Original Post at Al Ahram Weekly 24/2/2017
Wahhabi and Salafist fanaticism had a tremendously negative effect on Egyptian society. Only a thorough process of religion reformation can keep Egypt firmly on the right path
“The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.”
Henry Louis Mencken, Minority Report
Once a pinnacle of modernity, multiculturalism, religious pluralism and social tolerance in the world during the early 20th century, Egyptian society has been rapidly sliding towards conservatism, backwardness and sectarianism throughout the past five decades.
This slide has been spearheaded by two main elements of that society; namely, the Muslim Brotherhood organisation and Saudi Wahhabism in Egypt labelled as the “Salafist movement”. The Salafist movement traces its modest inception to 1912 with the establishment of Al-Gamaa Al-Shareya. This was the first Salafist (Wahhabi) establishment in Egypt which even preceded the Muslim Brotherhood organisation and marked the first footsteps of Salafism in Egypt. Nevertheless, the movement didn’t gain strength until the early 1970s.
What was once among the most metropolitan and open societies in the world with an impressive cultural output to boast of has shifted gradually towards radicalism and sectarianism in the name of religion. Fuelled by the abundant financial support through the petrodollars from the Arabian Gulf states and organisations, the Salafist movement has found easy prey within the struggling Egyptian society since the late 1960s and early 1970s. During that period, Egypt was economically battered due to the long years of Egyptian-Israeli wars. It didn’t take long for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist movement to infiltrate Egyptian society and present themselves deceptively as the vanguards of the Islamic faith who will carry Egypt from its downward slope towards their promised land, which is the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate.
Throughout five decades and countless Salafist clerics, Egyptian society found itself getting radicalised by the day. Added to these phenomena, a large number of the Egyptians abroad working in Gulf States returned to Egypt with a conservative view of society, reflected in their outlook and behaviour. Accordingly, instead of carrying the torch of enlightenment and modernity to the Arabian Gulf States, many Egyptians instead brought ultra-conservative Wahhabi traits back home. These traits could be noticed in the increased misogynistic tendency towards women and sectarianism towards Christians and other religious minorities.
RISE OF SALAFIST TV STARS: From the mid-1990s and until 30 June 2013, Salafist clerics along with their Muslim Brotherhood counterparts occupied a large sector of Egyptian media. What started with a few modest shows on national Egyptian TV hosted by Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Mohamed Gebril became an outbreak that infected dozens of Egyptian satellite TV networks on a wider scale. Unlike most of the preachers in Egypt who are graduates from Al-Azhar University or similar institutions, many of these Salafi clerics conducted studies on other subjects and had other careers, but chose the more lucrative and financially rewarding career of becoming a Salafi cleric. Clerics such as Yasser Borhami, who was originally a paediatrician, and Mohamed Hassan, who was in mass communication, had no real careers in their fields and decided they were better suited to guide the nation spiritually.
Most of these Salafi preachers share and display certain common traits such as being holier than thou, sectarian and sanctimonious.
These traits eventually infected the characteristics of many Egyptians who have become consequently sectarian and judgemental towards others over recent decades. Salafi clerics such as Mohamed Hassan, Mohamed Yacoub, Yasser Borhami, Abu Ishak Al-Howeini and many others became household names who affected negatively the thought patterns of many Egyptians. Their power reached its peak during Mohamed Morsi’s reign of terror when they provided religious support and backing for the ousted Islamist president who relied on them to rally Islamists in his favour.
POPULATION BOOM AND SOCIAL PROBLEMS: Furthermore, the teachings of Salafi clerics all across the nation, especially in rural areas, are among the main reasons for population boom in Egypt in the past 40 years from 35 million to 92 million in 2017.
These preachers managed to convince the populace that every newborn comes to life with an abundance of blessings from God and thus they ought to increase the number of children to receive God’s blessings. Salafis usually quote the Prophet Mohamed’s Hadith (saying) urging Muslims to marry and reproduce. Little did they know that the Prophet Mohamed’s sayings date to when the number of Muslims didn’t exceed 50,000 people over 1,400 years ago, and not exceeding 1.8 billion as they are now worldwide.
