By Iason Athanasiadis
“Since the revolution, Salafis have attacked Sufi shrines in Cairo and Alexandria, called the appointment of a Christian governor “anti-Islamic”, demanded that Egypt become an Islamist republic, protested Osama bin Laden’s killing and prayed in public for his soul in a mosque adjacent to the Coptic cathedral in Cairo,” The National reports.
5/11/2011 Egypt (The National) – The Muslim-Christian clashes that killed 12 in north-west Cairo on Saturday are an ominous signal.
Egyptian authorities said yesterday that they have arrested the “mastermind” and 14 others in the violence at a Coptic church, in which six Christians and four Muslims died along with two persons not yet identified.
Despite the arrests, the government’s promise of an “iron hand” against sectarian fighting may not be sufficient to control the Salafi movement, which is a potent force in Egypt but one little mentioned in accounts of the revolution.
While Hosni Mubarak was president, men who simply appeared to be Salafis were systematically victimised. Now, in the vacuum created by the regime’s dismantling, actual Salafis are stepping confidently into the public sphere. They are led by influential preachers such as Sheikh Muhammad Hassan, who bucked the Salafi establishment’s quietist position on the revolution; he publicly supported it.
Since then, Sheikh Hassan has participated in a damage limitation delegation to a Christian village which had seen sectarian strife. He baffled locals by striking a slightly medieval note in assuring them that they would be “protected”, as if the transitional government were incapable of guaranteeing their rights.
Other Salafis have been less conciliatory and called for Christians to pay a religious tax as they did in the 7th century.
Since the revolution, Salafis have attacked Sufi shrines in Cairo and Alexandria, called the appointment of a Christian governor “anti-Islamic”, demanded that Egypt become an Islamist republic, protested Osama bin Laden’s killing and prayed in public for his soul in a mosque adjacent to the Coptic cathedral in Cairo.
The rise of the Salafists is arguably the most alarming dynamic unleashed by the Egyptian revolution.
But this story has been muffled by an upbeat media narrative that describes the anti-Mubarak movement as dominated by secular youth (in a country of 85 million with median age of 24, the revolution naturally contained many young people). Media coverage was also fixated on the perceived or real dangers contained in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But as revolutionaries and Mubarak loyalists fought for Tahrir Square, the Salafis maintained an aggressive but low-profile presence at its barricaded entrances.
Part of the bias in coverage has been created by protest organisers. An effort by Sheikh Hassan to enter the square and proclaim his support for the revolution was thwarted by protesters concerned that he would compromise the secular atmosphere they were feeding the western media. That version of the story put the secular users of social networks at the front and centre of coverage.
“I’m not worried so much about the Muslim Brothers as about the Salafis,” said Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace prize winner and presidential candidate, last month, voicing the fears of secularists. “Some of them, well, there is no common ground with them. They want a completely theocratic state. One of their spokesmen said the other day that democracy is against Islam, and the ultimate authority should be the Quran – as, of course, interpreted by him.”
We miss these signposts of the times at our peril. The 1979 Iranian revolution’s religious roots were largely ignored by the international press, which preferred to interview foreign language-speaking Iranians rather than the less sophisticated crowds supporting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Continuing to understate Salafi influence while focusing on the more influential and more moderate Muslim Brotherhood is a mistake. The Salafis are influencing the post-revolutionary landscape, perhaps more than secularists who are distracted by their focus on November’s elections.
Preacher Mohammed Hussein Yacoub caused a storm of protest in the vote’s aftermath by asserting that “the country is ours”. It is not an absurd statement: the army regularly consults with the Salafis on how to move forward towards the presidential elections.
The weekend’s deadly rioting is an alarm bell that Christian-Muslim relations in post-Mubarak Egypt risk going down the road of post-Saddam Iraq.
That stability vacuum resulted in a major exodus of Middle Eastern Christians from the region. Let Egypt not follow Iraq’s example.