North Africa, West Asia

Religion and politics in post-coup Egypt

How have the highest religious authorities in Egypt reacted to the conflict between Egypt's military and the Muslim Brotherhood, and what does this tell us about the part they play in Egypt's unfolding destiny and the changing roles of religion and politics?

Amr Osman
28 November 2013

“Shoot them in the heart . . . Blessed are those who kill them, and those who are killed by them . . . We must cleanse our Egypt from these riffraff . . . They shame us . . . They stink. This is how God has created them. They are hypocrites and seceders . . . Stand your ground. God is with you, and the Prophet Muhammad is with you, and the believers are with you . . . Numerous visions have attested that the Prophet is with you. May God destroy them, may God destroy them, may God destroy them. Amen!”    

These are the words of Egypt’s former Mufti, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, speaking to an audience of the Egyptian military and police leadership (according to the person introducing him in that event, Gomaa was going to talk about Islam’s “clemency”). This audience included General Sisi, Egypt’s Defense Minister and its current de facto leader, as well as senior armed forces commanders and the Minister of Interior and his senior aides. It is not known how the video clip (broadcast by Al Jazeera) that shows Gomaa’s speech was released and by whom. In all probability, it took place in the headquarters of the Egyptian Defense Ministry in Cairo before the carnage on August 14 by the Egyptian military against pro-Morsi “defenders of legitimacy” sit-ins in Cairo – which left thousands dead, maimed and injured. After the massacre, there is no obvious context for Gomaa’s speech.   

Ali Gomaa was appointed as Mufti (a religious scholar invested with state authority to issue official fatwas) by deposed president Mubarak in 2003, a position that he maintained until 2013. Alongside the Grand Mufti, the Grand Imam or Sheikh of Al-Azhar is the other prominent official in Egypt, responsible for religious matters. Al Azhar is considered by many Muslims worldwide to be the highest authority in Sunni Islamic thought and Islamic jurisprudence. During the January 2011 revolution, Gomaa condemned the protests, but did not openly call for violence to suppress them. Immediately after the July 2013 coup, Gomaa jumped into the picture again, eclipsing the current Mufti of Egypt (rumours had it that he opposed the coup) and even the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib, who was present at and blessed General Sisi’s announcement of his roadmap, including the immediate suspension of the constitution and the appointment of an interim president. Gomaa had established a reputation as an important scholar of “moderate” Islam, calling for dialogue with other religions, and issuing fatwas that supported the rights of women and minorities. Understandably, he enjoys much popularity among the more “liberal” segments of the Egyptian society and the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds.  

The collaboration of Muslim scholars with tyrants is well known in Egypt and everywhere in the Muslim world; indeed, political conservatism (in the sense of supporting powerful leadership irrespective of its religious and moral commitments and forbidding any challenge to it) has been a hallmark of mainstream Sunni Islam since early Islamic history. However, Gomaa’s speech is still remarkably striking, not only in its explicitness in encouraging and legitimating mass murder by the state (and not just justifying these ex post facto), but also because of its uncompromisingly aggressive tone and, one could say, remarkably over-the-top language.

Obviously, Gomaa was bestowing religious legitimacy on plans for violent crackdown on protesters to “clear the conscience” of the security troops before they embarked on their assault. And to do that, Gomaa used several strategies. He began with history, likening the protesters to the “hypocrites” who lived in Medina at the time of the Prophet Muhammad and sought to undermine Islam. Furthermore, he correlated them to a group of fanatic Muslims, called the Khawarij (meaning “seceders”), who, only a few decades after the Prophet’s death, were among the earliest Muslim groups to use violence against fellow Muslims who disagreed with their understanding of Islam. He then described the security troops, who would supposedly die while killing the protesters, as martyrs whom God would bless in the heavens. Additionally, he asserted that God, the Prophet Muhammad, and the “believers” supported the cause of the security forces. Known for his association with one version or another of Sufism (Islamic mysticism), Gomaa went so far as to say that visions (dreams that holy persons purportedly experience, and that are taken as a source of guidance to the right path, often featuring either the Prophet Muhammad or dead saints), confirmed that the security forces were on the right side. Last but apparently not least, the protesters are filthy and unclean, and their odour is offensive. God had chosen to create them that way, Gomaa remarked.

Only a few days later, the Egyptian security forces embarked on their Gomaa’-authorized jihad, not only for the cause of Egypt, and not only for the cause of Islam, but even for the benefit of the environment. Live ammunition was used against the protesters, their tents were set ablaze, and the streets were cleansed of their bodies by bulldozers. In one incident, a tear gas canister was thrown into a fully packed, unventilated police truck where detainees were left tied to each other for seven hours despite their cries. Predictably, most of them were killed. Without the context described above, it may be truly difficult to comprehend the cruelty of this scene or to attribute it to regular police brutality.

