The army-appointed interim Egyptian government issued legislation on Wednesday reaffirming the state’s long-standing ban on political parties defined by religious belief. Religious politics is alive and well in Egypt, but Fox News doesn’t quite have it right: the revolution has shifted moderate Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood to the mainstream (aligning many of their political interests with the United States’), but this could create rifts among member cliques and conflict with more radical/fundamentalist Salafi Islamists. Yesterday, parallel demonstrations between Salafis and secularists in Alexandria turned ugly.
At face value, the new law seems to contradict the tacit political alliance that the army and the remnants of the establishment NDP have adopted with the Muslim Brotherhood to push for faster elections and a return to “stability-and-security” that will prevent their opponents from getting organized. It turns out, of course, that it is another step in the development of an increasingly sophisticated double-talk about religion in politics that reserves power for the state. Friday’s Al-Masry Al-Youm clarifies that the Muslim Brotherhood will (be allowed to) create a political party parallel to but outside their permanent organization – check out their extensive English-language website for more on these developments here: ikhwanweb.com. The article principally contains encouraged Coptic Christian reactions to the law; some Copts have already been mobilizing to form their own “secular” parties. So the law seems geared more towards institutionalizing the transitional government’s ability to open the political process to influential, moderate interest groups, especially the massive MB, while closing it more or less arbitrarily to others.
The principal targets of the law are therefore Islamists who are more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood, whom the class- and ideology-neutral revolution took by surprise but are now speaking up. A small, violent minority of these were for a long time the most serious domestic enemies of Mubarak’s Egypt, staging a 20-year insurgency against the state (and in exile becoming the intellectual engineers of Al-Qaʿida) before being defeated by the security apparatus in the late ’90s. Because of decades of political repression and the pluralistic nature of Sunni Islamic law, the precise details of Salafi political thought and tactics can differ from preacher to preacher, but the vast majority are non-violent, and some former terrorists (see below) have even become outspoken opponents of violence and Al-Qaʿida.
The history of the term Salafism itself reveals its ambiguous relation to politics. The earliest Egyptian Salafis of the late 19th century were trained clerics and jurists aiming at religious reform alone; they wanted to modernize Islam by ridding its practices and law of the traditions and superstitions of the more recent centuries (like Sufism). Lower middle class urban laypeople formed social clubs in the early 20th-century (most notably the Muslim Brotherhood) to popularize these ideas in the context of increased nationalism and anti-colonialism, but they lost the focus on Islamic practices and law and instead adopted political goals. Academics now use the French term “Islamism” as an umbrella term for ideologies that use any kind of reformed Islam and Islamic Law as a guide for political action or an idealized polity.
Salafism, rather, has evolved under the influence and patronage of Saudi Wahhabism and has come to mean a particularly fundamentalist and generally socially introverted and exclusionary subgrouping. It has been generally hostile to even the few compromises the Muslim Brotherhood has made in its ideology to play a limited political role (like running candidates for parliament). Some Salafi groups have even been strong supporters of the Mubarak regime, fearing any political reform or liberalization would threaten the dominance of Islam as the state religion of Egypt (read this 2010 article on Al-Baradei’s Salafi opponents).
This particular issue, the establishment of Islam as the state religion in article two of the current (now amended) 1971 constitution, is why many Salafists came out again to persuade voters to vote “yes” in last week’s constitutional referendum, in tandem with the Muslim Brotherhood. Here’s the contradiction: in order to maintain the status quo, many preachers could begin to take higher-profile political roles to mobilize their followers. For example:
The Salafi Society of Minufiya (a governorate just north of Cairo) issued a fatwa prior to the vote that it was an Islamic obligation (wājib) to vote yes in the referendum, and forbidden (ḥarām) to vote no.
18,000 people have “liked” a Facebook page urging Muhammad Hassān, a Salafi preacher with a popular television show, to run for president in order to preserve the Islamic character of the state. (He has since been saying reassuring things about the rights of the Coptic community.)
However, Al-Gamaʿa Al-Islamiyya, formerly the largest radical Salafi terrorist group in Egypt but whose leadership has written books rejecting violence (and politics) after growing old in prison and watching acquaintances in Al-Qaʿida fail to achieve their aims, has published opinion articles on its website ridiculing the idea that voting one way or another in the referendum could be a subject of Islamic legislation. Beyond just their ideological change, it seems logical that they would be wary of changing their political positions too quickly in light of their truce with the Egyptian security apparatus.
Although these Salafi groups only appeal to a minority of Egyptian Muslims, they will be the principal and most legitimate right-wing critics of a newly mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, and will see their influence grow even if there is more legislation like yesterday’s political parties’ law. There will also be a great deal of infighting between them. Unfortunately, the American newsmedia, which only knows how to call “bad Muslims” six things – the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, Taliban, Al-Qaeda and “Iranians” – is going to ignore this story because of its complexity… so stay tuned here.