an ever-increasing tolerance for extremists. Recently, Awqaf reinstated the sheikh/TV personality Abdullah Rushdi in his role at the mosque of Sayyida Nafisa, after he had been restricted by a court order to administrative work only, for calling Christians “infidels” on his TV show. His opinion is still the same. He declares the Christian creed “corrupt.” He admonishes girls to refrain from sharing photos on social media to avoid temptation. He calls for a law that punishes those who eat in public during the fasting month of Ramadan. 

Kamal says that, alongside fanatical Salafism, there is another, more enlightened current that seeks change and improvement. So, not all state institutions are inclined to one school of jurisprudence. They cannot all be judged based on the mentality prevailing at the office of the presidency, or the government’s, or the parliament.” 

Kamal points out that, contrary to general claims, Salafism did not only begin to spread with the advent of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Even before that, Egypt was never really liberal. The country is deeply rooted in religious thought. It is home to Al-Azhar Mosque and University, the approach of which it has adopted for a long time. Add to that the numerous other institutions disseminating fundamental religious beliefs. 

In the history of the relationship between the state and mass culture, Kamal identifies a certain complicity. At some point, the state imposed a certain way of life on the people. In the 70s, it responded positively to the salafist tendencies among a section of the population. As a result, the miniskirts of the 60s were replaced by veils and burqas. 

Combating extremist sheikhs and replacing them with state-supporting ones, or choosing scholars who counter Islamist fatwas by no less fundamentalist opinions: these strategies, Kamal fears, ensure the state remains captive to religious rule, even after getting rid of political Islam. 

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