Apparently appalled by the unexpected release of the video clip, Gomaa was quick in denying that he was talking about the MB or the protesters and asserted that he meant the “terrorists in Sinai and elsewhere”. Hardly anybody took these claims seriously given Gomaa’s frequent references in his speech to President Morsi’s (lack of) legitimacy. In fact, Gomaa has kept a low profile since that incident a few weeks ago, and it is likely that he would not be playing a significant role in Egypt’s future even if the current regime succeeds in holding onto power. For Egypt’s current leadership, it wouldn’t be wise to solicit the support of a religious scholar who probably “took it too far” when there are plenty of other scholars who still maintain a degree of credibility and are willing to play the traditional role of most Sunni scholars.

But the significance of this episode goes deeper than Gomaa’s status and future role, for it could indicate that the alliance between the Egyptian political/military leadership and the religious establishment may be taking a serious turn, not just on a religious level (not just Islam, but also Christianity, given that Pope Tawadros II was also present and blessed General Sisi’s coup) and politics, but also on the level of the religious/political discourse of Al Azhar, namely, what can be said about the use of religious language in the process of justifying the state’s dealings with oppositional forces.

The new Egyptian Constitution (now under preparation by an appointed committee made up of almost exclusively “liberal” figures) will determine the new relationship between the ruling military elite and “official Islam.” In all likelihood, the old arrangement of giving a few concessions to the ‘ulama of Al Azhar in return either for their silence or occasional support when it is absolutely necessary on political issues, will have to give way to a new relationship where both sides become increasingly dependent on each other. The religious establishment will have to be unrelenting and explicit in its support for the regime and endorsement of its policies, whereas the military leadership will have to solicit the active partnership (and not what we might call the old “positive marginalization”) of the religious establishment and its services in justifying its policies prior to, rather than after, putting them into effect.

This is not to belittle the role Al Azhar has traditionally played. However, the new position of Al Azhar will be significantly more crucial as a partner of the new coalition of interests that will rule Egypt. In other words, Azhari scholars may now be willing tofight to maintain the present military regime (even if a civilian authority is put at the forefront) because the failure to do so could have grave consequences for their own very existence. At the same time, the military must be aware that its need for overt religious justification on political issues comes at a price; General Sisi ordered that both Sheikh Al Azhar and the Pope of Alexandria should be given armored vehicles, a step that is more than just symbolic.    

On the level of discourse, it is remarkable that Al Azhar’s Committee of Distinguished Scholars, of which Gomaa is a member, kept silent on this issue. Given Gomaa’s own attempt to alter the interpretation of what he said, it might have been expected that Al Azhar would quickly distance itself from that interpretation by issuing a statement condemning any view that encouraged the use of violence against protesters or describing fellow Muslims as “seceders” who “stink.” But this was not the case. The mere silence of Al Azhar indicates that the use of such language in describing political opponents is a valid option, and can be used to justify state violence and take precedence over other discourse of Al Azhar, where modern values of human rights and political and religious freedoms are presented as genuinely Islamic. This was the discourse that was emphasized when the “Islamists” were in office in Egypt. Now, this discourse has to remain on the margin to be recalled again when need be. What is now needed is another discourse, the true, genuine discourse of traditional Sunnism which Al Azhar represents. 

Azhari scholars will now engage in a number of self-fulfillment prophecies, including traditional dicta of the sort of “better the devil we know” and “better a year under a tyrant than sixty years of strife”. These views currently have a much more favorable milieu to gain wide currency and further popularity. This was not inevitable, however. The way Azhari scholars seem to have conceptualized the changes that were going on in Egypt when President Morsi was in office must have confirmed to them, not only that the alliance with the state was the safer bid had they wanted to maintain their privileges and consolidate their interests, but also that the traditional Sunni approach to politics is sound.

Al-Azhar (as well as both the Salafis and the Sufis despite their many contradictions) has failed to break out of the vicious circle of the traditional conception of the relationship of religion and politics. Their own decision to take sides in the conflict between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood was both dictated by their traditional understanding and has at the same time confirmed this understanding. By siding with the state, al-Azhar has adhered to its traditional views, failing to realize that their position contradicted the discourse they propagated for political reasons in the last few months prior to the coup.  

In other words, the fight against “politicizing religion” in Egypt (the main perpetrators of which were taken to be the Muslim Brotherhood) may prove even more detrimental to both politics and religion in Egypt and beyond. It is hardly conceivable that any genuine reforms could be initiated by the traditional Azhari scholars. Ironically, this Azhari/Sunni traditionalism had contributed in providing a raison d’être for the emergence of “political Islam” in the 20th century; today, it will continue to do so, although the direction of the new trajectory of political Islam is not yet clear.


This piece was published on the Middle East Monitor on 21 November 2013.    

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