Their lack of understanding of the core message of Islam and those who followed them like lemmings and jumped over the edge of a cliff has resulted in a population boom and economic downfall of Egypt in the past four decades where Egypt’s economy is struggling to keep up with over one million annual population growth.
SECTARIANISM AND INCITEMENT TO TERRORISM: Moreover, Salafis have been a destructive factor in the fabric of the Egyptian society as they turned many Egyptian Muslims against their Christian counterparts. Sectarian violence, which was hardly ever known in Egypt before the rise of the new Salafist movement in the early 1970s, became a common phenomenon, particularly in Upper Egypt where major concentrations of Salafism followers exist. Verbal, physical and terrorist attacks against Christians were and still are a direct result of vile incitement by Salafi clerics.
Most social and moral indicators point towards a major decline in the behaviour of Egyptians towards one another. Ethically, the moral fabric of a major sector of Egyptian society has been negatively affected by the propaganda of Islamist Salafi preachers. Many of those clerics who follow Wahhabi teachings and the ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood have spread that rhetoric all across the Egyptian nation, and especially in rural areas where the already conservative population have shifted dramatically to different forms of sectarianism and extremism. Saudi Wahhabi outlook and attire, with long bearded men in short galabiyas and women in full veil, became a normal scene. That attire slowly replaced the traditional Egyptian galabiya and traditional women farmers’ dresses as well, and nearly reshaped the look of traditional Egyptian villages and rural areas.
Following the nearly daily fatwas (nonbinding Islamic opinion) of Yasser Borhami and his ilk, it is becoming more evident that there are milder cases of insanity locked in the mental hospital in Abbasiya district, Cairo, than the content provided by Salafi clerics on a near daily basis on satellite TV where they poison the minds of populous incessantly. These include fatwas about the righteousness or permissibility of eating jinn meat (underworld creatures), underage marriage and other insane subjects that seem to occupy their minds.
Moreover, the disruption and mayhem didn’t simply affect the moral code and ethics of Egyptians; Salafis have been systematically prohibiting nearly all facets of modern life in Egypt. These prohibitions are done on the pretext that it is forbidden by Islam despite the fact that all moderate interpretations point to the opposite. Examples are their prohibition of banking, arts, tourism and many other industries that they believe to be contradictory to the Islamic faith. These prohibitions have had a negative impact on the Egyptian economy, tourism and society.
CONCLUSION: In his historic speech in front of Al-Azhar clergymen, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called for an initiative for religious reform in which Al-Azhar clergymen are urged to play a role, along with other sectors of Egyptian society. The reform movement still seems to be derailed as a result of Al-Azhar’s reluctance to undertake the core reforms needed to cleanse the faith of Wahhabi influence that has tainted it in the past century and particularly the past five decades. Religious reform starts by containing the phenomena of these charlatan preachers who defile the faith by spreading ignorance, hate and sectarianism in the name of religion.
The idiom “Those who can’t do, teach” resembles a factual case where many people who can’t launch successful careers in fields such as literature, music, arts and acting, end up teaching these topics in schools or academia. Similarly, it seems to be a different case in Egypt where those who failed to launch successful careers ended up preaching to people about religion. These clerics who couldn’t benefit society in other fields took it upon themselves to preach to that very society without being proper role models for society.
What seems more disastrous is that educated Egyptians have forgone their own education, upbringing and common sense and left themselves prey to these modestly educated clerics who became among the richest in Egyptian society as a result of the gullibility among many in society. Fortunately, subsequent to the 30 June 2013 Revolution, Egypt is witnessing a reversal in the trend of blind trust in Salafi clerics and clergymen in general as a result of the chaos, violence and terrorism that resulted from their negative influence on society. Salafis along with their brethren the Muslim Brotherhood have been a major source of decline and exacerbation of all social problems in Egypt.
Accordingly, only proper and thorough religious reformation, spearheaded by the Egyptian intelligentsia and moderate Islamic clerics, will salvage Egyptian society from the massive damage that Salafism caused. Time and again Salafis have proved that they could care less about saving Egyptian society and instead are power mongers who seek to rule through fear and a false portrayal of piety.
Original Post at Al Ahram Weekly